The King's Cardinal

Published in History Today
  • The King's Cardinal: The Rise And Fall Of Thomas Wolsey
    Peter Gwyn - Barrie & Jenkins, 1990 - xxii+666 pp. - £20

The jacket of The King's Cardinal carries J.J. Scarisbrick's confident pre-publication opinion that it is 'probably the most important book on Tudor history for years'. What is not in doubt is that it is probably the bulkiest! The reason is not merely that the publishers used a quality of paper reminiscent of children's annuals in days gone by, but that they entirely failed to impose the strong copy-editing which the book clearly needed. Grossly self-indulgent, the author is allowed to digress for fifteen pages at a time with hardly a mention of Wolsey, while his fondness for drawing contemporary analogies will do nothing but age the book – and age it rapidly. Where are President Reagan and Mrs Thatcher now?

Nevertheless, Thomas Wolsey is a difficult, probably impossible subject to tackle. Cardinal, lord chancellor, papal legate, archbishop, judge, reformer and opponent of reform, politician, administrator, manager of foreign policy and ambassador at large, patron of artists, promoter of learning – Wolsey was remarkable even by comparison with the genus of cardinal-statesmen which flourished in the Europe of his day. And Gwyn makes a brave attempt to describe this polymath at work. Indeed his book is beyond question the most detailed account of the cardinal to date. True, comparatively little of the book is based on original manuscript citation, but printed sources and modern scholarship are both well covered, though in several chapters reference to the latter has not been taken beyond the early 80s.

The King's Cardinal is not intended to be a biography. This, Gwyn explains, is because the evidence is sparse. But true though this is, the evidence is not as sparse as all that. For example, although Wolsey's artistic interests can substantially be reconstructed, we are told nothing of them on the ground that 'it is almost impossible to decide what represents a genuine personal taste, and what the style and preferences of a wealthy man of his time'. Yet what other wealthy contemporary made arrangements to be buried in a marble sarcophagus of impeccable Renaissance design? It can be seen to this day in St. Paul's Cathedral, where it serves as the final resting place for the remains of Lord Nelson! And again, what of the varying impressions which Wolsey made on those who met him? Could these not with advantage have been collated and compared?

By leaving the man out and concentrating almost exclusively on public affairs, Gwyn makes his Wolsey two dimensional, and this is especially serious since his whole thesis is that other historians have got it wrong when they picture the cardinal as brilliant but deeply flawed, magnificent, a workaholic, proud, ambitious, manipulative, affable, vindictive, hectoring, devious and cultured, all at once. That is the Wolsey who triumphed at the Field of Cloth of Gold, and it is noticeable that Gwyn virtually ignores that occasion. Yet if Wolsey was not as tradition has claimed, what was he?

Gwyn's interpretation of Wolsey is very simple. He was a man of ability entrusted with authority – but not total authority – by a monarch who kept a steady watch on what his minister was doing and always retained ultimate control of affairs. This relationship was reinforced by the personal chemistry between them and buttressed by the good relations which the personable cardinal had with other men of importance. This view, of course, contradicts contemporary evidence: Polydore Vergil, Edward Hall and George Cavendish, especially the latter's verses, to which I can find no reference. It also goes against recent analysis of Henry's personality and conduct of affairs which has filtered out the pink glow of romance and led to attempts to achieve a more sophisticated understanding of Tudor politics by exploring the realities of his position and especially his vulnerability to 'faction'.

This, Gwyn will have nothing to do with – indeed, debunking 'faction' is something of an idée fixe with him. His method is first to caricature it and then to rubbish the caricature; alternatively he argues deductively that something was impossible, instead of inductively from the evidence that has survived. But what he does not do is to offer any plausible alternative; it is simply not credible that the principles of Dr Pangloss dominated the world of Henrician politics.

The weakness of his interpretation is, for example, obvious in the matter of Wolsey's fall in 1529. This is explained by Henry's decision to sacrifice him in order to put pressure on the pope. But what of the aristocratic putsch against the cardinal in July (which Gwyn nowhere mentions) and why, if the king was calling the shots, did he hold off until October? The suggestion that he was waiting for Cardinal Campeggio, the papal legate, to leave the country is hardly adequate. We know, in fact, that Henry remained in close communication with Wolsey after the Blackfriars debacle and, pace Gwyn, that they spent two days together in August. It was only at the very end of that month that relations turned sour. And what are we to make of the evidence that at the very time that Wolsey was being prosecuted, Henry was secretly maintaining him?

In summary, therefore, this book represents a great deal of work on a very difficult subject and is valuable for that, particularly in Mr. Gwyn's expert field of foreign affairs. It does not, however, get us much nearer to either the real Wolsey or the real Henry. Anyone tempted to believe in simple explanations should spend five claustrophobic minutes in the Tudor rooms at Hampton Court and then read Wyatt's Satires.

  • Eric Ives is the author of Anne Boleyn (Basil Blackwell, 1988).

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