10 Facts About Cardinal Thomas Wolsey | History Hit

10 Facts About Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Richard Bevan

10 Mar 2022
Sampson Strong: Portrait of Cardinal Wolsey (1473-1530)
Image Credit: Christ Church via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530) was the son of a butcher and cattle dealer in Ipswich, but he grew to become the second most powerful man in England during the reign of his master, King Henry VIII. By the late 1520s, Wolsey had also become one of the wealthiest men in the country.

The intelligent and diligent cardinal had an uncanny ability to give the king what he wanted, making him the most trusted ally of the notoriously temperamental monarch. But in 1529, Henry VIII turned on Wolsey, ordering his arrest and causing Wolsey’s downfall.

Here are 10 facts about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

1. Cardinal Wolsey was an ambitious and trusted advisor to King Henry VIII

Wolsey, who first became King Henry VIII’s chaplain, quickly rose up the ranks to become a cardinal in 1515 by appointment of Pope Leo X. But his highest position was as Lord Chancellor and the king’s chief advisor which enriched his status and wealth.

Physically he was a short, corpulent man of earthy humour, known for his arrogance, vanity and his greed. But he was also an outstanding administrator, and such talent, combined with his all-consuming ambition, had helped him to run England successfully for almost twenty years until his downfall in 1529.

A depiction of Wolsey from a 1905 book entitled, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey.

Image Credit: George Cavendish via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

2. Wolsey responded to threats to his power by vanquishing his enemies

Wolsey possessed a Machiavellian streak motivated by self-preservation. Not only would he go to great lengths to neutralise other courtiers’ influence, but he masterminded the fall of prominent people such as Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham. He also prosecuted Henry’s close friend William Compton as well as the king’s ex-mistress, Anne Stafford.

Conversely, Wolsey’s shrewd nature saw him influencing King Henry not to execute Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, after he secretly married Henry’s sister Mary Tudor, as Wolsey feared repercussions to his own life and status.

3. Anne Boleyn allegedly hated Wolsey for separating her from her first love

As a young girl, Anne Boleyn had become involved in a romantic relationship with a young man, Henry Lord Percy, Earl of Northumberland and heir to great estates. Their affair took place against the background of Queen Catherine’s household where Percy, who was a page to Cardinal Wolsey at court, would make visits to the Queen’s chamber in order to see Anne.

Wolsey, realising that his master King Henry had taken a liking to Anne (possibly using her as a mistress in the same way he had seduced her sister Mary) put a stop to the romance, dispatching Percy away from court to separate the couple. This, some historians have speculated, may have incited Anne’s hatred of the cardinal and her desire to eventually see him destroyed.

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4. Wolsey grew powerful despite his humble background

Wolsey’s humble origins as a butcher’s son in Ipswich ensured that he owed everything to royal advancement. But as a man who had the ear of King Henry and was one of the most powerful men in England, he was also hated by nobles who viewed Wolsey’s humble background as unworthy of his status.

Protected by Henry from attack, Wolsey had the freedom to influence foreign affairs and make reforms. As long as he was in the king’s favour he was untouchable, even though his enemies waited for opportunities to bring him down.

5. He had big plans for architectural changes in England

As well as Wolsey’s influence over foreign affairs and domestic laws, he was also passionate about art and architecture. He set out on a building campaign that was unprecedented for an English churchman, bringing Italian Renaissance ideas into English architecture.

Some of his lavish projects included additions to York Palace in London as well as renovating Hampton Court. Having spent a fortune on its refurbishment and staffing it with over 400 servants, Hampton Court marked one of Wolsey’s first mistakes with King Henry, who thought the palace far too good for a cardinal. After Wolsey’s demise, King Henry took over Hampton Court and gave it to his new Queen, Anne Boleyn.

6. King Henry asked Wolsey to be godfather to his bastards

King Henry fathered an illegitimate son with one of his favourite mistresses, Bessie Blount, who had been a lady in waiting to Henry’s wife Catherine of Aragon. The baby was given his father’s Christian name, Henry, and the traditional surname of a royal bastard, Fitzroy.

In an indication of official favour for the boy, Cardinal Wolsey was made Fitzroy’s godfather. He had also been made godfather to the baby’s half-sister, Mary, nearly three years earlier.

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7. Wolsey negotiated a failed marriage contract between Princess Mary and Emperor Charles V

By 1521 King Henry, still without a male heir, entertained thoughts about having a powerful grandson through his daughter Mary’s marriage to the most powerful man in Europe, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Wolsey negotiated the marriage treaty, and his wording made it clear that Princess Mary would succeed her father.

Wolsey poured over dowry arrangements that were fiercely discussed between himself and King Henry. But one problem stood in the way of the marriage taking place: Princess Mary was just 6 years old at the time and her betrothed was 15 years her senior. Ultimately, Charles was too impatient and married another princess.

8. Wolsey helped arrange the Field of the Cloth of Gold summit

This vastly expensive summit between King Henry VIII and King Francis I of France involved thousands of courtiers and horses, and took place at Balinghem in France, 7-24 June 1520. It was a triumph for Cardinal Wolsey who organised much of the grand meeting between the two kings.

A British school depiction of the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520.

Image Credit: via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

It was named ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold‘ after the tents and dazzling costumes present. Under the guidance of Wolsey, it was primarily a way for both kings to show off their wealth, while at the same time aiming to increase the bond of friendship between two traditional enemies.

9. Wolsey was the Pope’s most senior officer in England

Wolsey was crowned Papal legate in 1518, essentially rendering him a high representative of the Pope’s authority in England. In 1524, Pope Clement VII extended Wolsey’s appointment as legate for the duration of the Cardinal’s life. This made permanent the Cardinal’s position as the pope’s deputy for the whole English Church, granting Wolsey more papal agency, but also placing him in a difficult position as a loyal servant to King Henry VIII.

10. Wolsey failed to free Henry VIII of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon

Wolsey’s most fatal error, which instigated his downfall, was his failure to gain Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Despite Wolsey’s efforts, the Pope sided with the Spanish Queen under pressure from her nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

Wolsey was cast out from the court he served, charged with high treason and summoned for trial. His fortune was stripped as well as his assets. On 28 November 1530 Wolsey arrived at Leicester Abbey in the custody of Sir William Kingston, the lieutenant of the Tower of London. Sick at heart but also in body, he lamented his fate: “had I but served God as diligently as I have my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

Wolsey died at the age of 55, probably of natural causes, before he could be executed.

Richard Bevan