1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey
English prelate and statesman
(c. 1471 - 1530)




THOMAS WOLSEY (c. 1471-1530), cardinal, was born at Ipswich, and seems to have been the eldest son, as perhaps he was the eldest of all the four known children, of Robert Wolsey and his wife Joan. The name Wolsey, spelt Wulcy by both Robert and Thomas, is a diminutive of Wulf, that is, Wolf, and clearly proves their descent from those Teutonic folk who gave names to two English counties, to the southern one of which the Wolseys belonged. Simple repetition has made it commonly believed that Robert Wolsey was to trade a butcher. The assertion was first set afloat by enemies of the great cardinal, and was intended to be disparaging. The prob-ability, however, seems to be that he was really a grazier, and perhaps also a wool merchant. He certainly belonged to the better class of merchants, was connected with wealthy people, and himself died possessed of lands and pro-perty in and about Ipswich. Fairly trustworthy tradition points to a house in St Nicholas Street there as occupy-ing the site of his own dwelling. According to Fiddes, supported as to the year by Cavendish, Wolsey's birth happened in March 1471, though contemporary evidence would place it some years later. His education began doubtless at the grammar school of his native town, where he showed himself an apt scholar. That reputation was fully sustained when he passed to Magdalen College, Oxford, for he took his B.A. degree at the early age of fifteen, whence he was known as " the boy bachelor." He became M.A. with such credit and distinction that he had conferred upon him a fellowship and the mastership of the grammar school attached to his college, of which last in 1498 we find him bursar. The whole course of college training was scholastic; it strengthened and trained the intellect for actual life. Wolsey is said to have been deeply versed in the subtleties of Aquinism ; certain it is he remained wholly unaffected by the Greek revival of the Renaissance, and looked but indifferently upon its followers. From arts he went on to the study of divinity, in which the unfriendly Polydore Virgil is compelled to admit he was " not unlearned," but of which he did not become bachelor till 1510. That there was in fact, from whatever cause, some delay in Wolsey's taking orders is evidenced by his father's will, made on the last day of September 1496, probably just before his death. That instrument appointed Joan sole legatee, and directed " that if Thomas my son be a priest within a year next after my decease" he, or, failing him, another priest, should be paid ten marks, equal to about £60
-WOL
present money, for a year's singing of masses " for me and my friends."
Among Wolsey's pupils at Magdalen school were three sons of the marquis of Dorset. So well was the marquis satisfied with the progress of his children that he invited Wolsey to spend with him the Christmas holidays of what must have been the year 1499. When Wolsey returned to Oxford it was with the presentation to the quiet Somerset parish of Lymington. In the October following he was inducted. He had not been long placed when a neighbouring squire, Sir Amias Paulet, put him in the stocks. The cause of this indignity is not clear; but it was remembered and resented with all the keenness attaching to an injustice suffered. Fifteen }'ears after, as soon as he became lord chancellor, Wolsey summoned Paulet before him, administered a severe rebuke, and ordered him not to leave London without licence. From then till 1523 Paulet's name disappears from the state papers, where previously its occurrence had been frequent. In September 1501 Dorset died, and that event finally decided Wolsey to quit Lymington. Paulet's proceeding had not affected Wolsey's character, for he now became one of the private chaplains of Henry Dean, archbishop of Canterbury. But any hopes he may have founded on this appointment were soon blighted by the death of Dean in February 1503. Dean's executors, of whom the chief was the favoured servant of Henry VII., Sir Reginald Bray, deputed the carrying out of his instructions respecting his funeral to Wolsey and another chaplain. Through Bray, probably, Wolsey next obtained a chaplaincy with another favourite agent of Henry's, Sir Richard Nanfan, deputy-lieutenant of Calais. Nanfan was an old man; and so excellent did Wolsey's business capacity prove that the knight soon entrusted to him the whole work of the deputyship. In 1505 Nanfan resigned and returned to England to pass his latter days in peace; but so thoroughly had his chaplain gained his esteem that, " through his instant labour and especial favour," Wolsey became chaplain to Henry VII. himself, and when in 1506 Sir Richard died Wolsey was one of his executors.
Henry was a cold master, and did not offer much oppor-tunity for making way in his favour, but Wolsey imme-diately set himself to win the approval of the leading privy councillors, Bishop Fox and Sir Thomas Lovell. As usual he succeeded. And he retained their friendship to the last,—his relations with Fox being perhaps the most beautiful episode in all Wolsey's life. Through their recommendation he began his political life by a mission, probably in 1507 and to the emperor Maximilian. According to Cavendish, who gives Wolsey himself as his authority, not only was the embassy performed in the extraordinarily short space of about eighty hours, but Wolsey took upon him to add to his instructions some items which he afterwards found the king had sent after him. The expedition and bold intelligence displayed established him in the king's good opinion. Other missions ensued, one of them to Scotland in the spring of 1508, all executed to the royal satisfaction. Under Henry high ecclesiastical promotion came by political service. On the 2d February 1509 Wolsey, who by this time held several minor preferments, was collated to the deanery of Lincoln. Within three months Henry died and his son came to the throne. Already had Wolsey ingratiated himself with the young Henry, and almost at once com-menced his unprecedentedly rapid rise to power. Lyming-ton having been resigned by July, he in October received a grant of The Parsonage, part of the forfeited property of Sir Richard Empson ; and another month brought him the office and title by which he was chiefly known for the next four years, that of king's almoner. From that time forward

his history becomes entwined with the annals of his country, where all that concerns the statesman must be sought.
On the 20th November 1511 his signature as a privy councillor first occurs. The council was composed of two parties,—the old officials, chiefly ecclesiastics and headed by Fox, who favoured peace, and the old nobility, led by Surrey, who advocated a spirited policy, eve:i at the risk of war. Friendship and his cloth naturally attached Wolsey to the former, thereby giving rise to that family hatred of the Howards which pursued him to the end of his life. Fox had long been anxious to withdraw from political life, and he now gradually shifted his state duties on to the willing, able, and younger shoulders of Wolsey. Nor was Wolsey's opportunity of distinguishing himself long in coming. An expedition against Guienne in 1512 had effected nothing and returned in disgrace. This only roused Henry's pride and persistence, and he resolved to invade France from the north in the following year. The organization of the necessary force he committed to Wolsey. Churchman though he was, Wolsey succeeded to admiration. The royal army crossed the Channel, fought what French wit styled the Battle of Spurs, and took Tkérouanne and Tournai, while at home Surrey won the bloody battle of Flodden. Success had crowned Wolsey's labours and covered his royal master with glory. Wolsey's favour with Henry was confirmed. Rewards came thick and fast. On the capture of Tournai, Henry named Wolsey to the bishopric of that see, which just then fell vacant; but the English nomination was never ratified by the pope, who in the end issued bulls promoting the French nominee Guillard. Despite this miscarriage Wrolsey was not long in being a bishop. In the succeeding January (1514) the see of Lincoln lost its episcopal head, and next month the new pope Leo X. confirmed Wolsey's appointment to it. The preferment proved but temporary; for in July Cardinal Bainbridge, archbishop of York, was poisoned at Rome, and on the 5th August Wolsey was raised to his place.
Two days later Wolsey brought to a triumphant ter-mination his first great effort in diplomacy, and made with Louis XII. of France a treaty which really undid the notorious league of Cambrai, defeated Ferdinand of Spain with his own weapons, and left England, for the moment, the first power in Europe. Wolsey thereby began a new era in English politics. Since its origin with the Norman Conquest English foreign policy had been bounded by the horizon of France. It had been dynastic and insular. Wolsey made it European by taking the empire, Italy, and Spain into his calculations. He deliberately set himself to preserve the balance of power in Europe as a means of raising his country from a third to a first rate state. And that end he accomplished solely by diplomacy founded on the successes of 1513, which impressed on Continental statesmen a sense of England's power and thus gave to Wolsey's succeeding diplomacy a weight it would not otherwise have commanded and which it never after-wards lost. The character of the polisy accounts for its fluctuations : as the scales turned, so \.as Wrolsey com-pelled to vary his pressure.
The year 1515 brought him two new honours. For years Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, had desired to be released from the lord chancellorship, and Henry had repeatedly urged Wolsey to accept it. Wolsey naturally shrank from adding to his already arduous duties ; but both Warham and the king became so urgent that he at last yielded. By patent dated 21st December he assumed the post, and at once threw himself into its work with his accustomed vigour, dispensing justice and introducing reforms with fearless impartiality. The second dignity, the cardinalate, was obtained through the active interven-tion of Henry himself, and only by the most threatening arguments did the king overcome the fears and reluctance of Leo. On the 10th September Wolsey was elected cardinal sole. The bearer of the red hat and ring arrived in London in November, and on Sunday the 18th Wolsey was installed amidst all the ceremonial magnificence which he valued not only for his own sake but for his king's. By similar strong measures was wrung from Leo the legateship, an office Wolsey sought in order to carry out ecclesiastical reforms. In 1518 Leo, ostensibly on account of a crusade, sent legates to the four chief courts of Europe. Campeggio, the legate to England, was allowed to reach Calais, where his further progress was stopped till the pope had joined Wolsey with him. Next year Wolsey was appointed sole legate for a year, and, finally, in 1524, following several extensions, he became legate for life, after receiving unusual powers. In virtue of this commission he erected a court and instituted reformations by which he incurred much odium. In 1518 he received the see of Bath and Wells in commendam, which in 1523 he resigned for Durham, replaced in turn by Fox's bishopric of Win-chester in 1529. At the conclusion of the Calais con-ference in 1521, Henry recompensed him with the rich abbacy of St Albans, held, like the episcopates, in com-mendam. From these and other sources he received immense revenues, which were almost entirely devoted to state purposes or national objects. He was prime minister of Henry, and in his income as in his master's there was no distinction between public and private money. Vast sums were used in founding his college at Ipswich and Cardinal College at Oxford, now known as Christ Church, which formed but part of a splendid scheme of national education, a scheme ultimately ruined by the greed of the king. Even what was expended on his own resplendent establishment redounded to the honour of his king and country. His wras an age when power and pomp were more closely connected than they are now, and Wolsey's power was extraordinary. " He is in great repute," reported the unfriendly Venetian ambassador Giustinian ; " seven times more so than if he were pope." No wonder, then, that he cared but little to fill the papal chair. When, in 1522, and again in 1523, his candidature for the papacy came to nothing, he was not disappointed. And, if in 1529, on the illness of Clement VII., he showed himself seriously anxious on the subject, it was in all likelihood that he might compass Henry's will respecting divorce from Catherine, and prevent that rupture with the apostolic see which he foresaw would result from papal opposition.
Wolsey's favour with the king had been founded on success, and it fell by failure. In the region of politics one diplomatic victory had followed another. The balance had been firmly held between Francis I. and the emperor Charles V., an enterprise rendered memorable by the splendours of the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520), planned and directed by Wolsey, and amidst which the Middle Ages passed away. Suddenly across his minister's diplomatics Henry dragged the question of the divorce, and everything had to be sacrificed to its accomplishment. Seeing too clearly how much, both personal and national, depended on attaining Henry's desire, Wolsey strove his very utter-most to further a design to which he was himself opposed, stooping to the most discreditable and unworthy means. But the decision lay with Pope Clement, who was in the power of Charles V., Catherine's nephew, and all Wolsey's efforts were in vain. Vain, too, were all attempts to intimidate Catherine herself. A collusive suit was begun before Wolsey by wdiich she was to be condemned unheard; she got word of it and thwarted the plan by demanding counsel. A commission was obtained from the pope for Campeggio and Wolsey to try the cause in England (1529); she appeared before the legatine court at Blackfriars only


to appeal to Rome, and thither under imperial pressure Clement revoked the case. It was plain Wolsey had failed, and all Henry's wrath burst out against his too faithful servant. He pointedly employed a secretary, and Wolsey's occupation was gone. Wolsey's foreign policy and domestic reforms had united against him every party and class in the nation, while at the same time he bore the blame of Henry's mistakes and extravagance. So long, however, as his royal master remained true to him he could defy all hostility. But now that the king, too, had turned against him his sole support had given way, and the hungry pack of enemies was unloosed. On the 20th September Henry parted from Wolsey without any sign of displeasure, but they parted for the last time. Anne Boleyn and her uncle Norfolk were Wolsey's bitter foes. By Anne's sway over Henry Wolsey was kept from the royal presence while Norfolk plotted his ruin. On the 17th October, at the king's command, Wolsey delivered up the great seal to Norfolk and the base ungrateful Suffolk. He was deprived of his dignities, his goods were confiscated, and, surrendering York Place, he retired to Esher. The Court of King's Bench found him guilty in a praemunire, and sentenced him to imprison-ment, while a bill precluding his restoration to power or dignities reached the Commons. The bill was dropped, but not till February 1530 did Henry grant him a full pardon and restore him to the archbishopric of York, on condition that he resigned Winchester and St Albans. Dreading his proximity to the king, his enemies procured his banishment into his diocese. Thither he went in April, and won the hearts of the people by his simplicity of life and graciousness of manner. His foes were alarmed ; his death alone could quiet their fears. He was preparing to be installed archbishop on Monday, 7th November, when on the 4th he was arrested at Cawood Castle by the earl of Northumberland for high treason. On the way south, at Sheffield Park, Nottinghamshire, he was met by Sir William Kingston, keeper of the Tower, and at last Wolsey knew his doom. Long years of toil, anxiety, and the ceaseless vexations of his cruel enemies had shattered his health, and some pears sufficed to bring on dysentery, which was unskilfully treated, and aggravated by Kingston's appearance. Nevertheless he set out, and by three stages reached Leicester abbey on Saturday the 26th. "Father abbot," he said, as the convent with its head came out to receive him, " I am come hither to leave my bones among you." He felt that he was dying. Kingston assisted him upstairs, and he at once went to bed. Vomiting and faintings came on, and he rapidly sank, yet his last moments were spent in speaking to Kingston of the objects of his life's best energies, his king and country. At eight o'clock on the morning of the 29th he died ; and within twenty-four hours was buried in a rude coffin all that remained of the genius who made possible the glories of Elizabeth and the British empire of to day. He left two children, born before he became a bishop, of " one Larke's daughter,"—a son who went by the name of Thomas Winter and was an ecclesiastic, and a daughter who passed as Dorothy Clansey and was a nun.
See Lives of Wolsey by Cavendish, Fiddes, and Grove, and J. S.
Brewer's Reign of Henry VIII., 1509-30. There is no complete
correct account of his life up to 1509, in connexion with which see
Pinkerton's History of Scotland, ii., app. 445-50, along with J.
Gairdner's Letters and Papers, die, of Richard III. and Henry VII.,
M. K. Series, pref. ; and Letters, &c, pref. and i., app. B, 426-52.
An excellent short view of Wolsey as a statesman will be found in
Prof. M. Creighton's Thomas Wolsey. (T. W. C.)








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