Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

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Cardinal Thomas Wolsey as played by Sam Neill

Born c. March 1471 /1475 - died November 28/29, 1530*

Character's backstory: Possibly the son of a commoner however other sources suggest that his father, Robert Wolsey, was a successful and respected cloth merchant who may have died in battle at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was considered a "significant casualty". It is thought that the story of his father being a commoner was created by those in Court wishing to discredit him. If the commoner story were believed to be true at Court, it is perhaps the reason why the hatred of many the well-to-do Courtiers and Royals were envious of his backstory because of his ability to work his way up through the ranks, to having even more power than the King himself.

Thomas Wolsey attended Ipswich School and Magdalen College School in addition to studying theology at Magdalen College in Oxford. Wolsey entered the employ of King Henry VII in 1507. King Henry VII appointed him Royal Chaplain which also made him Secretary to Bishop Richard Foxe, who quickly noticed his intelligence and organizational skills. He attained a seat on the Privy Council in 1509 which afforded him the ability to establish a relationship with the King. In 1509, with the King's passing and Henry VIII, taking on the monarchy - young and disinterested in governing - Wolsey took control of many governance issues for the new King. This lack of interest by the new King, in turn, gave Wolsey more power than King Henry VII would have ever allowed. Wolsey was careful during this time, to sway his beliefs in conversation and speeches, to the King's beliefs. He was also quick to get rid of any Courtiers who might sway the King away from Wolsey's thoughts on issues of interest. His rise in power of domestic affairs was quick at this time. In 1514, he was named Bishop of Lincoln and Archbishop of York. In 1515, he was named Lord Chancellor. Pope Leo X named him Cardinal at this time as well. In 1523, he was made Prince-Bishop of Durham by the Church.

"In 1526, and perhaps earlier, Wolsey had been making tentative inquiries at Rome on the subject [of the King's marriage annulment]. In May 1527, a collusive and secret suit was begun before the cardinal, who, as legate, summoned the king to defend himself from the charge of cohabitation with his brother's wife; but these proceedings were dropped. On the 22nd of June, Henry informed Catherine that they had been living in mortal sin and must separate. Wolsey's traveled in July to Paris, as he had been commissioned to discuss vaguely the divorce and Henry's possible marriage with Renee, daughter of Louis XII. Anne Boleyn is first heard of in connection with the King, his affection for her having, however, begun probably as early as 1523. The Cardinal, on his return, found Anne openly installed at Court.

"... The King was eager to rid himself of a Spanish queen who had entered menopause and would never bear him a male heir, but most of all, he was eager to remarry. Anne Boleyn, and the King's 'great matter', would prove to be Wolsey's final downfall." ~ Luminarium encyclopedia

In 1529, when traveling in Yorkshire, after failing to attain a divorce for the King, he was stripped of his government office and properties. He was then called back to London to answer charges of treason, however, during this trip back to London, he fell ill and passed away in Leicester.

*Wolsey is shown committing suicide on the series. There is no known historical record of this and it was said he had died from illness.

Gentility: Possibly son of a commoner - could be a rumor from Court - he may, rather, have been a son of a wealthy and respected cloth merchant who later died a hero in battle.

Position: Cardinal of the Catholic Church, Archbishop of York as well as other Religious and Powerful position, Chancellor for a time.

Personality type: Urbane, thoughtful & manipulative.
Greedy and envious, rash in his attitude, although he always thinks before he acts. He took the English into an established economy even though he was a corrupt and vain man, in his greediness for power and disagreement with Anne Boleyn was his downfall.
"he was most earnest and readiest among all the council to advance the King's own will and pleasure without any respect to the case" - Cavendish

Signature look: His red robes.

Endearing trait(s):His accuracy and very good grasp at politics.

Annoying trait(s):
Mean, quick to anger and broken vows of chastity. Ambition for power - to be the next Pope

"On "a plain path to walk in towards promotion", Wolsey decided to "disburden" his young, pleasure-loving king of affairs of state. "He had a special gift," Cavendish says, "of natural eloquence ... to persuade and allure all men to his purpose", and his head was "full of subtle wit and policy". He became Archbishop of York, Bishop of Winchester, papal legate, Lord Chancellor. The papacy eluded him, but in England he was "alter rex" - the other king - and Europe knew it: French diplomats blanched when he raised his voice. He was, as Cavendish admitted, "haughty"; but he seems also - and this is what strikes the reader - a man of great warmth and personal kindness. He was a superb organiser of everything from wars to banquets, and he didn't do it wholly by charm; Cavendish was at his elbow one morning when Wolsey rose at four and "continually wrote his letters with his own hands", till four in the afternoon, "all which season my lord never rose once to piss, nor yet to eat any meat". After this feat of concentration, the cardinal heard mass, ate dinner and supper together to save time, and went to bed early, ready for another lucrative and thoroughly gratifying day. Patron of artists, architects and poets, Wolsey lived "in fortune's blissfulness". Henry VIII's early years were, Cavendish says, "a golden world", and the cardinal was its golden centre, with his household of 500 attending him around the clock.."
~ Hilary Mantel (author of Wolf Hall) - <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title='Guardian Article "The Other King"'>Guardian Article "The Other King"</a> Re: George Cavendish's book Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinal, His Life and Death

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey played by Sam Neill

" Look at my face -
I am not afraid of any man alive."
- Wolsey to Lord Percy when he was arrested

" No man's pie is freed from
his ambitious finger"
Buckingham says of Wolsey in
Shakespeare's 'Henry VIII'

coat of arms

"Thomas Wolsey came to power because of his extraordinary intelligence, his facility as a communicator and mediator and his outstanding administrative ability. ... Wolsey was an impressive example of the kind of churchman who was also a leading statesman, a political animal vital to the successful working of the early modern state."

~ Lucy Wooding "Henry VIII" (2009)

"That Bluff King Hal suffered from megalomania is beyond dispute ; for lesser men had become puffed up with the satanic pride that they could do no wrong. Early in the reign, when the monarch was engrossed in the pleasures of the joust, the masque and the hunt, Cardinal Wolsey, the King's alter ego, had fallen prey to the same self-destroying egotism. He started out his career humbly saying that His Majesty will do so and so, but subsequently and by imperceptible degrees he developed the habit of announcing "We shall do so and so." Finally, he attained the ultimate conceit of claiming "I shall do so and so". The Cardinal's disgrace and death were apparent and obvious evidence that power rested else where. He was simply the King's creature, the bubble of whose egotism was pricked by the sharp reality that final authority rested with his master."
~ Lacey Baldwin Smith A Tudor Tragedy

"According to his biographer, George Cavendish, Thomas Wolsey made it his business to 'satisfy the king's mind, knowing right well that it was the right course to bring him to high promotion'. This was scarcely an original or profound conclusion to reach; all royal favourites attain and maintain their position by pandering to the whims of their masters. What made Wolsey different was his omnicompetence. He was the executive officer par excellence. His mind was a well-filled and finely-organized filing cabinet. He was compulsively industrious and few details escaped his attention. He had the mental facility to evaluate arguments and the intuition to weigh up people. This did not mean that he was a funless bureaucrat, far from it. Even those who disliked Wolsey acknowledge his eloquence and wit. If, as his power grew, he coult threaten frighteningly, he could also charm disarmingly. Few men of his time and perhaps no Englishmen, were more cultured. He was a lavish and discerning patron, a generous host and bon viveur.....

Like his royal master, Wolsey was a theatrical extrovert, but he was never an uncontrolled one. Perhaps this explains the hold he came to exercise over the young Henry. Wolsey was always careful never to appear in competition with the king. His splendour was a complimentary splendour, designed to enhance Henry's reputation. The royal almoner appealed to Henry because his personality straddled court and council. He was a fun-loving bon viveur but also a serious man of affairs, capable of giving sound advice."
~Derek Wilson's A Short Biography of Henry VIII 2009

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Family members:
Father - Robert Wolsey of Ipswich - wealthy cloth merchant who died at Bosworth
Mother - Joan

Romance(s): Mistress Joan Larke.

Dorothy - born circa 1512.

Thomas Wynter Wolsey - born circa 1528

Friends: More of a classmate in teaching the grasps of politics, Thomas More who would later replace him as dear friend of Henry VIII, who suffered a worse fate then Wolsey. Thomas Cromwell; he stayed Woley's ally to the very end.

Enemies: The Boleyn and Howard Families, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, Anne Boleyn, Emperor Charles V.

See Also LINKS:


  • "Ah then, Your majesty, you have not heard. The Emperor has married Princess Isabella of Portugal. Apparently he decided it was not worth waiting for your daughter to grow up. And who's to say that perhaps he was influenced by the fact that the beautiful Isabella brought with her a dowry of one million pounds. He broke his word" (Episode 5, Showtime)
  • "Come Thomas! What are you pretending? Kings get divorced all the time and Popes always find an excuse. I know you are an idealist, but you're not stupid. If Henry wants an annulment, who's to stop him?" (Episode 5, Showtime)
  • "If I were younger,or more foolish or more alive, I would gladly take this offer. You deserve better than to be used as a *****"
  • "Eagles fly too high. Fly like a pigeon they **** on everybody."

  • "Your majesty would be known as an architect of a new and modern world."

  • "If I had served God as well as I served the King then he would not have taken me in my gray hairs" (Ep.10, Showtime)

  • "Lord, we have not spoken as long --or as often as--we should. I've often been about other business. If I wanted forgiveness, I should ask for it, but... for all that I have done, and for all that I am yet to do, there can be no forgiveness. And yet I think I'm... I'm not an evil man. No, evil men pray loud and seek penance and think themselves closer to Heaven than I am. I shall not see its gaze, Lord, nor hear Your sweet words of salvation. I have seen eternity, I swear, but it was in a dream and in the morning all was gone. I know myself for what I am, and I throw my poor soul upon Your forgiveness... in the full knowledge that I deserve none at Your loving hands." (Wolsey's prayer, before committing suicide - Season 1, Episode 10.)


  • Ep.10 where he takes his life, literally, in his own hands and pray to God finally admitting all the bad to which he had done and was about to do, right before his suicide which Henry conveniently covered up because he did not want the scandal and bad fame of Wolsey, which he eventually gained.
  • Where, before dying, he takes his own life and destiny in his own hands and begs forgiveness and sees the errors of his way, begging knowing that he does not deserve. The scene was touching as this was a man who in his last moments had humble beginnings and humble ends by having humility in the end he did not have in his previous lifetime. He took his life, knowing the consequences of his actions.
  • Episode 8 - where he yells and begs the King for an audience with him alone, but he is struck with shock and fear as the King no longer listens to him only to ride away with his enemy Anne Boleyn and Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk and Earl of Surrey.
  • When Cardinal Campeggio declared that he did not have enough time to answer to Henry's "Great Problem", Henry looks at Wolsey with such anger and hatred. Wolsey knows that his time in the King's Good Graces is over.

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Cardinal Wolsey as played by Sam Neill

Cardinal Wolsey

Wolsey as played by Sam Neill
Cardinal Wolsey
The king and the cardinal
The king and the cardinal
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey - The Tudors WikiWolsey as played by Sam Neill
Cardinal Wolsey as played by Sam Neill
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See also: The Tudors Cast | The Tudors Episode Guide