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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September 10, 1515 – Thomas Wolsey Made a Cardinal

On September 10, 1515, Thomas Wolsey was made a cardinal. Read about the event and his downfall on

Cardinal Wolsey, Christ Church (Portrait by Sampson Strong)

This was an important day in the life of Thomas Wolsey, who completed one of the most stellar political rises in England. He became a source of hope for the masses – and an object of hatred from noblemen who were jealous of the success they felt should have been theirs.

Wolsey was born near the bottom of the English social heap: he was the son of a butcher. He rose through the church: from royal chaplain to Bishop of Lincoln, to Archbishop of York, the finally to Cardinal. This climb was matched on the secular side, as during the early years of Henry VIII’s reign he was all too happy to hand over responsibility (he didn’t think of it as power then): 1515 also saw Wolsey named Lord Chancellor of England. This remarkable rise is attributed to “his high level of intelligence and organization, his extremely industrious nature, his driving ambition for power, and the rapport he was able to achieve with the King.”

Less than ten years later, though, he would die in disgrace, stripped of his government office and property and on his way to London to face charges of treason. All because he couldn’t get Henry VIII the divorce he needed from Catherine of Aragon. It should have been a slam dunk, and in the very early days Wolsey assured the King that it would be. Of course, that was when Wolsey was still assuming that Henry would marry a French princess to counterbalance the insult to Catherine’s nephew, Emperor Charles V of Spain. It was also before Charles’s army had taken possession of Rome and held the Pope prisoner in his rich palace. Once it was clear that the Church was implacably against the divorce from Aragon, Wolsey became obsolete and his ultimate fate was sealed.

But still he might have survived through a quiet life spent ministering to his flock. That he was not allowed to do so was a direct result of the hatred that Anne Boleyn bore to him. Why? Great story.

In 1523, when Anne had just returned to England from the French court, she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine and started a romance with Henry Percy, the heir to the earldom of Northumberland. Percy apparently proposed marriage to her, despite the fact that it had already been decided that he would marry the daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury. The story goes that the King had already taken a secret interest in Anne, and didn’t want her married off and leaving court. Unfortunately for Wolsey, he chose an insulting way of fixing the problem. He summoned Percy and chastised him in public for entangling himself with “that foolish girl yonder in the court, I mean Anne Boleyn.” Had Anne been simply the diversion that Wolsey assumed her to be, nothing would have come of this. Instead, Anne became Henry’s obsession and she used her power to work against him with everything she had. Revenge was an important element of Tudor politics.

But that is for another day. For now, let us raise a glass to a man at the height of his career and hope he enjoyed it while he had it….

For Further Reading:

As always, Wikipedia is a good source for a miniature biography. And see for the full description of the Percy affair (the page offers the full account written by George Cavendish, Wolsey’s gentleman-usher).


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August 2, 1524 – Wolsey Proposes an Alliance to Margaret of Scotland

August 2, 1524 - Wolsey seeks to solve the succession issue by proposing an Alliance to Margaret of Scotland. Read more on

Cardinal Wolsey at Christ Church, by Sampson Strong

Back in 1524, Thomas Wolsey was still running Henry VIII’s political show and Margaret of Scotland, Henry VIII’s sister, was acting as regent for her not quite teenaged son, James V. Because of her background, she was naturally sympathetic to England – which put her at odds with most of the Scottish noblemen.

Wolsey wrote to Margaret proposing an amazing opportunity: a marriage between James and Mary that would potentially unite the two countries under a single set of rulers. It was an important plan for the future, essentially a solution to the problem that Henry’s then-wife, Catherine of Aragon, was believed to be beyond childbearing age (her last pregnancy, which ended in miscarriage, was in 1518): this new alliance would provide an existing heir with Tudor blood. It would also change the nature of the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland, which had long presented a security issue to England. Which was of course part of the problem…most Scottish noblemen clung to that alliance as they were highly distrustful of England and its motives. But still Wolsey tried.

[The text is from Letters and Papers, so it is in the format that preserves only some of the original text and summarizes other parts of it]

Perceives by her letters, dated Edinburgh, 31st July, how prudently and virtuously she has acquitted herself in the erection of her son, which has preserved his life from extreme danger. This is much to the King’s comfort, after the charges he has sustained in opposition to Albany. As to her proposal for a marriage by which England “should be sicker of Scotland,” has no doubt such a peace may be had as never was had with Scotland. The King means to proceed as a loving father towards his good son, quite differently from what other kings of England have done, and Scotland will be sure to find more comfort at Henry’s hands than they ever had of France. If the Scots proceed lovingly and nobly with him, it may be that such a marriage may be had for James as never king of Scots had the like. Begs her, therefore, to follow the counsel of the King and my lord of Norfolk, and not allow herself to be beguiled by an untrue persuasion. Norfolk is commissioned to conclude a truce, and whenever the Scots will send ambassadors they shall have a most favorable reception. If difficulties be raised about this, Scotland will never have such another opportunity again.


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