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Wolsey and Cromwell: Continuity or Contrast?

It would be hard to think of two more sharply contrasted portraits than Wolsey's and Cromwell's. Wolsey appears all in scarlet; Cromwell, all in black. And the temptation is to paint the contrast between their ministries equally; strongly. In such a scenario Wolsey was : the last medieval churchman to rule England; Cromwell the first reforming bureaucrat-minister (after all, does not Holbein paint him with books and papers before him and letter in his hand?). In fact Wolsey played the card of governmental reform more frequently and explicitly than : Cromwell; while Cromwell (Wolsey's former legal factotum), far from repudiating his former master, went out of his way to express both continuity and gratitude through the evocative language of heraldry. He took the chief of Wolsey's arms – or a rose gules between two Cornish choughs sable – and made it the fesse of his own. It was a plain statement of discipleship.

On the other hand, there were contrasts. But they were contrasts not in administrative methods but political style. And they showed most clearly in the two men's different attitudes to the centre and touchstone of Tudor politics: the court.

'Why come ye not to court?', cheekily asked John Skelton, the poet laureate. He answered his own question even more impudently:

To which court
To the king's court
Or to Hampton Court?

The king's court
Should have the excellence
But Hampton Court
Hath the pre-eminence!

And George Cavendish, the cardinal's servant and friend, documents the charges of an enemy. For his enthusiastic description of Wolsey's establishment, of which he had been a leading member, shows not so much a household as a court ' that was quasi-royal. It numbered 500, which was the same size as the King's household, and it was organized in the same way, from the master cook, resplendent in 'damask, satin or velvet with a chain of gold about his neck', who ran (one supposes at a safe distance) the Cardinal's privy kitchen, to the six gentlemen waiters in his Privy Chamber who paralleled the same number of Gentlemen in the King's.

Similarly with ceremony. The Cardinal's court day, like the King's, centred on his 'coming forth' from his Privy Chamber to the expectant world without. First, actor to his fingertips, he made sure the audience was ready; then, 'advertised of the furniture of his chambers without with noblemen and gentlemen', the Ipswich boy 'would issue out into them apparalled all in red in the habit of a cardinal'. Before him was borne the Great Seal of England, symbol of the chancellorship, and his cardinal's hat, carried 'by a nobleman or some worthy gentleman right solemnly, bareheaded'. In the Presence Chamber a regular procession was marshalled, with a sergeant-at-arms carrying a silver-gilt mace, and others bearing two pillars of silver for his cardinalate, and two great crosses of silver, the one for his archbishopric, and other for the legateship that made him the Pope's viceroy in England. The gentlemen ushers cried, 'On my lords and masters, make way for my lord's grace!'. The throng parted; Wolsey, sniffing his orange pomander, strode through and the attendant dignitaries fell in behind, The procession went through the chambers and into the hall. At the hall door Wolsey mounted his mule; his cross and pillar bearers climbed on their horses; four guards with gilt pole-axes formed up round the Cardinal, and he rode out into the street.

A court, of course, needs a king, and Wolsey was no king. But he was a Cardinal and a chancellor. He was invested with his cardinal's hat in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony whose solemnity and splendour rivalled 'the coronation of a mighty prince or king'; and he exploited to the full the vice-regal potentialities of the chancellorship. He held the office for life; treated the Great Seal as his personal property and surrounded it with a novel ceremonial. But his pretensions showed most glaringly when he went to the King's court. While he was in the palace his crosses stood in the Presence Chamber, 'on the one side' of the throne and canopy. The latter were the ark of the covenant of monarchy; all doffed their caps before them, and as they did so they paid reverence perforce to the Cardinal's crosses as well.

All said and done, however, Wolsey was only the 'alter rex', the second king. His court, though, in a real sense was the first. When he went to Henry's court, which he did every Sunday in Term time, 'it was wonderfully furnished with noblemen and gentlemen, much otherwise than it was before his coming'. For normally Henry's servants attended on Wolsey, nut on the King. Only at the moment of his tall did they remember their ultimate allegiance. Then on October 9th, 1529, Wolsey rode to Westminster Hall unaccompanied, since 'none of the King's servants would go before, as they were wont to do'; while 'all the lords and other the King's council were gone to Windsor to the King'.

It was a moment of truth, from which Cromwell, who was at the thick of things, learned much. Bitterly and to his face he criticised Wolsey for not having promoted his own servants 'to any of the King's offices and rooms'. He was not to make the same mistake. Instead of ruling over and against the court, he ruled through the court; instead of building up his own great household hi packed the King's – and at its very centre in Henry's Privy Chamber. But most striking of all is the and of men he put in: Peter Mewtis, grandson of a French immigrant who had turned his London house into a weaving shed; Ralph Sadler, son of Sir Edward Belknap's clerk; Richard Moryson, a beggarly scholar. In more ordinary times they would have made their careers as merchants, or lawyers, or dons. Never in a thousand years would they have become courtiers if the all-powerful Cromwell had not made them so. Only once did Henry object to these strange recruits. Richard Moryson was, I guess, a tedious prig; at any rate Henry drew the line and his appointment, though gazetted, took no effect. 'I blush as long as I am at the court', Moryson complained to his patron. Stung perhaps by this insult to a good servant; more likely disturbed by the rebuff to his own power, Cromwell tried again and this time successfully foisted Moryson on the reluctant King. But the most unlikely recruit was not the minister's servant but the minister himself. In 1539 Cromwell assumed the titular headship of the Privy Chamber; then concurrently in 1540 took the office of Lord Great Chamberlain of England. The bureaucrat minister had become the King's chief body servant.

This violent contrast of style between Cardinal and Great Chamberlain stemmed in part from differences of character. But the implications went tar wider. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that Wolsey and Cromwell established two distinct modes of political management which other Tudor politicians adopted more-or-less consciously. Somerset followed Wolsey; Northumberland Cromwell, as in the fulness of time did Northumberland's great enemy, Gardiner. And it was these styles of power politics, not a tradition of reform, which formed the early sixteenth-century's chief legacy to English politics.


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