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His Eminence
 Thomas Wolsey
Cardinal Archbishop of York

Sampson Strong's portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church (1526).
Province York
Diocese York
Enthroned 1514
Reign ended 1530
Predecessor Christopher Bainbridge
Successor Edward Lee
Ordination 10 March 1498 (Priest)
Consecration 26 March 1514 (Bishop)
Created Cardinal 10 September 1515
Rank Cardinal priest of S. Cecilia
Other Bishop of Lincoln, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Prince-Bishop of Durham, Bishop of Winchester and Lord High Chancellor
Personal details
Born c. 1471
Ipswich, Suffolk, England
Died 29 November 1530 (aged c. 60)
Leicester, Leicestershire, England
Buried Leicester Abbey
Nationality English
Denomination Roman Catholic Church
Parents Robert Wolsey and Joan Daundy

Thomas Wolsey (c.1471 – 29 November 1530; sometimes spelled Woolsey) was an English statesman and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. When Henry VIII became king of England in 1509, Wolsey became the King's almoner.[1] Wolsey's affairs prospered and by 1514 he had become the controlling figure in virtually all matters of state and was extremely powerful within the Church. The highest political position he attained was Lord Chancellor, the King's chief adviser, enjoying great freedom and often depicted as an alter rex (other king). Within the Church he became Archbishop of York, the second most important see in England, and then was made a cardinal in 1515, giving him precedence over even the Archbishop of Canterbury. His main legacy is from his interest in architecture, in particular his old home of Hampton Court Palace, which stands today.


Early life

Thomas was born circa 1471, the son of Robert Wolsey of Ipswich (1438–85) and his wife Joan Daundy.[1] His father was widely thought to have been a butcher and a cattle-dealer [2] but sources indicate that Robert Wolsey died at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was a significant casualty. Robert may have been a respected and wealthy cloth merchant, and the butcher story was perhaps invented to demean Wolsey and show how high he had climbed in terms of status.

Thomas Wolsey attended Ipswich School[3] and Magdalen College School before studying theology at Magdalen College, Oxford. On 10 March 1498, he was ordained a priest in Marlborough and remained in Oxford, first as the Master of Magdalen College School before quickly being appointed the dean of divinity. Between 1500 and 1509 he held the living of Church of Saint Mary, Limington in Somerset.[4] In 1502, he left and became a chaplain to Henry Deane, archbishop of Canterbury, who died the following year.[1] He was then taken into the household of Sir Richard Nanfan, who trusted Wolsey to be the executor of his estate. After Nanfan's death in 1507, Wolsey entered the service of Henry VII.[1]

It was to Wolsey’s advantage that Henry VII had introduced measures to curb the power of the nobility and was prepared to favour those from more humble backgrounds.[5] Henry VII appointed Wolsey royal chaplain.[6] In this position, Wolsey was secretary to Richard Foxe, who recognized Wolsey's innate ability and dedication and appreciated his industry and willingness to take on tedious tasks.[7] Thomas Wolsey’s remarkable rise to power from humble origins can be attributed to his high level of intelligence and organisation, his extremely industrious nature, his driving ambition for power, and the rapport he was able to achieve with the King. In 1509, Henry VIII appointed Wolsey to the post of Almoner,[1] a position that gave him a seat on the Privy Council, providing an opportunity to raise his profile and to establish a rapport with the King.[8] His rise coincided with the ascension of the new monarch, Henry VIII, whose character, policies and diplomatic mindset differed significantly from those of his father, Henry VII. A factor in Wolsey's rise was that the young Henry VIII was not particularly interested in the details of governing during his early years.[9] Under the tight personal monarchy of Henry VII, Wolsey was unlikely to have obtained so much trust and responsibility.

Rise to prominence

Banner of the arms of Cardinal Wolsey as Archbishop of York, impaling his personal arms (viewer's right) with the arms of his office as Archbishop of York (viewer's left).

The primary counsellors whom Henry VIII inherited from his father, Bishop Fox and William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, were cautious and conservative, advising the King to be a careful administrator like his father. Henry soon appointed to his Privy Council individuals more sympathetic to his views and inclinations. Until 1511, Wolsey was adamantly anti-war; however, when the King expressed his enthusiasm for an invasion of France, Wolsey was able to adapt to the King's mindset and gave persuasive speeches to the Privy Council in favour of war. Warham and Fox, who failed to share the King’s enthusiasm for the French war, fell from power and Wolsey took over as the King's most trusted advisor and administrator. In 1515, Warham resigned as Lord Chancellor, probably under pressure from the King and Wolsey, and Henry appointed Wolsey in his place.[10]

Wolsey was careful to try to destroy or neutralise the influence of other courtiers. He was blamed for the fall of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham in 1521 and prosecuted Henry's close friend William Compton and Henry's ex-mistress Anne Stafford, Countess of Huntingdon, through the ecclesiastical courts for adultery, in 1527. In the case of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Wolsey attempted to win his favour instead, by his actions after the Duke secretly married Henry’s sister Mary Tudor, Queen of France, much to the King’s displeasure. Wolsey advised the King not to execute the newlyweds, but to embrace them.

Wolsey's rise to a position of great secular power was accompanied by increased responsibilities in the Church. He became Canon of Windsor, Berkshire in 1511, the same year in which he became a member of the Privy Council. In 1514 he was made Bishop of Lincoln, and then Archbishop of York. Pope Leo X made him a cardinal in 1515, with the Titulus S. Caeciliae. As tribute to the success of his campaign in France and subsequent peace negotiations, Wolsey was further rewarded by the church: in 1523 Wolsey was made Prince-Bishop of Durham.

Foreign policy

"Cardinal Woolsey" (an archaic spelling[11]) by an unknown artist c.1520. Detail from an oil on panel in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

War with France

The war against France in 1512–14 was the most significant opportunity for Wolsey to demonstrate his talents in the foreign policy arena. A convenient justification for going to war came in 1511 in the form of a plea for help from Pope Julius II, who was beginning to feel threatened by France. England formed an alliance with the Pope, Ferdinand V of Spain, and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor against Louis XII of France.

The first campaign against France was not a success, partly due to the unreliability of the alliance with Ferdinand. Wolsey learned from the mistakes of the campaign, however and, in 1513, still with papal support, launched a joint attack on France, successfully capturing two French cities and causing the French to retreat. Wolsey's ability to keep a large number of troops supplied and equipped for the duration of the war was a major factor in its success. Wolsey also had a key role in negotiating the Anglo-French treaty of 1514, which secured a temporary peace between the two nations. Under this treaty, the French king, Louis XII would marry Henry’s young sister, Mary. In addition, England was able to keep the captured city of Tournai and to secure an increase in the annual pension paid by France.

Meanwhile, a turnover of rulers in Europe threatened to diminish England’s influence. Peace with France in 1514 had been a true achievement for Wolsey and the King. With Henry’s sister, Mary, married to the French King, Louis XII, an alliance was formed, but Louis was not in good health. Less than three months later, Louis died and was replaced by the young and ambitious Francis I.

Queen Mary had allegedly secured a promise from Henry that if Louis died, she could marry whomever she pleased. On Louis' death, she secretly married Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, with Francis I's assistance, which prevented another marriage alliance. As the only princess Henry could use to secure marriage alliances, this was a bitter blow. Wolsey then proposed an alliance with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire against France.

Papal Legate

The death of King Ferdinand of Spain, the father-in-law of Henry VIII, and England's closest ally, was a further blow. Ferdinand was succeeded by Charles V, who immediately proposed peace with France. On the death of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, Charles was elected in his stead; thus Charles ruled a substantial portion of Europe and English influence became limited on the continent.

Wolsey, however, managed to assert English influence through another means. In 1517, Pope Leo X sought peace in Europe to form a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. In 1518, Wolsey was made Papal Legate in England, enabling him to work for the Pope’s desire for peace by organising the Treaty of London. The Treaty showed Wolsey as the arbiter of Europe, organising a massive peace summit involving twenty nations. This put England at the forefront of European diplomacy and drew her out of isolation, making her a desirable ally. This is well illustrated by the Anglo-French treaty signed two days afterwards.

Ironically, it was partly this peace treaty which caused conflict between France and Spain. In 1519, when Charles V ascended to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, the King of France, was infuriated. He had invested enormous sums in bribing the electorate to elect him as emperor, and thus, he used the Treaty of London as a justification for the Habsburg-Valois conflict. Wolsey appeared to act as mediator between the two powers, both of whom were vying for England’s support.

Field of the Cloth of Gold

Another of his diplomatic triumphs was the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Wolsey organised much of this grandiose meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII, accompanied by some five thousand followers. Though it seemed to open the door to peaceful negotiations with France, if that was the direction the King wished to go, it was also a chance for a lavish display of English wealth and power before the rest of Europe. With both France and Spain vying for England’s allegiance, Wolsey could choose the ally which better suited his policies. Wolsey chose Charles mainly because England's economy would suffer from the loss of the lucrative cloth trade industry between England and the Netherlands had France been chosen instead.

Alliance with Spain

The Treaty of London is often regarded as Wolsey’s finest moment, but it was abandoned within a year. Wolsey allied with Charles in 1520 in the conflict against France, ignoring the Anglo-French treaty of 1518. Wolsey's relationship with Rome was also ambivalent. Despite his links to the papacy, Wolsey was strictly Henry’s servant. Though the Treaty of London was an elaboration on Pope Leo's ambitions for European peace, it was seen in Rome as a vain attempt by England to assert her influence over Europe and steal some papal thunder. Furthermore, Wolsey’s peace initiatives prevented a crusade to the Holy Land, which was the catalyst for the Pope’s desire for European peace.

Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, who represented the Pope at the Treaty of London, was kept waiting for many months in Calais before being allowed to cross the Channel and join the festivities in London; thereby, Wolsey was asserting his independence of Rome. An alternative hypothesis is that Campeggio was kept waiting until Wolsey received his legacy, thus asserting Wolsey's attachment to Rome.

Though the English gain from the wars of 1522–23 was minimal, their contribution certainly aided Charles in his defeat of the French, particularly in 1525 at the Battle of Pavia, where Charles' army captured the French king, Francis I. Henry then felt there was a realistic opportunity for him to seize the French crown, which the kings of England had long laid claim to. Parliament, however, refused to raise taxes. This led Wolsey to devise the Amicable Grant, which was met with even more hostility, and ultimately led to his downfall. In 1525, after Charles had abandoned England as an ally, Wolsey began to negotiate with France, and the Treaty of the More was signed with the Regent of France during Francis' captivity, his mother, Louise of Savoy.

The closeness between England and Rome can be seen in the formulation of the League of Cognac in 1526. Though England was not a part of it, the League was organized in part by Wolsey with papal support. Wolsey’s plan was that the League of Cognac, composed of an alliance between France and some Italian states, would challenge Charles’ League of Cambrai. This initiative was both a gesture of allegiance to Rome and an answer to growing concerns about Charles V's dominance over Europe.

The final blow to this policy came in 1529, when the French made peace with Charles. Meanwhile, the French also continued to honour the "Auld Alliance" with Scotland, stirring up hostility on England's border. With peace between France and the Emperor, there was no one to free the Pope from Charles, who had effectively held Clement VII captive since the Sack of Rome in 1527. Therefore there was little hope of securing Henry an annulment from his marriage to Charles’ aunt, Catherine of Aragon. Since 1527, Wolsey’s foreign policy had been dominated by his attempts to secure an annulment for his master, and, by 1529, none of his endeavours had succeeded.


Despite his many enemies, Cardinal Wolsey held Henry VIII's confidence until Henry decided to seek an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey's failure to secure the annulment is widely perceived to have directly caused his downfall and arrest.

Henry's marriage to Catherine had produced no sons who survived infancy; the Wars of the Roses were still within living memory, leading to the fear of a power struggle after Henry's death. His daughter Mary was not considered capable of holding the country together and continuing the Tudor dynasty because England, until then, had not accepted a queen regnant (with the exception, perhaps, of Empress Matilda, who fought and lost a long civil war in an attempt to keep her throne).

Henry believed that Catherine's inability to produce a viable male heir was due to her being the widow of his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, which, he became convinced, violated Biblical proscription and cursed his marriage as incestuous. He also believed that the papal dispensation for his marriage to Catherine was invalid because it was based upon the claim that Catherine was still a virgin after her first husband's death. Henry argued that Catherine's claim was not credible, and thus, the original papal dispensation must be withdrawn and their marriage annulled. Henry's motivation has been attributed to his determination to have a son and heir, and to his desire for Anne Boleyn, one of his wife's maids-of-honour. Catherine had no further pregnancies after 1519; Henry began annulment proceedings in 1527.

Catherine, however, maintained that she had been a virgin when she married King Henry. Because Catherine was opposed to the annulment and a return to her previous status as Dowager Princess of Wales, the annulment request became a matter of international diplomacy, with Catherine's nephew, Charles V, pressuring the Pope to not annul his aunt's marriage. Pope Clement VII was presented with a problem: he could either anger Charles or else anger Henry. He delayed announcing a decision for as long as possible; this infuriated Henry and Anne Boleyn, who began to doubt the papal legate Wolsey's loyalty to the State over the Church.

Wolsey's appeal to the Pope for a divorce came on three fronts. Firstly, he tried to convince the Pope that the original papal dispensation was void as the marriage clearly went against words in the Bible, in the book of Leviticus. Secondly, Wolsey objected to the original dispensation on technical grounds, and claimed it was incorrectly worded (however shortly afterwards a correctly worded version was found in Spain). Thirdly, Wolsey wanted the Pope to allow the final decision to be made in England, which of course, as papal legate, would be supervised by him. In 1528, the Pope decided to allow two papal legates to decide the outcome in England: Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio. Wolsey was confident of the decision. However, Campeggio took a long time to arrive, and when he finally did arrive he delayed proceedings so much, the case had to be suspended in July 1528, effectively sealing Wolsey's fate. Anne Boleyn and her faction convinced Henry that Wolsey was deliberately slowing proceedings, and as a result, he was arrested in 1529, and the Pope decided the official decision should be made in Rome anyway.

In 1529, Wolsey was stripped of his government office and property, including his magnificently expanded residence of York Place, which Henry chose to replace the Palace of Westminster as his own main London residence. However, Wolsey was permitted to remain Archbishop of York. He travelled to Yorkshire for the first time in his career, but at Cawood in North Yorkshire, he was accused of treason and ordered to London by Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. In great distress, he set out for the capital with his personal chaplain, Edmund Bonner. Wolsey fell ill and died on the way, at Leicester on 29 November 1530, around the age of sixty. "If I had served my God", the Cardinal said remorsefully, "as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs."[12]

In keeping with his practice of erecting magnificent buildings, Wolsey had designed a grand tomb for himself, but he was buried in Leicester Abbey (now Abbey Park) without a monument. Henry VIII considered using the impressive black sarcophagus for himself, but Lord Nelson now lies in it, within the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Domestic achievements

During his fourteen years of chancellorship, Cardinal Wolsey had more power than any other servant in English history. As long as he was in the King’s favour, Wolsey had a large amount of freedom within the domestic sphere, and had his hand in nearly every aspect of its ruling. For much of the time, Henry VIII had complete confidence in him, and as Henry's interests inclined more towards foreign policy, he was willing to give Wolsey a free hand in reforming the management of domestic affairs, for which Wolsey had grand plans.


Wolsey made significant changes to the taxation system, devising with the treasurer of the Chamber, John Heron, of the "Subsidy". This revolutionary form of tax was based upon accurate valuations of the taxpayer’s wealth, where one shilling was taken per pound from the income. The old fixed tax of 15ths and 10ths had meant that those who earned very little money had to pay almost as much in tax as the wealthy. With the new income tax the poorer members of society paid much less. This more efficient form of taxation enabled Wolsey to raise enough money for the King’s foreign expeditions, bringing in over £300,000. Wolsey was also able to raise considerable amounts of capital through other means, such as through "benevolences" and enforced donations from the nobility, which raised £200,000 in 1522.


As a legal administrator Wolsey reinvented the equity court, where the verdict was decided by the judge on the principle of "fairness". As an alternative to the Common Law courts, Wolsey re-established the position of the prerogative courts of the Star Chamber and the Court of Chancery. The system in both courts concentrated on simple, inexpensive cases, and promised impartial justice. He also established the Court of Requests (although this was only named this later on) for the poor, where no fees were required. Wolsey’s legal reforms were popular, and overflow courts were required to attend to all the cases. Many powerful individuals who had felt themselves invincible under the law found themselves convicted; for example, in 1515, the Earl of Northumberland was sent to Fleet Prison and in 1516 Lord Abergavenny was accused of illegal retaining.

Wolsey also used his courts to tackle national controversies, such as the pressing issue of enclosures. The countryside had been thrown into discord by the entrepreneurial actions of landlords enclosing areas of land and converting from arable farming to pastoral farming, requiring fewer workers. The Tudors valued stability, and this mass urban migration represented a serious crisis. Wolsey conducted national enquires in 1517, 1518 and 1527 into the presence of enclosures. In the course of his administration he used the court of Chancery to prosecute two hundred and sixty-four landowners, including peers, bishops, knights, religious heads, and Oxford colleges. Enclosures were seen as directly linked to rural unemployment and depopulation, vagrancy, food shortages and, accordingly, inflation. This pattern was repeated with many of Wolsey’s other initiatives, particularly his quest to abolish enclosure. Despite spending significant time and effort in investigating the state of the countryside and prosecuting numerous offenders, Wolsey freely surrendered his policy during the parliament of 1523, in order to ensure that Parliament would pass his proposed taxes for Henry’s war in France. Enclosures continued to be a problem for many years to follow.

Wolsey used the Star Chamber to enforce his 1518 policy of “Just Price”, which attempted to regulate the price of meat in London and other major cities. Those who were found to be charging excessive amounts were prosecuted by the Chamber. After the bad harvest of 1527, Wolsey took the initiative of buying up surplus grain and selling it off cheaply to the needy. This act of generosity greatly eased disorder and became common practice after a disappointing harvest.

Church reforms

Although it would be difficult to find a better example of abuses in the Church than the Cardinal himself, Wolsey appeared to make some steps towards reform. In 1524 and 1527 he used his powers as papal legate to dissolve thirty decayed monasteries where corruption had run rife, including abbeys in Ipswich and Oxford. However, he then used the income to glorify God by founding a grammar school in Ipswich (The King's School, Ipswich) and Cardinal College in Oxford. The college in Oxford was renamed King's College after Wolsey's fall. Today, it is known as Christ Church. In 1528, he began to limit the benefit of clergy.


Wolsey’s position in power relied solely on maintaining good relations with Henry. He grew increasingly suspicious of the minions, particularly after infiltrating one of his own men into the group, and attempted many times to disperse them from court, giving them jobs which took them to the Continent and far from the King. After the failure of the Amicable Grant, the minions began to undermine him once again. Consequently Wolsey devised a grand plan of administrative reforms, incorporating the infamous Eltham Ordinances of 1526. This reduced the members of the Privy Council from twelve to six, removing Henry's friends such as Sir William Compton and Nicholas Carew.

One of Wolsey’s greatest impediments was his lack of popularity amongst the nobles at court and in Parliament. Their hatred partly stemmed from Wolsey’s excessive demands for money in the form of the Subsidy or through Benevolences. They also resented the Act of Resumption (1515), by which many nobles were forced to return lands which the King had given to them as a gift. Many nobles resented the rise to power of a low-born man, whilst others simply disliked his monopolisation of the court and his concealing of information from the Privy Council.

When mass riots broke out in East Anglia, which should have been under the control of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, Henry was quick to denounce the Amicable Grant, and began to lose faith in his chief minister. During the relatively peaceful period which England had been enjoying since the War of the Roses, the population of the nation had increased. With increased demand for food and no additional supply, the price increased. Landowners were forced to enclose land and convert to pastoral farming, which brought in more profit. Wolsey’s quest against enclosure was fruitless in terms of restoring the stability of the economy.

The same can be said for Wolsey’s legal reforms. By making justice accessible to all and encouraging more people to bring their cases to court, the system was ultimately abused. The courts became overloaded with incoherent, tenuous cases, which would have been far too expensive to have rambled on in the Common Law courts. Wolsey eventually ordered all minor cases out of the Star Chamber in 1528. The result of this venture was further resentment from the nobility and the gentry.

Failures with the Church

As well as his State duties, Wolsey simultaneously attempted to exert his influence over the Church in England. As cardinal and, from 1524, lifetime papal legate, Wolsey was continually vying for control over others in the Church. He also broke the Church's rules of priestly celibacy with a mistress. His principal rival was William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made it more difficult for Wolsey to follow through with his plans for reform. Despite making promises to reform the bishoprics of England and Ireland, and, in 1519, encouraging monasteries to embark on a programme of reform, he did nothing to bring about these changes.


Wolsey had two children by his mistress, Joan Larke (born circa 1490) of Yarmouth, Norfolk. These were a son, Thomas Wynter (born circa 1510)[13] and a daughter, Dorothy (born circa 1512),[14] both of whom lived to adulthood. The son was sent to live with a family in Willesden and was tutored in his early years by Maurice Birchinshaw. He married and had children. Dorothy was adopted by John Clansey, and was in due course placed in Shaftsbury Nunnery, which had a fine reputation as a 'finishing school'. After the later dissolution of the monasteries (under Thomas Cromwell) she received a pension.[15] Joan married George Legh of Adlington, in Cheshire, circa 1519, with a dowry provided by Wolsey. [13]

Fictional portrayals


  1. ^ a b c d e Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Thomas Wolsey.
  2. ^ G. R. Elton, England under the Tudors: Third Edition (London: Routledge, 1991), p. 74
  3. ^ Thomas Wolsey (1471–1530), royal minister, archbishop of York, and cardinal by Sybil M. Jack in Dictionary of National Biography.
  4. ^ "Church of Saint Mary". Images of England. English Heritage. Retrieved 2008-10-12.  
  5. ^ Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Henry VII.
  6. ^ Williams p.26
  7. ^ Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Richard Fox
  8. ^ Williams, p.26
  9. ^ Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Henry VIII
  10. ^ Oxford Dictionary National Biography, William Warham.
  11. ^ "Censura Literaria: Containing Titles ... – Google Books". 2007-07-16. Retrieved 2009-06-25.  
  12. ^ "History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century" By J H Merle d'Aubigné, p.1382
  13. ^ a b Cardinal Wolsey, A Life in Renaissance Europe by Stella Fletcher
  14. ^ The Cardinal and the Secretary by Neville Williams
  15. ^ Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Thomas [Winter] Wynter.


  • Thomas Wolsey (1471–1530), royal minister, archbishop of York, and cardinal by Sybil M. Jack in Dictionary of National Biography.
  • Henry VIII and his Court by Neville Williams (1971).
  • The Kings and Queens of England by Ian Crofton (2006).

Further reading

  • Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey. Cavendish was gentleman usher to Thomas Wolsey.
  • Creighton, Mandell. Cardinal Wolsey. London; New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888.
  • Ferguson, Charles W. Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.
  • Gwyn, Peter. The King's Cardinal: The Rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1992.
  • Pollard, A. F. Wolsey. London; New York [etc.]: Longmans, Green and Co., 1929.
  • Ridley, Jasper. tatesman and Saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and the Politics of Henry VIII. Viking, 1983.
  • Williams, Neville. The Cardinal and the Secretary: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell.
  • Williams, Robert Folkestone. Lives of the English Cardinals..., 2006.
  • Wilson, Derek. In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. ISBN 0312286961.

External links

  • Wolsey Gate—All that is left today of Wolsey's planned college in Ipswich, — before Wolsey was removed from power, he planned to make his home town of Ipswich a seat of learning equal to both Oxford and Cambridge. He started building a great college, but all that remains today is Wolsey's Gate, which can still be seen in College Street today. Wolsey is far from forgotten in his county of birth however, an appeal having been launched in October 2009 to erect a statue in Ipswich to complement Wolsey Gate as permanent commemoration.
Political offices
Preceded by
William Warham
Lord High Chancellor
Succeeded by
Sir Thomas More
Catholic Church titles
Preceded by
William Smyth
Bishop of Lincoln
Succeeded by
William Atwater
Preceded by
Christopher Bainbridge
Archbishop of York
Succeeded by
Edward Lee
Preceded by
Adriano Castellesi
Bishop of Bath and Wells
Succeeded by
John Clerk
Preceded by
Thomas Ruthall
Prince-Bishop of Durham
Succeeded by
Cuthbert Tunstall
Preceded by
Richard Foxe
Bishop of Winchester
Succeeded by
Stephen Gardiner

1911 encyclopedia

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From LoveToKnow 1911

THOMAS WOLSEY (c. 1475-1530), English cardinal and statesman, born at Ipswich about 1475, was son of Robert Wolsey (or Wuley, as his name was always spelt) by his wife Joan. His father is generally described as a butcher, but he sold other things than meat; and although a man of some property and a churchwarden of St Nicholas, Ipswich, his character seems to have borne a striking resemblance to that of Thomas Cromwell's father. He was continually being fined for allowing his pigs to stray in the street, selling bad meat, letting his house to doubtful characters for illegal purposes, and generally infringing the by-laws respecting weights and measures (extracts from the Ipswich records, printed in the Athenaeum, 1900, i. 400). He died in September 1496, and his will, which has been preserved, was proved a few days later.

Thomas was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford; but the details of his university career are doubtful owing to the defectiveness of the university and college registers. He is said to have graduated B.A. at the age of fifteen (i.e. about 14 9 0); but his earliest definite appearance in the records is as junior bursar of Magdalen College in 1498-1499, and senior bursar in 1 499150o, an office he was compelled to resign for applying funds to the completion of the great tower without sufficient authority (W. D. Macray, Reg. of Magdalen College, i. 2 9-3 0, 133-134). He must have been elected fellow of Magdalen some years before; and as master of Magdalen College school he had under his charge three sons of Thomas Grey, first marquess of Dorset. Dorset's beneficent intentions for his sons' pedagogue probably suggested Wolsey's ordination as priest at Marlborough on March ro, 1498, and on October io, r50o, he was instituted, on Dorset's presentation, to the rectory of Limington in Somerset. His connexion with Magdalen had perhaps terminated with his resignation of the bursarship, though he supplicated for the degrees of B.D. and D.D. in 1510; and the college appears to have derived no advantage from Wolsey's subsequent greatness.

At Limington he came into conflict with law and order as represented by the sheriff, Sir Amias Paulet, who is said by Cavendish to have placed Wolsey in the stocks; Wolsey retaliated long afterwards by confining Paulet to his chambers in the Temple for five or six years. Dorset died in 1501, but Wolsey found other patrons in his pursuit of wealth and fame. Before the end of that year he obtained from the pope a dispensation to hold two livings in conjunction with Limington, and Archbishop Deane of Canterbury also appointed him his domestic chaplain. Deane, however, died in 1503, and Wolsey became chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, deputy of Calais, who apparently recommended him to Henry VII. Nanfan died in 1507, but the king made Wolsey his chaplain and employed him in diplomatic work. In 1508 he was sent to James IV. of Scotland, and in the same year he pleased Henry by the extraordinary expedition with which he crossed and recrossed the Channel on an errand connected with the king's proposal of marriage to Margaret of Savoy. His ecclesiastical preferments, of which he received several in 1506-1509, culminated in his appointment by Henry to the deanery of Lincoln on February 2, 1509.

Henry VIII. made Wolsey his almoner immediately on his accession, and the receipt of some half-dozen further ecclesiastical preferments in the first two years of the reign marks his growth in royal favour. But it was not till towards the end of 1511 that Wolsey became a privy councillor and secured a controlling voice in the government. His influence then made itself felt on English policy. The young king took little pains with the government, and the control of affairs was shared between the clerical and peace party led by Richard Fox and Archbishop Warham, and the secular and war party led by Surrey. Hitherto pacific counsels had on the whole prevailed; but Wolsey, who was nothing if not turbulent, turned the balance in favour of war, and his marvellous administrative energy first found full scope in the preparations for the English expedition to Biscay in 1512, and for the campaign in northern France in 1513. He brought about the peace with France and marriage between Mary Tudor and Louis XII. in 1514, and reaped his reward in the bishoprics of Lincoln and Tournai, the archbishopric of York, which was conferred on him by papal bull in September, and the cardinalate which he had sent Polydore Vergil to beg from Leo X. in May 1514, but did not receive till the following year. Nevertheless, when Francis I. in 1515 succeeded Louis XII. and won the battle of Marignano, Wolsey took the lead in assisting the emperor Maximilian to oppose him; and this revival of warlike designs was resented by Fox and Warham, who retired from the government, leaving Wolsey supreme. Maximilian proved a broken reed, and in 2528 Wolsey brought about a general pacification, securing at the same time his appointment as legate a latere in England. He thus superseded Warham, who was legatus flatus, in ecclesiastical authority; and though legates a latere were supposed to exercise only special and temporary powers, Wolsey secured the practical permanence of his office.

The election of Charles V. as 'emperor in 1519 brought the rivalry between him and Francis I. to a head, and Wolsey was mainly responsible for the attitude adopted by the English government. Both monarchs were eager for England's alliance, and their suit enabled Wolsey to appear for the moment as the arbiter of Europe. England's commercial relations with Charles V.'s subjects in the Netherlands put war with the emperor almost out of the question; and cool observers thought that England's obvious policy was to stand by while the two rivals enfeebled each other, and then make her own profit out of their weakness. But, although a gorgeous show of friendship with France was kept up at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, it had been determined before the conference of Calais in 1521, at which Wolsey pretended to adjudicate on the merits of the dispute, to side actively with Charles V. Wolsey had vested interests in such a policy. Parliament had in1513-1515showed signs of strong anti-clerical feeling; Wolsey had in the latter year urged its speedy dissolution, and had not called another; and he probably hoped to distract attention from the church by a spirited foreign policy, as Henry V. had done a century before. He had, moreover, received assurances from the emperor that he would further Wolsey's candidature for the papacy; and although he protested to Henry VIII. that he would rather continue in his service than be ten popes, that did not prevent him from secretly instructing his agents at Rome to press his claims to the utmost. Charles, however, paid Wolsey the sincere compliment of thinking that he would not be sufficiently subservient on the papal throne; while he wrote letters in Wolsey's favour, he took care that they should not reach their destination in time; and Wolsey failed to secure election both in 1521 and 1524. This ambition distinguishes his foreign policy from that of Henry VII., to which it has been likened. Henry VII. cared only for England; Wolsey's object was to play a great part on the European stage. The aim of the one was national, that of the other was oecumenical.

In any case the decision taken in 1521 was a blunder. Wolsey's assistance helped Charles V. to that position of predominance which was strikingly illustrated by the defeat and capture of Francis I. at Pavia in 1525; and the balance of power upon which England's influence rested was destroyed. Her efforts to restore it in1526-1528were ineffectual; her prestige had depended upon her reputation for wealth derived from the fact that she had acted in recent years as the paymaster of Europe. But Henry VII.'s accumulations had disappeared; parliament resisted in 1523 the imposition of new taxation; and the attempts to raise forced loans and benevolences in1526-1528created a storm of opposition. Still more unpopular was the brief war with Charles V. in which Wolsey involved England in 1528. The sack of Rome in 1527 and the defeat of the French before Naples in 1528 confirmed Charles V.'s supremacy. Peace was made in. 1529 between the two rivals without England being consulted, and her influence at Wolsey's fall was less than it had been at his accession to power.

This failure reacted upon Wolsey's position at home. His domestic was sounder than his foreign policy: by his development of the star chamber, by his firm administration of justice and maintenance of order, and by his repression of feudal. jurisdiction, he rendered great services to the monarchy. But the inevitable opposition of the nobility to this policy was not mitigated by the fact that it was carried out by a churchman; the result was to embitter the antagonism of the secular party to the church and to concentrate it upon Wolsey's head. The control of the papacy by Charles V., moreover, made it impossible for Wolsey to succeed in his efforts to obtain from Clement VII. the divorce which Henry VIII. was seeking from Charles V.'s aunt, Catherine of Aragon. An inscription on a contemporary portrait of Wolsey at Arras calls him the author of the divorce, and Roman Catholic historians from Sanders downwards have generally adopted the view that Wolsey advocated this measure merely as a means to break England's alliance with Spain and confirm its alliance with France. This view is unhistorical, and it ignores the various personal and national motives which lay behind that movement. There is no evidence that Wolsey first suggested the divorce, though when he found that Henry was bent upon it, he pressed for two points: (i.) that an application should be made to Rome, instead of deciding the matter in England, and (ii.) that Henry, when divorced, should marry a French princess.

The appeal to Rome was a natural course to be advocated by Wolsey, whose despotism over the English church depended upon an authority derived from Rome; but it was probably a mistake. It ran counter to the ideas suggested in 1527 on the captivity of Clement VII., that England and France should set up independent patriarchates; and its success depended upon the problematical destruction of Charles V.'s power in Italy. At first this seemed not improbable; French armies marched south on Naples, and the pope sent Campeggio with full powers to pronounce the divorce in England. But he had hardly started when the French were defeated in 1528; their ruin was completed in 1529, and Clement VII. was obliged to come to terms with Charles V., which included Campeggio's recall in August 1529.

Wolsey clearly foresaw his own fall, the consequent attack on the church and the triumph of the secular party. Parliament, which he had kept at arm's length, was hostile; he was hated by the nobility, and his general unpopularity is reflected in Skelton's satires and in Hall's Chronicle. Even churchmen had been alienated by his suppression of monasteries and by his monopoly of ecclesiastical power; and his only support was the king, who had now developed a determination to rule himself. He surrendered all his offices and all his preferments except the archbishopric of York, receiving in return a pension of 1000 marks (equal to six or seven thousand pounds a year in modern currency) from the bishopric of Winchester, and retired to his see, which he had never before visited. A bill of attainder, passed by the Lords, was rejected at Cromwell's instigation and probably with Henry's goodwill by the Commons. The last few months of his life were spent in the exemplary discharge of his archiepiscopal duties; but a not altogether unfounded suspicion that he had invoked the assistance of Francis if not of Charles V. and the pope, to prevent his fall involved him in a charge of treason. He was summoned to London, but died on his way at Leicester abbey on November 30, and was buried there on the following day.

The completeness of Wolsey's fall enhanced his former appearance of greatness, and, indeed, he is one of the outstanding figures in English history. His qualities and his defects were alike exhibited on a generous scale; and if his greed and arrogance were colossal, so were his administrative capacity and his appetite for work. "He is," wrote the Venetian ambassador Giustiniani, "very handsome, learned, extremely eloquent, of vast ability and indefatigable. He alone transacts the business which occupies all the magistrates and councils of Venice, both civil and criminal; and all state affairs are managed by him, let their nature be what it may. He is grave, and has the reputation of being extremely just; he favours the people exceedingly, and especially the poor, hearing their suits and seeking to despatch them instantly." As a diplomatist he has had few rivals and perhaps no superiors. But his pride was equal to his abilities. The familiar charge, repeated in Shakespeare, of having written Ego et meus rex, while true in fact, is false in intention, because no Latin scholar could put the words in any other order; but it reflects faithfully enough Wolsey's mental attitude. Giustiniani explains that he had to make proposals to the cardinal before he broached them to Henry, lest Wolsey "should resent the precedence conceded to the king." "He is," wrote another diplomatist, "the proudest prelate that ever breathed." He arrogated to himself the privileges of royalty, made servants attend him upon their knees, compelled bishops to tie his shoelatchets and dukes to hold the basin while he washed his hands, and considered it condescension when he allowed ambassadors to kiss his fingers; he paid little heed to their sacrosanct character, and himself laid violent hands on a papal nuncio. His egotism equalled Henry VIII.'s; his jealousy and ill-treatment of Richard Pace, dean of St Paul's, referred to by Shakespeare but vehemently denied by Dr Brewer, has been proved by the publication of the Spanish state papers; and Polydore Vergil, the historian, and Sir R. Sheffield, speaker of the House of Commons, were both sent to the Tower for complaining of his conduct. His morals were of the laxest description, and he had as many illegitimate children as Henry VIII. himself. For his son, before he was eighteen years old, he procured a deanery, four archdeaconries, five prebends and a chancellorship, and he sought to thrust him into the bishopric of Durham. For himself he obtained, in addition to his archbishopric and lord chancellorship, the abbey of St Albans, reputed to be the richest in England, and the bishopric first of Bath and Wells, then of Durham, and finally that of Winchester. He also used his power to extort enormous pensions from Charles V. and Francis I. and lavish gifts from English suitors. His New Year's presents were reckoned by Giustiniani at 15,000 ducats, and the emperor paid - or owed - him 18,000 livres a year. His palaces outshone those of his king, and few monarchs could afford such a display of plate as commonly graced the cardinal's table. His foundations at Oxford and Ipswich were, nevertheless, not made out of his superabundant revenues, but out of the proceeds of the dissolution of monasteries, not all of which were devoted to those laudable objects.

That such a man would ever have used the unparalleled powers of ecclesiastical jurisdiction with which he had been entrusted for a genuine reformation of the church is only a pious opinion cherished by those who regret that the Reformation was left for the secular arm to achieve; and it is useless to plead lack of opportunity on behalf of a man who for sixteen years had enjoyed an authority never before or since wielded by an English subject. Wolsey must be judged by his deeds and not by doubtful intentions. During the first half of his government he materially strengthened the Tudor monarchy by the vigorous administration of justice at home and by the brilliance of his foreign policy abroad. But the prestige he secured by 1521 was delusive; its decline was as rapid as its growth, and the expense of the policy involved taxation which seriously weakened the loyalty of the people. The concentration of civil and ecclesiastical power by Wolsey in the hands of a churchman provided a precedent for its concentration by Henry VIII. in the hands of the crown; and the personal example of lavish ostentation and loose morals which the cardinal-archbishop exhibited cannot have been without influence on the king, who grew to maturity under Wolsey's guidance.

The Letters and Papers of Henry VIII., vols. i.-iv., supplemented by the Spanish and Venetian Calendars, contain almost all that is known of Wolsey's public career, though additional light on the divorce has been thrown by Stephen Ehses' Romische Dokumente (1893). Cavendish's brief Life, which is almost contemporary, has been often edited. Fiddes's huge tome (1724) is fairly exhaustive. Brewer, in his elaborate prefaces to the Letters and Papers (reissued as his History of the Reign of Henry VIII.), originated modern admiration for Wolsey; and his views are reflected in Creighton's Wolsey in the "Twelve English Statesmen" series, and in Dr Gairdner's careful articles in the Dict. Nat. Biog. and Cambridge Modern History. A less enthusiastic view is adopted in H. A. L. Fisher's volume (v.) in Longmans' Political History (1906) and in A. F. Pollard's Henry VIII. (1902 and 1905). (A. F. P.)

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