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November 29, 1530: Death of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey

“Cardinal Woolsey” (an archaic spelling) by an unknown artist c.1520. Detail from an oil on panel in the National Portrait Gallery, London. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wolsey, Wolsey Wolsey.

Thomas Wolsey was such an important figure of the Tudor court. In a way, his influence lasted far beyond his death – since he was the one who found and trained Thomas Cromwell.

Wolsey was born around 1473 to an Ipswich butcher. Despite such humble origins, he rose through the Church thanks to his brilliance and dedication (and because his timing was perfect: the young Henry VIII was happy to delegate the day-to-day drudgery involved in the running of the government to someone who could never be a threat). Wolsey began as Henry’s Almoner in 1509, a position that gave him a seat on the Privy Council and therefore visibility – and made him unstoppable. In 1514, he became Archbishop of York, the second highest Ecclesiastic title in the land (behind only the Archbishop of Canterbury). Never one to accept limitations (sees being lifetime appointments), Wolsey got himself named a Cardinal in 1515. This automatically made the highest prelate in England, and it happened in the same year that he became Lord Chancellor. From them on, he sought to convey the image of an alter rex, building Hampton Court Palace, intended to be the finest residence in England, to show foreign embassies that the King’s chief minister “knew how to live as graciously as any cardinal in Rome.” The poet John Skelton wrote the following words, illustrating a bit of the contemporary resentment that Wolsey was overstepping his bounds, that too much of his glory was personal and not reflective of his master:

Why come you 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 the excellence

But Hampton Court

Hath the pre-eminence!

Still, Henry probably would have allowed him to continue like that forever had Wolsey not failed in the one task that mattered: procuring a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. That crime could not be excused. Especially since Wolsey had made the mistake of underestimating Anne Boleyn very early on, earning her undying enmity in 1523 when he broke her engagement to Henry Percy, heir to the Duke of Northumberland. In her he had an implacable enemy.

In 1529 Wolsey was stripped of his government office and property, as well as Hampton Court. He did remain Archbishop of York, and so was sent to Yorkshire to “preach to the sheep.” But even there he was not safe from the rabble-rousers at court. It was decided to accuse him of treason – and Henry Percy, Sixth Duke of Northumberland, was the man sent to arrest him (you know Anne Boleyn arranged for that fillip!) and escort him back to London. Wolsey died on the road – many believe he took poison to avoid being tried and disgraced. Right before his death, he is reputed to have said “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

Rest in peace.


Wikipedia – pages on Thomas Wolsey, Hampton Court Palace.

Historic Royal Palaces – Hampton Court Palace

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