Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Born: c. 1471

Ipswich, Suffolk, England

Died: November 29, 1530

Leicester, Leicestershire, England (Age c. 59)

Wolsey in History

Being the son of a butcher, though an honest position, would, by no means provide one with the training to become the leading man within the government of a powerful country. But, lo and behold, Thomas Wolsey, through hard work and ambition worked his way up from his humble origins to become the most powerful man in the realm of England, behind only the king himself. Wolsey is also the archetypal man of both the ecclesiastic and secular fields (meaning he had huge influence both as a member of the clergy and as a government official), being one of the last great men to possess this unique quality. The career of Thomas Wolsey did indeed begin through his service in the church. After receiving his BA (1486, while still a teenager) and MA (1497) from Magdalen College, Oxford, he was ordained as a priest (1498). He first came into favor within the church through the Marquess of Dorset (a stepson of the late King Edward IV). After being promoted to royal chaplain, he befriended influential men such as Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, and Sir Thomas Lovell, in order to gain a spot within the government of King Henry VII. Throughout the remainder of Henry VII's reign, Wolsey was continuously given a number of smaller parishes to care for, but did not truly see an opportunity to shine until the ascension of Henry VIII in 1509. Wolsey's first position with the new king was as his almoner, and would continue to attain a important positions within both the church and the government during the first three years of the reign and was a councilor by no later than 1511. Though by this point Wolsey had no official title, he played a large part in the negotiations between England and the French King Louis XII, always wishing for peace over war, considering the cost. When war did break out between the two countries in 1512, Wolsey played his part in procuring a truce that saw the marriage of Louis XII to Henry VIII's sister Mary.

By 1514, Wolsey truly began his rapid rise to power (again, within the church and the government) when he was made bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of York. The following year was made a cardinal and chancellor of England, giving him control over the Great Seal, almost the equivalent of the king's signature. For the next twelve years, Wolsey would be in firm control of governmental affairs, though not without making a number of powerful enemies in the process. In addition to his secular tasks, Wolsey remained fairly active in the church, both within England and abroad. He fought for the church to keep certain rights and combated heresy, while furthering education through his donations to Ipswich College and his creation of Cardinal College. Furthermore, he was made official papal legate, a position that would ultimately backfire on him, and was even considered to be a highly valid candidate for the papacy on several occasions. Wolsey also played a large role in foreign affairs. He was largely responsible for setting up the Field of the Gold Cloth ceremonies (designed to procure a peace between Henry VIII and Francis I of France) and was constantly used as the king's representative in France and in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, nephew of Henry VIII's wife, Catherine of Aragon. The cardinal would do whatever it took to control the increasingly tense situation between Francis, Charles and Henry, often resorting to bribery and other sorts of trickery. But, this was not atypical for men in Wolsey's position and it kept England, for the most part, out of continental affairs while Francis and Charles tore one another apart (particularly at the Battle of Padua in 1525, where Francis was taken captive by the emperor). Though even the small amount of military involvement England shared in continental affairs cost a great deal of money and Wolsey was forced to viciously tax the people (though the king was most likely just as responsible), gaining their hatred in the process. The nobility, too, despised the cardinal, not appreciating a butcher's son holding more power they did as members of the aristocracy. It was only the king's favor that kept Wolsey where he was.

Cardinal Wolsey's slow, then swift, downfall began in 1527 when Henry VIII openly declared that he wished for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be annulled so that he may marry his new love, Anne Boleyn. As the king's most competent adviser, and as papal legate, Wolsey seemed the obvious choice to appeal the pope to receive approval for the annulment. However, Wolsey was faced with a greater task than he could have ever imagined. Pope Clement VII was under the firm hand of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Catherine's nephew, and could only do so much to appease the English king without antagonizing Charles, who was far closer to him and had already shown his power by sacking Rome and virtually holding him prisoner. The pope sent Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio to England to try and solve the dispute, but the cardinal only did what he could (most likely under orders) to stall the proceedings, further angering the king, who was anxious to conceive the marriage with Anne and finally produce a male heir. Wolsey's failure to procure the annulment was just the opportunity his enemies at court needed to remove him from his place of power. The Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk and the Boleyn family (who were now highly influential at court due to Anne's position) teamed up, despite their differences, and brought up on trumped up charges of preamunire. Preamunire was an old law, put into effect in the late fourteenth century by Richard II, that forbid any involvement from foreign courts within England's affairs. Since Wolsey was the papal legate, and therefore the pope's representative in England, he was technically guilty of breaking the law. With the king still fairly upset with the cardinal because of his failure in the divorce proceedings, Wolsey chose to admit his guilt and was stripped of his lands and of the Great Seal, and forced to remain away from court.

The cardinal's enemies persisted in their attempt to destroy him and published a number of articles explaining the crimes he was guilty of, forcing him to retreat to York. However, the king still showed some favor to his long-time chancellor and restored him to a number of his possessions. The lords, nervous that he would once again be returned to a place of power and destroy them, kept the pressure steady. A letter from the pope arrived ordering that Anne be dismissed from court and kept away from the king. Wolsey took the blame for this (despite the fact that he was innocent) and this, combined with some harsh words from Francis I on how the cardinal conducted foreign affairs, turned out to be the final nails in his coffin. The cardinal was subsequently arrested on charges of treason and was forced to travel south to London to face trial. However, Wolsey was becoming increasingly ill from dysentery, in addition to a number of other health problems, and died at Leicester abbey before he was able to be tried and, most likely, executed. There can be no doubt that there were a number of bad qualities to Cardinal Wolsey: he was ambitious; proud; excessively spent money; and even had a mistress, which was forbidden amongst clerics. But one cannot debate that he was a highly competent man who held the country together during some turbulent times. It is tragic to hear of a man who raised himself up from nothing to the highest position in the land (except the king), only to see him brought back down by a foolish divorce case and the jealousy and greed of the aristocracy.

Wolsey in Shakespeare

Appears in: Henry VIII

Cardinal Wolsey is portrayed in an extremely negative light in Henry VIII. He is hated by the lords, by Queen Catherine and by the people. It seems that only the king and a few ministers approve of him. The hatred he is shown is not without good cause. Wolsey is responsible for bribing the Duke of Buckingham's surveyor into testifying against him, resulting in the duke's subsequent execution; he is accused of procuring a truce with the French detrimental detrimental to the English; he attempts to slander the good name of Queen Catherine and, when accused of taxing the people unfairly, he orders that the taxes be removed but that he should be credited with it instead of the king. Wolsey is ultimately brought down when the king intercepts his letters, discovering both the cardinal's luxurious lifestyle and the fact that he wrote to the pope urging him not to grant the divorce and prevent Anne Boleyn from becoming queen. Wolsey is deprived of his offices and warns his protege, Thomas Cromwell, of the dangers of ambition. While Catherine is on her deathbed, it is announced that Wolsey has passed away. In reality, the cardinal died nearly six years before Catherine. This overly negative portrayal of Wolsey undoubtedly comes from the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, Edward Hall, and Polydor Virgil, all of whom portray the cardinal in a bad light and all of whom Shakespeare was most likely familiar with in some form.


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