Thomas Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey[1] (c. March 1473[2] – 29 November 1530) was an English archbishop, statesman and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. When Henry VIII became King of England in 1509, Wolsey became the King's almoner.[3] Wolsey's affairs prospered, and by 1514 he had become the controlling figure in virtually all matters of state. He also held important ecclesiastical appointments. These included the Archbishopric of York – the second most important role in the English church – and acting as Papal legate. His appointment as a cardinal by Pope Leo X in 1515 gave him precedence over all other English clergy.

Thomas Wolsey
Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey at Trinity College, University of Cambridge (c. 1585–1596)
Lord High Chancellor of England
In office
Preceded byWilliam Warham
Succeeded bySir Thomas More
Appointed15 September 1514
Term ended29 November 1530
PredecessorChristopher Bainbridge
SuccessorEdward Lee
Other postsCardinal-Priest of S. Cecilia (1515–1530)
Ordination10 March 1498
by Augustine Church, Titular Bishop of Lydda
Consecration26 March 1514
by William Warham
Created cardinal10 September 1515
by Leo X
Personal details
BornMarch 1473
Ipswich, Suffolk, England
Died(1530-11-29)29 November 1530 (aged 57)
Leicester, Leicestershire, England
BuriedLeicester Abbey
DenominationRoman Catholicism
ParentsRobert Wolsey (father) and Joan Daundy (mother)
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Alma materMagdalen College, Oxford

The highest political position Wolsey attained was Lord Chancellor, the King's chief adviser (formally, as his successor and disciple Thomas Cromwell was not). In that position, he enjoyed great freedom and was often depicted as an alter rex (other king). After failing to negotiate an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Wolsey fell out of favour and was stripped of his government titles. He retreated to York to fulfill his ecclesiastical duties as Archbishop of York, a position he nominally held, but had neglected during his years in government. He was recalled to London to answer to charges of treason—a common charge used by Henry against ministers who simply fell out of favour, and did not necessarily commit actual treason—but died on the way from natural causes.

Early life

Thomas Wolsey was born about 1473, the son of Robert Wolsey of Ipswich and his wife Joan Daundy.[3] Widespread traditions identify his father as a butcher, which led to great criticism about him later on because of how the son of a butcher could become so successful in comparison with the nobility. Wolsey attended Ipswich School[4] and Magdalen College School before studying theology at Magdalen College, Oxford. On 10 March 1498 he was ordained as a priest in Marlborough, Wiltshire,[5] and remained in Oxford, first as the Master of Magdalen College School, before quickly being appointed the dean of divinity. Between 1500 and 1509 he held a living as rector of St Mary's church, Limington, in Somerset.[6] In 1502, he became a chaplain to Henry Deane, archbishop of Canterbury, who died the following year.[3] He was then taken into the household of Sir Richard Nanfan, who made Wolsey executor of his estate. After Nanfan's death in 1507, Wolsey entered the service of King Henry VII.

Wolsey benefitted from Henry VII's introduction of measures to curb the power of the nobility – the king was willing to favour those from more humble backgrounds.[7] Henry VII appointed Wolsey royal chaplain.[8] In this position Wolsey served as secretary to Richard Foxe, who recognised Wolsey's innate ability and dedication and appreciated his industry and willingness to take on tedious tasks.[9] Thomas Wolsey's remarkable rise to power from humble origins testifies to his intelligence, administrative ability, industriousness, ambition for power, and rapport with the King. In April 1508, Wolsey was sent to Scotland to discuss with King James IV rumours of the renewal of the Auld Alliance.[10]

Wolsey's rise coincided with the accession in April 1509 of Henry VIII, whose character, policies and attitude to diplomacy differed significantly from those of his father. In 1509 Henry appointed Wolsey to the post of Almoner, a position that gave him a seat on the Privy Council and gave him an opportunity for greater prominence and for establishing a personal rapport with the King.[11] A factor in Wolsey's rise was the young Henry VIII's relative lack of interest in the details of government during his early years.[12]

Rise to prominence

The primary counsellors whom King Henry VIII inherited from his father were Richard Foxe (c. 1448–1528, Bishop of Winchester 1501–1528) and William Warham (c. 1450–1532, Archbishop of Canterbury 1503–1532). These were cautious and conservative, advising the King to act as a careful administrator like his father. Henry soon appointed to his Privy Council individuals more sympathetic to his own views and inclinations. Until 1511, Wolsey was adamantly anti-war. However, when the King expressed his enthusiasm for an invasion of France, Wolsey adapted his views to those of the King and gave persuasive speeches to the Privy Council in favour of war. Warham and Foxe, who failed to share the King's enthusiasm for the French war which started in 1512, fell from power (1515/1516), and Wolsey took over as the King's most trusted advisor and administrator. When Warham resigned as Lord Chancellor in 1515, probably under pressure from the King and from Wolsey, Henry appointed Wolsey in his place.[13]

Wolsey made careful moves to destroy or neutralise the influence of other courtiers. He helped cause the fall of Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham, in 1521; and in 1527 he prosecuted Henry's close friend William Compton and Henry's ex-mistress Anne Stafford, Countess of Huntingdon, through the ecclesiastical courts for adultery. In the case of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Wolsey adopted a different strategy, attempting to win Suffolk's favour by his actions after the Duke secretly married Henry's sister Mary Tudor, Queen of France, much to the King's displeasure. Wolsey advised the King not to execute the newlyweds, but to embrace them; whether this was through care for the couple or on account of the threat they represented for his own safety remains unclear. The bride, both as sister to Henry and as Dowager Queen of France, had high royal status that could have potentially meant a threat to Wolsey should she have so chosen.

Wolsey's rise to a position of great secular power paralleled his increasing status in the Church. He became a Canon of Windsor in 1511. In 1514 he was made Bishop of Lincoln, and then Archbishop of York in the same year. Pope Leo X made him a cardinal in 1515, with the titular church of St Cecilia in Trastevere. Following the success of the English campaign in France and the peace negotiations that followed, Wolsey's ecclesiastical career advanced further: in 1523 he became additionally Bishop of Durham, a post with wide political powers, and thus became known as Prince-Bishop of Durham.

Foreign policy

War with France

The war against France in 1512–1514 was the most significant opportunity for Wolsey to demonstrate his talents in the foreign policy arena. A convenient justification for going to war came in 1511 in the form of a plea for help from Pope Julius II, who was beginning to feel threatened by France. England formed an alliance with the Pope, Ferdinand V of Spain, and Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor against Louis XII of France.[15]

The first campaign against France was not a success, partly due to the unreliability of the alliance with Ferdinand. Henry learned from the mistakes of the campaign and in 1513, still with papal support, launched a joint attack on France with Maximilian, successfully capturing two French cities and causing the French to retreat. Wolsey's ability to keep a large number of troops supplied and equipped for the duration of the war was a major factor in its success. Wolsey also had a key role in negotiating the Anglo-French treaty of 1514, which secured a temporary peace between the two nations. Under this treaty, the French king, Louis XII, would marry Henry's young sister, Mary. In addition England was able to keep the captured city of Tournai and to secure an increase in the annual pension paid by France.[16]

Meanwhile, a turnover of rulers in Europe threatened to diminish England's influence. Peace with France in 1514 had been a true achievement for Wolsey and the King. With Henry's sister, Mary, married to the French King, Louis XII, an alliance was formed, but Louis was not in good health. Less than three months later, Louis died and was replaced by the young and ambitious Francis I.

Queen Mary had allegedly secured a promise from Henry that if Louis died, she could marry whomever she pleased.[17] On Louis' death, she secretly married Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, with Francis I's assistance, which prevented another marriage alliance. As Mary was the only princess Henry could use to secure marriage alliances, this was a bitter blow. Wolsey then proposed an alliance with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire against France.

Papal legate

The death in 1516 of King Ferdinand of Spain, the father-in-law of Henry VIII, and England's closest ally, was a further blow. Ferdinand was succeeded by Charles V, who immediately proposed peace with France. On the death of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, in 1519, Charles was elected in his stead; thus Charles ruled a substantial portion of Europe and English influence became limited on the continent.

Wolsey, however, managed to assert English influence through another means. In 1517, Pope Leo X sought peace in Europe to form a crusade against the Ottoman Empire. In 1518 Wolsey was made Papal Legate in England, enabling him to work for the Pope's desire for peace by organising the Treaty of London. The Treaty showed Wolsey as the arbiter of Europe, organising a massive peace summit involving twenty nations. This put England at the forefront of European diplomacy and drew her out of isolation, making her a desirable ally. This is well illustrated by the Anglo-French treaty signed two days afterwards. It was partly this peace treaty that caused conflict between France and Spain. In 1519, when Charles V ascended to the throne of the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I, the King of France, was infuriated. He had invested enormous sums in bribing the electorate to elect him as emperor, and thus, he used the Treaty of London as a justification for the Habsburg-Valois conflict. Wolsey appeared to act as mediator between the two powers, both of whom were vying for England's support.[18]

Field of the Cloth of Gold

Another of his diplomatic triumphs was the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in 1520.[19] Wolsey organised much of this grandiose meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII, accompanied by some five thousand followers and involving court activities more than military discussion. Though it seemed to open the door to peaceful negotiations with France, if that was the direction the King wished to go, it was also a chance for a lavish display of English wealth and power before the rest of Europe, through flamboyant celebrations and events such as jousting, where the two Kings personally competed against each other. With both France and Spain vying for England's allegiance, Wolsey could choose the ally that better suited his policies. Wolsey chose Charles mainly because England's economy would suffer from the loss of the lucrative cloth trade industry between England and the Netherlands had France been chosen instead.[20]

Under Wolsey's guidance, the chief nations of Europe sought to outlaw war forever among Christian nations. Garret Mattingly studied the causes of wars in that era, finding that treaties of nonaggression such as this one could never be stronger than the armies of their sponsors. When those forces were about equal, these treaties typically widened the conflict. That is, diplomacy could sometimes postpone war, but could not prevent wars based on irreconcilable interests and ambitions. What was lacking, Mattingly concludes, was a neutral power whose judgements were generally accepted either by impartial justice or by overwhelming force.[21]

Alliance with Spain

The Treaty of London is often regarded as Wolsey's finest moment, but it was abandoned within a year. Wolsey developed links with Charles in 1520 at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Later at the Calais Conference (1521) Wolsey signed the Secret Treaty of Bruges (1521) with Charles, stating that they would join Spain in a war against France if France refused to sign the peace treaty; ignoring the Anglo-French treaty of 1518. Wolsey's relationship with Rome was also ambivalent. Despite his links to the papacy, Wolsey was strictly Henry's servant. Though the Treaty of London was an elaboration on Pope Leo's ambitions for European peace, it was seen in Rome as a vain attempt by England to assert her influence over Europe and steal some papal thunder. Furthermore, Wolsey's peace initiatives prevented a crusade to the Holy Land, which was the catalyst for the Pope's desire for European peace.[15]

Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, who represented the Pope at the Treaty of London, was kept waiting for many months in Calais before being allowed to cross the Channel and join the festivities in London; thereby, Wolsey was asserting his independence of Rome. An alternative hypothesis is that Campeggio was kept waiting until Wolsey received his legacy, thus asserting Wolsey's attachment to Rome.

Though the English gain from the wars of 1522–23 was minimal, their contribution certainly aided Charles in his defeat of the French, particularly in 1525 at the Battle of Pavia, where Charles' army captured the French king, Francis I. Henry then felt there was a realistic opportunity for him to seize the French crown, to which the kings of England had long laid claim. Parliament, however, refused to raise taxes. This led Wolsey to devise the Amicable Grant, which was met with even more hostility, and ultimately led to his downfall. In 1525, after Charles had abandoned England as an ally, Wolsey began to negotiate with France, and the Treaty of the More was signed, during Francis' captivity, with the Regent of France – his mother, Louise of Savoy.[22]

The closeness between England and Rome can be seen in the formulation of the League of Cognac in 1526. Though England was not a part of it, the League was organised in part by Wolsey with papal support. Wolsey's plan was that the League of Cognac, composed of an alliance between France and some Italian states, would challenge Charles' League of Cambrai. This initiative was both a gesture of allegiance to Rome and an answer to growing concerns about Charles V's dominance over Europe.

The final blow to this policy came in 1529, when the French made peace with Charles. Meanwhile, the French also continued to honour the "Auld Alliance" with Scotland, stirring up hostility on England's border. With peace between France and the Emperor, there was no-one to free the Pope from Charles, who had effectively held Clement VII captive since the Sack of Rome in 1527. Therefore, there was little hope of securing Henry an annulment from his marriage to Charles’ aunt, Catherine of Aragon. Since 1527, Wolsey's foreign policy had been dominated by his attempts to secure an annulment for his master, and by 1529, none of his endeavours had succeeded.[23]

The Annulment

Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon had produced no sons who survived infancy; the Wars of the Roses were still within living memory, leading to the fear of a power struggle after Henry's death. Henry felt the people would accept only a male sovereign, and not his daughter Mary. Henry believed God had cursed him for the sin of marrying the widow of his elder brother. He also believed that the papal dispensation for his marriage to Catherine was invalid because it was based upon the claim that Catherine was still a virgin after her first husband's death. Henry argued that Catherine's claim was not credible, and thus, the original papal dispensation must be withdrawn and their marriage annulled. Henry's motivation has been attributed to his determination to have a son and heir, and to his desire for Anne Boleyn, one of his wife's maids-of-honour. Catherine had no further pregnancies after 1519; Henry began annulment proceedings in 1527.[24]

Catherine, however, maintained that she had been a virgin when she married King Henry. Because Catherine was opposed to the annulment and a return to her previous status as Dowager Princess of Wales, the annulment request became a matter of international diplomacy, with Catherine's nephew, Charles V, pressuring the Pope to not annul his aunt's marriage. Pope Clement VII was presented with a problem: he could either anger Charles or else anger Henry. He delayed announcing a decision for as long as possible; this infuriated Henry and Anne Boleyn, who began to doubt Wolsey's loyalty to the Crown over the Church.

Wolsey appealed to the Pope for an annulment on three fronts. Firstly, he tried to convince the Pope that the original papal dispensation was void as the marriage clearly went against instructions in the Bible, found in the book of Leviticus. Secondly, Wolsey objected to the original dispensation on technical grounds, and claimed it was incorrectly worded. (However, shortly afterwards, a correctly worded version was found in Spain.) Thirdly, Wolsey wanted the Pope to allow the final decision to be made in England, which of course, as papal legate, he would supervise.[25]

In 1528 the Pope decided to allow two papal legates to decide the outcome in England: Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio. Wolsey was confident of the decision. However, Campeggio took a long time to arrive, and when he finally did arrive he delayed proceedings so much, the case had to be suspended in July 1529, effectively sealing Wolsey's fate.

Domestic achievements

During his fourteen years of chancellorship, Cardinal Wolsey had more power than any other Crown servant in English history. However, this led to him being hated by much of the nobility who thought they should have the power. The King protected him from being attacked. Professor Sara Nair James says that in 1515–1529 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, "would be the most powerful man in England except, possibly, for the king".[26] As long as he was in the King's favour, Wolsey had a large amount of freedom within the domestic sphere, and had his hand in nearly every aspect of its ruling. For much of the time, Henry VIII had complete confidence in him, and as Henry's interests inclined more towards foreign policy, he was willing to give Wolsey a free hand in reforming the management of domestic affairs, for which Wolsey had grand plans. Historian John Guy explains Wolsey's methods:

Only in the broadest respects was he [the king] taking independent decisions. ... It was Wolsey who almost invariably calculated the available options and ranked them for royal consideration; who established the parameters of each successive debate; who controlled the flow of official information; who selected the king's secretaries, middle-ranked officials, and JPs; and who promulgated decisions himself had largely shaped, if not strictly taken.[27]

Operating with the firm support of the king, and with special powers over the church given by the Pope as legate, Wolsey dominated civic affairs, administration, the law, the church, and foreign-policy. He was amazingly energetic and far-reaching. In terms of achievements, he built a great fortune for himself, and was a major benefactor of arts, humanities and education. He projected numerous reforms, with some success in areas such as finance, taxation educational provision and justice. However, from the king's perspective, his greatest failure was an inability to get a divorce when Henry VIII needed a new wife to give him a son who would be the undisputed heir to the throne. Historians agree that Wolsey was a man dogged by other men's failures and his own ambition. In the end, abandoned by the king, his enemies conspired against him and he died of natural causes before he could be beheaded.[28][29]


Wolsey made significant changes to the taxation system, devising, with the treasurer of the Chamber, John Heron, the "Subsidy". This revolutionary form of tax was based upon accurate valuations of the taxpayer's wealth, where one shilling was taken per pound from the income. The old fixed tax of 15ths and 10ths had meant that those who earned very little money had to pay almost as much in tax as the wealthy. With the new income tax the poorer members of society paid much less. This more efficient form of taxation enabled Wolsey to raise enough money for the King's foreign expeditions, bringing in over £300,000. Wolsey was also able to raise considerable amounts of capital through other means, such as through "benevolences" and enforced loans from the nobility, which raised £200,000 in 1522.


As a legal administrator Wolsey reinvented the equity court, where the verdict was decided by the judge on the principle of "fairness". As an alternative to the Common Law courts, Wolsey re-established the position of the prerogative courts of the Star Chamber and the Court of Chancery. The system in both courts concentrated on simple, inexpensive cases, and promised impartial justice. He also established the Court of Requests (although this court was only given this name later on) for the poor, where no fees were required. Wolsey's legal reforms were popular, and overflow courts were required to attend to all the cases. Many powerful individuals who had felt themselves invincible under the law found themselves convicted; for example, in 1515, the Earl of Northumberland was sent to Fleet Prison and in 1516 Lord Abergavenny was accused of illegal retaining.

Wolsey also used his courts to tackle national controversies, such as the pressing issue of enclosures. The countryside had been thrown into discord by the entrepreneurial actions of landlords enclosing areas of land and converting from arable farming to pastoral farming, requiring fewer workers. The Tudors valued stability, and this mass urban migration represented a serious crisis. Wolsey conducted national enquires in 1517, 1518 and 1527 into the presence of enclosures. In the course of his administration he used the court of Chancery to prosecute two hundred and sixty-four landowners, including peers, bishops, knights, religious heads, and Oxford colleges. Enclosures were seen as directly linked to rural unemployment and depopulation, vagrancy, food shortages and, accordingly, inflation. This pattern was repeated with many of Wolsey's other initiatives, particularly his quest to abolish enclosure. Despite spending significant time and effort in investigating the state of the countryside and prosecuting numerous offenders, Wolsey freely surrendered his policy during the parliament of 1523 to ensure that Parliament passed his proposed taxes for Henry's war in France. Enclosures remained a problem for many years.

Wolsey used the Star Chamber to enforce his 1518 policy of Just Price, which attempted to regulate the price of meat in London and other major cities. Those found to be charging excessive amounts were prosecuted by the Chamber. After the bad harvest of 1527, Wolsey took the initiative of buying up surplus grain and selling it off cheaply to the needy. This act of generosity greatly eased disorder and became common practice after a disappointing harvest.

Church reforms

Although it would be difficult to find a better example of abuses in the Church than the Cardinal himself, Wolsey appeared to make some steps towards reform. In 1524 and 1527 he used his powers as papal legate to dissolve thirty decayed monasteries where monastic life had virtually ceased in practice, including monasteries in Ipswich and Oxford. However, he then used the income to found a grammar school in Ipswich (The King's School, Ipswich) and Cardinal College in Oxford (in 1532, after Wolsey's fall, college was refounded as King Henry VIII's College by Henry VIII; it is now known as Christ Church). In 1528 he began to limit the benefit of clergy. He also attempted, as legate, to force reform on monastic orders like the Augustinian canons.

Wolsey died five years before Henry's dissolution of the monasteries began.


Wolsey's position in power relied solely on maintaining good relations with Henry. He grew increasingly suspicious of the "minions" – young, influential members of the Privy chamber – particularly after infiltrating one of his own men into the group. He attempted many times to disperse them from court, giving them jobs that took them to the Continent and far from the King. After the Amicable Grant failed, the minions began to undermine him once again. Consequently, Wolsey devised a grand plan of administrative reforms, incorporating the notorious Eltham Ordinances of 1526. This reduced the members of the Privy Council from twelve to six, removing Henry's friends such as Sir William Compton and Nicholas Carew.

One of Wolsey's greatest impediments was his lack of popularity amongst the nobles at court and in Parliament. Their dislikes and mistrusts partly stemmed from Wolsey's excessive demands for money in the form of the Subsidy or through Benevolences. They also resented the Act of Resumption of 1486, by which Henry VII had resumed possession of all lands granted by the crown since 1455.[30] These lands had passed onto his heir, Henry VIII. Many nobles resented the rise to power of a low-born man, whilst others simply disliked that he monopolised the court and concealed information from the Privy Council.

When mass riots broke out in East Anglia, which should have been under the control of the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, Henry was quick to denounce the Amicable Grant, and began to lose faith in his chief minister. During the relatively peaceful period in England after the War of the Roses, the population of the nation increased. With more demand for food and no additional supply, prices increased. Landowners were forced to enclose land and convert to pastoral farming, which brought in more profit. Wolsey's quest against enclosure was fruitless in terms of restoring the stability of the economy.

The same can be said for Wolsey's legal reforms. By making justice accessible to all and encouraging more people to bring their cases to court, the system was ultimately abused. The courts became overloaded with incoherent, tenuous cases, which would have been far too expensive to have rambled on in the Common Law courts. Wolsey eventually ordered all minor cases out of the Star Chamber in 1528. The result of this venture was further resentment from the nobility and the gentry.

Art Patronage

From 1515, when he became cardinal, until his death, Wolsey used art and architecture to underpin his positions. In fact, he initiated a building campaign on a scale that was not only unprecedented for an English churchman and Lord Chancellor, but also one that few English kings had exceeded. In so doing, he brought Italian Renaissance ideas, classical embellishments, and architectural models into the English architectural mindset. Scholars generally cite Somerset House in London (1547–52) as the first classical building in England – built for Edward Seymour, the first Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector to King Edward VI. Wolsey, however, embraced Italian-inspired classicism nearly a half century before Seymour, but in a manner more theoretical than visual. Wolsey's subsequent disgrace over his failure to garner papal approval of an annulment of Henry VIII's marriage to Katherine of Aragon has clouded the fact that he was not only the first high-profile patron in England to seek out and promote Italian classicism in art, architecture, and magnificence, but also that his contributions endured.

Among Wolsey's projects were lavish, classically-inspired additions to York Palace in London, the residence of the Archbishop of York. He supervised the grandiose temporary buildings at the Field of Cloth of Gold; and he renovated Hampton Court, which he later relinquished to the king. Wolsey's use of architecture as a symbol of power, along with his introduction of Italian classical ornamentation, set a trend continued by Henry VIII and others. Wolsey oversaw tombs for Henry's VIII's parents at Westminster Abbey and negotiated contracts for Henry VIII's tomb as well as one for himself. If these works had been completed as planned, they would be among the largest, most elaborate, and grandest tombs in Europe.

Failures with the Church

As well as his State duties, Wolsey simultaneously attempted to exert his influence over the Church in England. As cardinal and, from 1524, lifetime papal legate, Wolsey was continually vying for control over others in the Church. His principal rival was William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who made it more difficult for Wolsey to follow through with his plans for reform. Despite making promises to reform the bishoprics of England and Ireland, and, in 1519, encouraging monasteries to embark on a programme of reform, he did nothing to bring about these changes.

Downfall and death

In spite of having many enemies, Cardinal Wolsey retained Henry VIII's confidence until Henry decided to seek an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey's failure to secure the annulment directly caused his downfall and arrest.

It was rumoured that Anne Boleyn and her faction convinced Henry that Wolsey was deliberately slowing proceedings; as a result, he was arrested in 1529, and the Pope decided that the official decision should be made in Rome, not England.

In 1529 Wolsey was stripped of his government office and property, including his magnificently expanded residence of Hampton Court, which Henry took to replace the Palace of Westminster as his own main London residence. However, Wolsey was permitted to remain Archbishop of York. He travelled to Yorkshire for the first time in his career, but at Cawood in North Yorkshire, he was accused of treason and ordered to London by Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. In great distress, he set out for the capital with his personal chaplain, Edmund Bonner. He fell ill on the journey, and died at Leicester on 29 November 1530, around the age of 57. Just before his death he reputedly spoke these words:

I see the matter against me how it is framed. But if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.

In keeping with his practice of erecting magnificent buildings at Hampton Court, Westminster and Oxford, Wolsey had planned a magnificent tomb at Windsor by Benedetto da Rovezzano and Giovanni da Maiano, but he was buried in Leicester Abbey (now Abbey Park) without a monument. Henry VIII contemplated using the impressive black sarcophagus for himself, but Lord Nelson now lies in it, in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral. Henry often receives credit for artistic patronage that properly belongs to Wolsey.[31]

Mistress and issue

Wolsey lived in a "non-canonical" marriage for around a decade with a woman called Joan Larke (born circa 1490) of Yarmouth, Norfolk. The edict that priests, regardless of their functions or the character of their work, should remain celibate had not been wholeheartedly accepted in England.[32] Wolsey subsequently had two children, both born before he was made bishop. These were a son, Thomas Wynter (born circa 1510)[33] and a daughter, Dorothy (born circa 1512),[34] both of whom lived to adulthood. The son was sent to live with a family in Willesden and was tutored in his early years by Maurice Birchinshaw. He later married and had children of his own. Dorothy was adopted by John Clansey, and was in due course placed in Shaftesbury Nunnery, which had a fine reputation as a "finishing school". Following the dissolution of the monasteries (under Thomas Cromwell) she was awarded a pension.[35] Following his rapid promotion, Larke became a source of embarrassment to Wolsey who arranged for her marriage to George Legh of Adlington, in Cheshire, circa 1519. He himself provided the dowry.[33] Henry VIII had a mansion built for Legh at Cheshunt Great House.

Fictional portrayals


  • Before Wolsey was removed from power, he planned to make his home town of Ipswich a seat of learning. He built a substantial college, which for two years, 1528–1530, was parent of the Queen Elizabeth School or Ipswich Grammar School, which today flourishes on another site. All that remains of the Wolsey structure is the former waterside gate, figured by Francis Grose in his Antiquities, which can still be seen on College Street.
  • In 1930 Wolsey was commemorated in Ipswich with a substantial Pageant Play.
  • He is far from forgotten in the town of Ipswich, an appeal[37] having been launched in October 2009 to erect a statue there as a permanent commemoration. Arising from this project, a more-than-life-sized bronze statue to Cardinal Wolsey, shown seated facing south towards St Peter's Church (the former mediaeval Augustinian Priory Church of St Peter and St Paul, which Wolsey annexed as the chapel of his College of Ipswich), teaching from a book, with a familiar cat at his side, was unveiled from beneath a covering flag on 29 June 2011 near the site of the Wolsey home on St Nicholas Street, Ipswich. After a civic procession from the Tower Church, the image, created by sculptor David Annand, was dedicated by blessing in the name of the Holy Trinity by the Bishop of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich, and launched in the civic capacity by the Mayor of Ipswich, in the presence of a crowd of onlookers.[38]
  • A statue of Wolsey stands in Leicester's Abbey Park close to the site of his burial. It was donated by the Wolsey hosiery company, a major employer in the city and also named after the cardinal.[39]


  • Cardinal Wolsey's bust was used in the 1980s above the London Transport roundel on London's buses in west and south-west London as the symbol of the Cardinal bus district, which was named after him and his residence at Hampton Court.[40]


Coat of arms of Thomas Wolsey
Cardinal Wolsey's arms were granted to him by the College of Arms in 1525. They are now used by Christ Church, Oxford.
Sable, on a cross engrailed argent a lion passant gules between four leopards' faces azure; on a chief Or a rose gules barbed vert and seeded or between two Cornish choughs proper
The silver cross is derived from the arms of the Ufford Earls of Suffolk, and the four leopards' faces from the de la Pole Earls and Dukes of Suffolk, Wolsey being a Suffolk native. The Cornish choughs, or "beckets" as they are sometimes known, are a reference to Wolsey's namesake, Thomas Becket. The red lion symbolises Wolsey's patron, Pope Leo X, while the rose symbolises his king, Henry VIII.


  1. Sometimes spelled Woolsey or Wulcy, etc
  2. "Alastair Armstrong, Henry VIII: Authority, Nation and Religion 1509–1540"
  3. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Thomas Wolsey.
  4. Thomas Wolsey (1473–1530), royal minister, archbishop of York, and cardinal by Sybil M. Jack in Dictionary of National Biography.
  5. Plaque #2710 on Open Plaques.
  6. Historic England. "Church of Saint Mary (1056844)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 12 October 2008.
  7. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Henry VII.
  8. Williams p.26
  9. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Richard Fox
  10. Macdougall, Norman, James IV, Tuckwell (1997), p.254: Letters of James IV, Scottish History Society (1953) pp. xlii, 107–111
  11. Williams, p. 26
  12. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "Henry VIII"; 2004
  13. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, "William Warham"; 2004.
  14. Sir Egerton Brydges (16 July 2007). Censura literaria: Containing titles, abstracts, and opinions of old English books, with original disquisitions, articles of biography, and other literary antiquities. Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown. Retrieved 25 June 2009.
  15. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII pp 31-36.
  16. J.D. Mackie, The Earlier Tudors, 1485–1558 (1952), pp. 271–77
  17. Harris, Barbara (1989). "Power, Profit, and Passion: Mary Tudor, Charles Brandon, and the Arranged Marriage in Early Tudor England". Feminist Studies. 15: 59–88.
  18. Gwyn, The King's Cardinal pp 58-103.
  19. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII pp 74-80.
  20. Mackie, Earlier Tudors pp 310-12.
  21. Garret Mattingly, "An Early Nonaggression Pact," Journal of Modern History, (1938) 10#1 pp 1–30 in JSTOR
  22. G.W. Bernard, War, Taxation, and Rebellion in Early Tudor England: Henry VIII, Wolsey, and the Amicable Grant of 1525 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1986).
  23. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII pp 140-62.
  24. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII pp 149-59.
  25. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII ch 7, 8.
  26. Sara Nair James, "Cardinal Wolsey: The English Cardinal Italianate" in Christopher Cobb, ed. (2009). Renaissance Papers 2008. Camden House. p. 1.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  27. John Guy, Tudor England (1988) p 87.
  28. S. T. Bindoff, Tudor England (1950), p. 78.
  29. J. D. Mackie, The Earlier Tudors 1485–1558 (1952), pp. 286–334.
  30. "History Learning Site". History Learning Site. 30 March 2007. Retrieved 14 May 2012.
  31. Early Tudor Tombs by Edward Chaney
  32. Matusiak, John (1 September 2014). Wolsey: The Life of King Henry VIII's Cardinal. The History Press. ISBN 9780750957762.
  33. Cardinal Wolsey: A Life in Renaissance Europe by Stella Fletcher
  34. The Cardinal and the Secretary by Neville Williams
  35. Oxford Dictionary National Biography, Thomas [Winter] Wynter.
  36. Kilgarriff, Michael. "'HENRY IRVING and the PHONOGRAPH: BENNETT MAXWELL'". Archived from the original on 8 March 2012. Retrieved 14 May 2012.
  37. The Wolsey Statue appeal Archived 3 September 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  38. Ipswich, Evening Star, 30 June 2011. Wolsey's Gate
  39. Crosby, Colin. "Cardinal Wolsey Statue (Leicester) - Colin Crosby Heritage Tours". Colin Crosby Heritage Tours.
  40. "London Transport - Local Bus Maps". Retrieved 26 August 2013.


  • Tim Tatton-Brown, Lambeth Palace: A History of the Archbishops of Canterbury and their Houses (London: SPCK, 2000).
  • Chaney, Edward (1 May 2000). "The Evolution of the Grand Tour: Anglo-Italian Cultural Relations since the Renaissance". Frank Cass Publishers. ISBN 978-0-7146-4474-5.
  • Thomas Cocke, “'The Repository of Our English Kings': The Henry VII Chapel as Royal Mausoleum.” Architectural History, Vol. 44, Essays in Architectural History Presented to John Newman. (2001), 212-220
  • Jonathan Foyle, “A Reconstruction of Thomas Wolsey’s Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace,” Architectural History, vol. 45 (2002), 128-58.
  • Steven Gunn, “Anglo-Florentine Contacts in the Age of Henry VIII,” in Cinzia Sicca and Louis Waldman, eds. The Anglo-Florentine Renaissance: Art for the Early Tudors (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), 19-48.
  • John Guy, Tudor England (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988),
  • Sybil M. Jack, "Thomas Wolsey (1471–1530), royal minister, archbishop of York, and cardinal" in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004).
  • Sara Nair James, “Cardinal Wolsey: The English Cardinal Italianate,” in Renaissance Papers 2008, Christopher Cobb, ed.. Rochester [NY]: Camden House, 2009: 1-15.
  • Sara Nair James, Art in England: the Saxons through the Tudors: 600-1600. Oxford [UK]: Oxbow/Casemate Publishing, 2016.
  • P. G. Lindley, “Introduction” and “Playing Check-mate with Royal Majesty? Wolsey's Patronage of Italian Renaissance Sculpture,” in Cardinal Wolsey: Religion, State and Art, S. J.Gunn and P. G. Lindley eds., (Cambridge, 1991), 1-53 and 261-85.
  • Simon Thurley, “The Domestic Building Works of Cardinal Wolsey,” in Cardinal Wolsey: Religion, State and Art, ed. S. J. Gunn and P. G. Lindley (Cambridge University Press, 1991), 76-102.
  • Simon Thurley, The Lost Palace of Whitehall (London: The Royal Institute of British Architects, 1998).
  • Neville Williams, The Tudors: A Royal History of England, Antonia Fraser, ed (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).
  • Neville Williams, Henry VIII and His Court (1971).
  • William E. Willkie, The Cardinal Protectors of England. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974)

Further reading

  • Bernard, G. W. War, Taxation & Rebellion in Early Tudor England: Henry VIII, Wolsey & the Amicable Grant of 1525 (1986). 164pp
  • Bernard, G. W. "The fall of Wolsey reconsidered." Journal of British Studies 35.3 (1996): 277-310.
  • Cavendish, George. The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, 1611. (Cavendish was gentleman usher to Thomas Wolsey.)
  • Ferguson, Charles W. Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey. (2 vol 1958). online vol 1; online vol 2
  • Fletcher, Stella. Cardinal Wolsey: A Life in Renaissance Europe (2009)
  • Gunn, S. J. and P.G. Lindley. Cardinal Wolsey: Church, State & Art (1991) 329pp.
  • Guy, John. Tudor England (1988) pp 80–115.
  • Gwyn, Peter. The King's Cardinal: The Rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1992), 666pp; the major scholarly biography
  • Gwyn, Peter. "Wolsey's foreign policy: the conferences at Calais and Bruges reconsidered." Historical Journal 23.4 (1980): 755-772.
  • Mackie, J. D. The Earlier Tudors, 1485–1558 (1952) pp. 286–334
  • Pollard, A. F. Wolsey. (1929). online
  • Ridley, Jasper. Statesman and Saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More and the Politics of Henry VIII. Viking, 1983. online
  • Scarisbrick, J. J. Henry VIII (1968) online, scholarly biography
  • Schwartz-Leeper, Gavin. From Princes to Pages: The Literary Lives of Cardinal Wolsey, Tudor England's 'Other King'. Brill, 2016. online
  • Williams, Neville. The Cardinal and the Secretary: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, 1975.
  • Williams, Robert Folkestone. Lives of the English Cardinals..., 2006.
  • Wilson, Derek (6 April 2002). In the Lion's Court: Power, Ambition, and Sudden Death in the Reign of Henry VIII. St Martins Press. ISBN 978-0-312-28696-5.
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