Thomas Wolsey

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Thomas Wolsey
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.jpg
Portrait at Trinity College, University of Cambridge (c. 1585–1596)
Lord High Chancellor of England
In office

During his 14 years as chancellor, Wolsey had more power than any other Crown servant in English history. This led to his 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 Wolsey "would be the most powerful man in England except, possibly, for the king". [25] As long as he was in the king's favour, Wolsey had great freedom in domestic matters, and had his hand in nearly every aspect of them. 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 free rein 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 [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 king's firm support, 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. 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. From the king's perspective, his greatest failure was an inability to get a divorce when Henry wanted 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, Wolsey was charged with treason, but died of natural causes before he could be beheaded. [26] [27]


Wolsey made changes to the taxation system, devising, with treasurer of the Chamber John Heron, the "Subsidy". This 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 meant that those who earned very little had to pay almost as much as the wealthy. With the new income tax the poorer members of society paid much less. This more progressive form of taxation enabled Wolsey to raise enough money for the king's foreign expeditions, bringing in over £300,000. He also raised considerable capital through other means, such as "benevolences", and enforced loans from the nobility, which yielded £200,000 in 1522. [28] Ultimately, Wolsey's fiscal policy became increasingly disliked- his forced loans and benevolences culminated in the Amicable Grant (1526). This was met with hostility as the Amicable Grant provoked 'full-scale revolt in Suffolk... the most serious rebellion since 1497' [29] (Cornish rebellion).


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 men who had felt 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 the resulting mass urban migration represented a serious crisis. Wolsey conducted national enquiries into enclosures in 1517, 1518 and 1527. In the course of his administration, he used the court of Chancery to prosecute 264 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 repeated in many of Wolsey's other initiatives, particularly his quest to abolish enclosure. Despite spending significant time and effort 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 too much were prosecuted by the Chamber. After the bad harvest of 1527, Wolsey bought up surplus grain and sold it off cheaply to the needy. This 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 30 decayed monasteries where monastic life had virtually ceased in practice, some in Ipswich and Oxford. He 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 king renamed it King Henry VIII's College; 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 power depended 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 Henry. After the Amicable Grant failed, the minions began to undermine him 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 12 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 what they saw as Wolsey's excessive demands for money in the form of the Subsidy or 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. [30] 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 Wolsey. During the relatively peaceful period in England after the War of the Roses, its population 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 economic stability.

The same can be said for Wolsey's legal reforms. After he made justice accessible to all and encouraged more people to bring cases to court, the system was 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 by 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. He initiated a building campaign on a scale not only unprecedented for an English churchman and Lord Chancellor, but also exceeded by few English kings. In so doing, he brought Italian Renaissance ideas, classical embellishments, and architectural models into English architecture. 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. But Wolsey embraced Italian-inspired classicism nearly half a century before Seymour, though more theoretically than visually. Wolsey's subsequent disgrace over his failure to garner papal approval of an annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine 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 Archbishop of York's residence. He supervised the grandiose temporary buildings at the Field of Cloth of Gold and 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 Europe's largest, most elaborate, and grandest tombs. The college originally founded and planned by Wolsey and refounded by Henry VIII (Christ Church) remains the largest and grandest of all Oxford colleges.

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 continually vied 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, 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.

Hampton Court Palace Hampton Court Palace - - 2007212.jpg
Hampton Court Palace

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. 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. [31]

Mistress and issue

Wolsey lived in a "non-canonical" marriage for around a decade with a woman called Joan Larke 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. [32] Wolsey subsequently had two children, both before he was made bishop: a son, Thomas Wynter (born circa 1510), [33] and a daughter, Dorothy (born circa 1512), [34] both of whom lived to adulthood. The son was sent to live with a family in Willesden and 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. [35] 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 provided the dowry. [33] 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

Before Wolsey was removed from power, he planned to make his home town of Ipswich a seat of learning. He built a substantial college, which for two years, 1528–1530, was parent of the Queen Elizabeth School or Ipswich School, which today flourishes on another site. All that remains of Wolsey's structure is the former waterside gate, figured by

Francis Grose in his Antiquities, which can still be seen on College Street.

In 1930 Wolsey was commemorated in Ipswich with a substantial Pageant Play.

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

He is far from forgotten in the town of Ipswich, an appeal [37] having been launched in October 2009 to erect a statue there as a permanent commemoration. Arising from this project, a more-than-life-sized bronze statue to Cardinal Wolsey, shown seated facing south towards St Peter's Church (the former mediaeval Augustinian Priory Church of St Peter and St Paul, which Wolsey annexed as the chapel of his College of Ipswich), teaching from a book, with a familiar cat at his side, was unveiled from beneath a covering flag on 29 June 2011 near the site of the Wolsey home on St Nicholas Street, Ipswich. After a civic procession from the Tower Church, the image, created by sculptor David Annand, was dedicated by blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and launched in the civic capacity by the Mayor of Ipswich, in the presence of a crowd of onlookers. [38] [39]

A statue of Wolsey stands in Leicester's Abbey Park close to the site of his burial. It was donated by the Wolsey hosiery company, a major employer in the city and also named after the cardinal. [40]

The Wolsey Place shopping centre and Woking F.C.'s nickname The Cardinals commemorate the fact Wolsey was visiting Henry VIII at Woking Palace when the news arrived that he had been made a cardinal. [41]


Cardinal Wolsey's bust was used in the 1980s above the London Transport roundel on London's buses in west and south-west London as the symbol of the Cardinal bus district, which was named after him and his residence at Hampton Court. [42]


Coat of arms of Thomas Wolsey
Coat of Arms of Thomas Wolsey.svg
Cardinal Wolsey's arms were granted to him by the College of Arms in 1525. They are now used by Christ Church, Oxford. [43]
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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  1. Sometimes spelled Woolsey or Wulcy, etc


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  24. Scarisbrick 1968, ch 7, 8.
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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
  • Pollard, Albert Frederick (1911). "Wolsey, Thomas"  . Encyclopædia Britannica . Vol. 28 (11th ed.). pp. 779–780.
  • 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).
  • W. Gordon Zeeveld, Foundations of Tudor Policy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1948).
Political offices
Preceded by Lord Chancellor
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Catholic Church titles
Preceded by Bishop of Lincoln
Succeeded by
Preceded by Archbishop of York
Succeeded by
Preceded by Bishop of Bath and Wells
Succeeded by
Preceded by Prince-Bishop of Durham
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Preceded by Bishop of Winchester
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