Few people in English history have enjoyed such an astronomical rise to power as Thomas Wolsey. At his zenith, he was almost considered another king; such was his range of powers and influence.
He was unique in that he held the highest secular position in the land and the highest position in the church. Other than Henry VIII, he was unrivalled.
He used his position and influence to create great wealth. He had a reputation for being utterly ruthless towards those who dared to cross him. The English nobility hated Wolsey; they believed that a low man should never have been allowed to rise so high.
Ultimately, his own success became his own undoing.
Here are 18 cracking facts about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.
1. Thomas Wolsey was the son of a butcher
Wolsey was born in the Suffolk town of Ipswich. We are told that he was nothing more than the son of a butcher.
There has to be a certain amount of debate on that particular subject.
Wolsey’s father must’ve been a highly successful butcher because young Thomas attended Ipswich school, then Magdalene College School and ultimately Magdalene College in Oxford.
Usually, sons of butchers grow up to be butchers in Tudor times; they didn’t go to University.
But this perceived common stock was used as an insult towards Wolsey by the nobility at Henry VIII’s court.
2. He was a Church rector for nine years
After studying theology at Magdalen College in Oxford, he was ordained as a priest in Marlborough in Wiltshire on the 10th of March 1498
For the first part of his career, there was little to suggest that he might rise as high as he did.
He spent a short while returning to Magdalen College School as Dean of Divinity before moving to Somerset and the small town of Limington, where he became the Rector of St Mary’s Church.
He retained that position for nine years.
3. Wolsey was Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury
Wolsey’s first steps up the slippery ladder of power came when he was appointed chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry Deane.
It was his first touch with a man of influence.
However, the Archbishop died the following year, and Wolsey entered the service of Sir Richard Nansen.
4. His first role at court was Royal Chaplain
In 1507 Wolsey entered the service of Henry VII, probably due to his success in his previous position as chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
He became the royal chaplain.
In addition to this role, he was secretary to Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester and Lord Privy Seal. Foxe was one of the King’s most trusted advisors.
In this role, Wolsey excelled, showing a thirst for work and an ability to get things done. It brought him into regular contact with the King himself and allowed him to build a network at court.
Such were Wolsey’s abilities that he was sent to discuss English fears regarding the auld alliance between Scotland and France with King James IV himself. This was Wolsey’s first foray into the world of European diplomacy.
5. Wolsey became Henry VIII’s Almoner
After Henry VIII’s ascension to the throne in 1509, the new King made Wolsey, an almoner.
The position gave Wolsey a seat on the privy council. Once again, Wolsey showed his ability to handle work with unrivalled diligence.
This proved very useful to a new young king who would much rather be enjoying his position’s trappings than the work associated with it.
6. Wolsey was good at agreeing with the King
Henry VIII was keen on war with France. He wanted to emulate his namesake Henry V and invade and achieve glory in battle.
Most of Henry’s advisors were against this particular approach knowing the war was expensive.
Wolsey himself was against war…until he came to accept the King’s enthusiasm for it.
Then he became an advocate for war, knowing perfectly well it would gain him favour with the King.
This ability to recognise what Henry VIII wanted and then deliver it allowed Wolsey to rise as high as he did.
7. He helped the King’s sister
Henry VIII sent his youngest sister, Mary Tudor, over to France to marry their aged King, Louis XII. She only agreed with the promise that she would be able to marry who she wanted when the old King died. The marriage only lasted several months as Louis did indeed die.
Henry sent his best friend, the Duke of Suffolk, Charles Brandon, to France to bring his sister home. He did so fully in the knowledge that the pair were probably in love. He made Brandon promise that he wouldn’t do anything rash.
However, Mary demanded that Charles Brandon marry her there and then in Paris, knowing perfectly well that her brother would probably marry her off to another European Royal if she returned home still a widow.
Brandon went with his heart as opposed to his head and did so.
They then realised they had a little bit of a problem. They knew that Henry VIII would be enraged when they returned to England.
So they wrote to Cardinal Wolsey, asking them to intervene on their behalf.
Wolsey advised the King that their punishment shouldn’t be too severe. After a very short banishment from court and a financial fine, the pair returned. There was even a second marriage that both Wolsey and the King attended.
Even the highest in the land turned to help from Wolsey when it came to dealing with the King.
8. Wolsey became the Pope’s personal representative
Wolsey rose spectacularly high in the church for a man who spent almost a decade as a rector of a small church in Somerset.
He became a bishop of Lincoln in 1514 and then a few months later Archbishop of York. The following year the Pope made Wolsey a Cardinal. Wolsey’s famous portrait shows him in his Cardinal’s robes. In 1523 he became bishop of Durham, which gave him the title of Prince Bishop of Durham.
However, the most important title was given to Wolsey in 1518. He became Papal Legate, the personal representative of the Pope. This gave him precedence over every clergyman in the country, including the Archbishop of Canterbury.
9. Cardinal Wolsey masterminded in the Field of the Cloth of Gold
On the 7th of June 1520, Henry VIII met Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.
This was a grand summit between the two powerful European monarchs. It was held just outside Calais, and a vast canvas city had been built for the meeting, which took place over several weeks.
It was famous for the wine that ran from fountains and the wrestling match between the two monarchs.
At the meeting, Princess Mary was engaged to Francis’ son. All of this had been negotiated in advance by Wolsey.
10. He did good for the poor
Much of the narrative revolving around Wolsey involves his lust for power, wealth and titles.
However, he also made considerable changes to the English justice system. Most notably, he established what became known as the Court of Requests.
It was essentially for the poor, where no legal fees were required. It was an attempt to allow justice for the entire country.
The ordinary person liked Wolsey. Wherever he went, people would flock to see him.
11. Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court
Wolsey amassed such wealth and power that he lived like a King.
It was Wolsey that built the legendary Palace of Hampton Court. Construction started in 1514.
However, Wolsey was highly pragmatic. He gave it away to the King in 1529 to regain his favour when he felt he was slipping for power.
It worked…for a short while.
12. He had a mistress called Joan
Priests were not allowed to marry.
Wolsey lived with a woman called Joan Larke as his mistress for almost ten years. They had two children; a boy named Thomas and a daughter Dorothy.
As he rose in power, this relationship was a problem. Eventually, he made arrangements to marry Joan off and have the children adopted.
13. Wolsey was Lord Chancellor for 14 years
In recent times, Wolsey’s position as Henry VIII’s greatest minister has been overlooked in favour of Thomas Cromwell. However, it should be remembered that Wolsey acted as Henry’s chief minister and advisor for 14 years, far longer than Cromwell.
14. He made an enemy of Anne Boleyn
Long before Anne Boleyn had ever caught the eye of Henry VIII, Wolsey had made an enemy of her.
She had fallen in love with Henry Percy, the heir to the Earldom of Northumberland. Such was the love between the two they agreed to marry.
Wolsey, however, did not think the match was a suitable one for the future Earl. He stopped it, and Anne Boleyn never forgot or forgave it.
15. Wolsey employed Thomas Cromwell
Thomas Cromwell was Henry VIII’s other great minister. He started his own rise to power in the service of Cardinal Wolsey.
He became Wolsey’s right-hand man and showed unwavering loyalty to his master even during his downfall.
16. Wolsey failed in the King’s Great Matter
More than anything, Henry VIII wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. When he did so, he turned to the man who managed to get him everything he wanted in the past, Cardinal Wolsey.
However, Wolsey struggled with this task. Try as hard as he could; he could not secure the annulment of the marriage from the Pope.
In the background, Anne Boleyn whispered in Henry’s ear that it was Wolsey that was blocking the annulment. She had not forgotten how Wolsey had hurt her.
It proved to be his undoing.
17. Wolsey’s downfall was swift
For once, Wolsey failed to deliver for the King. But once was enough.
The nobles lept on this opportunity to destroy the Cardinal. Everyone was telling Henry it was all Wolsey’s fault.
In 1529 he was stripped of all of his government offices and property. He was retained as Archbishop of York and sent up to Yorkshire for the very first time to assume his duties.
However, it wasn’t long before he was accused of treason and arrested by Henry Percy, the same man who was due to marry Anne Boleyn.
He set out for London to answer the charges.
18. He died before he could be executed
Wolsey fully expected to be taken to the Tower of London, attended for treason, and then executed.
However, that didn’t happen.
He fell ill en route, and he died in Leicester on the 29th of November 1530, aged 57.
Wolsey had planned a magnificent tomb for himself. But he was buried in Leicester Abbey without a marker on his grave.
Admiral Nelson now lies in the tomb that Wolsey had built for himself.