Wolsey`s perception of the reforms needed in the catholic church.
[ A summary from Cardinal Wolsey by Mandell Creighton, Bishop of Peterborough Pub. 1895 ]
Wolsey saw how precarious a condition the church was in. He knew that in many things the church was wrong and that it would have to give way, but he wished to clothe its submission with a semblance of dignity, and to use the papal power, not as a means for guarding the rights of the Church, but as a means of casting an air of ecclesiastical propriety over their abandonment. Above all he recognised the need for some judicial pliancy on the Church`s part that would gain a breathing space for more general reforms over time.
Notably the church was too wealthy and too powerful for the work that it was doing. This was the legacy from earlier times in which the care for society fell into the churches hands because the State was rude and barbarous, and had no machinery of government to discharge rudimentary duties. Bishops were frequently the only people who could curb the lawlessness of the feudal lords; the clergy were the refuge from local tyranny; monks were the only landlords who cleared the forests and drained the marshes for farming and taught the value of peace; monastery schools educated the sons of peasants, and the universities gave sons with talent a career. The humanitarian aspects of government were discharged by the church who had grown in wealth and importance because of its readiness to undertake these duties.
As the State grew stronger and more organised, it was natural that the delegated duties of the past should return to the community. It was also natural that institutions should outgrow their usefulness and be regarded with a jealous eye. By the end of Edward I`s reign the country had enough monasteries for its needs and the influence of them began to decline. Benefactions from this time forward were mainly devoted to colleges, hospitals and schools. The number of clerics in service of the State shows the energy of the Church was utilised. The church possessed revenues and staff which were too large for the time. It still possessed rights and privileges which were necessary for its protection in days of anarchy and lawlessness but which were invidious with more settled government Moreover, the tenure of so much land by ecclesiastical corporations like monasteries, was viewed with jealousy in a time when commercial competition was becoming a dominant motive and society was no longer mainly warlike.
In similar vein he saw that the ecclesiastical courts were a relic from the days when the civil authority were not able to deal with points concerning the relations of man, or which regulated individual conduct. Thus marriage and associated matters fell to the ecclesiastical court; similarly wills . Besides this the church exercised disciplinary supervision of its members. But even in the dissolution of small monasteries there were signs of resentment from the people, especially the emerging middle class, who would have sent their sons to them for education. While the clergy would accept a decision from the king whom they thought they understood, more so than an instruction from Wolsey whose plans they did not understand.
He knew it would not be easy and sought a gradual change and did not wish to see change made by the power of the State. He knew well the conservatism of the clergy and the dangers of crossing the royal will and pleasure. In this he saw the need to improve the intelligence of clerics so they could cope with the beliefs of thoughtful men. This would require a diversion of some of the revenues of the church from the maintenance of idle monks to the education of a body of learned clergy fitted for the changing world. From this sprang his motive in obtaining papal authority to close monasteries with less than seven inmates and to devote their revenues to educational purposes.
Wolsey`s bull for the dissolution of small monasteries was the beginning of a process that swept them all away. It introduced a principle of measuring the utility of old institutions and judging their right to exist by the power of rendering service to the community. Small monasteries of less than seven inhabitants were hardly likely to have much impact on the community. But it was frightening to the clerics who feared its very reasonableness and
“ made all the forest of religious foundations in England to shake, justly fearing that the king would fell the oaks when the cardinal had cut the underwood.”
The method adopted was soon taken up by Henry VIII, and Wolsey was fated to train up the instruments for the purposes which he would have abhorred, not least of whom was his own favourite and former secretary, Thomas Cromwell.