Cardinal Thomas Wolsey Historical Profile

From The Tudors Wiki
Jump to navigation Jump to search
The History
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
c.1473 - 1530 (Aged 57)

A man of "unbounded stomach"*

Click EasyEdit to update this page!
(Don't see the EasyEdit button above?
<a href="/#signin" target="_self">Sign in</a> or <a href="/accountnew" target="_self">Sign up</a>.)


  • Wolsey originally served as Chaplain to Henry's father King Henry VII.

  • In September 1515, he was appointed Cardinal by the Pope, and on Christmas Eve, 1515, named Lord Chancellor by King Henry VIII which meant he not only enjoyed a high Church position, but also the highest secular position.

  • Young King Henry, preferring the sports of lovemaking and hunting to politics, entrusted increasingly more power to Wolsey and followed his counsel on matters of state. Wolsey became the real power behind the throne, without ever the King guessing who was truly running the country.

  • In February 1520, Wolsey agreed that the English would meet Francis I in May at Henry's castle in Guisnes in Calais. The Cardinal was in charge of the arrangements for this meeting which was to be called "one of the most expensive charades ever staged in history, the Field of Cloth of Gold." Henry and Francis signed a treaty of friendship, but as the Venetian Ambassador noted, "these sovereigns are not at peace. They hate each other cordially."

  • On July 14, 1520, Henry signed a treaty with Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor in which both parties agreed not to make any new alliances with France for the next two years. Wolsey arranged the breaking of Princess Mary Tudor's betrothal to the French Dauphin, and in the spring of 1521 Charles proposed to marry her, to the great happiness of the Queen.

  • When Charles announced, in August, 1525, that he considered his betrothal to Princess Mary null and void (for he had found a richer bride, Isabella of Portugal), Henry released him from the betrothal and signed a new treaty with France. In the summer of 1526, Francis I offered himself husband for Princess Mary Tudor. Both Wolsey and Henry were enthusiastic.

  • With the new cementing of ties with France, Henry felt he no longer needed the goodwill of Spain. Thus, it did not matter if he angered the Emperor by casting aside his aunt, Queen Katherine of Aragon. 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. The King turned to Wolsey for help in getting an annulment of his first marriage. Wolsey pleaded with the King to avoid such action.

  • In June 1528, when there was an outbreak of the sweating sickness and Anne Boleyn was sent away from London,Wolsey, took this as a sign of God's wrath at the proceedings of the King's Great Matter & wrote to Henry to ask him to drop the annulment suit. Henry, outraged, is said to have exclaimed he would have given “a thousand Wolseys for one Anne Boleyn.”
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

*"Stomach" does not mean that Wolsey loved food (which he did), but that he had an appetite for power.

He was a man
Of unbounded stomach, ever ranking
Himself with princes; one that by suggestion
Tied all the kingdom. Simony was fair play;
His own opinion was his law. I'th'presence
[i.e. of the King]
He would say untruths and be ever double
Both in his words and meaning. He was never,
But where he meant to ruin, pitiful.
His promises were, as he then was, mighty,
But his performance, as he is now, nothing

(Shakespeare's Henry VIII 4.2.33-37)

In one letter, when Wolsey became aware of the King's displeasure with his failure to obtain the annulment he desperately wanted, he wrote:
If the Pope is not compliant, my own life will be shortened, and I dread to anticipate the consequences.”

Wolseys procession

Circa 1520, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey & his suite of retainers riding out across the countryside.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Wolsey surrenders the seal
Cardinal Wolsey surrendering the Great Seal (1529)
From Cavendish's Life of Wolsey Roll 214.5.
The Bodleian Library, Oxford.
Cawood Tower
Cawood Tower as it appears today.
Wolsey's last refuge.

In October 1529, Wolsey was officially stripped of the office of Lord Chancellor, and was required to return the Great Seal. Desperately trying to avoid indictment, Wolsey gave the King most of his property, including York Place, himself retiring to a modest house in Esher, Surrey. York Place was to be renovated, renamed Whitehall, and given to Anne Boleyn.

In November Wolsey begged the King for mercy, and Henry, placated, placed Wolsey under his personal protection. Just after Christmas, Wolsey fell ill and was thought to be dying. The King sent him a message saying he “would not lose him for £20,000”, and the Cardinal's health improved.

However, Wolsey was finally arrested on a charge of high treason in November.

Travelling from Cawood, Yorkshire, to the Tower of London proved too much for Wolsey who fell ill on the way and died at Leicester Abbey. He is said to have said on his deathbed, “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

Wolsey's disgrace
Letter from Henry VIII to Cardinal Wolsey.
(c. 1527 - just before his disgrace)

Mine own good cardinal,—I recommend me unto you with all my heart, and thank you for the great pain and labour that you do daily take in my business and matters, desiring you (that when you have well established them) to take some pastime and comfort, to the intent you may the longer endure to serve us, for always pain cannot be endured. Surely you have so substantially ordered our matters both of this side the sea and beyond, that in mine opinion little or nothing can be added. Nevertheless, according to your desire, I do send you mine opinion by this bearer, the reformation whereof I do remit to you and the remnant of our trusty councillors which I am sure will substantially look on it.
As touching the matter that Sir William Says brought answer of, I am well contented with what order soever you do take in it.
The queen my wife hath desired me to make her most hearty recommendations to you, as to him that she loveth very well, and both she and I would fain know when you will repair to us. No more to you at this time, but that with God's help I trust we shall disappoint our enemies of their intended purpose.
Written with the hand of your loving master,

Letters of the Kings of England. Vol I. J. O. Halliwell, Ed.
London: Henry Colburn, 1846. 285-6.


  • <a class="external" href="" rel="nofollow" target="_blank" title="An account of Thomas Wolsey's fall from royal favour by the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall.">An account of Thomas Wolsey's fall from royal favour by the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall.</a>

During his career Cardinal Thomas Wolsey made many enemies. Many nobles were keen to see Wolsey’s departure from government in 1529 and his death in 1530. Although Wolsey was a very able man, most of his effort seemed to be concentrated on building up his own vast personal fortune & expanding his own power base at the expense of others. . His political power was immense.

However, Wolsey was not so powerful that he was spared attacks that could be found in the written word. John Skelton (1460? – 1529) wrote a satire on Wolsey. Skelton was critical of the Church but even more critical of the most powerful man in the Church. Skelton would have been foolish to have verbally criticised Wolsey. He put his anger onto paper in the poem on the right aimed at Wolsey, despite his earlier support of the chief minister.

The satirical poem on the right was written probably in 1523 and circulated accordingly. It caused such offence to Wolsey, who did not see the funny side of the poem, that it is said that Skelton was forced to take sanctuary at Westminster until 1529 when he died. However, there is no proof that this actually happened though Skelton did die in 1529.
Why come ye not to court?
by John Skelton
“In the Chancery, where he sits,
But such as he admits,
None so hardy to speek!
He saith, “Thou hoddipeke,
They learning is too lewd,
Thy tongue is not well-thewd
To seek before our Grace!’
And openly, in that place,
He rages and he raves,
And calls them ‘cankered knaves’!
Thus royally he doth deal
Under the King’s broad seal;
And in the Chequer he them checks
And in the Star Chamber he nods and he becks,
And beareth him there so stout
That no man dare rowt!
Duke, earl, baron nor lord,
But to his sentence must accord;
Whether he be knight or squire,
All men must follow his desire.
Why come ye not to court?
To which court? To the King’s court,
Or to Hampton Court? Nay, to the king’s court!
The King’s court Should have excellence
But Hampton Court Hath the pre-eminence,
And York’s Place, With my Lord’s Grace!
To whose magnificence Is all the confluence,
Suits and supplications, Embassades of all nations.”
Hampton Court Palace
Hampton Court Palace built by Wolsey sometime between 1515 and 1530
Wolsey's grave
Wolsey's Grave at Abbey Park,
leicestershire, England

The Cardinal Wolsey statue on the right stands in Abbey Park, Leicester, by the elegant bridge which crosses the River Soar.

The statue was donated by the Wolsey hosiery company, one of Leicester’s major employers. They took their name from the Cardinal.
In the early 1990s, the statue was decapitated by vandals. A new head was commissioned, and it is said that the new one is a much better likeness.

Statue of Cardinal Wolsey