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Cardinal Wolsey and the Abbot of Chester

Tim Thornton explains how a complex legal case casts light on centralised royal power in Tudor England and its limitations.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey is famous as one of the most dynamic and creative administrators and politicians of the Tudor period. This article describes how he came into contact with some of the most important independent jurisdictions ruled by the English king, in the county palatine of Chester. English history has traditionally told a story of a centralised state, to which many of the finishing touches were put by Wolsey and his successor Thomas Cromwell. In contrast, the intention here is to demonstrate that strong independent jurisdictions were still present in fifteenth-century England. Although Wolsey's impact on the country must still be described as significant, neither it nor later intervention by Thomas Cromwell destroyed the autonomy of the shire. The territories of the English king remained an open and decentralised set of political systems. The experience of John Birchenshawe, who became abbot of St Werburgh's monastery, Chester, in 1493, demonstrates how it happened.

As abbot of Chester, Birchenshawe was the head of one of the most powerful institutions in the palatine county of Chester. Abbot Birchenshawe's predecessors had participated in demonstrations of the strength of the privileges of the palatinate. In 1493, the county palatine of Chester neither sent representatives to the English parliament nor paid the taxes voted there, but agreed its own taxation known as the mise. The county could make conditional grants; or could reject demands partially or outright. Cheshire defended these rights in a series of petitions. In 1450, Birchenshawe's predecessor Abbot John Saughall had headed the list of prominent men who petitioned Henry VI against the imposition in Cheshire of the tax voted by the Leicester parliament of 1450. They had stated uncompromisingly that:

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