Wydawca: Mandell Creighton Kategoria: Styl życia Język: angielski Rok wydania: 2016

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Opis ebooka Cardinal Wolsey - Mandell Creighton

ALL men are to be judged by what they do, and the way in which they do it. In the case of great statesmen there is a third consideration which challenges our judgment—what they choose to do. This consideration only presents itself in the case of great statesmen, and even then is not always recognised. For the average statesman does from day to day the business which has to be done, takes affairs as he finds them, and makes the best of them. Many who deliberately selected the questions with which they dealt have yet shrunk from the responsibility of their choice, and have preferred to represent their actions as inevitable. Few can claim the credit of choosing the sphere of their activity, of framing a connected policy with clear and definite ends, and of applying their ideas to every department of national organisation. In short, statesmen are generally opportunists, or choose to represent themselves as such; and this has been especially the case with English statesmen—amongst whom Wolsey stands out as a notable exception. For Wolsey claims recognition on grounds which apply to himself alone. His name is not associated with any great achievement, he worked out no great measure of reform, nor did he contribute any great political idea which was fruitful in after days. He was, above all things, a practical man, though he pursued a line of policy which few understood, and which he did not stop to make intelligible. No very definite results came of it immediately, and the results which came of it afterwards were not such as Wolsey had designed. Yet, if we consider his actual achievements, we are bound to admit that he was probably the greatest political genius whom England has ever produced; for at a great crisis of European history he impressed England with a sense of her own importance, and secured for her a leading position in European affairs, which since his days has seemed her natural right.

Opinie o ebooku Cardinal Wolsey - Mandell Creighton

Fragment ebooka Cardinal Wolsey - Mandell Creighton

 

Cardinal Wolsey

By

Mandell Creighton

CHAPTER I.THE STATE OF EUROPE1494-1512

All men are to be judged by what they do, and the way in which they do it. In the case of great statesmen there is a third consideration which challenges our judgment—what they choose to do. This consideration only presents itself in the case of great statesmen, and even then is not always recognised. For the average statesman does from day to day the business which has to be done, takes affairs as he finds them, and makes the best of them. Many who deliberately selected the questions with which they dealt have yet shrunk from the responsibility of their choice, and have preferred to represent their actions as inevitable. Few can claim the credit of choosing the sphere of their activity, of framing a connected policy with clear and definite ends, and of applying their ideas to every department of national organisation. In short, statesmen are generally opportunists, or choose to represent themselves as such; and this has been especially the case with English statesmen—amongst whom Wolsey stands out as a notable exception. For Wolsey claims recognition on grounds which apply to himself alone. His name is not associated with any great achievement, he worked out no great measure of reform, nor did he contribute any great political idea which was fruitful in after days. He was, above all things, a practical man, though he pursued a line of policy which few understood, and which he did not stop to make intelligible. No very definite results came of it immediately, and the results which came of it afterwards were not such as Wolsey had designed. Yet, if we consider his actual achievements, we are bound to admit that he was probably the greatest political genius whom England has ever produced; for at a great crisis of European history he impressed England with a sense of her own importance, and secured for her a leading position in European affairs, which since his days has seemed her natural right.

Thus Wolsey is to be estimated by what he chose to do rather than by what he did. He was greater than his achievements. Yet Wolsey's greatness did not rise beyond the conditions of his own age, and he left no legacy of great thought or high endeavour. The age in which he lived was not one of lofty aspirations or noble aims; but it was one of large designs and restless energy. No designs were cast in so large a mould as were those of Wolsey; no statesman showed such skill as he did in weaving patiently the web of diplomatic intrigue. His resources were small, and he husbanded them with care. He had a master who only dimly understood his objects, and whose personal whims and caprices had always to be conciliated. He was ill supplied with agents. His schemes often failed in detail; but he was always ready to gather together the broken threads and resume his work without repining. In a time of universal restlessness and excitement Wolsey was the most plodding, the most laborious, and the most versatile of those who laboured at statecraft.

The field of action which Wolsey deliberately chose was that of foreign policy, and his weapons were diplomacy. The Englishmen of his time were like the Englishmen of to-day, and had little sympathy with his objects. Those who reaped the benefits of his policy gave him no thanks for it, nor did they recognise what they owed to him. Those who exulted in the course taken by the English Reformation regarded Wolsey as its bitterest foe, and never stopped to think that Wolsey trained the hands and brains which directed it; that Wolsey inspired England with the proud feeling of independence which nerved her to brave the public opinion of Europe; that Wolsey impressed Europe with such a sense of England's greatness that she was allowed to go her own way, menaced but unassailed. The spirit which animated the England of the sixteenth century was due in no small degree to the splendour of Wolsey's successes, and to the way in which he stamped upon men's imagination a belief in England's greatness. If it is the characteristic of a patriot to believe that nothing is beyond the power of his country to achieve, then Wolsey was the most devoted patriot whom England ever produced.

When Wolsey came to power England was an upstart trying to claim for herself a decent position in the august society of European states. It was Wolsey's cleverness that set her in a place far above that which she had any right to expect. For this purpose Wolsey schemed and intrigued; when one plan failed he was always ready with another. It mattered little what was the immediate object which he had in hand; it mattered much that in pursuing it he should so act as to increase the credit of England, and create a belief in England's power. Diplomacy can reckon few abler practitioners than was Wolsey.

There is little that is directly ennobling in the contemplation of such a career. It may be doubted if the career of any practical statesman can be a really ennobling study if we have all its activity recorded in detail. At the best it tells us of much which seems disingenuous if not dishonest—much in which nobility of aim or the complexity of affairs has to be urged in extenuation of shifty words and ambiguous actions.

The age in which Wolsey lived was immoral in the sense in which all periods are immoral, when the old landmarks are disappearing and there is no certainty about the future. Morality in individuals and in states alike requires an orderly life, a perception of limits, a pursuit of definite ends. When order is shattered, when limits are removed, when all things seem possible, then political morality disappears. In such a condition was Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The old ideas, on which the mediæval conception of Christendom depended, were passing away. No one any longer regarded Christendom as one great commonwealth, presided over by Pope and Emperor, who were the guardians of international law and arbiters of international relations. The Empire had long ceased to exercise any control, because it was destitute of strength. The Papacy, after vainly endeavouring to unite Europe round the old cry of a crusade against the Turk, had discovered that there was no European power on which it could rely for support. The old ideas were gone, the old tribunals were powerless, the old bonds of European union were dissolved.

The first result of this decay in the mediæval state-system of Europe was the emergence of vague plans of a universal monarchy. The Empire and the Papacy had harmonised with the feudal conception of a regulative supremacy over vassals who were free to act within the limits of their obligations to their superior lord. When the old superiors were no longer recognised, the idea of a supremacy still remained; but there was no other basis possible for that supremacy than a basis of universal sovereignty. It was long before any state was sufficiently powerful to venture on such a claim; but the end of the fifteenth century saw France and Spain united into powerful kingdoms. In France, the policy of Louis XI. succeeded in reducing the great feudatories, and established the power of the monarchy as the bond of union between provinces which were conscious of like interests. In Spain, the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella united a warlike people who swept away the remains of the Moorish kingdom. Germany, though nominally it recognised one ruler, had sacrificed its national kingship to the futile claims of the Empire. The emperor had great pretensions, but was himself powerless, and the German princes steadily refused to lend him help to give reality to his high-sounding claims. Unconsciously to themselves, the rulers of France and Spain were preparing to attempt the extension of their power over the rest of Europe.

France under Charles VIII. was the first to give expression to this new idea of European politics. The Italian expedition of Charles VIII. marked the end of the Middle Ages, because it put forth a scheme of national aggrandisement which was foreign to mediæval conceptions. The scheme sounded fantastic, and was still cast in the mould of mediæval aspirations. The kingdom of Naples had long been in dispute between the houses of Arragon and Anjou. As heir to the Angevin line, Charles VIII. proposed to satisfy national pride by the conquest of Naples. Then he appealed to the old sentiment of Christendom by proclaiming his design of advancing against Constantinople, expelling the Turk from Europe, and realising the ideal of mediæval Christianity by planting once more the standard of the Cross upon the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.

The first part of his plan succeeded with a rapidity and ease that bewildered the rest of Europe. The French conquest of Naples awakened men to the danger which threatened them. France, as ruler of Naples, could overrun the rest of Italy, and as master of the Pope could use the authority of the head of Christendom to give legitimacy to further schemes of aggression. A sense of common danger drew the other powers of Europe together; and a League of Spain, the Empire, the Pope, Milan, and Venice forced Charles VIII. to retire from Naples (1495), where the French conquests were rapidly lost. A threat of his return next year led to an emphatic renewal of the League and an assertion of the basis on which it rested—"the mutual preservation of states, so that the more powerful might not oppress the less powerful, and that each should keep what rightly belongs to him."

This League marks a new departure in European affairs. There was no mention of the old ideas on which Europe was supposed to rest. There was no recognition of papal or imperial supremacy; no principle of European organisation was laid down. The existing state of things was to be maintained, and the contracting powers were to decide amongst themselves what rights and claims they thought fit to recognise. Such a plan might be useful to check French preponderance at the moment, but it was fatal to the free development of Europe. The states that were then powerful might grow in power; those that were not yet strong were sure to be prevented from growing stronger. Dynastic interests were set up as against national interests. European affairs were to be settled by combinations of powerful states.

The results of this system were rapidly seen. France, of course, was checked for the time; but France, in its turn, could enter the League and become a factor in European combinations. The problem now for statesmen was how to use this concert of Europe for their own interests. Dynastic considerations were the most obvious means of gaining powerful alliances. Royal marriages became matters of the greatest importance, because a lucky union of royal houses might secure a lasting preponderance. The Emperor Maximilian married his son Philip to a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Death removed the nearer heirs to the Spanish rulers, and the son of Philip was heir to Austria, the Netherlands, and the Spanish kingdoms. The notion of a maintenance of European equilibrium faded away before such a prospect.

This prospect, however, was only in the future. For the present there was an opportunity for endless scheming. The European League for the preservation of the existing state of things resisted any expansion on the part of smaller states, but encouraged compacts for aggression amongst the more powerful. France, Spain, and Germany had each of them a national existence, while Italy consisted of a number of small states. If Italy was to survive it was necessary that she should follow the example of her powerful neighbours, and consolidate herself as they had done. The only state which was at that time likely to unite Italy was Venice; and Venice, in consequence, became the object of universal jealousy. The concert of Europe was applied to the Venetian question, and discovered a solution of the simplest sort. Instead of allowing Venice to unite Italy, it was judged better to divide Venice. A secret agreement was made between Spain, France, the Emperor, and the Pope that they would attack Venice simultaneously, deprive her of her possessions, and divide them amongst themselves. There was no lack of claims and titles to the possessions which were thus to be acquired. The powers of Europe, being judges in their own cause, could easily state their respective pleas and pronounce each other justified. The League of Cambrai, which was published at the end of 1508, was the first great production of the new system of administering public law in Europe.

Anything more iniquitous could scarcely be conceived. Venice deserved well at the hands of Europe. She had developed a great system of commerce with the East; she was the chief bulwark against the advance of the Turkish power; she was the one refuge of Italian independence. Those very reasons marked her out for pillage by the powers who, claiming to act in the interests of Europe, interpreted these interests according to their own selfishness. Each power hoped to appropriate some of the profits of Venetian commerce; each power wished for a slice of the domains of Italy. What the Turk did was a matter of little consequence; he was not the object of immediate dread.

This League of Cambrai witnessed the assimilation by the new system of the relics of the old. Imperial and papal claims were set in the foreground. Venice was excommunicated by the Pope, because she had the audacity to refuse to give up to him at once his share of the booty. The iniquities of the European concert were flimsily concealed by the rags of the old system of the public law of Europe, which only meant that the Pope and the Emperor were foremost in joining in the general scramble. France was first in the field against Venice, and consequently France was the chief gainer. Pope Julius II., having won from Venice all that he could claim, looked with alarm on the increase of the French power in Italy. As soon as he had satisfied himself, and had reduced Venice to abject submission, his one desire was to rid himself of his troublesome allies. The papal authority in itself could no longer influence European politics; but it could give a sanction to new combinations which interested motives might bring about. With cynical frankness the Papacy, powerless in its own resources, used its privileged position to further its temporal objects. We cannot wonder that Louis XII. of France tried to create a schism, and promoted the holding of a general council. We are scarcely surprised that the fantastic brain of the Emperor Maximilian formed a scheme of becoming the Pope's coadjutor, and finally annexing the papal to the imperial dignity. On every side the old landmarks of Europe were disappearing, and the future was seen to belong to the strong hand and the adventurous wit.

During the reign of Henry VII. England had stood aloof from these complicated intrigues. Indeed England could not hope to make her voice heard in the affairs of Europe. The weak government of Henry VI., and the struggles between the Yorkist and Lancastrian factions, had reduced her to political exhaustion. While France and Spain had grown into strong kingdoms, England had dwindled into a third-rate power. Henry VII. had enough to do in securing his own throne against pretenders, and in reducing the remnants of the feudal nobility to obedience. He so far worked in accordance with the prevailing spirit that he steadily increased the royal power. He fell in with the temper of the time, and formed matrimonial alliances which might bear political fruits. He gave his daughter in marriage to the King of Scotland, in the hopes of thereby bringing the Scottish Crown into closer relation with England. He sought for a connexion with Spain by marrying his eldest son Arthur to Katharine, a daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and on Arthur's untimely death Katharine became the wife of his next son Henry. Further, Henry VII. gave his general approval to the League of 1496; he joined it, but would promise no armed aid nor money. In short, he did enough to claim for England a place in the new system of the European commonwealth, though he himself declined to take any active part in the activity that was consequently developed. He was old before his years, and was unequal to any additional labour. He had saved his reputation by his cautious and skilful policy at home. The statesmen of Europe respected him for what he had done already, but they did not expect him to do anything more. He had secured his dynasty, reduced his lands to order, favoured its commerce, and secured for it peace. He had lived frugally and had saved money, which was not the fortune of the more adventurous princes. England was looked upon with an eye of condescending favour by the great powers of Europe. Her population was small, about three millions and a half; her military forces had not been trained in the new methods of European warfare; her navy was not kept up on a war footing. She could not rank higher than a third-rate power.

So England stood when Henry VII. died, and was succeeded by his son Henry VIII., a youth of nineteen. We may indulge ourselves, if we choose, in speculations on the probable effects if Henry VIII. had been content to pursue his father's policy. The picture of England, peaceful and contented while the rest of Europe is engaged in wasteful and wicked war, is attractive as an ideal in English politics. England in the sixteenth century might have stood aloof from European affairs, and might have prospered in her own fashion. But one thing is certain, that she would never have become the England of to-day; the New World, and the possessions of the British Empire, would have been divided between France and Spain; the course of civilisation would have been widely different. For good or for evil the fortunes of England were given a decided direction by Henry VIII.'s advance into the sphere of European politics. England took up a position from which she could not afterwards retire.

It is scarcely worth while to inquire if Henry VIII. could by prudence and caution have continued to keep clear of the complications of European politics, and make England strong by husbanding its resources and developing its commerce. Such a course of action was not deemed possible by any one. All classes alike believed that national prosperity followed upon the assertion of national power. The commercial interests of England would have had little chance of being respected unless they were connected with political interests as well. If Henry VIII. had lived frugally like his father, and avoided adventurous schemes for which he needed the money of his people, the English monarchy would have become a despotism, and the royal will would have been supreme in all internal affairs. England was not exposed to this danger. Henry VIII., when he ascended the throne at the age of nineteen, was fully imbued by the spirit of his time. The story goes that when Leo X. was elected Pope he turned to his brother and said with a smile, "Let us enjoy the Papacy, since God has given it to us." Henry VIII. was resolved to enjoy his kingship to the full; he wished to show Europe that he was every inch a king, and equal to the best.

Henry VIII. in his early days had been educated with a view to high ecclesiastical preferment, and was a youth of many accomplishments of mind and body. His tall stalwart frame, his fair round face and profusion of light hair, his skill in athletic exercises, made the Venetian envoy pronounce him to be the handsomest and most capable king in Christendom. He inherited the geniality, the physical strength, the resoluteness of the Yorkist house, and combined them with the self-restraint and caution of the Lancastrians. No king began his reign with greater popularity, and the belief in the soundness of his head and heart filled all men with hopes of a long period of just and prosperous government. But many hoped for more than this. The reign of Henry VII. had been successful, but inglorious. The strong character and the generous impulses of the new ruler were not likely to be satisfied with the cautious intrigues and petty calculations of his father. England looked forward to a glorious and distinguished future. It believed in its king, and clave to its belief in spite of many disappointments. Not all the harsh doings of Henry VIII. exhausted the popularity with which he began his reign, and in the midst of his despotism he never lost his hold upon the people.

So Henry VIII. carried out the plan which his father had formed for him. He married Katharine, his brother's widow, and so confirmed the alliance with Ferdinand of Spain. He renewed the marriage treaty between his sister Mary and Charles, Prince of Castile, heir of the Netherlands, and eldest grandson of Ferdinand and Maximilian alike. Charles was only a boy of nine, and had great prospects of a large heritage. England was likely, if this arrangement were carried out, to be a useful but humble ally to the projects of the houses of Hapsburg and Spain, useful because of its position, which commanded the Channel, and could secure communications between the Netherlands and Spain, humble because it had little military reputation or capacity for diplomacy.

The alliance, however, between Ferdinand and Maximilian was by no means close. Ferdinand by his marriage with Isabella had united the kingdoms of Castile and Arragon; but after Isabella's death he had no claim to the Crown of Castile, which passed to his daughter Juana. Already Juana's husband, the Archduke Philip, had claimed the regency of Castile, and Ferdinand was only saved by Philip's death from the peril of seeing much of his work undone. The claim to Castile had now passed to the young Charles, and Ferdinand was afraid lest Maximilian should at any time revive it in behalf of his grandson. He was unwilling to help in any way to increase Maximilian's power, and rejoiced that in the results of the League of Cambrai little profit fell to Maximilian's share. The Pope gained all that he wished; Ferdinand acquired without a blow the Venetian possessions in the Neapolitan kingdom; the French arms were triumphant in North Italy; but Venice continued to offer a stubborn resistance to Maximilian. In vain Maximilian implored Ferdinand's help. He was unmoved till the successes of the French awakened in his mind serious alarm. The authors of the League of Cambrai began to be afraid of the catastrophe which they had caused. They did not wish to see the French supreme in Italy, but their combination had gone far to ensure the French supremacy.

Pope Julius II. felt himself most directly threatened by the growth of the French power. He resolved to break up the League of Cambrai, and so undo his own work. He tried to gain support from the Swiss and from England. He released Venice from her excommunication, and showed himself steadfastly opposed to France. He did his utmost to induce Ferdinand and Maximilian to renounce the League. Ferdinand was cautious, and only gave his secret countenance to the Pope's designs. Maximilian, anxious to make good his claims against Venice, wavered between an alliance with France and a rupture. Louis XII. of France was embarrassed by the hostility of the Pope, whom he tried to terrify into submission. His troops advanced against Bologna, where Julius II. was residing. The Pope fled, but the French forces did not pursue him. Louis was not prepared to treat the Pope as merely a temporal sovereign, and Rome was spared a siege. But Louis was so ill-judging as to attack the Pope on his spiritual side. He raised the old cry of a General Council for the reform of the Church, and drew to his side a few disaffected cardinals, who summoned a Council to assemble at Pisa.

This half-hearted procedure was fatal to all hopes of French supremacy. Had Louis XII. promptly dealt with Julius II. by force of arms he would have rendered the Pope powerless to interfere with his political plans, and no one would have interposed to help the Pope in his capacity of an Italian prince. But when the French king showed that he was afraid of the papal dignity in temporal matters, while he was ready to attack it in spiritual matters, he entered upon a course of action which was dangerous to Europe. Ferdinand was waiting for a good pretext to free himself from further share in the policy of the League of Cambrai, and Louis provided him with the pretext which he sought. Shocked at the danger of a new schism, Ferdinand, in October 1511, entered into a League with the Pope and Venice, a League which took the high-sounding title of the Holy League, since it was formed for the protection of the Papacy.

Of this Holy League Henry VIII. became a member in December, and so stepped boldly into the politics of Europe. He was at first a submissive son of King Ferdinand, whose daughter, Queen Katharine, acted as Spanish ambassador at the English Court. Henry wished to make common cause with his father-in-law, and trusted implicitly to him for assurances of goodwill. He made a separate accord with Ferdinand that a combined army should invade Guienne. If the French were defeated Ferdinand would be able to conquer Navarre, and England would seize Guienne. The gain to England would be great, as Guienne would be a secure refuge for English commerce, and its possession would make the English king an important personage in Europe, for he would stand between Spain and France.

The scheme was not fantastic or impossible, provided that Ferdinand was in earnest. Henry believed in his good faith, but he still had the confidence of youth. Ferdinand trusted no one, and if others were like himself he was wise in his distrust. Every year he grew more suspicious and fonder of crooked ways. He took no man's counsel; he made fair professions on every side; his only object was to secure himself at the least cost. His confiding son-in-law was soon to discover that Ferdinand only meant to use English gold as a means for furthering his own designs against France; he did not intend that England should have any share in the advantage.

Unconscious of the selfishness of his ally, Henry VIII. prepared for war in the winter of 1512. In these preparations the capacity of Thomas Wolsey first made itself felt, and the course of the war that followed placed Wolsey foremost in the confidence of the English king.

CHAPTER II.THE FRENCH ALLIANCE1512-1515

Thomas Wolsey was born at Ipswich, probably in March 1471. He was the son of Robert Wolsey and Joan his wife. Contemporary slander, wishing to make his fortunes more remarkable or his presumption more intolerable, represented his father as a man of mean estate, a butcher by trade. However, Robert Wolsey's will shows that he was a man of good position, probably a grazier and wool merchant, with relatives who were also well-to-do. Thomas seems to have been the eldest of his family, and his father's desire was that he should enter the priesthood. He showed quickness in study; so much so that he went to Oxford at the early age of eleven, and became Bachelor of Arts when he was fifteen. His studies do not seem to have led him in the direction of the new learning; he was well versed in the theology of the schools, and is said to have been a devoted adherent to the system of St. Thomas Aquinas. But it was not by the life of a student or the principles of a philosopher that Wolsey rose to eminence. If he learned anything in his University career he learned a knowledge of men and of their motives.

In due course he became a Fellow of Magdalen, and master of the grammar school attached to the College. Soon afterwards, in 1498, he was bursar; and tradition has connected with him the building of the graceful tower which is one of the chief architectural ornaments of Oxford. Unfortunately the tower was finished in the year in which Wolsey became bursar, and all that he can have done was the prosaic duty of paying the bills for its erection. He continued his work of schoolmaster till in 1500 the Marquis of Dorset, whose sons Wolsey had taught, gave him the living of Lymington in Somerset.

So Wolsey abandoned academic life for the quietness of a country living, which, however, did not prove to be entirely free from troubles. For some reason which is not clear, a neighbouring squire, Sir Amyas Paulet, used his power as justice of peace to set Wolsey in the stocks, an affront which Wolsey did not forgive, but in the days of his power punished by confining Sir Amyas to his London house, where he lived for some years in disgrace. If this story be true, it is certainly not to Wolsey's discredit, who can have been moved by nothing but a sense of injustice in thus reviving the remembrance of his own past history. Moreover, Wolsey's character certainly did not suffer at the time, as in 1501 he was made chaplain to Dean, Archbishop of Canterbury. After Dean's death in 1503, his capacity for business was so far established that he was employed by Sir Richard Nanfan, Deputy-Lieutenant of Calais, to help him in the duties of a post which advancing years made somewhat onerous. When Nanfan, a few years afterwards, retired from public life, he recommended Wolsey to the king, and Wolsey entered the royal service as chaplain probably in 1506.

At Court Wolsey allied himself with Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, Lord Privy Seal, and at first seems to have acted as one of his secretaries.

Fox was a well-trained and careful official, who had been in Henry VII.'s employment all through his reign. Cold and cautious by nature, Henry VII. had to pick his way through many difficulties, and took no man unreservedly into his confidence. He was his own minister, and chose to be served by men of distinguished position who were content to do his bidding faithfully, and were free from personal ambition. For this purpose ecclesiastics were best adapted, and Henry VII. did much to secularise the Church by throwing the weight of public business into the hands of men like Morton and Fox, whom he rewarded by the highest ecclesiastical offices. In such a school Wolsey was trained as a statesman. He regarded it as natural that the King should choose his ministers for their readiness to serve his purposes, and should reward them by ecclesiastical preferments. The State might gain by such a plan, but the Church undoubtedly lost; and in following the career of Wolsey there is little to remind us of the ecclesiastic, however much we may admire the statesman.

It was well for England that Wolsey was trained in the traditions of the policy of Henry VII., which he never forgot. Henry VII. aimed, in the first place, at securing his throne and restoring quiet and order in his kingdom by developing trade and commerce. For this purpose he strove to turn his foreign neighbours into allies without adventuring into any military enterprises. He did not aspire to make England great, but he tried to make her secure and prosperous. Wolsey gained so much insight into the means which he employed for that end that he never forgot their utility; and though he tried to pass beyond the aim of Henry VII., he preferred to extend rather than abandon the means which Henry VII. had carefully devised. Nor was Wolsey merely a spectator of Henry VII.'s diplomacy; he was soon employed as one of its agents. In the spring of 1508 he was sent to Scotland to keep King James IV. true to his alliance with England, and explain misunderstandings that had arisen. In the autumn of the same year he was sent to Mechlin to win over the powerful minister of Maximilian, the Bishop of Gurk, to a project of marriage between Henry VII. and Maximilian's daughter Margaret, by which Henry hoped that he would get control of the Low Countries. Here Wolsey learned his first practical lesson of diplomatic methods, and uttered the complaint, which in later years he gave so much reason to others to pour forth, "There is here so much inconstancy, mutability, and little regard of promises and causes, that in their appointments there is little trust or surety; for things surely determined to be done one day are changed and altered the next."

Nothing came of Wolsey's embassy, nor can we be sure that Henry VII. was much in earnest in his marriage schemes. However, he died in April next year, and was succeeded by a son whose matrimonial hesitations were destined to give Wolsey more trouble than those of his father. Before his death he laid the foundation of Wolsey's clerical fortunes by bestowing on him the rich deanery of Lincoln.

The accession of Henry VIII. made little change in the composition of the King's Council. The Lady Margaret survived her son long enough to make her influence felt in the choice of her grandson's advisers. Archbishop Warham, Bishop Fox, and Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, were the men into whose hands public business naturally fell. But Warham was somewhat stiff and crabbed, so that he did not commend himself to the young king. Fox represented the opinions of the old officials, while the Earl of Surrey was the natural leader of the old nobility, who could not help resenting the subordinate position into which they had been reduced by Henry VII., and hoped that a new reign would give them fresh opportunities. So Fox urged caution and carefulness, while Surrey favoured extravagance and military ambition. Fox felt that he was growing old, and the pressure of a continued conflict of opinion was irksome to him. Much as the ecclesiastics of that time were secular in their lives, they were rarely entirely forgetful of their priestly office, and were genuinely anxious to rid themselves of the burden of affairs and spend their last years in quiet. So Fox chose Wolsey as the man to take his place, perhaps because he saw in him the qualities necessary to influence the young king. Besides him he favoured Ruthal, another experienced official, who was rewarded by the rich bishopric of Durham, but who was soon eclipsed by the superior genius of Wolsey, which he frankly admitted, and willingly accepted the post of Wolsey's assistant and subordinate.

So Wolsey was made the king's almoner, and had sundry preferments bestowed on him as marks of the royal favour. He ingratiated himself with the king, and worked with Fox and Ruthal to counteract the influence of the Earl of Surrey. Probably in 1511 he was called to the King's Council, but neither he nor Fox had it in their power to shape the king's policy as they wished, or to direct his doings. His warlike ardour was against their will; but from the beginning of his reign Henry VIII. went his own way, and others had to follow. All they could do was to show him that they were the most capable of his servants, and when Henry VIII. had determined on war they were the men to whom he turned to carry out the necessary details. On Wolsey as the youngest the chief labour was thrown. England was unprepared for war, and every branch of the military service had to be almost created. Wolsey had at all events a sufficient opportunity for displaying his practical capacity as an organiser.

So Wolsey worked at providing for the troops who were sent to Guienne in 1512; but the expedition itself was a complete failure. Ferdinand played his own game of procrastination, and sent no succours. The Marquis of Dorset was an incapable leader. The English troops were not inured to hardships, and soon grew discontented; at last they rose in open mutiny, and clamoured to be led back to England. Dorset was driven to retire without striking a blow. The first attempt of England to assert her prowess ended in disaster. The statesmen of the Continent made merry over the blundering efforts of an upstart power. "The English," they said, "are so unaccustomed to war that they have no experience to guide them." Henry