Cardinal Wolsey and the Amicable Grant

Cardinal Wolsey was no-one's fool. He had risen from being the son of an inn-keeper and butcher1 to bursar of Magdalen College, Oxford (from whence he was allegedly driven for "high-handed dealing with the college funds") to being Lord Chancellor to King Henry VIII. Despite his skill as a diplomat which had led Henry VII to promote him quickly, there was one field were the Cardinal seemed unable to deliver, and as was to be proved in the later decades of Tudor rule, it was a vital one.

Wolsey, an insatiable autocrat, had trouble dealing with Parliament. Parliament were required to grant the Crown certain types of taxation, and the Crown needed money because of Wolsey and Henry's fanciful foreign policy. A more prudent statesman might have attempted to exploit trade to greater advantage, but Wolsey chose to try and go through Parliament despite his ineptitude. Henry VII's astute (some would say rapacious) financial management had meant he was relatively self-sufficient in the closing decade of his reign, and he barely had to call Parliament at all during this period. He had called only nine Parliaments throughout his entire reign: in contrast, five were called in the period 1510-15. Wolsey's achievements during this period and later Parliaments in the 1520s were mixed to the extreme.

First, the good. Wolsey, for all his man-management flaws, was a brilliant administrator. And it was he that updated Tudor taxation for the 16th century. The old system of fixed rate fifteenths and tenths was replaced by the Tudor subsidy, which was means-assessed by local officials under the watchful eye of Royal national commissioners. It was more flexible than the previous system and allowed a more accurate assessment of people's taxable wealth (unlike numerous other commissions which Wolsey launched, in this case information gathered was actually put to good use.) Parliamentary subsidies granted to Wolsey amounted to £322,099, along with £117,936 brought in through the old system of fifteenths and tenths.

Although Wolsey was continuing the good work done by Edward IV and Henry VII in attempting to restablish the Crown's ability to live of its own (this was the typical gripe of Parliaments in the 15th and 16th centuries), his efforts were to prove inadequate in the face of his master's spendthrift attitude and romantic ideal of restarting the Hundred Years War against France. In 1522-23 Wolsey attempted to raise a "loan" from the nation, and amassed a huge £260,000. He had instructed his collectors to tell people that they were indeed short-term refundable loans, but the money was never repaid. Whether this was Wolsey's intention all along it's impossible to know, but far from going to all possible means to get money back to his creditors, he was demanding a stupendous £800,000 from the Commons in April 1523. He soured the atmosphere by trying to intimidate MPs individually and lying to the Commons that the House of Lords had already granted 4s. on the £ (which was what he was demanding)2. He only eventually got a quarter of the £800,000 he had initially demanded, and this came at great political cost after the longest parliament for nearly a century.

Then came the real nub. After the Battle of Pavia, King Francis I of France languished in a jail in Madrid. "It is now time for the Emperor and myself to get full satisfaction from France", declared Henry VIII - and he was proposing nothing less than the invasion and partioning on France. Charles V was happy to concentrate on Italy, so it fell to Henry to achieve his goals himself - and things certainly looked good, in fact it was the general belief in England that never had there been a better time to make good on Henry's thus-far meaningless title of "King of France." But there was a problem: the Royal coffers lay empty.

Unable and unwilling to coax Parliament again, Wolsey decided to go outside of it. He tried to collect a grant from both clergy and laity - the clergy were asked to pay a third of their goods and incomes worth over £10, and a quarter of those under this figure. The laity were to be charged on a sliding scale according to their worth - 3s. 4d. in the £ from those worth over £50, from those worth between £20 and £50 2s. 8d. in the £, and from those worth under £20 1s. in the £. Wolsey first set the demand forth in March of 1525, and by April he was facing open resistance. After blustering threats and promising that heads would roll, he soon realized he would have to negotiate and scale back his demands. When 10,000 men marched on Lavenham, it was the most serious rebellion since the Cornish tex revolt of 1497. The men were put down by the local nobility, but Henry VIII decided he would have to step in and intervene.

In a stage-managed display of leniency, Wolsey and Henry VIII dropped the demand. The revolt had been directed at Wolsey and not Henry, so Henry called the captains of it before the Star Chamber and gave them a pardon. Wolsey's first great failure in domestic policy had seriously compromised the fiscal viability of Henrican foreign policy by simply demanding too much - having already indebted the King to most of the country, Wolsey then tried to levy taxation beyond which the liquidity of the economy could bear. He had shown a disregard for Parliament and even attempted to go directly against the law of the realm by trying to collect a forced loan, which was illegal under a statute of Richard III (who, for all his odious qualities, had at least put an end to that particular Yorkist practice). Henry was forced to climb down from his aggressive stance towards France and English society had proved that, when acting in unison, it was able to resist the will of even the power machinery of the Tudor state.

The main lesson of the Amicable Grant, and one not lost on the leaders of The Pilgrimage of Grace, was that when the government aliented the wealthy, it was hard for them to enforce policy. The wealthy - be it the nobles and their ability to raise armies by bastard feudalism, or the gentry Justices of the Peace - were who the government relied on to keep law and order. When Henry again wished to seek European hegemony in the 1540s, he was able to buy off the gentry with monastic lands from the dissolution of the monasteries. And, by then, Wolsey and his ham-fisted methods were well gone.

1. Elton reports that "The snobbery of the sixteenth century insisted on Wolsey's low birth and made his father a common butcher; the snobbery of the ninteenth century found this unpalatable and elevated old Wolsey to the status of a 'prosperous grazier.'"

2. Lawyer Edward Hall said that, upon 2s. on the £ being offered to Wolsey - "This grant was reported to the Cardinal, which wherewith was sore discontent, and said, that the Lords had granted 4s. of the £, which was proved untrue."


Elton, G. R. England Under the Tudors: Methuen & Co, 1974.

Fellows, Nicholas. Disorder and Rebellion in Tudor England: Hodder & Stoughton, 2001.

Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford, 1988.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.