Thomas Wolsey

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Thomas Wolsey
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.jpg
Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Trinity College, University of Cambridge (c. 1585–1596)
Lord High Chancellor of England
In office
Preceded by William Warham
Succeeded by Sir Thomas More
Appointed15 September 1514
Term ended29 November 1530
Predecessor Christopher Bainbridge
Successor Edward Lee
Other postsCardinal-Priest of S. Cecilia (1515–1530)
Ordination10 March 1498
by  Augustine Church, Titular Bishop of Lydda
Consecration26 March 1514
by  William Warham
Created cardinal10 September 1515
by Leo X
Personal details
BornMarch 1473
Ipswich, Suffolk, England
Died(1530-11-29)29 November 1530 (aged 57)
Leicester, Leicestershire, England
Buried Leicester Abbey
Denomination Roman Catholicism
ParentsRobert Wolsey (father) and Joan Daundy (mother)
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Alma mater Magdalen College, Oxford
Coat of arms Coat of arms of Thomas Wolsey.svg
Christ Church Oxford Coat Of Arms.svg

Thomas Wolsey [lower-alpha 1] (c. March 1473 [1] – 29 November 1530) was an English archbishop, statesman and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. When Henry VIII became King of England in 1509, Wolsey became the King's almoner. [2] Wolsey's affairs prospered, and by 1514 he had become the controlling figure in virtually all matters of state. He also held important ecclesiastical appointments. These included the Archbishopric of York – the second most important role in the English church – and acting as papal legate. His appointment as a cardinal by Pope Leo X in 1515 gave him precedence over all other English clergy.


The highest political position Wolsey attained was Lord Chancellor, the King's chief adviser (formally, as his successor and disciple Thomas Cromwell was not). In that position, he enjoyed great freedom and was often depicted as an alter rex (other king). After failing to negotiate an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Wolsey fell out of favour and was stripped of his government titles. He retreated to York to fulfil his ecclesiastical duties as archbishop, a position he nominally held but had neglected during his years in government. He was recalled to London to answer to charges of treason—a common charge used by Henry against ministers who simply fell out of favour and did not necessarily commit actual treason—but died on the way from natural causes.

Early life

Thomas Wolsey was born about 1473, the son of Robert Wolsey of Ipswich and his wife Joan Daundy. [2] Widespread traditions identify his father as a butcher; his modest origin became a topic of criticism later, when he rose to amass wealth and power thought (by the critics) more befitting a member of the high nobility. Wolsey attended Ipswich School [2] and Magdalen College School before studying theology at Magdalen College, Oxford. On 10 March 1498 he was ordained as a priest in Marlborough, Wiltshire, [3] 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 a living as rector of St Mary's church, Limington, in Somerset. [4] In 1502, he became a chaplain to Henry Deane, archbishop of Canterbury, who died the following year. [2] He was then taken into the household of Sir Richard Nanfan, who made Wolsey executor of his estate. After Nanfan's death in 1507, Wolsey entered the service of King Henry VII.

Wolsey benefitted from Henry VII's introduction of measures to curb the power of the nobility – the king was willing to favour those from more humble backgrounds. [5] Henry VII appointed Wolsey royal chaplain. [6] In this position Wolsey served as secretary to Richard Foxe, who recognised 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 testifies to his intelligence, administrative ability, industriousness, ambition for power, and rapport with the King. In April 1508, Wolsey was sent to Scotland to discuss with King James IV rumours of the renewal of the Auld Alliance. [8] [9] Wolsey's rise coincided with the accession in April 1509 of Henry VIII, whose character, policies and attitude to diplomacy differed significantly from those of his father. In 1509 Henry appointed Wolsey to the post of Almoner, a position that gave him a seat on the Privy Council and gave him an opportunity for greater prominence and for establishing a personal rapport with the King. [6] A factor in Wolsey's rise was the young Henry VIII's relative lack of interest in the details of government during his early years. [10]

Rise to prominence

Heraldic banner of Cardinal Wolsey as Archbishop of York, showing the arms of the See of York impaling his personal arms, with a cardinal's hat above. The griffin supporter holds the Lord Chancellor's Mace Wolsey banner.jpg
Heraldic banner of Cardinal Wolsey as Archbishop of York, showing the arms of the See of York impaling his personal arms, with a cardinal's hat above. The griffin supporter holds the Lord Chancellor's Mace

The primary counsellors whom King Henry VIII inherited from his father were Richard Foxe (c. 1448–1528, Bishop of Winchester 1501–1528) and William Warham (c. 1450–1532, Archbishop of Canterbury 1503–1532). These were cautious and conservative, advising the King to act as a careful administrator like his father. Henry soon appointed to his Privy Council individuals more sympathetic to his own views and inclinations. Until 1511, Wolsey was adamantly anti-war. However, when the King expressed his enthusiasm for an invasion of France, Wolsey adapted his views to those of the King and gave persuasive speeches to the Privy Council in favour of war. Warham and Foxe, who failed to share the King's enthusiasm for the French war which started in 1512, fell from power (1515/1516), and Wolsey took over as the King's most trusted advisor and administrator. When Warham resigned as Lord Chancellor in 1515, probably under pressure from the King and from Wolsey, Henry appointed Wolsey in his place. [11]

Wolsey made careful moves to destroy or neutralise the influence of other courtiers. He helped cause the fall of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, in 1521; and in 1527 he prosecuted Henry's close friend William Compton and Henry's ex-mistress Anne Stafford, Countess of Huntingdon, through the ecclesiastical courts for adultery. In the case of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Wolsey adopted a different strategy, attempting to win Suffolk's favour by his actions after the Duke secretly married Henry's sister Mary Tudor, Dowager Queen of France, much to the King's displeasure. Wolsey advised the King not to execute the newlyweds, but to embrace them; whether this was through care for the couple or on account of the threat they represented for his own safety remains unclear. The bride, both as sister to Henry and as Dowager Queen of France, had high royal status that could have potentially meant a threat to Wolsey should she have so chosen.

Wolsey's rise to a position of great secular power paralleled his increasing status in the Church. He became a Canon of Windsor in 1511. In 1514 he was made Bishop of Lincoln, and then Archbishop of York in the same year. Pope Leo X made him a cardinal in 1515, with the titular church of St Cecilia in Trastevere. Following the success of the English campaign in France and the peace negotiations that followed, Wolsey's ecclesiastical career advanced further: in 1523 he became additionally Bishop of Durham, a post with wide political powers, and thus became known as Prince-Bishop of Durham.

Foreign policy

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

War with France

War against France in 1512–1514 gave Wolsey a significant opportunity 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, King Ferdinand V of Spain, and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor against King Louis XII of France. [13]

The first English campaign against France proved unsuccessful, partly due to the unreliability of the alliance with Ferdinand. Henry learned from the mistakes of the campaign and in 1513, still with papal support, launched a joint attack on France with Maximilian, 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 proved a major factor in the English success. Wolsey also had a key role in negotiating the Anglo-French treaty of 7 August 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. [14]

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, on 9 October 1514, an alliance was formed, but Louis was not in good health. Less than three months later, Louis died (1 January 1515) and was succeeded by the young and ambitious King Francis I.

Queen Mary had allegedly secured a promise from Henry that if Louis died, she could marry whomever she pleased. [15] Following Louis' death, she secretly married (3 March 15151) Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, with Francis I's assistance, which prevented another marriage alliance. As Mary was 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

Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), Lord High Chancellor of England (1515-1529), Archbishop of York (1514-1530), Cardinal (1515), the King's chief adviser Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530).jpg
Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530), Lord High Chancellor of England (1515-1529), Archbishop of York (1514-1530), Cardinal (1515), the King's chief adviser

The death in 1516 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. It was partly this peace treaty that 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. [16]

Field of the Cloth of Gold

Another of his diplomatic triumphs was the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in 1520. [17] Wolsey organised much of this grandiose meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII, accompanied by some five thousand followers and involving court activities more than military discussion. 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, through flamboyant celebrations and events such as jousting, where the two Kings personally competed against each other. With both France and Spain vying for England's allegiance, Wolsey could choose the ally that 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. [18]

Under Wolsey's guidance, the chief nations of Europe sought to outlaw war forever among Christian nations. Garrett Mattingly studied the causes of wars in that era, finding that treaties of nonaggression such as this one could never be stronger than the armies of their sponsors. When those forces were about equal, these treaties typically widened the conflict. That is, diplomacy could sometimes postpone war, but could not prevent wars based on irreconcilable interests and ambitions. What was lacking, Mattingly concludes, was a neutral power whose judgements were generally accepted either by impartial justice or by overwhelming force. [19]

Alliance with Spain

The Treaty of London is often regarded as Wolsey's finest moment, but it was abandoned within a year. Wolsey developed links with Charles in 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Later at the Calais Conference (1521) Wolsey signed the Secret Treaty of Bruges (1521) with Charles V, stating that they would join Spain in a war against France if France refused to sign the peace treaty; 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. [13]

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 V in his defeat of the French, particularly in 1525 at the Battle of Pavia, where Charles V's army captured the French king, Francis I. Henry then felt there was a realistic opportunity for him to seize the French crown, to which the kings of England had long laid claim. 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 V had abandoned England as an ally, Wolsey began to negotiate with France, and the Treaty of the More was signed, during Francis I's captivity, with the Regent of France – his mother, Louise of Savoy. [20]

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 organised 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 V. 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 V, who had effectively held Clement VII captive since the Sack of Rome in 1527. Therefore, there was little hope of securing Henry VIII an annulment from his marriage to Charles V’z 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. [21]


Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon 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. Henry felt the people would accept only a male sovereign, and not his daughter Mary. Henry believed God had cursed him for the sin of marrying the widow of his elder brother. 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. [22]

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 Wolsey's loyalty to the Crown over the Church.

Wolsey appealed to the Pope for an annulment on three fronts. Firstly, he tried to convince the Pope that the original papal dispensation was void as the marriage clearly went against instructions in the Bible, found 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, he would supervise. [23]

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 1529, effectively sealing Wolsey's fate.

Domestic achievements

During his fourteen years of chancellorship, Cardinal Wolsey had more power than any other Crown servant in English history. However, this led to him being hated by much of the nobility who thought they should have the power. The King protected him from being attacked. Sara Nair James, a professor at Mary Baldwin College, says that in 1515–1529 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, "would be the most powerful man in England except, possibly, for the king". [24] 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. Historian John Guy explains Wolsey's methods:

Only in the broadest respects was he [the king] taking independent decisions. ... It was Wolsey who almost invariably calculated the available options and ranked them for royal consideration; who established the parameters of each successive debate; who controlled the flow of official information; who selected the king's secretaries, middle-ranked officials, and JPs; and who promulgated decisions himself had largely shaped, if not strictly taken.

Guy 1988, p. 87

Operating with the firm support of the king, and with special powers over the church given by the Pope as legate, Wolsey dominated civic affairs, administration, the law, the church, and foreign-policy. He was amazingly energetic and far-reaching. In terms of achievements, he built a great fortune for himself, and was a major benefactor of arts, humanities and education. He projected numerous reforms, with some success in areas such as finance, taxation educational provision and justice. However, from the king's perspective, his greatest failure was an inability to get a divorce when Henry VIII needed a new wife to give him a son who would be the undisputed heir to the throne. Historians agree that Wolsey was a man dogged by other men's failures and his own ambition. In the end, abandoned by the king, his enemies conspired against him and he died of natural causes before he could be beheaded. [25] [26]


Wolsey made significant changes to the taxation system, devising, with the treasurer of the Chamber, John Heron, 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 loans 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 court was only given this name 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 to ensure that Parliament passed his proposed taxes for Henry's war in France. Enclosures remained a problem for many years.

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 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

In 1524 and 1527 Wolsey used his powers as papal legate to dissolve thirty decayed monasteries where monastic life had virtually ceased in practice, including monasteries in Ipswich and Oxford. However, he then used the income to found a grammar school in Ipswich (The King's School, Ipswich) and Cardinal College in Oxford (in 1532, after Wolsey's fall, the college was refounded as King Henry VIII's College by Henry VIII; it is now known as Christ Church). In 1528 he began to limit the benefit of clergy. He also attempted, as legate, to force reform on monastic orders like the Augustinian canons.

Wolsey died five years before Henry's dissolution of the monasteries began.


Wolsey's position in power relied solely on maintaining good relations with Henry. He grew increasingly suspicious of the "minions" – young, influential members of the Privy chamber – particularly after infiltrating one of his own men into the group. He attempted many times to disperse them from court, giving them jobs that took them to the Continent and far from the King. After the Amicable Grant failed, the minions began to undermine him once again. Consequently, Wolsey devised a grand plan of administrative reforms, incorporating the notorious 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 dislikes and mistrusts 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 of 1486, by which Henry VII had resumed possession of all lands granted by the crown since 1455. [27] These lands had passed onto his heir, Henry VIII. Many nobles resented the rise to power of a low-born man, whilst others simply disliked that he monopolised the court and concealed 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 in England after the War of the Roses, the population of the nation increased. With more demand for food and no additional supply, prices 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.

Art patronage

From 1515, when he became cardinal, until his death, Wolsey used art and architecture to underpin his positions. In fact, he initiated a building campaign on a scale that was not only unprecedented for an English churchman and Lord Chancellor, but also one that few English kings had exceeded. In so doing, he brought Italian Renaissance ideas, classical embellishments, and architectural models into the English architectural mindset. Scholars generally cite Somerset House in London (1547–52) as the first classical building in England – built for Edward Seymour, the first Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to King Edward VI. Wolsey, however, embraced Italian-inspired classicism nearly a half century before Seymour, but in a manner more theoretical than visual. Wolsey's subsequent disgrace over his failure to garner papal approval of an annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Katherine of Aragon has clouded the fact that he was not only the first high-profile patron in England to seek out and promote Italian classicism in art, architecture, and magnificence, but also that his contributions endured.

Among Wolsey's projects were lavish, classically-inspired additions to York Palace in London, the residence of the Archbishop of York. He supervised the grandiose temporary buildings at the Field of Cloth of Gold; and he renovated Hampton Court, which he later relinquished to the king. Wolsey's use of architecture as a symbol of power, along with his introduction of Italian classical ornamentation, set a trend continued by Henry VIII and others. Wolsey oversaw tombs for Henry's VIII's parents at Westminster Abbey and negotiated contracts for Henry VIII's tomb as well as one for himself. If these works had been completed as planned, they would be among the largest, most elaborate, and grandest tombs in Europe.

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. 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.

Downfall and death

In spite of having many enemies, Cardinal Wolsey retained 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 directly caused his downfall and arrest.

It was rumoured that Anne Boleyn and her faction convinced Henry that Wolsey was deliberately slowing proceedings; as a result, he was arrested in 1529, and the Pope decided that the official decision should be made in Rome, not England.

In 1529 Wolsey was stripped of his government office and property, including his magnificently expanded residence of Hampton Court, which Henry took 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. He fell ill on the journey, and died at Leicester on 29 November 1530, around the age of 57. Just before his death he reputedly spoke these words:

I see the matter against me how it is framed. But if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.

In keeping with his practice of erecting magnificent buildings at Hampton Court, Westminster and Oxford, Wolsey had planned a magnificent tomb at Windsor by Benedetto da Rovezzano and Giovanni da Maiano, but he was buried in Leicester Abbey (now Abbey Park) without a monument. Henry VIII contemplated using the impressive black sarcophagus for himself, but Lord Nelson now lies in it, in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral. Henry often receives credit for artistic patronage that properly belongs to Wolsey. [28]

Mistress and issue

Wolsey lived in a "non-canonical" marriage for around a decade with a woman called Joan Larke (born circa 1490) of Yarmouth, Norfolk. The edict that priests, regardless of their functions or the character of their work, should remain celibate had not been wholeheartedly accepted in England. [29] Wolsey subsequently had two children, both born before he was made bishop. These were a son, Thomas Wynter (born circa 1510) [30] and a daughter, Dorothy (born circa 1512), [31] 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 later married and had children of his own. Dorothy was adopted by John Clansey, and was in due course placed in the convent at Shaftesbury Abbey. Following the dissolution of the monasteries (under Thomas Cromwell) she was awarded a pension. [32] Following his rapid promotion, Larke became a source of embarrassment to Wolsey who arranged for her marriage to George Legh of Adlington, in Cheshire, circa 1519. He himself provided the dowry. [30] Henry VIII had a mansion built for Legh at Cheshunt Great House.

Fictional portrayals


Bust of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey kept at St Stephen Church - Ipswich Thomas Wolsey Bust - Ipswich.jpg
Bust of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey kept at St Stephen Church - Ipswich
Bronze statue of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich Statue of Thomas Wolsey - Ipswich.jpg
Bronze statue of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in St Nicholas Street, Ipswich



Coat of arms of Thomas Wolsey
Christ Church Oxford Coat Of Arms.svg
Cardinal Wolsey's arms were granted to him by the College of Arms in 1525. They are now used by Christ Church, Oxford. [39]
Sable, on a cross engrailed argent a lion passant gules between four leopards' faces azure; on a chief Or a rose gules barbed vert and seeded or between two Cornish choughs proper
The silver cross is derived from the arms of the Ufford Earls of Suffolk, and the four leopards' faces from the de la Pole Earls and Dukes of Suffolk, Wolsey being a Suffolk native. The Cornish choughs, or "beckets" as they are sometimes known, are a reference to Wolsey's namesake, Thomas Becket. The red lion symbolises Wolsey's patron, Pope Leo X, while the rose symbolises his king, Henry VIII.

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Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 until his death in 1547. Henry is best known for his six marriages, and, in particular, his efforts to have his first marriage annulled. His disagreement with Pope Clement VII on the question of such an annulment led Henry to initiate the English Reformation, separating the Church of England from papal authority. He appointed himself the Supreme Head of the Church of England and dissolved convents and monasteries, for which he was excommunicated. Henry is also known as "the father of the Royal Navy," as he invested heavily in the navy, increasing its size from a few to more than 50 ships, and established the Navy Board.

House of Tudor English royal house of Welsh origin

The House of Tudor was an English royal house of Welsh origin, descended from the Tudors of Penmynydd. Tudor monarchs ruled the Kingdom of England and its realms, including their ancestral Wales and the Lordship of Ireland from 1485 until 1603, with five monarchs in that period: Henry VII, Henry VIII, Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. The Tudors succeeded the House of Plantagenet as rulers of the Kingdom of England, and were succeeded by the House of Stuart. The first Tudor monarch, Henry VII of England, descended through his mother from a legitimised branch of the English royal House of Lancaster. The Tudor family rose to power in the wake of the Wars of the Roses (1455–1487), which left the House of Lancaster, with which the Tudors were aligned, extinct in the male line.

Anne Boleyn Second wife of Henry VIII of England

Anne Boleyn was Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 as the second wife of King Henry VIII. Their marriage, and her execution for treason and other charges by beheading, made her a key figure in the political and religious upheaval that marked the start of the English Reformation. Anne was the daughter of Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, and his wife, Lady Elizabeth Howard, and was educated in the Netherlands and France, largely as a maid of honour to Queen Claude of France. Anne returned to England in early 1522, to marry her Irish cousin James Butler, 9th Earl of Ormond; the marriage plans were broken off, and instead she secured a post at court as maid of honour to Henry VIII's wife, Catherine of Aragon.

Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire English diplomat and politician of the Tudor era

Thomas Boleyn, 1st Earl of Wiltshire, 1st Earl of Ormond, 1st Viscount RochfordKGKB, of Hever Castle in Kent, was an English diplomat and politician who was the father of Anne Boleyn, Queen consort and the second wife of King Henry VIII, and was thus the maternal grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I of England.

Arthur, Prince of Wales Prince of Wales

Arthur Tudor was Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester and Duke of Cornwall. As the eldest son and heir apparent of Henry VII of England, Arthur was viewed by contemporaries as the great hope of the newly established House of Tudor. His mother, Elizabeth of York, was the daughter of Edward IV, and his birth cemented the union between the House of Tudor and the House of York.

Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk British noble

Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, styled Earl of Surrey from 1483 to 1485 and again from 1489 to 1514, was an English nobleman and politician. He was the eldest son of John Howard, 1st Duke of Norfolk, by his first wife, Catharina de Moleyns. The Duke was the grandfather of both Queen Anne Boleyn and Queen Catherine Howard and the great grandfather of Queen Elizabeth I. He served four monarchs as a soldier and statesman. In 1513 he led the English to victory over the Scots at the decisive Battle of Flodden, for which he was richly rewarded by King Henry VIII, then away in France.

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk English politician

Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, was a prominent English politician and nobleman of the Tudor era. He was an uncle of two of the wives of King Henry VIII, namely Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, both of whom were beheaded, and played a major role in the machinations affecting these royal marriages. After falling from favour in 1546, he was stripped of his dukedom and imprisoned in the Tower of London, avoiding execution when Henry VIII died on 28 January 1547.

George Boleyn, 2nd Viscount Rochford was an English courtier and nobleman, and the brother of Queen Anne Boleyn. This made him the brother-in-law of King Henry VIII and the maternal uncle of Queen Elizabeth I.

Stephen Gardiner English bishop

Stephen Gardiner was an English bishop and politician during the English Reformation period who served as Lord Chancellor during the reign of Queen Mary I and King Philip.

Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk English diplomat (1484-1545)

Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, 1st Viscount Lisle, was an English military leader and courtier. Through his third wife, Mary Tudor, he was brother-in-law to King Henry VIII.

Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton English earl

Thomas Wriothesley, 1st Earl of Southampton, KG was an English peer, secretary of state, Lord Chancellor and Lord High Admiral. A naturally skilled but unscrupulous and devious politician who changed with the times and personally tortured Anne Askew, Wriothesley served as a loyal instrument of King Henry VIII in the latter's break with the Catholic church. Richly rewarded with royal gains from the Dissolution of the Monasteries, he nevertheless prosecuted Calvinists and other dissident Protestants when political winds changed.

Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire English noble (1480-1538)

Elizabeth Boleyn, Countess of Wiltshire was an English noblewoman, noted for being the mother of Anne Boleyn and as such the maternal grandmother of Elizabeth I of England. The eldest daughter of Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk and his first wife Elizabeth Tilney, she married Thomas Boleyn sometime in the later 15th century. Elizabeth became Viscountess Rochford in 1525 when her husband was elevated to the peerage, subsequently becoming Countess of Ormond in 1527 and Countess of Wiltshire in 1529.

Tudor period historical era in England coinciding with the rule of the Tudor dynasty

The Tudor period occurred between 1485 and 1603 in England and Wales and includes the Elizabethan period during the reign of Elizabeth I until 1603. The Tudor period coincides with the dynasty of the House of Tudor in England whose first monarch was Henry VII. Historian John Guy (1988) argued that "England was economically healthier, more expansive, and more optimistic under the Tudors" than at any time in a hundred years.

Robert Whittington was an English grammarian. He was a pupil at Magdalen College School, Oxford, where he probably studied under the grammarian John Stanbridge.

The Defence of the Seven Sacraments is a theological treatise published in 1521 , written by King Henry VIII of England, allegedly with the assistance of Thomas More. The extent of More's involvement with this project has been a point of contention since its publication.

William FitzWilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton English Earl

William FitzWilliam, 1st Earl of Southampton, KG, English courtier and soldier, was the third son of Sir Thomas FitzWilliam of Aldwark and Lady Lucy Neville, daughter of John Neville, 1st Marquess of Montagu.

March 1605 papal conclave One of two papal conclaves in 1605

The March–April 1605 papal conclave was convened on the death of Pope Clement VIII and ended with the election of Alessandro Ottaviano de' Medici as Pope Leo XI. It was the first of two papal conclaves in 1605; Leo died on 27 April 1605, twenty-six days after he was elected. The conclave was dominated by conflict over whether Cesare Baronius should be elected pope, and Philip III of Spain excluded both Baronius and the eventually successful candidate, Medici.

Sir Richard Jerningham was a soldier and diplomat in the service of King Henry VIII.



  1. Sometimes spelled Woolsey or Wulcy, etc


  1. Armstrong 2008.
  2. 1 2 3 4 Jack 2012.
  3. Plaque #2710 on Open Plaques.
  4. Historic England. "Church of Saint Mary (1056844)". National Heritage List for England . Retrieved 12 October 2008.
  5. Gunn 2008.
  6. 1 2 Williams n.d., p. 26.
  7. Davies 2010.
  8. Macdougall 1989, p. 254.
  9. Mackie & Spillman 1953, pp. xlii, 107–111.
  10. Ives 2009.
  11. Scarisbrick 2015.
  12. Brydges 1815.
  13. 1 2 Scarisbrick 1968, pp. 31-36.
  14. Mackie 1952, pp. 271-277.
  15. Harris 1989, pp. 59–88.
  16. Gwyn 2011, pp. 58-103.
  17. Scarisbrick 1968, pp. 74-80.
  18. Mackie 1952, pp. 310-312.
  19. Mattingly 1938, pp. 1-30.
  20. Bernard 1986.
  21. Scarisbrick 1968, pp. 140-162.
  22. Scarisbrick 1968, pp. 149-159.
  23. Scarisbrick 1968, ch 7, 8.
  24. James 2009, pp. 1-.
  25. Bindoff 1950, p. 78.
  26. Mackie 1952, pp. 286–334.
  27. Truman 2007.
  28. Chaney 1998, p. 41.
  29. Matusiak 2014, pp. 74-.
  30. 1 2 Fletcher 2009.
  31. Williams 1976.
  32. Lock 2010.
  33. Kilgarriff n.d.
  34. Wolsey – Ipswich’s most famous son at the Wayback Machine (archived 3 September 2011)
  35. "??". Evening Star. Ipswich. 30 June 2011.
  36. Wolsey's Gate at the Wayback Machine (archived 2011-09-28)
  37. Crosby n.d.
  38. "London Transport - Local Bus Maps". Archived from the original on 17 March 2016. Retrieved 26 August 2013.
  39. The Christ Church Coat of Arms at the Wayback Machine (archived 18 October 2013)


Further reading

  • Bernard, G. W. "The fall of Wolsey reconsidered." Journal of British Studies 35.3 (1996): 277–310.
  • Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, 1611. (Cavendish was gentleman usher to Thomas Wolsey.)
  • Thomas Cocke, “'The Repository of Our English Kings': The Henry VII Chapel as Royal Mausoleum.” Architectural History, Vol. 44, Essays in Architectural History Presented to John Newman. (2001), 212-220
  • Ferguson, Charles W. Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey. (2 vol 1958). online vol 1; online vol 2
  • Jonathan Foyle, “A Reconstruction of Thomas Wolsey’s Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace,” Architectural History, vol. 45 (2002), 128–58.
  • Gunn, S. J. and P.G. Lindley. Cardinal Wolsey: Church, State & Art (1991) 329pp.
  • Steven Gunn, “Anglo-Florentine Contacts in the Age of Henry VIII,” in Cinzia Sicca and Louis Waldman, eds. The Anglo-Florentine Renaissance: Art for the Early Tudors (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 19–48.
  • Gwyn, Peter. "Wolsey's foreign policy: the conferences at Calais and Bruges reconsidered." Historical Journal 23.4 (1980): 755–772.* Sara Nair James, Art in England: the Saxons through the Tudors: 600-1600. Oxford [UK]: Oxbow/Casemate Publishing, 2016.
  • P. G. Lindley, “Introduction” and “Playing Check-mate with Royal Majesty? Wolsey's Patronage of Italian Renaissance Sculpture,” in Cardinal Wolsey: Religion, State and Art, S. J.Gunn and P. G. Lindley eds., (Cambridge, 1991), 1-53 and 261–85.
  • Pollard, A. F. Wolsey. (1929). online
  • Ridley, Jasper. Statesman and Saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and the Politics of Henry VIII. Viking, 1983. online
  • Schwartz-Leeper, Gavin. From Princes to Pages: The Literary Lives of Cardinal Wolsey, Tudor England's 'Other King'. Brill, 2016. online
  • Tim Tatton-Brown, Lambeth Palace: A History of the Archbishops of Canterbury and their Houses (London: SPCK, 2000)
  • Williams, Robert Folkestone. Lives of the English Cardinals..., 2006.
  • Wilson, Derek (6 April 2002). In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII. St Martins Press. ISBN   978-0-312-28696-5.
  • Simon Thurley, “The Domestic Building Works of Cardinal Wolsey,” in Cardinal Wolsey: Religion, State and Art, ed. S. J. Gunn and P. G. Lindley (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 76-102.
  • Simon Thurley, The Lost Palace of Whitehall (London: The Royal Institute of British Architects, 1998).
  • Neville Williams, The Tudors: A Royal History of England, Antonia Fraser, ed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
  • Neville Williams, Henry VIII and His Court (1971).
  • William E. Willkie, The Cardinal Protectors of England. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974)
Political offices
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William Warham
Lord Chancellor
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Sir Thomas More
Catholic Church titles
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William Smyth
Bishop of Lincoln
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Archbishop of York
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