Thomas Wolsey

views updated May 21 2018

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. □

Wolsey, Thomas

views updated May 14 2018


Cardinal archbishop of York and lord chancellor of England; b. Ipswich, England, c. 1473; d. Leicester Abbey, Nov. 29, 1530. Following his education at Magdalen College, Oxford, he entered royal service at the end of Henry VII's reign. After the accession of henry viii (1509), he became royal almoner and councillor, and he finally established himself by his able handling of the campaign in France (1513). He was appointed bishop of Lincoln in early 1514 and archbishop of York later that year. In 1515 he acquired a red hat and then began pressing the Pope to appoint him legate a latere. leo x did so in 1518, whereupon Wolsey had the appointment repeatedly renewed and expanded until it was conferred on him for life (1524). After late 1515 he was chancellor, and thus, as chief officer of a king not given to sustained hard work, and as primate, cardinal, and legate of a papacy that exercised reduced influence over English church life, Wolsey dominated secular and ecclesiastical affairs as perhaps no other ever has.

Wolsey's Career. He has been heavily censured by history as the would-be reformer who did not reform himself first, as one who frittered away wealth and energy on foolish diplomacy, as the "author of the schism," and above all as the man who wasted vast powers. Much of this is true. He was greedy for power and money; he was a glaring pluralist and absentee (holding the abbacy of St. Alban's and, successively, the Sees of Bath and Wells, Durham, and Winchester, at the same time that he held York); he neglected his vow of chastity and openly showered preferment on his son; he lorded it over his fellow bishops, William warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, in particular; he was unscrupulous, vainglorious and vindictive; he was not only personally unfit to carry out the renewal that the church in England needed so much, but probably scarcely understood what, fundamentally, was wrong; his head-on collision with Parliament in 1523 and his subsequent attempts to raise loans and the so-called Amicable Grant revealed ineptitude and unpopularity; finally, when he fell, there was nothing to show for 15 years of incessant diplomacy. It was therefore not surprising that within a few weeks of his fall when the Reformation Parliament met, the lay estate should have unleashed violent pent-up anticlericalism against the church of which Wolsey had so long been leader.

But there is another side to all this. Wolsey was a man endowed with a wonderfully swift mind and accurate memory; he was loyal and extraordinarily energetic. He breathed intense life into Star Chamber, making it a court that delivered quick, sure justice, and he reveled in administering "the new law of Star Chamber," as he called it. He was probably a remarkable lord chancellor, giving to his post that decisively legal bent it has retained. He was sincerely concerned with the poor and, as his servant and biographer, George Cavendish, testifies, won the affection of the commons. If his pluralism was shocking by English standards it was not so by Continental ones, while his legacy was no more capacious than that acquired by several contemporaries. This was an age of mighty cardinal legates to whom wide powers were delegated by Rome, and Wolsey was not the worst of them. It is probably not true that he seriously aspired to the papacy or that, because of this ambition, his whole foreign policy was tied to Rome.

Wolsey's Policies. In the notable treaty of London of 1518 Wolsey first attempted to achieve his purposethe key to his subsequent diplomacyto bring concord to Europe. His own (and Henry's) appetite for the spectacular led him into a "forward" European policy, but he came to Europe to help, not to harm. His policy failed. Though it had left him little time to tackle the problems of the church in England, he did try to improve the life of the Black Monks (only to be repulsed by them). The clerical appointments that he sponsored often show a marked sense of responsibility. It is very difficult to believe that his union of spiritual and temporal authority taught Henry VIII a lesson; and it is not true that Wolsey first suggested to his king that he should rid himself of Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey in fact disliked the divorce for diplomatic reasons, though he gave all his energy and talents to securing it, and came near to doing so when he and Cardinal Lorenzo campeggio held their legatine court at Blackfriars in the summer of 1529. He founded a school at Ipswich and a college at Oxford (Cardinal's College, now Christchurch), both of which showed a keen awareness of the educational ideals of humanism; the medallions on the gateways of his residence at Hampton Court are among the first bits of Renaissance art to be seen on an English building. There was more of the Renaissance in Wolsey than one might suppose, more perhaps than there was in Henry.

Wolsey's Decline. In late 1529 he fell victim of a king whose divorce he had failed to procure and of an aristocratic counterattack against an upstart cleric whose monopoly of power and haughty ways had long been resented. He was indicted on a praemunire charge in the king's bench for having misused his legatine powers and was found guilty. Stripped of his secular office, he went north in April 1530 to visit his archbishopric for the first time. But he was not entirely forgiven or trusted, and, moreover, he was apparently trying to recover power. In early November 1530 he was arrested. His guard was to bring him to London, presumably to trial. But on November 29, while on his way there, Wolsey, now a man much changed and wearing a hair shirt, died at Leicester Abbey and was buried there.

Bibliography: j. gairdner, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900, 63 v. (London 18851900; repr. with corrections, 21 v., 190809, 192122, 1938; suppl. 1901) 21:796814. g. cavendish, The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, ed. r. s. sylvester (Early English Text Society; London 1959). a. f. pollard, Wolsey (New York 1929). c. w. ferguson, Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey (Boston 1958). p. hughes, The Reformation in England, 3 v. in 1 (5th, rev. ed. New York 1963). h. maynard smith, Henry VIII and the Reformation (London 1948).

[j. j. scarisbrick]

Wolsey, Thomas

views updated May 14 2018

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


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

Wolsey, Thomas (1475–1530)

views updated May 18 2018

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

Wolsey, Thomas

views updated May 17 2018

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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