The sudden death of Thomas Wolsey, 490 years ago last November, ended one of the most extraordinary political careers in English history. In his time, he was called, by some at least, the ‘alter rex’ of the kingdom of Henry VIII.
The precise date of Wolsey’s birth remains unknown. Sometime in 1470–1 seems most likely, but 1472–3 is also possible. He was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, the son of Robert and Joan Wulcy (as it was also spelt). His father was of yeoman stock but certainly not literally ‘a poor man’ as he would later be called in dispraise of his son. Wolsey was educated first in a local ‘petty’ school and then at a grammar school in Oxford before studying Theology at Magdalene College . He was ordained a priest in the course of those uncompleted studies and served a sequence of steadily more powerful patrons as priest and assistant, culminating in the position of chaplain in the household of Henry VII, for whom he conducted several diplomatic missions.
Wolsey’s real rise began when he was made the royal almoner (responsible for charitable giving) and joined the council of King Henry VIII in 1509. He quickly established a close working relationship with the young sovereign and supported Henry’s wish to renew the Hundred Years War with France when the opportunity arose in 1511 due to a quarrel between Pope Julius II falling and the French king Louis XII, whom the pope excommunicated. Wolsey then acted as quarter-master general in what was portrayed as a papal crusade against France in 1512-13. Henry did not conquer France but he took the small town of Thérouanne and the important city of Tournai. As a reward, Wolsey was made Bishop of Tournai and Bishop of Lincoln. After the death of Cardinal Bainbridge, Wolsey succeeded him as Archbishop of York in the autumn of 1514. He was made Cardinal Saint-Cecilia-beyond-Tiber in 1515 by Pope Leo X. At the end of that year, he was made Lord Chancellor of England and became, in effect, the chief executive of the Tudor state. As Chancellor he supervised the operation of the legal system, oversaw Parliamentary legislation from the House of Lords including that for taxation. He made the court of Chancery and the royal council (sitting in its judicial form as ‘Star Chamber’) much more effective in imposing royal authority than had his predecessors - particularly on the gentry and nobility.
Wolsey also reached a position of supreme authority over the Church in England when, in 1518, he was made Leo X’s papal legate a latere. This was confirmed for life in 1524. He also became commendatory Abbot of St Alban’s and successively bishop of Bath and Wells (1518-23); Durham (1523-29), and Winchester (1529-30). Wolsey intervened freely, by virtue of his legatine powers, in the senior appointments in religious houses and in the affairs of dioceses other than his own, often against the opposition of incumbent abbots and bishops. He took high-profile action against Lutheran heretics in London, Oxford and Cambridge, with public book-burnings in 1521 and recantation of heretics in 1526, although how effective he really was in controlling the spread of Lutheran ideas among intellectuals is still debated. Wolsey also pressured the clergy into paying higher taxation and in so doing significantly enhanced Henry’s sense of his control over the Church, and of his sovereignty in England and reputation as a strong king abroad.
Wolsey’s devoted his time and his imaginative intelligence principally to the conduct of Henry’s international relations. War was always expensive and the 1513 conflict drastically reduced Henry’s financial reserves, Wolsey therefore sought, whenever possible, to gain as much as possible strategically and financially through diplomacy. Using the rhetoric of peace then much in vogue among humanists like Erasmus, Wolsey sought to secure a prominence for Henry in Europe through magnificent and ostentatious peace-making with France. Despite his militaristic rhetoric in his early years, Henry, like his predecessors Henry VII and Edward IV, traded peace for huge financial indemnities paid by his French counterpart. The highest point of this kind of diplomatic horse-trading was the 1518 ‘Universal Peace’. Wolsey created not just an Anglo-French alliance but an international non-aggression pact, under Henry’s aegis. Francis I of France and Charles V the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, were the most prominent adherents to the scheme. Each sought Henry’s support in return and both had therefore to take Henry into account in their own strategic thinking. So did Leo X who had first promoted the idea of a Christian truce. The peace was inaugurated with unparalleled splendour and chivalric display at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, but the intended universal peace proved too difficult to achieve. Until his last years in power, Wolsey worked for peaceful (if always difficult) Anglo-French relations and this policy survived him for most of the rest of Henry’s reign.
At the height of his career, Cardinal Wolsey was England’s most important cultural patron after the king himself. His main patronage was in education and architecture. In 1524 he founded Cardinal College (now Christ Church) Oxford with papal and royal approval, together with a grammar school, St Mary’s, in his home- town of Ipswich. He is most associated of course with his principal home, Hampton Court, together with York Place at Westminster (later Whitehall Palace), both of which he extended and lavishly renovated from 1514. He did the same at the manor of The More in Hertfordshire, the use of which he had as Abbot of St Albans. In all his architectural and decorative undertakings, Wolsey employed the best local and Italian craftsmen available including the sculptors Giovanni Da Maiano and Benedetto da Rovezzano. The latter was charged with designing and building the cardinal’s tomb. It was unfinished at his fall when significant elements of it were acquired by the king for use in his own planned funerary monument, itself never completed.
It was Wolsey’s inability to obtain an annulment of the king’s first marriage that precipitated his fall from power in October 1529. The legatine trial of the marriage at Blackfriars’ convened by Wolsey and his fellow legate Cardinal Campeggio in July that year, was halted by Katharine’s direct appeal to Rome. Henry had been convinced of the rightness of his case from the outset and Wolsey’s dismissal was an important start to a campaign of intimidation against the Church in England, to try to compel the papacy to give Henry what he wanted. Now Henry increasingly saw Wolsey as the pope’s cardinal rather than his own. Wolsey, who had been used to regular contact with Henry over two decades, saw him for the last time at Grafton in September 1529.
On 17th October Wolsey was dismissed as Chancellor ahead of the so-called Reformation Parliament which met that autumn. He escaped parliamentary censure at the king’s discreet insistence. In the spring of 1530 Wolsey set off for York, there finally to take possession of his archdiocese, to which he had until then been a stranger. He was never installed for, on 4th November 1530, Wolsey was arrested for treason. It was alleged that he had plotted with the emperor and the papacy to provoke a French attack on England in the hope of being recalled to power during the crisis of war. What passed for evidence against him was so circumstantial and slight that it would certainly not stand up in a modern court, and perhaps not even in a Tudor one. Mercifully perhaps for Wolsey, a trial never came. As he travelled south from York the cardinal became seriously ill, probably from dysentery exacerbated by stress or perhaps something like a burst duodenal ulcer – the evidence of his illness allows various possibilities. Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey on the morning of 29th November 1530. The exact site of the cardinal’s burial is unknown, although a modern monument to him was built within the area of what had been the chapel of the abbey.
For 20 years in the king’s service, Wolsey had always promised and indeed delivered much. But the failed annulment campaign plunged Henry into a profound personal and dynastic crisis in which he felt Wolsey could be of no assistance. Before that time, however, the two men had been friends as well as master and servant. Wolsey enabled Henry’s authority in state and church to develop significantly and he did everything he could to enhance Henry’s reputation abroad as a powerful English monarch. The defence of this reputation in his demands of the papacy, using the power Wolsey had helped to shape, propelled the mature Henry in the formative crisis of his reign. This (ironically) together with his educational, architectural, and artistic patronage (and all his many possessions) became Wolsey’s legacy to Henry. The cardinal always denied that he was ever ‘alter rex’ of England. Whether that was true or not, almost five hundred years after his death, Wolsey remains among the most important of ecclesiastical statesmen in early Renaissance Europe.