Anne Boleyn and Cardinal Wolsey’s deadly grudge match
Although Anne Boleyn’s rivalry with Thomas Cromwell has been pored over by many historians, her relationship with his predecessor – Cardinal Thomas Wolsey – was just as complicated. Owen Emmerson reveals why Anne was determined to take Wolsey down…
Anne Boleyn’s relationship with Cardinal Wolsey infamously ended in his public humiliation and death – but her hatred for Henry’s right-hand man didn’t run in the family. In fact, her father Thomas Boleyn had been part of Wolsey’s inner circle for more than two decades.
“Thomas actually had a really great relationship with Wolsey,” Dr Owen Emmerson told us in an episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. “In fact, Thomas owed a huge amount of his success at court to Wolsey’s trust in him. It was really through Wolsey’s patronage that the Boleyns rose in society, and Thomas was one of Wolsey’s right-hand men. He was employed on important missions through Wolsey, and on behalf of the king [Henry VIII].”
However, the friendship between the two families started to fracture as Anne Boleyn’s star began to rise.
Why did Anne Boleyn have a grudge against Cardinal Wolsey?
Unlike her father, Anne Boleyn viewed the cardinal in positively frosty terms – and it all stemmed from one event that she never got over.
Wolsey had broken off a potential match between Anne and Henry Percy, who was the future Duke of Northumberland, explains Emmerson. “And Anne held a massive grudge about it. She was renowned for doing so.”
When Anne later became one of Henry’s favourites and started to dominate at court, it was a huge learning curve for Wolsey.
“Anne established herself very quickly as the second ear, almost, that Wolsey needed to please,” says Emmerson. “And I think that must have been a really humbling experience for him.”
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Did Anne Boleyn bring down Cardinal Wolsey?
To make matters worse, Wolsey was struggling to accomplish the task that Henry had set for him: securing an annulment of his marriage to his first wife and queen, Catherine of Aragon, so he would be free to take Anne as his bride. The king’s right-hand man had never failed the king before – but this task seemed “almost impossible”.
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Of course, it wasn’t only Henry who was eager for the annulment to take place: Anne was monitoring Wolsey’s efforts with great interest. With the king’s favour behind her, she was happy to push Wolsey even harder to convince the papal legate that Henry’s marriage should be dissolved.
“There is a particularly cordial – perhaps too cordial – letter from 1528 that survives from Anne to Wolsey, and it tells us a huge amount,” says Emmerson. “In it, she’s essentially asking for an update on the progress with the annulment, and at the bottom of the page is something quite remarkable.
"Anne made Henry – who famously was not at all fond of writing letters – write a postscript at the end. Henry actually wrote that Anne would not cease until he did so.”
By forcing Henry to add his own message to her letter, Anne was showing her trump card: she had the king’s unswerving support.]
“This intervention on Anne’s part tells us everything about her position with Wolsey,” explains Emmerson. “He was, in a way, her only option to securing what both the king and Anne want: the annulment. But she was increasingly suspicious of his willingness to do so.”
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Famously, Wolsey was unable to deliver the annulment she craved. In the end, Anne took matters into her own hands. Emmerson says: “Whereas Wolsey was traditionally Catholic, Anne was something of a radical, an evangelical with reformist views. And she was prepared to take it upon herself to deliver what was then deemed a heretical text, a text by William Tyndale that Wolsey had ordered burned, into the king’s hand. This told Henry that by scripture, there was no one second to God but him – in other words, that there was no need for a pope.”
This sowed the seeds for Henry’s decision to split from the Catholic church, and cemented Anne’s rise – as well as Wolsey’s fall.
In October 1529, Wolsey was stripped of his power and most of his property, retiring to York in the spring of 1530. Leaving London wasn’t enough to save him, though. In November 1530 Wolsey was arrested for treason.
What did Anne Boleyn do after Wolsey’s downfall?
Anne revelled in her victory over the man she saw as her adversary. Emmerson explains: “There was this really chilling moment when Anne arrived at his York place to measure up his property, because it now belonged to her. There was something really cold about her doing that. I have huge admiration for this woman, but she could be incredibly cold at times. In that moment, it was almost like she was walking on his grave.”
Within a month of his arrest, Wolsey had died – from natural causes rather than the block.
Owen Emmerson is a social and cultural historian working as Castle Historian and Assistant Curator at Hever Castle
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