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Thomas Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey

The English statesman and prelate Thomas Wolsey (ca. 1475-1530) was virtual ruler of England as chief minister to Henry VIII. He fell from favor because of his inability to secure the King's divorce.

Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich, where his father, Robert, was a butcher and dealer in meat. A precocious child, Thomas was probably educated by churchmen at Ipswich before he proceeded to Oxford. He received his bachelor of arts degree when he was only 15 years old and was called the "boy bachelor." He was appointed bursar of Magdalen College in 1498 but was forced to resign two years later because he had applied funds without authority to the construction of the college's great tower, which still stands.

Wolsey, who took Holy Orders in 1498, then became rector of Limington in Dorset. He was also appointed chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Deane. After Deane's death in 1503, Wolsey became chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, the deputy of Calais. Through Nanfan, Wolsey gained an introduction at court, and by 1507 he had become chaplain to King Henry VII. Henry successfully employed Wolsey on several diplomatic missions to Scotland and the Netherlands.

In the Service of Henry VIII

Henry VIII appointed Wolsey royal almoner upon his accession to the throne in 1509. Wolsey rapidly accumulated additional positions in the Church: he became dean of Lincoln in 1509, a canon of Windsor in 1511, bishop of Lincoln in 1514, and archbishop of York later that year. He received additional revenues from various bishoprics and from the wealthy monastery of St. Albans.

As archbishop of York, Wolsey was the second-ranking churchman in England. He was not satisfied with this position, but he could not become archbishop of Canterbury because the incumbent, William Warham, steadfastly refused to accommodate him by retiring or dying. In 1515 Wolsey gained prestige by being created a cardinal—he had the red hat carried through the streets of London in a solemn procession—and in 1518 he was named a papal legate a latere, thus gaining preeminence over Warham.

By this time Wolsey's influence dominated the state also. He had successfully organized an army for the invasion of France in 1513 and had accompanied the King on the campaign. By Wolsey's treaty with France (1514), England held the balance of power between France and the Hapsburgs. In 1515 Wolsey was named lord chancellor, Warham having been persuaded to resign that office. Wolsey owed his power, however, more to the King's favor than to his tenure of any specific office. The young Henry VIII was more inclined to martial and sporting pursuits than to the transaction of routine governmental business, and he was delighted to find a minister as competent as the cardinal. In 1518 Wolsey engineered a treaty of universal peace embracing the principal European states.

Wolsey undertook minor reforms in both Church and state. He secured papal permission to close several small monasteries and applied the revenues to the foundation of a grammar school at lpswich and a college at Oxford. The school did not survive his fall, but Henry VIII allowed the college to continue, changing its name from Cardinal's College to Christ Church. Wolsey also attempted to provide better regulation for the King's household by drawing up the Eltham Ordinances of 1526.

Wolsey's greatest interest lay, however, in foreign affairs. While it has been argued that he wished mainly to preserve a balance of power in Europe, to become pope, or to maintain peace, his real motives may have been less precise, and he may have responded to European situations and to Henry VIII's desires without developing any overriding policy. In 1518 Wolsey negotiated an alliance between England and France, to be cemented by the marriage of Henry VIII's daughter Mary to the French Dauphin. In 1520 he arranged a meeting between Henry and Francis I of France on the "Field of the Cloth of Gold," a tent city erected in Flanders, and a more significant conference between Henry and Emperor Charles V at Gravelines. When Francis I drifted into war with the Holy Roman Empire, Wolsey sided with the Emperor. In 1523 English forces invaded France, without notable success, and Wolsey obtained unusual taxation from Parliament only after very stormy debates. In 1527 England abandoned the Emperor, signing a new treaty with France.

Fall from Favor

By this time Henry's mind was preoccupied with his desire for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. As the Queen had not borne him a male heir, he wished to be free to remarry. Wolsey conducted elaborate negotiations with Rome, and in 1529 he and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio began a trial of Henry's suit in London. But Pope Clement VII, who was dominated by the Emperor, Catherine's nephew, revoked the case to Rome and concluded the trial without a decision. The King's wrath focused on Wolsey, who was dismissed as chancellor in October 1529 and forced to leave London.

Although Wolsey's revenues were greatly reduced, he still managed to live in considerable magnificence. In 1530 he planned his enthronement as archbishop of York, never having been officially installed, but he was found in correspondence with foreign powers, contrary to the King's order. Wolsey was arrested at Cawood near York and ordered to London. He would doubtless have been executed on false charges of treason had he not died a natural death on the way to London. Lamenting that he had not served God as well as he had the King, Wolsey succumbed at Leicester on Nov. 29, 1530.

Despite Wolsey's supreme influence in Church and state, his achievements in both spheres were ephemeral. His greatest lasting monument is perhaps Hampton Court Palace, which he constructed on the Thames River west of London and where he lived in great pomp surrounded by an enormous retinue of servants and retainers.

Further Reading

George Cavendish, the cardinal's gentleman-usher, wrote The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey (1641), one of the masterpieces of early biography. The best edition is that by Richard S. Sylvester (1959). Modern biographies include Albert F. Pollard, Wolsey (1929), and Charles W. Ferguson, Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey (1958). There is related material in Albert F. Pollard, Henry VIII (1902; new ed. 1913), and J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (1968).

Additional Sources

Cardinal Wolsey: church, state, and art, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Gwyn, Peter, The king's cardinal: the rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey, London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990.

Harvey, Nancy Lenz, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, New York, N.Y.: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1980.

Pollard, A. F. (Albert Frederick), Wolsey, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.

Ridley, Jasper Godwin, Statesman and saint: Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Thomas More, and the politics of Henry VIII, New York: Viking Press, 1983, 1982.

Williams, Neville, The Cardinal and the Secretary: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, New York: Macmillan, 1976, 1975. □

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Wolsey, Thomas

Wolsey, Thomas (c.1472–1530). Cardinal. Thomas Wolsey, cardinal-minister to Henry VIII, dominated the political and ecclesiastical life of England from 1515 to 1529. His relatively modest origins (reputedly the son of an Ipswich butcher) were not unusual for a senior cleric; it was the contrast between his origins and life-style which drew notice. He studied at Oxford and became a fellow of Magdalen College around 1497. He soon left scholarship to serve as chaplain to Henry Deane, archbishop of Canterbury, from 1501, became a royal chaplain from 1507, and the king's almoner in 1509. For helping to organize Henry VIII's first campaign in France (1513), he was rewarded with the bishoprics of Lincoln and newly captured Tournai in 1514, and the archbishopric of York shortly afterwards. In 1515 he became both cardinal and lord chancellor of England. In 1518 the pope honoured him with the special status of legate a latere, outranking the legatine status held by every archbishop of Canterbury; in 1524 this title was, uniquely, given for life.

With such an accumulation of posts, and vast energy, Wolsey took responsibility under the king for nearly all areas of government policy. A primary aim was to win military and diplomatic success for Henry. After the costly first campaign in France, Wolsey tried to magnify his master through grandiose peace negotiations (the treaty of London, 1518, and the Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520); he also tried to steer England into a position as arbiter and broker between the much wealthier monarchies of France under Francis I and Austria-Spain-Burgundy under Charles V. However, England was drawn into invading France in 1522 and 1523, forcing heavy and much-resented taxation, for which Wolsey was blamed. Attempts to side with France after 1525 backfired: a cloth embargo on the Habsburg Netherlands in 1527–8 had to be abandoned because of the harm done to England.

In domestic affairs Wolsey used his position as lord chancellor to pursue traditional policies with unusual verve and aggression. He revived Henry VII's campaign against those gentry and nobles who ‘retained’ excessive numbers of supporters to overawe royal justice. In 1517 he instituted commissions to search out those who had broken the law against converting arable farms into sheep-runs. He expanded the scope of the prerogative courts' equity jurisdiction, attracting a flood of civil suits to Star Chamber and offering redress to poor plaintiffs in what later became the Court of Requests.

Wolsey's management of the church was less creative. He enjoyed his pro-papal status as legate, gratuitously thwarting the primate's jurisdiction at times. There is no evidence that he seriously coveted the papacy for himself, though the idea of setting him up as an anti-pope was briefly canvassed to resolve the royal marriage crisis. He had neither the moral reforming zeal of Colet nor the taste for theological polemic of John Fisher. However, he had a good eye for intellectual gifts in others; and his educational foundations, including the great unfinished project of Cardinal College, Oxford (later refounded as Christ Church), allow him to rank with Bishops Richard Foxe in Oxford and John Fisher in Cambridge. Dissolving multiple monasteries to endow a college and a school, however, set a dangerous precedent.

Historians have argued unfruitfully whether Wolsey or Henry VIII was really in charge of England before 1529. Contemporaries regarded the cardinal's power as quasi-regal, and his vastly ostentatious household, larger and more ritualized than the king's, contributed to that impression. Henry did not like to read papers and absented himself from duties for long periods. However, the king could intervene decisively and stubbornly via his secretaries, and occasionally did. His penchant for war created problems Wolsey would not have chosen to set himself, and brought ill-deserved public hatred on the minister. At intervals Wolsey felt the need to protect himself against hostile courtiers close to the king: he restructured the king's privy chamber in 1519 and again in 1526, and gave his own magnificent palace of Hampton Court to Henry in 1525.

Henry's desperate need for the annulment of his first marriage required Wolsey to ask of the papacy the one thing it could not grant. Wolsey attempted to have the issue devolved to a commission composed of himself and the roving Cardinal Campeggio, but the queen's appeal to Rome thwarted this plan. Wolsey, who planned a diplomatic second marriage to a French bride for Henry, had no control over Anne Boleyn, who fed the king anticlerical and anti-Wolsey propaganda in the months leading up to the sudden loss of all his offices in October 1529. Wolsey pleaded guilty to an absurd charge of Praemunire arising out of his legatine status, and temporarily retired to church affairs; but when he dabbled unofficially in diplomacy in the summer of 1530 he was denounced as a traitor, and died on his way to London to answer, at Leicester, on 29 November 1530.

Wolsey's unpopularity with the political nation has been blamed for much of the anticlerical sentiment expressed in the 1529 session of Parliament. It is, however, probably too harsh to place the subsequent misfortunes of either church or state on him. For his accumulation of offices, and many of the unpopular policies he followed, the king was personally responsible. Wolsey's moral failings and pompous style were comparable to those of other cardinal-ministers in Europe at the time. It was only in the light of the religious earnestness of the 1530s and 1540s that his ministry came to appear so incongruous.

Euan Cameron

Bibliography

Gunn, S. J. , Cardinal Wolsey (Cambridge, 1991).

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Wolsey, Thomas

Thomas Wolsey (wŏŏl´zē), 1473?–1530, English statesman and prelate, cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church.

Early Career

Educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, Wolsey served for a while as master of the Magdalen College school. He was ordained a priest in 1498. In 1507 he entered the service of Henry VII as royal chaplain. Upon the accession of Henry VIII in 1509, Wolsey was appointed royal almoner and privy councilor. He successfully organized an army for the invasion of France in 1513, accompanied Henry on his campaign, and helped conclude the peace of 1514. In the same year he was made bishop of Lincoln and then archbishop of York. In 1515 he became a cardinal and lord chancellor of England, and in 1518 he was created papal legate.

Chancellorship

From 1514 to 1529 Wolsey virtually controlled domestic and foreign policy for the young Henry VIII. In 1518 he engineered a treaty of universal peace embracing all the principal European states, which was meant to establish England as the mediator of European politics. This was followed by a dramatic display of amity between England and France on the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520). After attempting (1521) unsuccessfully to avert war between France and the Holy Roman Empire, he allied England with Emperor Charles V in 1522, but after Charles's defeat of the French at Pavia (1525), Wolsey again inclined his favor to France. His attempts to secure for England the role of arbiter in the Hapsburg-Valois rivalry finally failed when England became diplomatically isolated in 1529. The cardinal was twice a candidate for the papacy, but the thesis that his diplomacy was shaped largely by his ambition to become pope has been seriously questioned.

Internally, Wolsey centralized the administration and extended the jurisdiction of the conciliar courts, particularly the Star Chamber. However, his policy of raising money for England's wars by forced loans aroused considerable resentment. So too did his blatant ecclesiastical pluralism, enormous wealth, and lavish living. Wolsey's enemies at court, jealous of his power over the king, used the divorce of Katharine of Aragón as a means to bring about his ruin. At Henry's urging, he procured from the pope permission to try the issue in England. He presided at the trial with Cardinal Campeggio, who delayed and temporized and finally adjourned the case to Rome. He incurred Henry's anger for this failure to secure a quick and favorable decision and the enmity of Anne Boleyn for urging a French marriage on the king.

In Oct., 1529, he lost the chancellorship and all his honors and privileges except the archbishopric of York. He turned to his diocese, which he had never previously visited, and ruled it well for a few months. However, in Nov., 1530, he was arrested on false charges of treason and died at Leicester on his way to London.

Bibliography

The classic biography by G. Cavendish was first published in 1641. See also biographies by M. Creighton (1888), A. F. Pollard (1929, repr. 1966), and C. W. Ferguson (1958, repr. 1965).

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Wolsey, Thomas (1475–1530)

Wolsey, Thomas (14751530)

English churchman and statesman who was chaplain to Henry VII and Henry VIII. Born the son of a butcher in Ipswich, he was educated at Oxford, where he served as a master of Magdalen College. Ordained a priest in 1498, he was appointed as the rector of Limington parish in Dorset. In 1503 he became a chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, an English governor of Calais who introduced Wolsey to the royal court. He became the royal chaplain to King Henry VII, who sent him as a diplomat to Scotland and the Netherlands.

After Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, Wolsey won an appointment as the royal almoner, who was responsible for distributing alms to the poor. He organized an invasion force for an assault on France in 1513 and in the next year arranged a truce between England and France. He was appointed bishop of Lincoln in 1514, archbishop of York in the same year. Pope Leo X named him a cardinal in 1515. Henry appointed Cardinal Wolsey as the lord chancellor of England in 1515; in this post Wolsey directed foreign policy as well as the affairs of England on behalf of the king, who took little interest in the bothersome day-to-day details of managing a kingdom. Wolsey arranged a general truce in Europe in 1518 and also brought the kings of France and England together at the famous meeting on the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520. Wolsey failed in his attempt to make England the arbiter of disputes on the continent, however, and in 1522 advised the king to make an alliance with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, against France. He fell out of favor with the English populace by levying heavy taxes and forcing loans of money to pay for English military campaigns. More dangerously, he lost the support of the king after failing to persuade the pope to grant Henry an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon in 1529. This event lost Wolsey most of his titles and offices that had brought him the wealth and power that made him the focus of widespread jealousy and resentment. In 1530, he was placed under arrest for treason after letters he had sent to the king of France were discovered. While on his way to face trial before the king, he fell ill and died in the town of Leicester.

See Also: Henry VIII; More, Sir Thomas

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Wolsey, Thomas

Wolsey, Thomas (1475–1530) English Cardinal and statesman, Lord Chancellor (1515–29). After the accession of Henry VIII in 1509, Wolsey acquired major offices of Church and State. He became Archbishop of York (1514), and then Cardinal and Lord Chancellor. As Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey controlled virtually all state business. His attempts to place England at the centre of European diplomacy ended in failure. Despite becoming Papal Legate (1518), Wolsey's ambition to become Pope was never realized. Domestically, he made powerful enemies through his method of raising taxes by forced loans, his conspicuous wealth, and his pluralism. Wolsey gave Hampton Court Palace to Henry VIII, but his failure to obtain the King a divorce from Catherine of Aragon brought about his ruin. Thomas More replaced him as chancellor. Charged with high treason, Wolsey died before his trial.

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