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Cardinal Wolsey

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Illustration of Cardinal Wolsey by Jim Godfrey

Wolsey was a Cardinal and statesman, Henry VIII's Lord Chancellor and one of the last English churchmen to play a dominant role in the political life of the nation


Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich, Suffolk, around 1475, the son of a butcher.  He attended Ipswich School and Magdalen College School before studying theology at Magdalen College, Oxford, graduating at the age of 15, and earning the nickname ‘Boy Bachelor’.  Ordained in around 1498 he became chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury and later to Henry VII, who employed him on diplomatic missions.

Rise to power

Wolsey made a name for himself as an efficient administrator, both for the Crown and the Church. When Henry VIII became king in 1509, Wolsey's rapid rise began. In 1514, he was created Archbishop of York and a year later Pope Leo X made him a Cardinal (the lion on Wolsey’s arms is that of Leo X). Soon afterwards the King appointed him Lord Chancellor. He also held the posts of Abbot of St Albans and Bishop of Winchester (two very lucrative positions) as well as that of Papal Legate (personal representative of the Pope in England).

From 1515 to 1529, Wolsey's rule was undisputed, Henry delegating more and more state business to him. Indeed he was often referred to as ‘the other King’. Wolsey's finest hour came in 1520 when he stage managed the Field of the Cloth of Gold, a summit meeting between Henry and Francis I, King of France.

Wolsey used his great wealth to indulge his passion for building - at his London home, York Place in Whitehall, and at Hampton Court. He also founded a school in his home town of Ipswich (the foundation stone of which is now in the Chapter House), and, in 1525, Cardinal College, Oxford (now Christ Church). However, his haughtiness and grand style of living made him increasingly unpopular. It became a real issue during the King’s ‘Great Matter’.

Wolsey's downfall

Henry desperately wanted a son and argued that his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, with whom he had a daughter (the future Queen Mary), was unlawful, as she had previously been married to his brother. He asked Wolsey to use his influence in Rome to obtain a papal annulment of his marriage, allowing him to remarry. Fatally for Wolsey he was unable to accomplish this, partly because Catherine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, dominated the Pope at the time. Wolsey’s unpopularity, particularly among those around Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's prospective new bride, meant that his failure to arrange the annulment for Henry was quickly followed by his downfall.

Wolsey’s fall from grace began with his being stripped of his properties and his government titles, and he retreated to York to fulfil his duties as Archbishop of York, a position he had neglected during his years in government. However, he was soon recalled to London to answer to charges of treason, a common charge used by Henry against ministers who fell out of favour.

Wolsey was arrested on 4 November 1530 at Cawood Castle, the Archbishop’s residence near York, and is reported to have cried out, ‘….if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.’ He was escorted south to the capital, reaching Leicester on 26 November where he lodged with the Abbott of Leicester Abbey. There he was taken ill and died on Tuesday 29 November. He was buried in the Abbey’s Lady Chapel.

The Abbey was destroyed at the Reformation and today Wolsey’s grave is marked by a stone in the Abbey Park. Wolsey had commissioned a magnificent tomb for himself at Windsor. Henry VIII contemplated being interred in the impressive black sarcophagus himself, but Lord Nelson now lies in it, in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.


At Christ Church Wolsey is commemorated by two statues (on the outside of Tom Tower and on Bodley Tower), a portrait and a stained-glass window in the Great Hall, and his cardinal’s hat is kept in the Upper Library. He also appears on a sixteenth century poppy-head in the Latin Chapel in the Cathedral and his coat of arms, adopted by the college, appear everywhere.