Thomas Wolsey (c. March 1473 – 29 November 1530; sometimes spelled Woolsey) was an English political figure and cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. When Henry VIII became King of England in 1509, Wolsey became the King’s almoner. Wolsey’s affairs prospered, and by 1514 he was the controlling figure in virtually all matters of state and was extremely powerful within the Church. The highest political position he attained was Lord Chancellor, the King’s chief adviser. In that position, he enjoyed great freedom, and was often depicted as an alter rex (other king). Despite his expansive power as the King’s “right-hand man”, he fell out of favour due to his failure to negotiate an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He was ultimately stripped of his government posts and retreated to York to oversee his clerical duties as Archbishop of York, a post he nominally held but never exercised during his many years in government. He was recalled to London to answer to charges of treason (a common charge used by Henry against ministers who fell out of favour), but died en route of natural causes before arriving in London.
Within the Church, he became Archbishop of York, the second most important seat in England, and then was made a cardinal in 1515, giving him precedence, even over the Archbishop of Canterbury. His main legacy is from his interest in architecture, in particular his old home of Hampton Court Palace, which stands today.
Thomas Wolsey was born circa 1473, the son of Robert Wolsey of Ipswich and his wife Joan Daundy. His father was widely thought to have been a butcher and a cattle dealer, but sources indicate that Robert Wolsey died at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was a significant casualty. Robert may have been a respected and wealthy cloth merchant, and the butcher story was perhaps invented to demean Wolsey and show how high he had climbed in terms of status.
Thomas Wolsey attended Ipswich School and Magdalen College School before studying theology at Magdalen College, Oxford. On 10 March 1498, he was ordained a priest in Marlborough, Wiltshire 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 the living of Church of Saint Mary, Limington, in Somerset. In 1502, he left and became a chaplain to Henry Deane, archbishop of Canterbury, who died the following year. He was then taken into the household of Sir Richard Nanfan, who trusted Wolsey to be executor of his estate. After Nanfan’s death in 1507, Wolsey entered the service of Henry VII.
It was to Wolsey’s advantage that Henry VII had introduced measures to curb the power of the nobility and was prepared to favour those from more humble backgrounds. Henry VII appointed Wolsey royal chaplain. In this position Wolsey was secretary to Richard Foxe, who recognized Wolsey’s innate ability and dedication and appreciated his industry and willingness to take on tedious tasks. Thomas Wolsey’s remarkable rise to power from humble origins can be attributed to his high level of intelligence and organisation, his extremely industrious nature, his driving ambition for power, and the rapport he was able to achieve 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.
Wolsey’s rise coincided with the accession of the new monarch, Henry VIII, whose character, policies and diplomatic mindset 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, providing an opportunity to raise his profile and to establish a rapport with the King. A factor in Wolsey’s rise was that the young Henry VIII was not particularly interested in the details of governing during his early years. Under the tight personal monarchy of Henry VII, Wolsey was unlikely to have obtained so much trust and responsibility.
Rise to prominence
The primary counsellors whom Henry VIII inherited from his father – Richard Foxe (Bishop of Winchester) and William Warham (Archbishop of Canterbury) – were cautious and conservative, advising the King to be 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 was able to adapt to the King’s mindset 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, fell from power (1515/1516) and Wolsey took over as the King’s most trusted advisor and administrator. In 1515, Warham resigned as Lord Chancellor, probably under pressure from the King and Wolsey, and Henry appointed Wolsey in his place.
Wolsey carefully tried to destroy or neutralise the influence of other courtiers. He was blamed for 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 attempted to win his favour instead, 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 for his own safety – the Dowager Queen of France was royalty and that made her dangerous if she chose to go against him for she was close to her brother, the King – is unknown.
Wolsey’s rise to a position of great secular power paralleled increased responsibilities in the Church. He became a Canon of Windsor in 1511, the same year that he became a member of the Privy Council. 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 S. Cæciliæ trans Tiberim. As tribute to the success of his campaign in France and subsequent peace negotiations, Wolsey was further rewarded by the church: in 1523 he became Prince-Bishop of Durham.
War with France
The war against France in 1512–14 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.
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.
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. 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.
The death of King Ferdinand of Spain, the father-in-law of Henry VIII, and England’s closest ally, in 1516 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.
Field of the Cloth of Gold
Another of his diplomatic triumphs was the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in 1520. Wolsey organised much of this grandiose meeting between Francis I of France and Henry VIII, accompanied by some five thousand followers. 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. 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.
Under Wolsey’s guidance, the chief nations of Europe sought to outlaw war forever among Christian nations. Mattingly (1938) 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.
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.
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.
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 organized 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.
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. His daughter Mary was not considered capable of holding the country together and continuing the Tudor dynasty because England, until then, had not accepted a queen regnant (with the exception, perhaps, of Empress Matilda, who fought and lost a long civil war in an attempt to keep her throne).
Henry expressed the belief that Catherine’s inability to produce a viable male heir was due to her being the widow of his elder brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales, which, he professed, violated Biblical proscription and cursed his marriage as incestuous. 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.
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 the papal legate Wolsey’s loyalty to the State 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 words in the Bible, 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.
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.
During his fourteen years of chancellorship, Cardinal Wolsey had more power than any other Crown servant in English history. 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.
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.
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 corruption had run rife, including abbeys 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.
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. 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 monopolized 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.
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.
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 is widely perceived to have directly caused his downfall and arrest.
Ultimately, Anne Boleyn and her faction, it was rumoured, convinced Henry that Wolsey was deliberately slowing proceedings, and as a result, he was arrested in 1529, and the Pope decided the official decision should be made in Rome anyway.
In 1529 Wolsey was stripped of his government office and property, including his magnificently expanded residence of Hampton Court, which Henry chose 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 60. 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. After his own even grander plans fell through, Henry VIII eventually intended the impressive black sarcophagus for himself, but Lord Nelson now lies in it, within the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Henry often receives credit for artistic patronage that properly belongs to Wolsey.
Mistress and issue
Wolsey lived in a “noncanonical” 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. Wolsey subsequently had two children, both born before he was made bishop. These were a son, Thomas Wynter (born circa 1510) and a daughter, Dorothy (born circa 1512), 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. Following 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. Henry VIII had a mansion built for Legh at Cheshunt Great House.