In this latest edition of my Fan Q&A series of videos, I’m answering an interesting question posed by Kristian from Bulgaria, who was curious about Anne Boleyn’s role in the fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor and chief advisor.

What role did Anne Boleyn have in Cardinal Wolsey’s fall and his eventual arrest?

Did Anne and her family work to bring Wolsey down?

Was Wolsey’s fall Anne Boleyn’s revenge for him breaking up her romance with Henry Percy?

Find out in my video:

Book recommendation: The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives

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4 thoughts on “Did Anne Boleyn bring down Cardinal Wolsey?”
  1. What an interesting question, because many historical novelists usually have Anne vowing revenge on the great and powerful Thomas Wolsey when he broke up her love affair with Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland, some historians believe she did have a personal grudge against him, Starkey was mentioned by the viewer in his question, other historians also think the same, Norah Lofts writes she never forgot nor forgave Wolsey for ending her youthful love affair with Percy, whether Anne had loved Percy is unknown but being Countess of Northumberland was a dazzling prospect for a young girl recently arrived at court, it seems after she pursued Wolsey with a vengeful wrath until broken, out of favour and with nothing to live for he died in misery, when Anne had hoped to marry Percy the Cardinal told him he was already affianced to Mary Shrewsbury, and advised him to break of his love affair with Anne, but Percy was stubborn and refused Wolsey then castigated him in front of his household of which Percy was a member, he told him that on his fathers death he was to inherit the noble earldom of Northumberland and called Anne a foolish girl, Percy was said to have broken down and wept and pleaded that Anne was of good noble blood her grandfather being the Earl of Surrey and her father the Duke of Norfolk, Wolsey then sent for his father who travelled down from his castle in the north, and told his rebellious son he was engaged to marry the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughter and that was an end to his nonsense, Anne was banished to Hever and it is undecided amongst historians if it was the king who was enraged at hearing about Anne and Percy wanting her for herself, or that if was merely a matter of state, nobles marriages being arranged by the crown, but it is said Anne never forget the stinging words he had said about her, and being a proud person I believe she probably never did, it could be she held a bit of a grudge against him but she did eventually get over her first love, and grew up and became wiser, she was then pursued by the king who promised marriage and Wolsey was left to handle the annulment, we can safely say he was not happy he knew Henry had been courting Anne and she had refused to sleep with him, he thought like Henry’s queen that Anne was just a passing fancy and he would tire of her, but like Katherine, he totally underestimated the depth of the kings feeling for her, Henry was besotted, Wolsey had been in secret negotiations for a French marriage for the king previously, as Henry knew Katherine now going through the menopause would never be able to give him a son, Katherine had not been aware of this and when Henry informed he he thought they should part she was devastated especially when he told her the reason why, quoting the line from Leviticus, Katherine understandably refused his argument and so battle lines were drawn, Wolsey was firstly on friendly terms with Anne she believed he would be able to secure the divorce, I have read two letters she wrote him, these letters are rare as the rest of her correspondence to the king have not survived, the first one she is warm and praises him for his friendship and his help, the next one after the collapse at the legatine court is derisory and rebukes him for his failure in his duty, Katherine had appealed to have her case heard in Rome and so Campeggio adjourned the hearing, Katherine had won and both Anne and the king were furious with Wolsey, but we can see that was not his fault however, bitterly disappointed at what they saw was a setback they both vented their wrath on the hapless Cardinal, we can see Anne in that moment has lost faith in him, and we can suppose she criticised him to the king whenever she got the opportunity, part of Anne’s frustration was her worry at her passing youth, she was no young girl in her teens but in her mid to late twenties, Wolsey was aware he had lost failure with the king and like all those who displeased him, he knew he would never be able to regain the kings confidence in him again, Wolsey was born in Ipswich to it is said, a humble butcher and yet he rose from his humble dwellings, gaining a place at Magdalen college Oxford, he was clever and resourceful and secured a place at court where Henry V111 liked to promote young men of humble origin, he was soon taken into his confidence and rose to become Cardinal and he did all the tedious jobs for the young king whilst the latter enjoyed himself hunting hawking partying and wenching, as they used to say, he was greatly loved by Henry V111 who knew him as a valuable servant, though Wolseys rise angered many a nobleman who resented his power, Wolsey became so rich he bought Hampton Court and lived like a king, no wonder so many grumbled! So it was not just the Boleyn’s who were his mortal enemies, there were quite a few at court who wished to see him fall from Grace because he had grown arrogant and overbearing, and as in his predecessor Thomas Cromwells case, he was not of noble blood, he was considered an upstart and the older families at court were annoyed at his influence and wealth, there is a tale after Anne Boleyn turned from him that he named her the ‘night crow ‘,in desperation to regain the kings favour he offered him Hampton Court because he knew the king was enchanted by the beautiful palace with the serene gardens, but it did him no good, leaving court to carry out his ecclesiastical duties he was recalled back to London on a charge of treason, however he died on the journey home, in a distasteful fashion the Boleyn’s organised a pageant in which the Cardinal was seen going down into hell, it seemed Wolsey had escaped justice which Anne and her faction had wanted, we can see Anne was not really his Nemesis but she indirectly however was to blame for his path to ruin, the same could be said of Bishop Fisher and Sir Thomas More, both died through the kings obsession for her, Thomas Wolsey in his household had a young man however a scholar like he, who had studied law and with his masters fall, saw his opportunity to advance himself, his name was Thomas Cromwell of humble origins like himself, he was to ultimately achieve that which his master failed to do, he secured the kings longed for divorce, however in the bitter power struggle that was Henry V111’s court he too was to experience his share of failure and disgrace.

  2. The role of Anne in the fall of Thomas Wolsey is, as we see, more complex than a simple act of revenge. Wolsey in 1522/3 when he took Henry Percy to task was more likely doing Northumberland a favour by acting to separate his son from a lady he didn’t want as his sons wife. As Percy was his servant, his apprentice would be more accurate, Wolsey, according to Cavendish, told him off and he was sent home to fulfil his duty to marry someone else. Anne was sent home and then into service of Queen Katherine at Court. There isn’t any evidence that Anne held a grudge and took it out on Cardinal Wolsey years later.

    It is perfectly reasonable to argue that Anne and her family were on good terms with the Cardinal Wolsey and he was working to satisfy a King growing more and more anxious about his annulment. However, after the disaster with the Court at Blackfriars in 1529, Henry was badly let down by his Minister’s failure. With Anne and her family as well as Norfolk and Suffolk egging him on, Henry dismissed Wolsey and he was brought up on serious charges. Henry was still sentimental enough to remember good service and pardoned him and gave him a pension, even if he did order him to hand over the Great Seal of Chancellor of England. Anne wasn’t very pleased when Wolsey briefly reappeared and had an audience with the King. It was here that she did push for his permanent dismissal and Wolsey found himself facing treason charges.

    The fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, however, had nothing to do with Anne holding a vendetta against him for breaking up her relationship with Henry Percy. It had more to do with his failure in the annulment, his enemies, which now included her own family finding things to bring to the King and charge him with and his own desperation to get back into office. This led to him writing to Queen Katherine and asking her to support pressure from the Emperor Charles V, who would insist on his Reinstatement. Henry was persuaded to arrest his former Minister for treason and the new Earl pf Northumberland, the same Henry Percy whom Anne had loved, was sent to York to bring him South. Percy arrived when Wolsey was too ill to travel and it was after a couple of days that they left. 3000 people came to see him off and they travelled slowly to Leicester where he took to his bed at Leicester Abbey and died there a few days later. He was buried there, but his grave, although marked as a memorial, is not now known. Anne played a part in his fall by moaning that she had wasted all these years for nothing. She pushed Henry into action and constantly complaining, threatening to go home, she forced his hand. Wolsey was no longer of use to the crown and his end was sad and spiteful but for the love of this woman, Henry would do anything.

  3. I think in years to come Henry V111 came to mourn Wolsey who had always been a loyal servant of his, right from the days when he first ascended the throne, Wolsey dealt with everything in the kingdom, and it is very unfortunate for him he could not achieve the one thing that mattered the most to Henry, the divorce, for he was committed to his master and they were old friends, Wolsey had another side to his character like many, he used to drink quite heavily and was often put in the local stocks, where the poorer people must have thought it hilarious to throw rotting fruit at him and jeer and shout insults, what a cone down and how humiliating for the great Cardinal! He also had a mistress and I believe a child, rather hypocritical being a man of the cloth! There is a legend about a pet cat he owned also, I think the cat was said to have a tombstone as well, his ending was very sad it was said he died of natural causes, his portrait shows him to have been very large, today he would be deemed obese, it could be the sheer worry and stress he was under that caused his heart to fail, in any case he appears to have given up the fight, he must have felt worthless and death at least brought him blessed relief, a very sad ending to a once great man, Hampton Court when I visited years ago had a life sized dummy of Wolsey opposite Henry V111 at the entrance, then when I visited many years later they had both vanished, Wolsey was responsible really for the beauty that is Hampton Court today, he lavished huge amounts of money on it, and like Henry’s first queen, would never have known it was to play such a large part in the kings future wives, their tragedies and triumphs.

  4. I really don’t believe Henry wanted to try or arrest Thomas Wolsey again. He had already been punished for inviting a foreign power to rule on sovereign matters. That Wolsey did so in pursuit of the King’s will, meant absolutely nothing after he failed to get the right verdict at Blackfriars. Henry was being totally unreasonable because he invited the Papal Legate in the first place. That Compeggio had secret orders to prevent a verdict and allow the case to be switched to Rome wasn’t the fault of the Cardinal either, although he could overrule because of his own Legantine authority. Wolsey had the authority to try the case without Compeggio but the Pope had sent him and the trial went ahead. Katherine refused to acknowledge the authority of an English Court and appealed to Rome, which heavily affected iys outcome and the hearing rose without a verdict, never to sit again.

    The charges brought against Wolsey didn’t constitute treason but they did carry a long prison sentence. Wolsey was accused of abuding his powers and his finances were scrutinised. He had been taking money bound for the treasury from his dissolution of poorly run monasteries for his colleges and a number of anomalies which he was accused of. He pleaded guilty and was very lucky as he was only fined and dismissed because of his failure. His enemies were not satisfied and pushed for a better outcome. Henry gave the Cardinal a generous pension and he retired to his Archdiocese as Bishop of York. Due to the fact that, having handed over most of his properties, including Hampton Court and the More, Henry continued to show his old friend signs of favour, including a portrait, gifts, even an audience, all of which alarmed Norfolk and Anne’s family. Anne was vocal in making sure that Henry knew exactly what Wolsey had done and a series of made up charges and his own actions, seeking the aid of Queen Katherine, the Emperor and the Pope, were brought against him as treason.

    I have always believed that Henry crumbled to pressure when he arrested Wolsey. Given what little later constituted treason in England, his actions probably were treason as they involved a foreign power and state business. One might say the man was merely trying to get his job back but he clearly went the wrong way about it. He could also have involved Katherine in unintended treason. It was a desperate attempt but it came to nothing and Henry was persuaded that Wolsey had to be arrested and tried for his actions. However, when Northumberland came to arrest him, Wolsey was ill and he died before his trial.

    Henry was distraught at the news because for many years Wolsey had been his chief man at home and abroad and ran the kingdom for him. He was an extremely valuable and well educated man, very intelligent, respected abroad and very able in most things. Unfortunately, he couldn’t do the one thing he desired most, get him an annulment from his first wife. I agree with you that Henry mourned him for many years afterwards, just as he later regretted the death of Thomas Cromwell. I don’t believe Henry would have condemned him, but we will never know. Henry wasn’t yet as capricious as he would be or as vengeful and he could still change his mind. It was a sad end for the years of service and the brilliance of Wolsey who doesn’t get as much credit as he should for many of the innovations of Tudor rule which he initiated and attempted to initiate on a European wide scale.

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