While English foreign policy was a failure to 1529, Wolsey should be regarded as a success
While Wolsey must be regarded as an overall success, English foreign policy to 1529 was, although not totally successful, far from a failure. England may not have become a foreign superpower, but its international position did not get any worse and it certainly did not sink into obscurity. If anything, Wolsey made England seem more influential than it actually was, and to maintain that illusion was a success.
Wolsey first entered royal radar during the aftermath of the First French War, which was indeed a disastrous campaign. Henry was manipulated by his fellow, more experienced monarchs and his troops used as diversions. Although he did conquer two French towns, they were on the border with Burgundy and therefore of no useful strategic value whatsoever, and Henry returned home with nothing much to show for it. Wolsey volunteered for, and was handed, the clean-up job, and performed it with smooth mastery, impressing Henry.
Wolsey had already been well on his way to success before that, having gone to university at the age of 15, and was rising fast in the hierachy of the Church, despite being of low birth. This, Wolsey’s personal success story, should be regarded as a huge success in itself. At that era, it was difficult to change social classes and yet, Wolsey managed to do so to the point of becoming the richest man in England. Wolsey then orchestrated various peace conferences such as the Treaty of London and the Field of Cloth of Gold.
Both events improved England’s international standing, with the former emphasising the wish for world peace and uniting against a common foe and the latter simply impressing all who watched with a dazzling display of wealth. Despite nothing concrete having come out of either conference, Wolsey showed that he could make England important enough for monarchs from all over the continent to visit, and managed to set all eyes on England during those periods, bringing glory to his master.
However, things began to spiral downwards for Wolsey after this. In the Second French War, Henry VIII found himself used by his allies again, losing popularity at home to boot after they were forced to raise taxes to pay for the war. It was at this time that he was ordered to secure an approval, for Henry’s divorce, from Rome, only compounding his problems. Although Wolsey ultimately failed both to end the war with France and to secure the divorce successfully, we must recognise that this was an extremely difficult task.
The Pope was held prisoner by Charles V of Spain, who was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, and thus he would have had tight control over the Pope during this period. Wolsey’s failure to secure the divorce comes as hardly a surprise as it was inevitable. Despite this, however, we must not forget the good Wolsey had done for England before that. He was not only a success on the international front, but also responsible for many local policies that improved the lives of the people and made society fairer.
In the justice system before Wolsey, the courts were theoretically open to anybody, who could take their case up to the King if need be. However, corruption was rife. One could avoid being lawfully punished with a mere bribe to officials, and not even bother turning up to court. Wolsey changed this with his Court of Star Chamber, where he moderated and judged cases himself. He was also responsible for the switch from common law, an archaic law system that tended to favour the nobility, to civil law, which was more modern and advantageous to the average worker.
Of course, Wolsey’s courts were far from being true enforcers of justice, and corruption still remained. However, under Wolsey, those who were not rich or noble were treated with more equality. Wolsey also tackled the problem of enclosure, with mixed results. Although he did bring over 200 people to court over it in 1517, and prosecute them successfully, he was also forced by the Council to accept current enclosed boundaries in 1523, when he requested money for the King’s war campaign.
Most importantly, Wolsey introduced a new system of taxation to England. This system, being progressive, meant that nobles had to pay a higher percentage of taxes from their income, as they could afford it, while the poor had to pay a lower percentage. This relieved some of the financial burden from the poor and allowed Wolsey to earn even more money, and Wolsey earned double what he earned from the previously-used tax system from taxation in 1513 to 1516.
Although English foreign policy results were ultimately less than stellar in the events leading up to 1529, we can see that it was not a complete failure. The Treaty of London and Field of Cloth of Gold had served to boost England’s international image and England was treated as important enough for allying to be necessary, as demonstrated in the events leading to the Second French War. We can even argue that the “English foreign policy” in question does not only cover Henry VIII’s reign, as was inferred from the mention of Wolsey, but also the monarchs’ before him.
It is highly improbable, not to mention untrue that all English foreign policy was a failure until 1529, as Henry VIII’s own father Henry VII was a capable diplomat, able to skilfully divert international attention from England during the Italian Wars and successfully defeat France in a winter war campaign. Wolsey was also, despite his eventual fate and problems with his policies, a great success story. He had risen from the lowest class to the highest class and administered England successfully for over 10 years, as well as modifying England’s image abroad for the better.