Henry VIII and Wolsey: The Relationship
A clear understanding of Henry VIII\'s relationship with Wolsey is fundamental to any analysis of Tudor politics and policy-making. A consensus is emerging. Henry VIII, it is generally agreed, was less consistently the author of his own policy than Edward IV or Henry VII, but it is wrong to cast him either as an \'absentee landlord\', who delegated the affairs of state to others, or as a \'mental defective\', who needed his ministers to manage him. Henry VIII, like Elizabeth I, was uninterested in routine administration, but always wielded a decisive influence over key issues of policy: those related to war and foreign policy, to his marriages and the succession (and notably the tactics of his first divorce campaign), and to religion, especially the royal supremacy and the theology of the nascent church of England. To a greater extent than Elizabeth\'s, Henry\'s mind could be swayed by favoured councillors and intimates, but it is a mistake to see him as merely a tool of faction. John Foxe\'s near-contemporary account, itself the origin of the factional interpretation of the politics of the reign of Henry VIII, contains an element of truth, but is tainted by exaggeration and blatant Protestant bias:

While good counsel was about him, and could be heard, the king did much good. So again, when sinister and wicked counsel, under subtle and crafty pretences, had gotten once the foot in, thrusting truth and verity out of the prince\'s ears, how much religion and all good things went prosperously forward before, so much, on the contrary side, all revolted backward again.

The significance of this statement has been mistaken. When it was written, Foxe was under pressure to acclaim the role of Henry VIII as a \'godly\' (i.e. reformed) prince, and thus to explain away the inconsistencies of Henrician religious policy and, in particular, the reversion to Catholic theology following the Act of Six Articles and Cromwell\'s fall. He accomplished this by arguing that Henry merely followed his councillors\' advice, but this interpretation underestimates the impact of the king\'s interventions.

The young Henry VIII, admittedly, was less attentive to business than the mature king. In his youth, Henry found writing \'both tedious and painful\'. He chose to do as little of it as possible! Two turning-points in this respect were in the 1520s: first, the king\'s entry into the literary offensive against Martin Luther in 1521, and second his decision to orchestrate his first divorce campaign personally in the summer of 1527. Henry\'s interest in literary argument and theology was firmly awakened during the experiment of 1521, when, at Wolsey\'s suggestion, he wrote a treatise in reply to Luther\'s The Babylonian Captivity of the Church that won him the title \'Defender of the Faith\' from the pope. The book, originally in Latin, was entitled The Assertion of the Seven Sacraments. It was probably a team effort. In composing it, Henry was assisted by a panel of Oxford and Cambridge theologians nominated by Wolsey, and Wolsey and Thomas More were involved as well. But there is no doubt that Henry had overall control, that he wrote chunks of the book himself, and that the published version reflected his personal opinions at the time.

Again, in the summer of 1527, Henry seized the initiative from an absent Wolsey in soliciting support for, and orchestrating, the strategy that underpinned his first divorce campaign. This was the fulcrum of Henry VIII\'s reign, since the king\'s choice of arguments involved a peremptory, if intelligible, interpretation of passages from the Hebrew text of the Old Testament that undermined Wolsey\'s position as papal legate and led inexorably towards the break with Rome. The episode was a disaster for Wolsey. Until then, the minister had enjoyed considerable discretion in both domestic and foreign policy. Yet even then, there had been limits. If the young Henry VIII revelled in jousting, hunting and conversation -- and boasted about it in a song he wrote himself! -- he always knew that he was king. In 1515, for example, after a heated debate at Blackfriars concerning the king\'s right to regulate papal decrees and clerical privileges and immunities by royal prerogative, Wolsey was forced to submit to Henry VIII on his knees. This was a foretaste of later events. Henry VIII