banner.jpg (22504 bytes)

The Rise and Fall of Cardinal Wolsey

Originally published in Hitsory Review, Spring 2003


Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530) remains one of the most intriguing, charismatic figures of the entire Tudor period. In an age where the “Great Chain of Being” encouraged people to believe that every man had his place and should not depart from it, Wolsey showed that is was possible as a butcher’s son from Ipswich to become the key figure in both Church (as a Cardinal and Archbishop of York) and State (as Lord Chancellor) under King Henry VIII. He built palaces – such as Hampton Court and York Palace (now the Palace of Westminster, home of Parliament) - and became more wealthy and entertained more lavishly than the King himself. Such was his pre-eminence that many suspected that he aimed to become an “Alter Rex” or second King. As the court poet, John Skelton, infamously wrote -

“Why come ye not to court?

To which court?

To the King’s court, or Hampton Court?

For Hampton Court is the finer….”


What was the course of Wolsey’s rise?

            Wolsey took holy orders in 1498. His first post was as chaplain to the Marquess of Dorset and Henry Deane, the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Sir Richard Nanfan, deputy-lieutenant of Calais, brought him to the attention of Henry VII, who appointed his as a chaplain in 1507.

            During the next two years he was employed on minor missions to Scotland and the Netherlands, and his career was promoted by Bishop Foxe of Winchester, who he quickly eclipsed.  In 1509 he became Royal Almoner to the young Henry VIII, a post which automatically made him a member of the Council, and before long he had made himself indispensable to the King by his organisation of the French expeditions of 1513. Thereafter, there was no stopping him: he was Bishop of Tournai in France between 1514-18, Archbishop of York between 1514-30; Chancellor between 1515-29; and Cardinal for life in 1515, following Henry VIII's pressure at Rome. In 1518 Wolsey was also appointed Legate “a latere” by the Pope, which meant that he now outranked his last opponent in the Church – the ancient Archbishop Warham at Canterbury - and had the authority to reform both the secular church and the monastic system, to grant decrees and to appoint to benefices.  It made Wolsey, “the proudest church-man that ever breathed”, second in power only to the King himself: and even that was a close-run thing.


How was Wolsey able to rise to power so quickly under Henry VIII?


Wolsey was very much a man in the right place at the right time. The new King was young, fun-loving and, truth be told, rather lazy. His conception of Kingship was embodied in all-action heroes like King Henry V rather than frugal administrators like King Henry VII. Nevertheless, he was not prepared to leave the affairs of state in the hands of his father’s great servants, who he found (typically enough for a teenager) old, boring, and behind with the times. Empson and Dudley, his father’s hated tax collectors, were executed; Foxe and Warham were rapidly facing retirement age and were encouraged out of court with a series of withering insults by Wolsey. By 1519, the Venetian ambassador Giustinian was summing up the situation well when he told Francis I of France “that King Henry devoted himself to pleasure and ease and left the cares of the State to the Cardinal”.



Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that Wolsey made the most of the opportunities given to him. He had the great ability to gauge his audience, to flatter and to be entertaining. He had “A special gift of natural eloquence” (Cavendish) which the likes of Castiglione in the Book of the Courtier had stressed as being so important in the age of Renaissance diplomacy. Wolsey was a man who enjoyed the fine things of life.  He was sociable, witty and convivial, a sponsor of musicians and artists. Polydore Vergil, the Tudor historian, gives us a glimpse into his tactics when he tells us that whenever he wanted something from Henry, he “brought out some small present or other….and while the King was admiring it intently, Wolsey would adroitly bring forward the project on which his mind was fixed”. He was, in modern day terms, a ‘schmoozer’ who was good at ‘networking’.


Wolsey’s charm expressed itself most effectively in, shall we say, a certain flexibility of outlook. He had initially been opposed to Henry VIII’s ideas of a war with France, for example, but when it became clear that the King was not prepared to budge on the issue he quickly became the greatest enthusiast of the idea! Cavendish picked up on this aspect of Wolsey’s character when he described him the “Most earnest and readiest among all the council to advance the King’s only will and pleasure without any respect to the case”. Morally, this is a questionable trait; politically - then as now - it is a gift.


Wolsey was much more, however, than a mere yes-man. Put in charge of the French expedition, he immediately demonstrated truly phenomenal organisational skills which Henry VIII was swift to notice. He had shown similar acumen whilst a student, allegedly having taken the unilateral decision to engage in ambitious building works whilst in charge of Magdalen College’s finances (and almost bankrupting the place in the process). He always prided himself on being the “boy batchelor” who had got his first degree at the age of 15 and who had recognised that a career in the Church was “the best highroad to fame and fortune for anyone born without privilege” (Elton).



Not only was the quality of Wolsey’s work of a high standard; he had an insatiable appetite for it. In one famous episode Henry allegedly ordered Wolsey to travel into Flanders as a special envoy to the court of the Emperor Maximillian. Wolsey went into overdrive to prove his worth: within three days he had been there and back. The king, believing him still preparing to leave, then upbraided him for his tardiness before being told the truth of the matter. The Venetian ambassador relates that “He transacted alone the same business as that which occupied all the magistrates, offices and councils of Venice, both civil and criminal”. This was very notable when most people (following the example of the King) were happy to saunter along at a much gentler pace. It even got to the stage where Henry had to encourage him to take a holiday (“to the intent that you may the longer endure to serve us”) – this was one of the few demands which Wolsey felt able to ignore without much fear of retribution from his master.

How did Wolsey maintain his position?

Getting to the top of the tree in Church and State was one thing; staying there was quite another. In this respect too Wolsey showed remarkable skill in his handling of his finances, his master, and his opponents.

His management of wealth

Income: At the at height of his powers, Randell estimates that Wolsey was probably about 10 times richer than his nearest rival (apart from the King) – and in terms of disposable income (c. £50,000 p.a.) he was probably richer than the King himself! York alone was worth £3,000 a year, but as one of the greatest proponents of pluralism he was raking money in from all angles: after Tournai came the bishoprics of Bath and Wells (1518-23), Durham (1523-9) and Winchester (1529-30).  As a further little nest-egg he was given the income from the dioceses of Worcester (from 1523) and Salisbury (after 1525). Clearly still feeling the financial pinch, in 1525 he became Abbot of St. Albans (the richest monastery in England); he was also given some Spanish sees granted by Charles V.

Expenditure: Wolsey’s income may have been breathtaking, but he was no miserly hoarder. He dressed like a King, ate like a horse and drank like a fish. He kept a princely household of some 500 servants in their silks and velvets. He established Cardinal College, Oxford (now Christ Church) and built the palaces of York House (now Whitehall) and Hampton Court (later given to Henry). Nevertheless, to see Wolsey as a 16th Century moneybags playboy would be anachronistic. Money for him was a valuable political tool, something with which to create that all-important ‘magnyfycence’ which inspired awe, envy and humility in those that came into contact with him so that foreign ambassadors, for example, would “make glorious report in their country, to the King’s honour and that of his realm”.

His management of Henry VIII

            Henry (at that point young, carefree and little interested in matters of state) was willing to pay a price for such a talented and industrious individual and realised that whatever Wolsey’s material wealth, such a low-born subject would not be able to challenge the authority of the monarch, although he could (and did) frequently put the nobility in their place – much to Henry’s amusement and satisfaction.

            Nevertheless, it is usually accepted that Henry was no fool and only allowed Wolsey to do as he pleased in so far as he agreed with it – for example, when Wolsey appointed his own nominee as Abbess to the nunnery of Wilton against the express wishes of Henry he was forced into a grovelling apology. Henry was not easily manipulated: the very fact that he maintained Wolsey despite all the attacks on the Cardinal over 15 years serves to prove this.

Brutal with opposition

            Despite his close relationship with the King, Wolsey was always on the look-out for possible threats to his position. He sent servants abroad if they seemed too close to the King; he imprisoned Polydore Vergil; he was rumoured to have had a part in the execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521. Because Wolsey was always dependent on the support of the King, those who sought to discredit him by direct words to Henry found the Cardinal completely merciless. Whether by throwing his opponents in jail or by beginning expensive lawsuits against them, Wolsey was obsessive in the destruction of his enemies, his wrath all the more feared since he often chose to wait until the original slight was well in the past before “punishing” the offender for some supposedly unconnected incident - in this way everyone was kept very much on their toes.

Who was responsible for Wolsey’s fall from power?

If Wolsey really was so intelligent, so efficient, so charming, so politically able, why was it that he fell from power so suddenly and so spectacularly? Part of the explanation can be found in what we have already examined. Luck can change; charm can be seen as insincerity; one man’s pragmatic realist is another man’s unprincipled time-server. Wolsey wasn’t kind to people on his way up, and they were therefore quick to ‘put the boot in’ on his way down – even after his death Shakespeare immortalised him as the “man of unbounded stomach” which made Orson Welles the natural choice to play his part in the film version of A Man for All Seasons.

            The bare facts of Wolsey’s fall are straightforward enough. Henry VIII became infatuated with Anne Boleyn; he wanted the annulment of his marriage to his barren wife, Katherine of Aragon; Wolsey’s failure to secure this annulment led to most of his offices being stripped from him in 1529. He died in Leicester the following year whilst journeying to London to face charges of Praeminure (which effectively means treason by a churchman).

            Nevertheless, the question as to who was primarily responsible for this spectacular fall from grace is much more difficult to answer: was it a “Boleyn faction”, King Henry VIII, or Wolsey himself?

The “Boleyn Faction”?

            David Starkey has argued that there was a continuous battle between the Council (under Wolsey) and the court (under the ‘minions’ - Henry’s ‘hangers-on’) for favour and influence with the King: in Starkey’s words, “The struggle for control between the two was continuous and bitter”. The Gentlemen of the Chamber (the King’s private quarters) were close friends of Henry and were given official status in 1518, so Wolsey frequently sent them on diplomatic missions abroad and even secured their expulsion from court in 1519. Nevertheless, they were back at the centre of things soon enough, and in 1526 Wolsey’s Eltham Ordinances sought to reduce the Gentlemen of the Bedchamber from 12 to 6. The execution of the Duke of Buckingham in 1521 is also seen as the result of Wolsey’s desperate attempts to curtail the growing influence of a faction which was gravitating towards Anne Boleyn and which was constantly feeding Henry anti-Wolsey propaganda in a concerted attempt to undermine his position. It is certainly true that Anne Boleyn was a very strong character who quickly came to despise Wolsey (as she stated in one of her letters to him, “I have put much confidence in your professions and promises, in which I find myself deceived”). Eric Ives, her biographer, calls Wolsey’s fall “first and foremost Anne’s success” whilst Randell points towards Henry’s rather tardy decision to dismiss his minister as proof of his residual affection for the man.

Henry VIII?

            For some historians, faction clearly remains half fact, half fiction. Peter Gwyn, for example, has argued that the influence of the Boleyn group has been overstated. The Expulsion of the Minions and the Eltham Ordinances were merely part of an efficiency drive, he argues; Buckingham was not victimised, but clearly engaged in treasonable activities such as illegal retaining.

            The real architect of Wolsey’s fall, by this reckoning, is Henry VIII himself: outraged at his Cardinal’s failure to secure an annulment of the Aragon marriage, he brought his servant down in a fit of pique. Why, though, had Wolsey failed so spectacularly in this respect? It has been argued that the cardinal did not engage fully with the task, either because he was in the pocket of the Papacy (this appears unlikely) or felt that it could create all sorts of problems at home and abroad (far more likely).

More problematic was the fact that Henry refused to follow Wolsey’s wise advice regarding how to construct his legal case: Henry had originally been allowed to marry his brother’s widow following a special dispensation from Pope Julius II. This dispensation removed not only the “Impediment of Public Honesty” created by the kinship of Henry and Catherine, but also the “impediment of affinity” created by the supposed consummation of the marriage between Arthur and Katherine (which the Queen always denied took place). Henry’s whole case was based on the argument that the Pope had acted outside of his authority (ultra vires) in waiving the ‘impediment of affinity’. Wolsey felt it would have made more sense to argue that Arthur’s marriage never had been consummated; therefore the dispensation had been founded on a mistake and was void, as was the marriage which followed from it. This would have turned Catherine’s protestations to advantage and would have allowed the Pope to grant an annulment without any loss of face. Unfortunately, Wolsey was away in Europe when Henry got the wheels turning, and by the time he returned such a volte-face was impractical.

            Much more important than any of these ideas, though, is the fact that the international situation made his position impossible. Following the Sack of Rome by Imperial forces in 1527, the Pope could not afford to anger Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, the emperor Charles V. For all his brinkmanship, there was no way on earth that Wolsey could compete with this, but Henry was arguably too short-sighted to acknowledge the fact. Wolsey himself realised the likely consequences: “If the Pope is not compliant, my own life will be shortened”.  

Wolsey himself?

Nevertheless, a historian such as John Guy would argue that the divorce was not the final nail in the coffin by any means. Henry VIII had left him the Archbishopric of York and the Bishopric of Winchester, maybe hoping to re-instate the cardinal once he had been sufficiently humbled.

            However, putting Wolsey and humility in the same sentence is only one step away from a grammatical error. The Venetian ambassador had wryly noted as early as 1519 that Wolsey had begun his career saying “His Majesty will do so and so”, then “We shall do so and so” until he was saying “I will do so and so”.

            Ten years on, Wolsey’s response to Henry’s actions was arrogant at best, treasonable at worst: he was quickly charged under the Act of Praeminure, which forbade Churchmen from appealing to Rome over the head of the King: it was alleged that he had been intriguing “both in and out of the Kingdom” and with “presumptuous sinister practices made to the Court of Rome”. There is no proof that these accusations were true, but Wolsey had not helped his case, the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall points out, by arranging for himself to be “enthroned at York with all possible pomp”. When Northumberland came to arrest him, Hall imagines the dialogue:


"My Lord, I pray you have patience, for here I arrest you." "Arrest me?" said the cardinal; "Yes," said the earl, "I have orders to do so." "You have no such power," said the cardinal, "for I am both a cardinal and a peer of the College of Rome, and ought not to be arrested by any temporal power, for I am not subject to that power, therefore if you arrest me I will withstand it."

There is a whiff here of propaganda – Wolsey the unpatriotic Papist, challenging the authority of the King in his own lands – and the source is made more questionable still by Hall’s gossipy tone which goes as far as to suggest that Wolsey poisoned himself rather than face trial. The truth or otherwise of the account, however, is to a large extent irrelevant: the important thing is that it captures the essence of the cardinal as many other people saw him – proud, arrogant, even traitorous – and once these voices became dominant Wolsey’s position became untenable. His rise had been spectacular; his maintenance of that position wondrous; but his fall was breathtaking.

Discussion points

• Who do you think was primarily responsible for Wolsey’s downfall?

• What are the limitations of primary sources of the Tudor period for historians studying the career of Wolsey?

• If you could only study either the rise or the fall of Wolsey, which would you choose, and why?

• If you were to provide an epitaph for Wolsey’s gravestone, what would it be?


JJ Scarisbrick: Henry VIII (1968)

EW Ives: Anne Boleyn (1986)

Peter Gwyn: The King’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey (1990)

Keith Randell: Henry VIII and the Government of England (1991)



Born, the son of an Ipswich butcher


Appointed chaplain to Henry VII


Phenomenal organisational skills in the French campaign accelerates his meteoric rise


Wolsey is made Chancellor by the King and of England Cardinal by the Pope


Wolsey masterminds Treaty of London, an attempt to secure a general European peace.


Wolsey is appointed Legate ‘a latere’ by the Pope, giving him power even over the Archbishop of Canterbury


The Expulsion of the Minions is engineered by Wolsey in an attempt to limit the influence of Henry’s young friends


Wolsey’s failure to secure the ‘Amicable Grant’ – a non-refundable loan to the King to fund his foreign ventures – is his first major failure


Henry becomes determined to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon


Wosley is stripped of most of his titles following his failure to secure an annulment of the Aragon marriage during the Legatine meeting at Blackfriars


Wolsey dies in Leicester on route to London to face charges of praeminure

Cardinal Wolsey surrendering the Great Seal

Cardinal Wolsey surrendering the Great Seal (1529)
From Cavendish's Life of Wolsey Roll 214.5.
The Bodleian Library, Oxford.

Russel Tarr teaches history and politics at Wolverhampton Grammar School and is the author of the website


Return to the homepage

Sign the guestbook

Join the Mailing List

Contact the author