Most people know Thomas Wolsey – Cardinal, Lord Chancellor, de-facto ruler of England. For the twenty years of Henry VIII’s reign which was not filled with wife drama, it was Wolsey there every day, earning him the nickname of alter rex, meaning the other king. This was a blessing and a curse.
Wolsey’s birth is not recorded, but estimated at around 1473 to his butcher-father Robert and his wife Joan. Wolsey received a quality education at Ipswich School, Magdalen College School and then Magdalen College in Oxford. He became a priest in 1498 in Wiltshire, though he stayed at Oxford as Master at Magdalen College School and dean of divinity, before entering several households as a personal chaplain.
By 1507, Wolsey entered the household of King Henry VII, who preferred commoners to entitled nobles, and became the royal chaplain, and secretary to Edward Foxe, a bishop and the Lord Privy Seal. In just one year, Wolsey was trusted enough to be sent to Scotland to renew an alliance with King James IV.
When Henry VII died in 1509, young Henry VIII wanted many changes, and Wolsey was named almoner (charged with distributing money to the poor in England), which was also a seat on the Privy Council. Henry VIII was an excitable young man with no experience and no lover of details, and Wolsey’s dedication to bearing the weight of responsibility soon made him one of Henry’s favourites.
Wolsey had one difference to others in Henry’s inner circle; he was not conservative like the other councillors Henry inherited, and Wolsey would change his stance to suit Henry’s whims. Henry wanted war with France in 1512, and those who did not agree slowly lost their places at court, but Wolsey’s mind-changing saw him elevated all the way to the highest post in the land, Lord Chancellor, in 1515.
Along with Lord Chancellor, he was also a Canon of Windsor, Bishop of Lincoln, and a member of the Privy Council in a short space of time, and would amass titles over his reign. The Pope also made him a cardinal in 1515, setting Wolsey up for endless success, as Henry let Wolsey do as he pleased. Wolsey controlled Henry’s rage when his sister, Mary, Dowager Queen of France (who had been sold off to help with a peace treaty) secretly married Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, when the French king dropped dead. Wolsey saved the Duke’s head from the block, generosity which was never returned. Wolsey’s endlessly raised taxes on the commoners, earning him derision from them, while the nobles derided him as a commoner rising too high at the court.
England’s delicate peace with France held after Mary returned to England in 1515, and then the King of Spain died in 1516 and the Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. With Wolsey named Papal Legate (Pope’s representative), it allowed him to promote peace treaties between these countries, culminating in the Field of Cloth and Gold treaty between England and France in 1520 and the Treaty of Bruges with Charles V, King of Spain/Holy Roman Emperor, one year later.
By now, Wolsey was all-powerful on all fronts and independent from the Pope in Rome, making decisions at home and abroad, and ruled England with King Henry. He was now one of the wealthiest men in England. While small wars continued to break out around Europe, the peace treaties between England and other nations remained largely intact throughout the 1520’s.
Trouble appeared in 1527 when Henry wanted an annulment from his Queen Katherine, aunt to the Holy Roman Emperor/King of Spain. As Katherine refused to agree, the Pope had to get involved, but the Pope was trapped during the Sacking of Rome by the Holy Roman Emperor’s soldiers. The Pope could either side with Henry VIII or Charles V, and Wolsey desperately pleaded for his King. Several failures led to Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio (fresh from Rome), as papal legates, being intent on settling the issue in London. Campeggio stalled the decision for around a year, before suspending it indefinitely in mid-1529. By now, Henry was so desperate to ditch Katherine for Anne Boleyn, that all the work Wolsey had done meant nothing. All Wolsey’s peace efforts, taxation laws, reformation of the justice system, inspections to crush corruption and abuses by the Church, and building of huge colleges meant nothing. Henry wanted Anne Boleyn.
By October 1529, Wolsey was stripped of his titles, lands and power. He sat ill and poor for six months outside of London before being sent to York. But by November 1530, Henry was ready to crush Wolsey, who was arrested on treason charges, to be brought back to London. Wolsey had been writing to the Pope behind Henry’s back, promising that Anne Boleyn would never been queen. Halfway back to London to be put on trial, Wolsey fell ill and died on his sickbed at Leicester Abbey on 29 November 1530, leaving behind a mistress of ten years, and two adopted-out adult children.
Also left behind was his lawyer and advisor Thomas Cromwell, who would go on to fill Wolsey’s place beside Henry VIII go further than Wolsey in terms of change in England and also break down the Catholic Church.
Up next… Katherine of Aragon…