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
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
ye not to court?
King’s court, or
Court is the finer….”
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
(from 1523) and Salisbury (after 1525). Clearly still
feeling the financial pinch, in 1525 he became Abbot of St.
Albans (the richest monastery in
he was also given some Spanish sees granted by Charles V.
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
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
Henry got the wheels turning, and by the time he returned
such a volte-face was impractical.
• 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?
Scarisbrick: Henry VIII (1968)
Anne Boleyn (1986)
The King’s Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey
Randell: Henry VIII and the Government of England
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
Expulsion of the Minions is engineered by Wolsey in an
attempt to limit the influence of Henry’s young
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
becomes determined to annul his marriage to Katherine
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 (1529)
From Cavendish's Life of Wolsey Roll 214.5.
The Bodleian Library, Oxford.