On 29th November 1530 Cardinal Thomas Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey during a journey south that would almost certainly have ended with his execution at the Tower of London.
Thomas Wolsey is generally supposed to have been the son of an Ipswich butcher and cattle dealer, but there is always the possibility that this was a story put about by his enemies in an attempt to demean him as an upstart who had no right to the high office that he achieved.
When King Henry VIII succeeded his father in 1509, Thomas Wolsey was already in royal service, having been chaplain to Henry VII. He had been noted for his willingness to do just about any task that was asked of him and to get results through his dogged insistence on seeing things through.
He was therefore in just the right place to be advanced under Henry VIII, because the young king (aged only 17 at the time of his accession) was far less interested in the minutiae of government than his father had been. Someone like Thomas Wolsey was just what Henry needed to relieve him of the more boring aspects of being in charge of the country.
Wolsey therefore rose rapidly to become Henry’s chief minister and he also acquired important offices in the church, particularly Archbishop of York and Prince-Bishop of Durham. These offices brought him considerable wealth, which he used to build a magnificent palace for himself at Hampton Court. This latter was an unwise move in that it excited the envy of King Henry.
For twenty years Thomas Wosley (a Cardinal from 1515) was the real power in the land and also a dominating figure in foreign policy. His methods were often underhand and corrupt, but Henry was not too bothered about how a job was done as long as the result was what he wanted.
However, things started to unravel when Henry realised that his best chance of fathering a son would be with someone other than Queen Catherine. He set his mind towards marrying one of her maids-of-honour, named Anne Boleyn, and he needed a way of getting his marriage annulled. This would have to be done by a decree from the Pope and Wolsey was obviously the person to act as Henry’s representative in obtaining such a decree. Wolsey was also the Pope’s legate to England, so he had the ear of both parties in the dispute.
This was easier said than done, not least because Pope Clement VII had no wish to anger the powerful Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who was a nephew of Queen Catherine. No amount of persuasion on Wolsey’s part would make the Pope hurry his decision. Henry and Anne Boleyn now began to wonder if Wolsey’s loyalty to the Church was outweighing his loyalty to the king, so Henry started to think of a different means to the desired end.
The new solution, which involved breaking with the Church of Rome, would bypass the need for Thomas Wolsey to act on his behalf and there was also that rather attractive big house just up the Thames that Henry had his eye on. With Wolsey out of the way, two desirable objectives could be met.
Wolsey knew that things were stacked against him when Henry simply commandeered Hampton Court in 1529 and stripped Wolsey of all his government offices. He was, however, allowed to retain his archbishopric of York.
Wolsey was a sick man when, in 1530, he started out for York, which would have been the first time he had done so since his appointment in 1514. While in Yorkshire the news reached him that he had been arraigned for high treason, and he was under arrest when he arrived at Leicester Abbey.
Among his last words, he said: “Had I but served God as diligently as I have my king, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs”. He was aged 55 when he died.
© John Welford