Your guide to Cardinal Wolsey, Tudor statesman and prince of the church

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the architect of the Field of the Cloth of Gold and for a time King Henry VIII’s chief minister, had one of the most extraordinary political careers in English history. In his time, he was called by some ‘alter rex’ – the ‘other king’. Professor Glenn Richardson explores the pre-eminent churchman’s rise to power – and the factors that led to his ultimate demise

Thomas Cromwell, Tudor statesman and 'alter rex'.

Born some time in the early 1470s, Thomas Wolsey was educated in theology at Oxford University. He was ordained a priest and, in 1509 – having served a series of powerful patrons, including King Henry VII – Wolsey was called to the council of Henry VIII.

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Wolsey rapidly established a close working relationship with the young king, supporting his wish to renew the Hundred Years’ War with France in the face of opposition from his fellow counsellors. By so doing, he cemented his place as the pre-eminent royal advisor, in effect becoming the chief executive of the Tudor state for the next two decades.

Thomas Wolsey: a biography  

Born: 1470–1 (but 1472–3 is also possible) in Ipswich

Died: 29 November 1530 at Leicester Abbey 

Known for: Being England’s greatest medieval cardinal. Wolsey had a brilliant mastery of foreign policy, as well as the legal and ecclesiastical administration of England under King Henry VIII. He organised three major peace treaties which improved Henry’s strategic position when war did not succeed. Wolsey oversaw Parliament and the Court of Chancery, introduced legal changes and exercised crown authority over nobles and commoners alike. He also oversaw the running of the church in England, countered Lutheran heresy and introduced monastic and educational reforms. Most famously, however, he could not secure from Pope Clement VII the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Responsibilities: He was made the royal almoner (responsible for charitable giving) and royal counsellor in 1509. He became quarter-master general of war against France in 1512–3. Wolsey was made Bishop of Tournai in 1513, Bishop of Lincoln and then Archbishop of York in 1514. Pope Leo X created him Cardinal Saint-Cecilia-beyond-Tiber in 1515. The same year, Henry made him lord chancellor of England. In 1518 he became a papal legate (high representative), confirmed for life in 1524. He was also abbot of St Albans and successively bishop of Bath and Wells (1518–23); Durham (1523–9), and Winchester (1529–30).

What did Cardinal Wolsey do for Henry VIII?

Wolsey was made lord chancellor to facilitate his supervision of the legal system and its operation as it directly affected the king’s interests. He oversaw Parliamentary legislation and raising of taxation. He used the Court of Chancery and the royal council sitting in its judicial guise, as the Star Chamber, to impose royal authority in a more thoroughgoing way than his predecessors, particularly on the gentry and nobility.

As Archbishop of York and Cardinal-legate, he imposed a similar, although perhaps somewhat more contested, authority over the church in England. He intervened directly in the affairs of monastic houses and the dioceses, in appointments and in local church governance. In so doing, Wolsey significantly enhanced Henry’s already strong sense of his sovereignty within and, crucially, even beyond his realm.

Thomas Wolsey at Tudor court
Thomas Wolsey significantly enhanced Henry’s already strong sense of his sovereignty. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The conduct of Henry’s foreign relations occupied Wolsey’s time and more engaged his considerable energies and imaginative intelligence than any other sphere of activity. War was very expensive, and after 1513 Wolsey always had trouble financing it. So, using the rhetoric of peace that was then much in vogue among humanists like the scholar Erasmus, he advocated magnificent and ostentatious peace-making between European princes.

Wolsey strove thereby to increase Henry’s prominence, allowing England often to hold an imbalance of power between France, ruled by Francis I, and the Habsburg Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

The high point of this diplomacy was a non-aggression pact between Christian states known as the ‘Universal Peace’, agreed in London in 1518. It was inaugurated at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, an event that Wolsey organised, choreographed and directed. It did not usher in the intended universal peace, but England and France were allied once more after war in the mid-1520s. Peaceful relations with France continued after Wolsey until the last years of Henry’s reign, long after the cardinal’s death.

Wolsey was also a wealthy patron of education and architecture. He founded Cardinal College (now Christ Church), Oxford, and a grammar school in Ipswich. He refurbished and extended his principal home, Hampton Court, together with York Place at Westminster (later Whitehall Palace) and the manor of The More in Hertfordshire. He patronised the best craftsmen available including the sculptors Giovanni Da Maiano and Benedetto da Rovezzano.

The west front of Hampton Court
The west front of Hampton Court, built by Cardinal Wolsey. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Why did Cardinal Wolsey fall from power?

Thomas Wolsey fell from power in October 1529, in the aftermath of his inability to obtain an annulment of the king’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Virtually from the outset of the campaign in 1527, Henry was convinced of the rightness of his cause. The outcome of the legatine trial of the marriage at Blackfriars in July 1529 was Catherine’s direct appeal to Rome, and a consequent campaign of intimidation against the church in England. Following this outcome, Wolsey lost favour with Henry and last saw the king at Grafton in September 1529.

A 19th-century engraving depicting the trial of Queen Catharine Of Aragon.
A 19th-century engraving depicting the trial of Queen Catharine Of Aragon. (Image by Getty Images)

On 17 October, Wolsey was commanded to surrender the Great Seal of England he held as Chancellor, and in April 1530 travelled to York, finally to take up his seat as its archbishop. On 4 November, however, he was arrested for treason for allegedly plotting outside the realm, seeking to have himself restored to power. In reality, there was little substantial evidence for the charge.

The Spanish Princess Part II. (Image by Starz)

How did Cardinal Wolsey die?

As he was travelling south from York to face trial, Wolsey fell seriously ill, probably from dysentery exacerbated by stress. He died at Leicester Abbey on 29 November 1530. He had planned for himself an enormous tomb, but of the work done for it only the sarcophagus survived. It now houses the body of Admiral Lord Nelson in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral. There is a monument to Wolsey in the public gardens on the site of the former abbey at Leicester but the exact location of his burial there remains unknown.

Cardinal Wolsey's death
A depiction of Wolsey on his deathbed. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By the time of his death, Henry saw Wolsey only as the pope’s man who had denied him the opportunity to secure the dynasty through a new marriage. The two had, nevertheless, worked effectively together before then, for two decades as friends.

Wolsey may not have innovated in legal and church matters as radically as later Tudor ministers would do, but he enabled the king’s authority to reach as far as it practically could throughout his realm, and to enhance Henry’s reputation as a powerful English monarch in Christendom beyond it. This, together with his educational and artistic patronage and even the buildings and possessions he owned, were his direct legacy to Henry. Whether he was ever ‘alter rex’ – the ‘other king’ – remains debatable, but he was in death, as in life, ever ‘the king’s cardinal’.

Glenn Richardson is Professor of Early Modern History at St Mary’s University in London and the author of a biography of the cardinal titled Wolsey (Routledge, 2020)

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This content was first published by HistoryExtra in 2020