Did Anne Boleyn Really Ruin Wolsey?

Was Cardinal Wolsey really a victim of Anne Boleyn’s malicious intent? Or was he merely an accidental casualty of her all-consuming love story?

Dec 15, 2023By Elizabeth Morgan, BA History w/ Tudor concentration

anne boleyn cardinal wolsey


In William Shakespeare’s famous history, King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey’s character explicitly names Anne Boleyn as the sole cause of his ruin.


The King has gone beyond me: All my glories
In that one woman I have lost forever. 


Even four hundred years later, early in the twenty-first century, many historians will adamantly confirm the theory that she alone caused his downfall and disgrace. There is absolutely no doubt that her very presence in his life contributed significantly to his undoing, but was it purposeful on her part? To achieve an accurate conclusion, we must attempt to look at both sides of the story from a neutral perspective.


Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn: The Basics

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Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, 1475-1530, Source: artuk.org


A love of Thomas Wolsey and a love of Anne Boleyn do not go hand-in-hand together naturally. History enthusiasts tend to fall into one of two categories; those who favor the King’s Cardinal, and those who favor the King’s second Queen.


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A love of Anne Boleyn suggests a love of many other figures and themes; King Henry VIII, his various romantic interests, drama and scandal at the Tudor Court, the ever-changing political scene, and the arrival of the Reformation. A love of Cardinal Wolsey, on the other hand, is usually synonymous with a love of Catherine of Aragon, a deep interest in the ancient tradition of the Monarchy, and an undying loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. It seems that the wrong these figures did each other, and the damage they caused to each other’s reputations, have cursed their scholarly admirers to forever be at odds.


We know how historians feel about Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn, but how did they themselves actually feel about each other? Well, to cut an extremely long story short, they absolutely despised each other.


It is easy for anyone to make this claim; the media has now painted their mutual hatred so convincingly that anyone would believe it. However, clear evidence of their personal feelings can be found in the letters and documents they so frequently exchanged.


In mid-July of 1529, Anne had no reservations when writing to the once-respected Cardinal. Instead of showing obedience to him as she once did, she directly insulted him without care. “Although you are a man of great understanding,” she began, “you cannot avoid being censured by everybody for having drawn on yourself the hatred of a King who raised you to the highest degree.” 


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Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey, from The Tudors, Source: IMDb


She truly believed Wolsey to have done her a great wrong, for she continued, “I acknowledge that I have put much confidence in your professions and promises, in which I find myself deceived. The wrong you have done me has caused much sorrow. I feel infinitely more in seeing myself betrayed by a man who pretended to enter my interests only to discover the secrets of my heart.”


Cardinal Wolsey fought against her accusations cleverly. Instead of responding to her with equal ill feeling, he invited her to dine at Hampton Court, sent her gifts from his own collections, and showered her with compliments.


Quite possibly through a false smile and gritted teeth, he publicly proclaimed her qualities; “the purity of her life, her constant virginity, her maidenly and womanly pudicity, her soberness, chasteness, meekness, humility, wisdom of right noble and high-thorough blood, education, manners and apparent aptness to the procreation of children.” 


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Henry VIII, by Hans Holbein, 16th century, Source: Greenwich Museums


Although their devotees are decidedly divided, and although they could not find it within themselves to get on amicably, it cannot be denied that Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn possessed strikingly similar personalities. They were both strong, confident, and shockingly intelligent. Both were hot-tempered and exceedingly ambitious. Both were ahead of their time; both would stop at nothing to achieve whatever it was they had set their sights on. As a result, both eventually reached heights that others of their birth would not have dared to dream about.


In fact, so similar were Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn that there was not enough room for both at the Royal Court of England. Certainly, there was not enough room for both at the side of the King. For seven years, like bickering children, the pair vied for King Henry’s attention unceasingly.


One may bring to mind the image of a constant tug-o-war between Anne and Wolsey; King Henry being tied up in the middle. When it came down to it, in around 1528, King Henry was forced to make the ultimate choice between the woman he hoped to marry and the most loyal, most capable servant he had ever had.


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Henry’s Reconciliation with Anne Boleyn, published by Cunningham and Mortimer, 1842, Source: Wikimedia Commons


But why exactly did King Henry have to make this choice? Why did Wolsey and Anne despise each other with such intensity that only one could remain in King Henry’s circle? And finally, how on earth did a young girl of humble rank accumulate enough favor and power to bring down the high-and-mighty Cardinal of York?


By the time Anne Boleyn had arrived on the scene, Cardinal Wolsey had established himself as the supreme power not only at Court but also in the rest of England. Not only was Wolsey the closest and most trusted friend of the King but he was also Cardinal, Archbishop of York, Prince Bishop of Durham, and Lord Chancellor of England. Thanks to these positions, both secular and ecclesiastic, Wolsey was practically unshakeable.


Everything had been running smoothly under Wolsey’s control. Riots had been calmed. Wars had been won. Enemies, both public and personal, were swiftly and quietly disposed of. Never before had Wolsey had any difficulty in seeing off any competition by whatever means were necessary. The Duke of Buckingham, for example, had been silenced by way of his execution in 1521. Over the last decade, countless other men had been shown the door, whether by their death, disgrace, or dismissal.


But there was something different about Anne Boleyn. Yes, she was a woman. Consequently, she had a completely different set of cards to play than any other competitor Wolsey had ever encountered. To gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between Cardinal Wolsey and Anne Boleyn, and to finally comprehend the real threat that she posed to his status, we must first attempt to get to know the woman herself.


Who Was Anne Boleyn and What Made Her Special?

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Anne Boleyn, by the English School, 1550, Source: Hever Castle


Generally speaking, Anne Boleyn is now regarded as the most fascinating of the six wives of King Henry VIII. Throughout the years since her death, she has been recreated as a mistress of seduction; as a figure who could inspire lust even in the unlikeliest of gentlemen; as a woman who could drive any man mad with either rage or desire.


It is her love story, above all others, that seems to have captured the heart and imagination of modern audiences. A new generation of history lovers has become obsessed with Anne Boleyn the enchantress and she has become something of a sixteenth-century sex symbol. Her story is now commonly portrayed as a romance rather than as the utter tragedy it could have remained.


But who can blame us for turning Anne’s love life into a fantasy? Her ability to infatuate the King, and the impact of this infatuation upon the lives of all who surrounded them, was totally unprecedented.


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Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn, Source: IGN.com


What was so special about this woman that she could inspire King Henry to leave his wife of twenty years, make a bastard of his daughter, send his greatest friend into exile, break his country from the Roman Catholic Church, and last but not least, willingly accept his own excommunication? To have achieved all this singlehandedly, Anne must surely have possessed some truly unique qualities. These qualities were, perhaps, ones that King Henry would not have been able to name or comprehend.


Yes, we all know that Anne Boleyn was the second wife of King Henry VIII. We all know that she was the first of his wives to be sent to her death by beheading; we all know that her greatest legacy was the unwanted daughter she managed to produce. But these facts are not adequate when it comes to the question of whether or not she might have been capable of ruining a Cardinal such as Wolsey. To assess who she really was, and to make a fair judgment on her character, we must venture back to the beginning of her life.


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Courtship of Anne Boleyn, by Emmanuel Gottlieb Leutze, 1846, Source: The Smithsonian


Anne Boleyn is thought to have been born at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. Although there is no reliable record of her birth, it is likely to have occurred somewhere between 1501 and 1507. Her parents were Thomas Boleyn (a friend and future employee of Cardinal Wolsey), and his wife, Elizabeth Howard.


As the youngest surviving child in the Boleyn nursery, Anne grew up with her siblings, Mary and George. She spent the early days of her charming and carefree childhood at her family residence of Hever Castle in Kent.


It was not until the year 1513 that Anne left home to begin a new job, a new regime of education, and a new life altogether. She was between six and twelve years old when she was sent, as many hopeful young ladies were, to spend time at one of the many Royal Courts in Europe. Having been accepted into the household of Margaret of Austria, Anne ventured to Burgundy, where she remained for around two years.


A little later, thanks to a stroke of luck on her father’s part, both Anne and her sister Mary were invited into the service of Queen Claude, the wife of King Francis I of France. This was a prestigious and sought-after position, and although Mary was summoned home to England after only a few weeks, Anne did not return for six years.  It was there, at the French Court, that Anne was shaped into the woman we are all so familiar with. It was there that she learned the skills required to captivate a King.


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Claude de France, by School of Jean Clouet, c. 1520, Source: Wikimedia Commons


However, back in London, Anne Boleyn’s capturing a King was the last thing on Cardinal Wolsey’s mind. He was busy drawing up arrangements for her to marry James Butler, the wealthy, Irish, future Earl of Ormond. Wolsey wrote to King Henry to inform him that “on my return I will talk with you how to bring bout the marriage between his son and Sir Thomas Boleyn’s daughter.” Fortunately for Anne, this was one of Wolsey’s many planned betrothals that simply fizzled out over time. Since by this point Mary Boleyn was already sharing a bed with King Henry, it is probable that their parents thought Anne would be wasted on a simple Earl.


We don’t know exactly what Anne’s curriculum entailed, but by the time she came home to England in 1522, she had blossomed into the finest possible example of an accomplished young lady. Thanks to her time in the cultured and coveted French Court, Anne was able to give the impression of being incredibly foreign and exotic. She was alert, intelligent, quick, and clever; the type of person who would never make a fool of herself or lose herself in thought. She spoke many languages, involved herself in political and religious debate, gave opinions confidently and freely, and gave the appearance that she could excel in any and every activity befitting for a lady of her station.


She was flirty but sophisticated; educated but free-thinking; worldly but modest. Anne was a match for any woman at Court and was equally qualified to embroider with the women as she was to play archery with the men. In short, she was completely unlike any of the women that the average Englishman had ever made acquaintance with. Little wonder her father thought it an apt time to place her in full view of the King.


Divorce and Remarriage: The Cardinal’s Best Efforts

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The Trial of Queen Catherine of Aragon, by Henry Nelson O’Neill, 19th century, Source: Artuk.org


If we fast-forward through four years of romantic letters, frequent refusals, and passionate pursuit, we come to the moment at which King Henry declared to Cardinal Wolsey the desires of his heart. He wanted a divorce, and he wanted it quickly. Anne Boleyn would not accept the title of Mistress, she would not accept the title of Mistress-En-Titre, and she would not accept the proposal that her potential children be made legitimate candidates for the throne. She would settle for nothing less than the titles of wife and Queen.


This request left Cardinal Wolsey in an extremely awkward position. It was essential that he serve the King in any way required but he was also bound by the laws of the Roman Catholic Church. Nonetheless, although controversial, Wolsey gave it his best shot. He tried countless tactics, labored unceasingly both day and night and thought of very little else for the last three years of his life.


Luckily, he had a backup plan. It was this final plan that he was most hopeful about. On the 31st of May during the year 1529, alongside Cardinal Campeggio, Wolsey opened what was then known as a Legatine Court. The aim was to investigate the validity of the marriage between King Henry and Catherine of Aragon and to consider a potential annulment.


For one month, Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry made increasingly elaborate appeals, and increasingly desperate attempts to prove that Catherine had consummated her marriage to her first husband, Prince Arthur Tudor. This would have provided solid grounds for annulment and, perceiving that this path would be the likeliest to achieve results, Wolsey followed it persistently.


Pope Clement VII, by Sebastiano del Piombo, 1531, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Unfortunately for Cardinal Wolsey, and despite his best efforts, the Court came to no definite conclusion. As expected for a man sent from Rome, Cardinal Campeggio did everything he could to stall the divorce proceedings by insisting that the Court break for summer. In early July, it was announced that the Court would adjourn for three months. It was decided that they would not meet again until October.


When King Henry heard of this decision, he was truly furious. He had been expecting the Court to pass a sentence in his favor by the end of the month. Of course, it was Wolsey alone who shouldered the blame for Campeggio’s choices. Regardless of the promise of a readjournment in the Autumn, the Legatine Court did not sit again.


Despite his best efforts, and despite his persistence, it eventually became clear that Wolsey was bound to fail in his most important task. This failure is what tore his friendship with King Henry to shreds.


On the 21st of May, 1530, Pope Clement VII released a Papal Mandate against the divorce of King Henry and Catherine. He went as far as to threaten any clergyman sympathetic to the King’s cause with excommunication. “A Papal Mandate inhibiting, under pain of excommunication, all ecclesiastical judges before whom the cause of divorce may be brought, from alleging anything in the cause, or intermeddling with it, against their conscience, for bribe, entreaty, or any other motive.”


This mandate came too late for Wolsey. He had already been stripped of his secular positions; he had already surrendered his lands and possessions to the King; he had already granted his treasured Palace of Hampton Court to Anne Boleyn; and he had already entered a full and inevitable disgrace. From Autumn 1529 until his death in November 1530, Wolsey lived in utter misery.


Why Anne Boleyn Caused Wolsey’s Fall: The Key Pieces Of Evidence

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Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in Wolf Hall, Source: PBS


So, now that we’ve reviewed their relationship, their shared correspondence, and their story, we come to the question of whether or not Anne Boleyn purposely ruined the Cardinal. Thanks to a variety of sources, although a definite answer to our question may seem impossible to achieve, there are actually several key pieces of evidence to support the theory.


The first piece of evidence is Anne’s motives. Anne Boleyn had not one, but two motives for furthering Wolsey’s ruin. Not only did she suspect him of purposefully sabotaging her marriage plans but she also may have harbored a grudge for another dispute which occurred some years earlier. She had originally planned to marry her wealthy and noble sweetheart, Harry Percy. For reasons that are yet unknown to us, it was Cardinal Wolsey who put a stop to the romance and married Percy to Mary Talbot.


The second piece of evidence is Anne’s intent to keep the King and Cardinal apart. Although the idea of the King of England being under the control of his lover would have been controversial in the sixteenth century, it cannot be denied that Henry was greatly influenced by the word of Anne Boleyn. In the early days of his romance, he was far more likely to agree to something if Anne had given it the okay, and he was far more likely to respond favorably to an appeal from her rather than anyone else.


In 1529, while Wolsey was suffering a bout of stress-induced sickness, Doctor Butts reported to King Henry that “he will be dead within four days if he receive not comfort from you and Mistress Anne.” Ambassadors of the day were unanimous in their reports that Anne would not permit King Henry to meet with Wolsey, for fear that they might be reconciled.


Cardinal Wolsey, by Sampson Strong, 1585-1596, Source: Artuk.org


If Anne had persuaded Henry to show Wolsey kindness, Henry might very well have done so. It might even have been a relief to Henry to receive her blessing to comfort one of his oldest friends. Could Wolsey’s ruin have been Wolsey’s savior, if she had chosen to show mercy?


The third piece of evidence is the sympathy shown by Anne toward Wolsey’s children. During life, Cardinal Wolsey provided us with a fine example of sixteenth-century nepotism in the Church. Mysteriously, although he was never reported to have shown any aptitude above normal intelligence, Wolsey’s son was appointed to many offices which led to great wealth.


These appointments began at the lower end of the scale and gradually became grander. Of course, after Wolsey’s downfall in 1529, Wynter suffered the consequences. He was forced to resign from most of his positions in the Church and also fell on rather difficult times.


Somewhat surprisingly, when he appealed for financial aid, it was Anne Boleyn who supported him. Notably, King Henry informed Wynter that “you have many friends who wish you well, and you can reckon me among that number.” It may be that Anne Boleyn had it in mind to please Henry by showing Wynter some much-needed sympathy. However, to the more critical eye, these may seem like the actions of a woman with a guilty conscience. By making amends with Wynter, could Anne have been attempting to compensate for the wrong she had done his father?


The Death and Legacy of Anne Boleyn

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Anne Boleyn in the Tower of London, by Edouard Cibot, 1835, Source: Wikimedia Commons


It was early in the year 1536 that things began to fall apart for Anne Boleyn. Formerly, the main competition had been Anne against the Cardinal. Now, not a decade later, it was Anne against Wolsey’s old friend and employee; the formidable Thomas Cromwell who was given the unenviable task of ruining the Queen.


Just as Wolsey had been, personality-wise, Thomas Cromwell was shockingly similar to Anne. Once again, it seemed that there was room for only one of these personalities at Court. Wolsey had already been replaced by Cromwell. Anne Boleyn was to be ripped from the throne beside Henry’s and promptly replaced with Jane Seymour.


It was on the second day of May that the process of Anne’s removal began. Having been accused of treason in the form of adultery, she was arrested and installed in the Tower of London. The unfortunate gentlemen who had been named as her lovers were Henry Norris, William Brereton, Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton, and most shockingly of all, her brother George Boleyn.


Just a few weeks later, on the nineteenth of the same month, Anne received the ultimate punishment of beheading. When she appeared at eight o’clock in the morning, she was said to have been calm, composed, and dignified. One eyewitness account tells us that “she went to her execution with an untroubled countenance.” 


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Anne Boleyn, in Anne of Thousand Days, Source: IMDB


The greatest legacy of Anne Boleyn was undoubtedly her daughter, the future Queen Elizabeth I, whose reign is now remembered as one of the most successful in British history. In the 1969 film, Anne Of A Thousand Days, Genevieve Bujold’s character accurately predicts the future of her only child; “Elizabeth shall be a greater Queen than any King of yours — she will rule a greater England than you could ever have built. My Elizabeth shall be Queen, and my blood will have been well spent.” 


At the time of her death, Anne had outlived Wolsey by just under six years. Since he was already long gone, Cardinal Wolsey would never have known that his enemy, the bringer of his misfortune and cause of his downfall, would suffer a fate worse than he did. He would never have known that she would be tried and sentenced to death just three years after her long-awaited marriage.


Would Wolsey have laughed with delight that she was getting her comeuppance? Or would he have despaired that the love he had suffered for had so swiftly burned out? Since there had been so many casualties of Henry and Anne’s relationship, it is likely that Wolsey would have thought it a tragic shame that it had all been for nothing.


Anne Boleyn: The Woman Who Ruined Wolsey?

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First meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn in the House of Cardinal Wolsey, by Karl Theodor von Piloty, 1886, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although it may seem unreasonable to many historians, others would claim it completely fair to refer to Anne Boleyn as the woman who ruined Wolsey. The only thing left for us to decide is whether or not his downfall and disgrace were intentional or accidental. Whatever personal thoughts and feelings one may keep, it is only right that both of these powerful, controversial figures should be admired and respected by historians throughout the years to come.


There is, however, something to be said for the power of hindsight. Perhaps if Anne Boleyn had settled for marriage to James Butler, or been permitted to wed Henry Percy, both she and the Cardinal would have enjoyed long, happy, and successful lives.

Author Image

By Elizabeth MorganBA History w/ Tudor concentrationElizabeth is a historian, writer, and student with a passionate interest in the Tudor era. She also enjoys religious history, mythology, and Renaissance art. Recently she has studied King Henry VIII at Oxford University and history at the Open University and the University of Roehampton. She has also gained two Certificates (King Henry VIII & The Tudors) and a History Diploma (The Tudors). Elizabeth lives in Wales, United Kingdom, and can often be found exploring its many castles, cathedrals, and churches. She regularly writes about her trips to Museums and Heritage sites. Much of her research is dedicated to Cardinal Wolsey. She is the Founder of The Cardinal Wolsey Society, writes daily articles, and publishes its monthly newsletter.