Thomas Wolsey

The English statesman and prelate Thomas Wolsey (ca. 1475-1530) was virtual ruler of England as chief minister to Henry VIII. He fell from favor because of his inability to secure the King's divorce.

Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich, where his father, Robert, was a butcher and dealer in meat. A precocious child, Thomas was probably educated by churchmen at Ipswich before he proceeded to Oxford. He received his bachelor of arts degree when he was only 15 years old and was called the "boy bachelor." He was appointed bursar of Magdalen College in 1498 but was forced to resign two years later because he had applied funds without authority to the construction of the college's great tower, which still stands.

Wolsey, who took Holy Orders in 1498, then became rector of Limington in Dorset. He was also appointed chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Deane. After Deane's death in 1503, Wolsey became chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, the deputy of Calais. Through Nanfan, Wolsey gained an introduction at court, and by 1507 he had become chaplain to King Henry VII. Henry successfully employed Wolsey on several diplomatic missions to Scotland and the Netherlands.

In the Service of Henry VIII

Henry VIII appointed Wolsey royal almoner upon his accession to the throne in 1509. Wolsey rapidly accumulated additional positions in the Church: he became dean of Lincoln in 1509, a canon of Windsor in 1511, bishop of Lincoln in 1514, and archbishop of York later that year. He received additional revenues from various bishoprics and from the wealthy monastery of St. Albans.

As archbishop of York, Wolsey was the second-ranking churchman in England. He was not satisfied with this position, but he could not become archbishop of Canterbury because the incumbent, William Warham, steadfastly refused to accommodate him by retiring or dying. In 1515 Wolsey gained prestige by being created a cardinal—he had the red hat carried through the streets of London in a solemn procession—and in 1518 he was named a papal legate a latere, thus gaining preeminence over Warham.

By this time Wolsey's influence dominated the state also. He had successfully organized an army for the invasion of France in 1513 and had accompanied the King on the campaign. By Wolsey's treaty with France (1514), England held the balance of power between France and the Hapsburgs. In 1515 Wolsey was named lord chancellor, Warham having been persuaded to resign that office. Wolsey owed his power, however, more to the King's favor than to his tenure of any specific office. The young Henry VIII was more inclined to martial and sporting pursuits than to the transaction of routine governmental business, and he was delighted to find a minister as competent as the cardinal. In 1518 Wolsey engineered a treaty of universal peace embracing the principal European states.

Wolsey undertook minor reforms in both Church and state. He secured papal permission to close several small monasteries and applied the revenues to the foundation of a grammar school at lpswich and a college at Oxford. The school did not survive his fall, but Henry VIII allowed the college to continue, changing its name from Cardinal's College to Christ Church. Wolsey also attempted to provide better regulation for the King's household by drawing up the Eltham Ordinances of 1526.

Wolsey's greatest interest lay, however, in foreign affairs. While it has been argued that he wished mainly to preserve a balance of power in Europe, to become pope, or to maintain peace, his real motives may have been less precise, and he may have responded to European situations and to Henry VIII's desires without developing any overriding policy. In 1518 Wolsey negotiated an alliance between England and France, to be cemented by the marriage of Henry VIII's daughter Mary to the French Dauphin. In 1520 he arranged a meeting between Henry and Francis I of France on the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," a tent city erected in Flanders, and a more significant conference between Henry and Emperor Charles V at Gravelines. When Francis I drifted into war with the Holy Roman Empire, Wolsey sided with the Emperor. In 1523 English forces invaded France, without notable success, and Wolsey obtained unusual taxation from Parliament only after very stormy debates. In 1527 England abandoned the Emperor, signing a new treaty with France.

Fall from Favor

By this time Henry's mind was preoccupied with his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. As the Queen had not borne him a male heir, he wished to be free to remarry. Wolsey conducted elaborate negotiations with Rome, and in 1529 he and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio began a trial of Henry's suit in London. But Pope Clement VII, who was dominated by the Emperor, Catherine's nephew, revoked the case to Rome and concluded the trial without a decision. The King's wrath focused on Wolsey, who was dismissed as chancellor in October 1529 and forced to leave London.

Although Wolsey's revenues were greatly reduced, he still managed to live in considerable magnificence. In 1530 he planned his enthronement as archbishop of York, never having been officially installed, but he was found in correspondence with foreign powers, contrary to the King's order. Wolsey was arrested at Cawood near York and ordered to London. He would doubtless have been executed on false charges of treason had he not died a natural death on the way to London. Lamenting that he had not served God as well as he had the King, Wolsey succumbed at Leicester on Nov. 29, 1530.

Despite Wolsey's supreme influence in Church and state, his achievements in both spheres were ephemeral. His greatest lasting monument is perhaps Hampton Court Palace, which he constructed on the Thames River west of London and where he lived in great pomp surrounded by an enormous retinue of servants and retainers.

Further Reading on Thomas Wolsey

George Cavendish, the cardinal's gentleman-usher, wrote The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey (1641), one of the masterpieces of early biography. The best edition is that by Richard S. Sylvester (1959). Modern biographies include Albert F. Pollard, Wolsey (1929), and Charles W. Ferguson, Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey (1958). There is related material in Albert F. Pollard, Henry VIII (1902; new ed. 1913), and J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (1968).

Additional Biography Sources

Cardinal Wolsey: church, state, and art, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gwyn, Peter, The king's cardinal: the rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey, London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990.

Harvey, Nancy Lenz, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, New York, N.Y.: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1980.

Pollard, A. F. (Albert Frederick), Wolsey, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Ridley, Jasper Godwin, Statesman and saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, and the politics of Henry VIII, New York: Viking Press, 1983, 1982.

Williams, Neville, The Cardinal and the Secretary: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, New York: Macmillan, 1976, 1975.

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