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Thomas Wolsey

Thomas WolseyBorn: c. 1475
Birthplace: Ipswich, Suffolk, England
Died: 29-Nov-1530
Location of death: Leicester, Leicestershire, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Leicester Abbey, Leicester, Leicestershire, England

Gender: Male
Religion: Roman Catholic
Race or Ethnicity: White
Occupation: Religion

Nationality: England
Executive summary: Powerful English cardinal

English cardinal and statesman, born at Ipswich about 1475, was son of Robert Wolsey (or Wuley, as his name was always spelled) by his wife Joan. His father is generally described as a butcher, but he sold other things than meat; and although a man of some property and a churchwarden of St. Nicholas, Ipswich, his character seems to have borne a striking resemblance to that of Thomas Cromwell's father. He was continually being fined for allowing his pigs to stray in the street, selling bad meat, letting his house to doubtful characters for illegal purposes, and generally infringing the bylaws respecting weights and measures. He died in September 1496, and his will, which has been preserved, was proved a few days later.

Thomas was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford; but the details of his university career are doubtful owing to the defectiveness of the university and college registers. He is said to have graduated B.A. at the age of fifteen (about 1490); but his earliest definite appearance in the records is as junior bursar of Magdalen College in 1498-99, and senior bursar in 1499-1500, an office he was compelled to resign for applying funds to the completion of the great tower without sufficient authority. He must have been elected fellow of Magdalen some years before; and as master of Magdalen College school he had under his charge three sons of Thomas Grey, first Marquess of Dorset. Dorset's beneficent intentions for his sons' pedagogue probably suggested Wolsey's ordination as priest at Marlborough on March 10, 1498, and on October 10, 1500, he was instituted, on Dorset's presentation, to the rectory of Limington in Somerset. His connection with Magdalen had perhaps terminated with his resignation of the bursarship, though he supplicated for the degrees of B.D. and D.D. in 1510; and the college appears to have derived no advantage from Wolsey's subsequent greatness.

At Limington he came into conflict with law and order as represented by the sheriff, Sir Amias Paulet, who is said by Cavendish to have placed Wolsey in the stocks; Wolsey retaliated long afterwards by confining Paulet to his chambers in the Temple for five or six years. Dorset died in 1501, but Wolsey found other patrons in his pursuit of wealth and fame. Before the end of that year he obtained from the pope a dispensation to hold two livings in conjunction with Limington, and Archbishop Deane of Canterbury also appointed him his domestic chaplain. Deane, however, died in 1503, and Wolsey became chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, deputy of Calais, who apparently recommended him to King Henry VII. Nanfan died in 1507, but the king made Wolsey his chaplain and employed him in diplomatic work. In 1508 he was sent to James IV of Scotland, and in the same year he pleased Henry by the extraordinary expedition with which he crossed and recrossed the Channel on an errand connected with the king's proposal of marriage to Margaret of Savoy. His ecclesiastical preferments, of which he received several in 1506-09, culminated in his appointment by Henry to the deanery of Lincoln on February 2, 1509.

King Henry VIII made Wolsey his almoner immediately on his accession, and the receipt of some half-dozen further ecclesiastical preferments in the first two years of the reign marks his growth in royal favor. But it was not until towards the end of 1511 that Wolsey became a privy councillor and secured a controlling voice in the government. His influence then made itself felt on English policy. The young king took little pains with the government, and the control of affairs was shared between the clerical and peace party led by Richard Fox and Archbishop William Warham, and the secular and war party led by Surrey. Hitherto pacific counsels had on the whole prevailed; but Wolsey, who was nothing if not turbulent, turned the balance in favor of war, and his marvellous administrative energy first found full scope in the preparations for the English expedition to Biscay in 1512, and for the campaign in northern France in 1513. He brought about the peace with France and marriage between Mary Tudor and Louis XII in 1514, and reaped his reward in the bishoprics of Lincoln and Tournai, the archbishopric of York, which was conferred on him by papal bull in September, and the cardinalate which he had sent Polydore Vergil to beg from Pope Leo X in May 1514, but did not receive until the following year. Nevertheless, when Francis I in 1515 succeeded Louis XII and won the battle of Marignano, Wolsey took the lead in assisting the emperor Maximilian to oppose him; and this revival of warlike designs was resented by Fox and Warham, who retired from the government, leaving Wolsey supreme. Maximilian proved a broken reed, and in 1518 Wolsey brought about a general pacification, securing at the same time his appointment as legate latere in England. He thus superseded Warham, who was legatus natus, in ecclesiastical authority; and though legates latere were supposed to exercise only special and temporary powers, Wolsey secured the practical permanence of his office.

The election of Charles V as emperor in 1519 brought the rivalry between him and Francis I to a head, and Wolsey was mainly responsible for the attitude adopted by the English government. Both monarchs were eager for England's alliance, and their suit enabled Wolsey to appear for the moment as the arbiter of Europe. England's commercial relations with Charles V's subjects in the Netherlands put war with the emperor almost out of the question; and cool observers thought that England's obvious policy was to stand by while the two rivals enfeebled each other, and then make her own profit out of their weakness. But, although a gorgeous show of friendship with France was kept up at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, it had been determined before the conference of Calais in 1521, at which Wolsey pretended to adjudicate on the merits of the dispute, to side actively with Charles V. Wolsey had vested interests in such a policy. Parliament had in 1513-15 showed signs of strong anti-clerical feeling; Wolsey had in the latter year urged its speedy dissolution, and had not called another; and he probably hoped to distract attention from the church by a spirited foreign policy, as King Henry V had done acenturybefore. He had, moreover, received assurances from the emperor that he would further Wolsey's candidature for the papacy; and although he protested to Henry VIII that he would rather continue in his service than be ten popes, that did not prevent him from secretly instructing his agents at Rome to press his claims to the utmost. Charles, however, paid Wolsey the sincere compliment of thinking that he would not be sufficiently subservient on the papal throne; while he wrote letters in Wolsey's favor, he took care that they should not reach their destination in time; and Wolsey failed to secure election both in 1521 and 1524. This ambition distinguishes his foreign policy from that of Henry VII, to which it has been likened. Henry VII cared only for England; Wolsey's object was to play a great part on the European stage. The aim of the one was national, that of the other was ecumenical.

In any case the decision taken in 1521 was a blunder. Wolsey's assistance helped Charles V to that position of predominance which was strikingly illustrated by the defeat and capture of Francis I at Pavia in 1525; and the balance of power upon which England's influence rested was destroyed. Her efforts to restore it in 1526-28 were ineffectual; her prestige had depended upon her reputation for wealth derived from the fact that she had acted in recent years as the paymaster of Europe. But Henry VII's accumulations had disappeared; parliament resisted in 1523 the imposition of new taxation; and the attempts to raise forced loans and benevolences in 1526-28 created a storm of opposition. Still more unpopular was the brief war with Charles V in which Wolsey involved England in 1528. The sack of Rome in 1527 and the defeat of the French before Naples in 1528 confirmed Charles V's supremacy. Peace was made in 1529 between the two rivals without England being consulted, and her influence at Wolsey's fall was less than it had been at his accession to power.

This failure reacted upon Wolsey's position at home. His domestic was sounder than his foreign policy: by his development of the Star Chamber, by his firm administration of justice and maintenance of order, and by his repression of feudal jurisdiction, he rendered great services to the monarchy. But the inevitable opposition of the nobility to this policy was not mitigated by the fact that it was carried out by a churchman; the result was to embitter the antagonism of the secular party to the church and to concentrate it upon Wolsey's head. The control of the papacy by Charles V, moreover, made it impossible for Wolsey to succeed in his efforts to obtain from Pope Clement VII the divorce which Henry VIII was seeking from Charles V's aunt, Catherine of Aragon. An inscription on a contemporary portrait of Wolsey at Arras calls him the author of the divorce, and Roman Catholic historians from Sanders downwards have generally adopted the view that Wolsey advocated this measure merely as a means to break England's alliance with Spain and confirm its alliance with France. This view is unhistorical, and it ignores the various personal and national motives which lay behind that movement. There is no evidence that Wolsey first suggested the divorce, though when he found that Henry was bent upon it, he pressed for two points: (1) that an application should be made to Rome, instead of deciding the matter in England, and (2) that Henry, when divorced, should marry a French princess.

The appeal to Rome was a natural course to be advocated by Wolsey, whose despotism over the English church depended upon an authority derived from Rome; but it was probably a mistake. It ran counter to the ideas suggested in 1527 on the captivity of Clement VII, that England and France should set up independent patriarchates; and its success depended upon the problematical destruction of Charles V's power in Italy. At first this seemed not improbable; French armies marched south on Naples, and the pope sent Campeggio with full powers to pronounce the divorce in England. But he had hardly started when the French were defeated in 1528; their ruin was completed in 1529, and Clement VII was obliged to come to terms with Charles V, which included Campeggio's recall in August 1529.

Wolsey clearly foresaw his own fall, the consequent attack on the church and the triumph of the secular party. Parliament, which he had kept at arms length, was hostile; he was hated by the nobility, and his general unpopularity is reflected in Skelton's satires and in Hall's Chronicle. Even churchmen had been alienated by his suppression of monasteries and by his monopoly of ecclesiastical power; and his only support was the king, who had now developed a determination to rule himself. He surrendered all his offices and all his preferments except the Archbishopric of York, receiving in return a pension of 1000 marks from the bishopric of Winchester, and retired to his see, which he had never before visited. A bill of attainder, passed by the Lords, was rejected at Cromwell's instigation and probably with Henry's goodwill by the Commons. The last few months of his life were spent in the exemplary discharge of his archiepiscopal duties; but a not altogether unfounded suspicion that he had invoked the assistance of Francis I, if not of Charles V and the pope, to prevent his fall involved him in a charge of treason. He was summoned to London, but died on his way at Leicester abbey on November 30, and was buried there on the following day.

The completeness of Wolsey's fall enhanced his former appearance of greatness, and, indeed, he is one of the outstanding figures in English history. His qualities and his defects were alike exhibited on a generous scale; and if his greed and arrogance were colossal, so were his administrative capacity and his appetite for work. "He is", wrote the Venetian ambassador Giustiniani, "very handsome, learned, extremely eloquent, of vast ability and indefatigable. He alone transacts the business which occupies all the magistrates and councils of Venice, both civil and criminal; and all state affairs are managed by him, let their nature he what it may. He is grave, and has the reputation of being extremely just; he favors the people exceedingly, and especially the poor, hearing their suits and seeking to despatch them instantly." As a diplomatist he has had few rivals and perhaps no superiors. But his pride was equal to his abilities. The familiar charge, repeated in Shakespeare, of having written Ego et meus rex, while true in fact, is false in intention, because no Latin scholar could put the words in any other order; but it reflects faithfully enough Wolsey's mental attitude. Giustiniani explains that he had to make proposals to the cardinal before he broached them to Henry, lest Wolsey "should resent the precedence conceded to the king." He is, wrote another diplomatist, "the proudest prelate that ever breathed." He arrogated to himself the privileges of royalty, made servants attend him upon their knees, compelled bishops to tie his shoelatchets and dukes to hold the basin while he washed his hands, and considered it condescension when he allowed ambassadors to kiss his fingers; he paid little heed to their sacrosanct character, and himself laid violent hands on a papal nuncio. His egotism equalled Henry VIII's; his jealousy and ill-treatment of Richard Pace, dean of St. Paul's, referred to by Shakespeare but vehemently denied by Dr. Brewer, has been proved by the publication of the Spanish state papers; and Polydore Vergil, the historian, and Sir R. Sheffield, speaker of the House of Commons, were both sent to the Tower of London for complaining of his conduct. His morals were of the laxest description, and he had as many illegitimate children as Henry VIII himself. For his son, before he was eighteen years old, he procured a deanery, four archdeaconries, five prebends and a chancellorship, and he sought to thrust him into the Bishopric of Durham. For himself he obtained, in addition to his archbishopric and lord chancellorship, the abbey of St. Albans, reputed to be the richest in England, and the bishopric first of Bath and Wells, then of Durham, and finally that of Winchester. He also used his power to extort enormous pensions from Charles V and Francis I and lavish gifts from English suitors. His New Year's presents were reckoned by Giustiniani at 15,000 ducats, and the emperor paid -- or owed -- him 18,000 livres a year. His palaces outshone those of his king, and few monarchs could afford such a display of plate as commonly graced the cardinal's table. His foundations at Oxford and Ipswich were, nevertheless, not made out of his superabundant revenues, but out of the proceeds of the dissolution of monasteries, not all of which were devoted to those laudable objects.

That such a man would ever have used the unparalleled powers of ecclesiastical jurisdiction with which he had been entrusted for a genuine reformation of the church is only a pious opinion cherished by those who regret that the Reformation was left for the secular arm to achieve; and it is useless to plead lack of opportunity on behalf of a man who for sixteen years had enjoyed an authority never before or since wielded by an English subject. Wolsey must be judged by his deeds and not by doubtful intentions. During the first half of his government he materially strengthened the Tudor monarchy by the vigorous administration of justice at home and by the brilliance of his foreign policy abroad. But the prestige he secured by 1521 was delusive; its decline was as rapid as its growth, and the expense of the policy involved taxation which seriously weakened the loyalty of the people. The concentration of civil and ecclesiastical power by Wolsey in the hands of a churchman provided a precedent for its concentration by Henry VIII in the hands of the crown; and the personal example of lavish ostentation and loose morals which the cardinal-archbishop exhibited cannot have been without influence on the king, who grew to maturity under Wolsey's guidance.

    Roman Catholic Cardinal


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