Thomas Wolsey was born in about 1473, the son of Robert Wolsey, allegedly a butcher and his wife Joan Daundy. He attended first Ipswich School, and then Magdalene College School, where he proved to be intelligent and a good student, meticulous and hard-working. He passed a degree at age 15 and went on to study theology at Magdalene College, Oxford. He was ordained as a priest in 1498 in Marlborough, before taking a position as Master of his former school at Magdalene. This position was short-lived as Wolsey was quickly promoted to become Dean of Divinity, and by 1500 had removed to take on the living at St Mary’s Church, Limington, where he remained for two years.
In 1502, he was offered a position as chaplain to Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Deane who died the following year. Wolsey then entered the household of Richard Nanfan, with whom he remained for four years until his employer passed away. After dissolving Nanfan’s estate, Wolsey was taken on in a relatively prominent role in the court of Henry VII, as Royal Chaplain, serving Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester, as his secretary. Both the King and Foxe were to see advantages of Wolsey’s appointment, the King being a promulgator of those who came from a humble background over the nobility. And Foxe was said to be impressed with Wolsey’s attention to detail and diligence in even the most mundane tasks.
Rapidly becoming a favourite of the King, Wolsey was chosen to visit Scotland to address Henry’s concerns with James, the rumours of a return to the latter’s ‘auld alliance’ with France in 1508. In 1509, Henry died and the throne passed to his 18 year old son Henry VIII who appointed Wolsey as Almoner. Wolsey’s organisational skills were to prove his favour with the new King who wasn’t interested in the administrative responsibility of being King, and removed that task to Wolsey who in turn used that power to remove those who he considered his main rivals in the King’s eyes; his earlier patron Richard Foxe and the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, who were too conservative for the flamboyant young King. He was appointed onto the Kings Privy Council in 1511. Using the King’s ambition for war with France, and the two older men’s reluctance for England to enter conflict, Wolsey proved his worth in the Battle of Tournai, by organising a continuous supply of arms and provisions to the English Army, assisting their victory without doubt. Wolsey was able to secure himself as Lord Chancellor, following Warham’s resignation in 1515. Between 1514 and 1515 Wolsey was also granted the titles of Bishop of Lincoln, Archbishop of York and Cardinal.
It was during these early years with the new King that Wolsey had what is described as a non-canonical marriage – a common-law wife- with Joan Larke, which produced two children, Thomas and Dorothy. Both these children lived to adulthood, Thomas Wynter went to live with a family in Willesden where he received an education from Maurice Birchinshaw before marrying and having children, Dorothy in turn was adopted by John Clancy and was educated at Shaftesbury Nunnery. Joan Larke was later betrothed to George Legh following Wolsey’s rise to power and would receive a dowry from Wolsey, for the match; King Henry gave the couple a mansion at Cheshunt. Following the Dissolution of the monasteries, long after her father’s death, Thomas Cromwell would organise a pension for Dorothy.
Following the successes of England in France, Wolsey was a driving force in the negotiations for the marriage of Henry’s sister Mary to the aging King, Louis in 1514. The match was short-lived when Louis passed away just three months later, shortly afterwards, Mary secretly wed Charles Brandon, Viscount Lisle, a friend of King Henry’s and one of his proven commanders in the war with France. Henry was said to be outraged, the penalty for such a move was death for the concerned couple, however Wolsey stepped in and persuaded the King to fine the couple and strip Brandon of his titles instead. Both Wolsey and Henry had hoped to use the young dowager Queen as a further bargaining chip for later alliances. Her marriage to Brandon removed that possibility. The King’s anger was not to last long, however, as he was close to his sister, and soon forgave them, welcoming them back at court.
Cardinal Wolsey further exercised his power with strong foreign policies. He was instrumental in the success of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and key to the negotiations and adoption of the Treaty of London. Placing himself in the middle of the tensions caused by the succession of Charles V as King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, a title that Francis I had hoped to secure for himself, and had made several large bribes to the council as a result, and securing Spain’s subsequent Treaty of Bruges with Spain, Wolsey ensured that he was key in the achievement of England’s power in Europe.
On home ground he introduced a series of domestic policies that although always unfavourable with either the nobles or the peasants, would ensure increased revenue for the Crown with taxation reforms which relieved the burden from the poor and placed it more evenly on the nobles, introduced a revised justice system with which the poor could get their cases heard fairly and impartially without a fee, nobles who previously appeared invincible from the law now found themselves being jailed, and landowners were faced with investigation into enclosure of land, which caused a lack of arable farming for the peasants class, increasing vagrancy, poverty, hunger and other effects. He initiated price caps on various consumables, particularly the cost of meat, thereby forcing fair price. And he began reforms in the Church, closing a number of corrupt monasteries, and limiting benefit of clergy. Although many of these reforms seemed to have a positive start, and were welcomed by the masses, they were resented by the nobility who felt the keen end of many of them, and it didn’t take long before the negative effects to become apparent.
Wolsey played a significant role in the fall from grace of Edward, Duke of Buckingham, leading to his later execution. He also led the investigation and prosecution of William Compton and Anne Stafford through ecclesiastical court, for adultery. The year prior, 1526 with his re-introduction of the Eltham Ordinances, following the rejection of the Amicable grants and the ensuing of mass riots, Wolsey was able to reduce the Privy council from 12 members to six. Compton was one of those to face the cut, Nicholas Carew, another close friend of Henry’s was also removed from the council. Wolsey’s intention being to force Henry’s closest friends and confidantes away from him, in an effort to remove their influence.
By 1526, the King’s head had been turned by the young Anne Boleyn. As a result of Catherine’s apparent inability to provide him with an heir, and her advancing years, Henry entertained a growing desire to put her aside in favour of Anne. Henry already had a daughter, Mary, and an illegitimate son, Henry Fitzroy. His legitimate male heirs, three of them, had all died shortly after birth, along with his other daughter. He had recently ended an affair with Anne’s sister Mary which allegedly produced two further children, Henry and Catherine Carey. Now he felt it necessary to attempt to have a legitimate son. The only way to achieve this would be if he were to re-marry. Annulment of his marriage to Catherine was the only way to achieve this. The task was given to Wolsey.
Using the sketchy premise that his marriage was invalid due to Catherine’s previous marriage to his brother Arthur, Henry claimed his punishment from God was his inability to have a male heir, as stated in the bible. Overlooking the fact that the literal translation referred to adultery rather than widowhood, and the fact that God didn’t seem similarly inclined to punish Henry with regard to his daughter, his illegitimate children or that He might continue to punish Henry in the future with any children from his proposed second marriage, Henry also conveniently forgot that this fly in the regal ointment hadn’t concerned him in 1509.
Wolsey for his part, knew that this development cooked his goose for him. To push for the annulment on Henry’s behalf, placed his position within the Church in a somewhat precarious predicament. It would annoy the Pope, not to mention Charles V, as Holy Roman Emperor AND nephew of the Queen, but that it would introduce a new louder voice in Henry’s ear. That of Anne herself, and it spoke a different language to his own. To not obtain the divorce would be to risk the wrath of his monarch, who was already beginning to show signs of a somewhat mean streak, with regard to permanent removal of those who crossed him.
Wolsey responded by doing what any man in his position would do. He stalled. He attempted to remove himself from the equation, by pleading that such a decision would have to come from the Pope himself. Councils were convened, emissaries were sent to ask the question, both in Europe’s churches and in the theological centres. A court was held to rule on the Great Matter, at which Catherine famously attended and set her innocence before Henry on bended knee, daring him to disavow her virginity and her role as a faithful wife in front of the eyes of the law and God.
Wolsey tried to persuade Catherine to agree to let Henry set her aside for a quiet life in religious confinement, appealing to her that she would still be addresses as the Dowager Princess of Wales. She was bribed and blackmailed, her beloved daughter removed and used as a weapon. Henry of course got his own way in the end, fed up of waiting, he removed Rome’s power in England, reinventing himself as the Head of the Church, and gave the duty of dissolving his marriage to Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.
Wolsey meanwhile had his titles and responsibilities removed, and fell long and hard from grace. He had given his own residence to the King, York Place, in an effort to appease him. Henry would have taken it anyway. Wolsey, now resigned to his singular remaining title of Archbishop of York, retired to his residence at Cawood. Despite being accused and then pardoned on charge of praemunire, in 1530, following his increasingly careless letter-writing to key European powers, word of which reached Henry, who decided to allow this situation to play out, in 1530, Wolsey finally shot himself in the foot.
Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland former love of Anne Boleyn was given the task of arresting Wolsey, and removing him to London to face new charges of treason. Percy probably jumped at the chance of having revenge on the man who instigated the breaking of his romance with Anne Boleyn, and forcing his subsequent unhappy childless marriage to the daughter of Shrewsbury.
Percy arrived at Cawood and after some debate, with his warrant from the King managed to assure Wolsey of his imminent end. Wolsey submitted to Percy, and was taken on the first stage of his journey south. He was taken to Sheffield where he was received by the King’s Steward, the Earl of Shrewsbury – Northumberland’s father-in-law – from where he was subsequently despatched towards the Tower under the care of Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower. Stopping at Leicester Abbey en route it had become apparent that Wolsey was ill, and rapidly worsening. After securing lodgings to allow him to rest and recover, Wolsey surprised everybody and died.
Rumours persist that he may have been poisoned, however the likelihood of any of the men acting for the King would be reluctant to take such a bold step, not wishing to deprive Henry of his triumph, the consequences would have been their own heads. Wolsey was not a popular man, his sympathisers were few. It could be possible that Wolsey committed suicide, his death was certainly unexpected and occurred at an opportune moment. It was from Kingston’s own words that the claims of suicide arose. That Wolsey, upon seeing him come to Sheffield to bring him to the Tower, Wolsey “took ill” and administered to himself a large quantity of strong purgatives, resulting in his collapse from severe vomiting and diarrhoea, and subsequent death. It was however noted that Wolsey had recently been quite ill and had not as yet recovered; his death could easily be explained as a relapse. He wasn’t a young man, nor indeed a fit one. Corpulent living had not done him any favours, and the shock and stress of his fall from favour, reduction in living standards and lastly arrest, the long journey and the knowledge of his certain doom at the end of it would not have helped. His personal physician, a man who may well have been able to treat him and get him to London for his trial, was also arrested and was in the Tower awaiting Wolsey’s arrival.
Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey on 29th November 1530. The Abbott had his body buried within the grounds, in the Church. The Abbey, now Abbey Park has long been under the care of the University who use the grounds, now re-laid with low walls to indicate the Abbey layout, to train their archaeology students. Tentative digs and ground research have been undertaken over the last 50 years, however Wolsey’s remains continue to be elusive. Following the success in relocating the remains of King Richard III in 2012, Leicester University recently raised the possibility of attempting to recover the body of Wolsey. Meanwhile a tomb stands approximately where the altar of the Church is assumed to be, and where documents claim he was interred. His elaborate lavish black sarcophagus now holds the body of Lord Nelson, in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.