Upon young Henry VIII's succession, the king's council consisted primarily of his late father's ministers. Two of these men, Sir Thomas Empson and Edmund Dudley, became the first of many to be put to death for treason during Henry VIII's reign. Empson was originally charged with extorting money from the people while he was a manager of the royal finances. An additional charge of treason was laid upon him when evidence surfaced that he had conspired while Henry VII was dying to gain the support of friends in the event that his government position became threatened under the new administration. Dudley was also implicated in this conspiracy, and in August 1510 he and Empson were sent to the scaffold for execution. For Henry VIII, this execution proved a popular move: previously, Henry had proclaimed to the people of London that all who had grievances against the late king's ministers should come and charge them. Many came, and the first Parliament of Henry's reign endorsed the proceedings.
Henry's most important minister was the ordained Catholic priest, Thomas Wolsey, who entered into the royal service in the summer of 1509. Wolsey became Archbishop of York in late 1514, was created a cardinal of the Church the following November, and replaced William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, as Lord Chancellor of the realm in December 1515. Wolsey achieved singular stature in these offices; since Henry was not so interested in administration as his minister, Wolsey took over many of the duties of kingship. While Wolsey was busy overseeing England's finances and diplomatic relations with other European powers, King Henry often spent his days on horseback, enjoying himself with the hunt and other sports. He tended to exasperate his secretaries, who had to make excuses for him when he declined to read dispatches or to engage in other administrative activities.
In the spring and summer of 1520, Henry met twice with the young Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the French King Francois I–doubtless the two most powerful men in Europe at the time–in order to further amicable foreign relations. The seventeen-day meeting with Francois on the Field of Cloth-of-Gold in northern France was famously lavish in its splendor and medieval, royal pomp, much of which was meticulously orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey. The kings and their several-thousand-person entourages were entertained by jousting tournaments, in which the kings themselves particpated. Henry and Francois also engaged in a friendly wrestling match with one another–Henry was beaten by Francois. The "friendly" opposition between the kings in these games proved more indicative of future Anglo-French relations than did the hearty hugs and handshakes at the meeting. In August 1521, Henry secretly signed the Treaty of Bruges with Emperor Charles V–again at Wolsey's prompting–and within a year Henry declared war on France. The war lasted until Henry and Francois engaged in peace negotiations in 1524. When Charles V defeated the French armies at Pavia in northern Italy in February 1525, Henry and Wolsey attempted actually to reverse alliances and make Charles, rather than Francois, the enemy. Charles' empire had grown very powerful, and Wolsey saw it as a grave threat to the European balance of power. In August 1525, Wolsey conluded the Treaty of the Moor with the French.
Though Henry was for the most part hands-off when it came to royal administration during these early years of his reign, he was very active when it came to promoting learning and artistic culture in England. Henry was an advocate of humanism in England, a new school of thinking whose most talented intellectual stars were men such as Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam, and the Englishmen John Colet, William Grocyn, Thomas Lineacre, and Sir Thomas More. More was on of the king's close friends in these years: a devout Catholic like Henry, he helped the King compose a high quality theological treatise called Assertio Septem Sacramentorum contra Martinum Lutherum ("In Defense of the Seven Sacraments Against Martin Luther"). The treatise challenged the Martin Luther's heretical opinions on the seven sacraments and was presented to Pope Clement VII in October 1521. Henry was subsequently named Defensor fidei ("Defender of the Faith") by the Roman pontiff–a title which proved ironic in light of the events of the late 1520s and early 1530s surrounding the king's divorce and his break with Rome.
British historian G.R. Elton wrote the following about the early years of Henry's reign: "From the first, he was utterly sure of himselfpassionately devoted to his own interests and inclinations, unscrupulous but careful of legal form, and clever." At the same time, Henry was extremely dependent on Thomas Wolsey, whose zeal and ability as an administrator made him indispensable to the king. Among Henry's contemporaries on the European continent, many considered Wolsey to be the true ruler of England, since it was to him that foreign officials were often directed to address concerns meant for the English king. Elton agrees somewhat with this assessment, writing that it was Wolsey who devised and carried out the policies which Henry endorsed.
Some historians have argued that Henry had the mindset of a late medieval monarch rather than an eye for the potentials of modern legal and political reforms. Early in his reign, his concern for military adventure confirms such a view. Upon his accession, Henry was determined to gain glory for himself and for England in military engagements in France, and his superficial successes in these engagements won him much popular support. Henry's chief minister Cardinal Wolsey concerned himself with the details of the financial matters of the realm and with the political strategies of alliances and with the European balance of power–less glorious pursuits than leading men into war, but ones which were of greater long-term importance to English political stability.
Although the years 1515–1527 were marked by the ascendancy of Wolsey to first-rate prominence in Henry's government, the king never abandoned altogether the great tasks of kingship. Henry was, indeed, hands-off in many matters, but he was very confident that all power rested in his hands and that he could assert such power at any time. His capacity to control both events and men was not fully demonstrated until the tempestuous, drawn-out period of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.