To judge how effective Wolsey was as a judge we must know what he was trying to achieve, his aims. The all pervading factor, or aim through out his career, and in its many different branches (domestic, foreign, law and order etc) was the need to please Henry. The need for him to do this is obvious, if he displeased Henry he would loose his power and position. The king was sovereign. The were other motives behind Wolsey, he was a humanist, he was ambitious, vengeful, he had class prejudices (he was the son of a butcher, and had on numerous times been treated badly by the noble and gentle classes).
Clearly the most important drive behind his actions was providing what the king wanted, so to judge his success we must see how effective he was in satisfying the king, and there for must look at what the king wanted. The king wanted many things, however the things that he wanted that could be achieved through the scope of the law (i. e. as Wolsey being a judge) are relatively small.
He needed to keep control of the nobles, a rising by the peasants and commoners would have been easy to put down, a revolt by the nobility could loose Henry the throne and at the very least cause civil war, Henry’s father had usurped the throne and the Tudor era was relatively new and as such fragile. This meant that Henry was very concerned with keeping the nobles in order. He not only needed the Nobles not to revolt but he relied on them for his armies to satisfy his foreign policy objectives and to control law and order within their sphere of influence.
He also relied on the nobles for his largest part of his tax revenue. All this meant that the nobles had to be kept in place but at the same time not feel subjugated by Henry. To control the nobles, Wolsey had to undermine their power to an extent. One of the ways he did this was through the idea of impartial justice, by allowing the people of a lower status to bring cases against the noble and the gentry, he removed the idea of them being above the law, which was shown by his imprisonment and fining of several nobles such as Earl of Northumberland.
This would make the nobles fear Henry and Wolsey as if they were imprisoned there lands and there wealth could be ceased of Henry’s own retainers put in their place. To further undermine the nobles in legal matters Wolsey, and Henry introduced their own justices of the peace, these could watch the nobles and gentry and so inform on them, something similar to the system of spies in noble households that Henry VII used. The JP’s also helped to centralise the administration of the legal system as they would make sure laws passed in London were carried out as quickly in possible in their region.
This all lead to the decrease in the power that the nobles could exercise. He did also use his power as chancellor for his own gain and for his own personnel vendettas. An example of the is Amyas Paulet, who had put Wolsey in the stockade as a young man. He ordered Paulet to attend court every day for five years to get revenge. He also used the legal system to break those who insulted or injured him, and for his own personal gain. Using his position as chancellor he was able to increase his wealth substantially, an example of this is using his legal power over inheritances to take a large percent from all wills, in a form of a tax.
He did, it should be noted, do something in the way of introducing impartial justice. He was the son of an Ipswich butcher, that had worked hard to rise to his position, and didn’t see status as a barrier to justice, he even went so far as to advertise for cases to be brought before him.. The number of cases increased so much that Star Chamber under Wolsey had four times as many cases as previously, and many of the other courts overflowed with cases. Wolsey was effective as a judge in keeping Henry happy and carrying out his aims to keep the nobles subjugated and under control.
He didn’t really ever manage to introduce impartial justice, as he never put through the necessary reforms to continue it after his downfall. Nor did he ever manage to see enough cases to truly make a difference, yet his heart was in the right place, and I believe he truly tried to make a difference. And although he used the law for his own gain he also helped others gain, none more so than Henry, who under Wolsey’s legal prowess was able to have a stable early reign. As Dawson says “the law aroused Wolsey’s intellects”, and no matter what is said about what he achieved as a judge he did work very hard as one. ?? ??