The Death of Cardinal Wolsey

Posted By on November 29, 2010

On this day in history, 29th November 1530, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey (the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis) in his late 50s. He was on his way from Yorkshire to London with his chaplain, Edmund Bonner (the future Bishop of London), to answer charges of high treason when he was taken ill and died. He was laid to rest within the walls of the abbey and was not given the grand marble black sarcophagus that he had had designed for himself, instead, that sarcophagus houses the body of Horatio Viscount Nelson in the vault under the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

It is impossible to write an article on Cardinal Wolsey’s life – he deserves a book! – but here is a brief rundown:-

Wolsey’s Rise

Thomas Wolsey was born around 1471 in Ipswich, Suffolk, and was the son of Robert Wolsey, a man once thought to have been a butcher but who is now thought to have been a cloth merchant who was killed at the Battle of Bosworth. Wolsey was educated at Ipswich School, Magdalen College School and then Magdalen College (Oxford University), where he studied theology. On 10th March 1498 Wolsey was ordained and it was not long before he became Dean of Divinity at Magdalen College. In 1502, he became the chaplain of Henry Deane, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and after Deane’s death in 1503 he joined the household of Sir Richard Nanfan. Nanfan died in 1507, leaving Wolsey as the executor of his estate, and it was then that Wolsey began working for the King, Henry VII, as his royal chaplain and the secretary of Richard Foxe, a man who was Lord Privy Seal and the Bishop of Exeter, Bath and Wells, Durham and Winchester.

Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 and the new king recognised Wolsey’s intelligence and his skills and made him his almoner, a position which gave him a place on the King’s Privy Council. In 1511, Wolsey was made Canon of Windsor then Bishop of Lincoln and, in 1515, Wolsey was appointed Lord Chancellor after William Warham, the Archbishop of Canterbury, resigned. Around the same time, Pope Leo X made him a cardinal.

Wolsey showed Henry VIII just how indispensable he was during the 1512-14 war with France, revealing what a talent he had for foreign diplomacy. The second campaign against the French was successful due to Wolsey’s planning and the subsequent peace negotiations, which saw Mary Tudor marry the French King, Louis XII, were all part of Wolsey’s handiwork. Pope Leo X recognised Wolsey’s skills in this area and made him Papal Legate in 1518, which saw Wolsey negotiating the Treaty of London between twenty nations. In 1520, Wolsey organised a lavish meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I, the French King, at The Field of the Cloth of Gold and very soon he had got England to the enviable position of having the major powers of France and Spain fighting to be England’s ally. He was rewarded by the Pope for his skills and hard work in Europe in1523 when he was made Bishop of Durham.

The King’s Great Matter

Between 1527 and his death in 1530, Cardinal Wolsey was trying his utmost to get his master, King Henry VIII, an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Catherine of Aragon had failed to provide Henry with a living son and heir and Henry stopped sleeping with his wife in 1524 when it appeared that she was no longer fertile. Henry had managed to convince himself that his marriage to Catherine was sinful and cursed because she was his brother’s widow:-

“And if a man shall take his brother’s wife, it [is] an unclean thing: he hath uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.” Leviticus 20 verse 21, King James Bible

Henry wanted his cursed marriage annulled so that he could marry again and hopefully have a son. By 1527, Henry even had another woman in mind, Anne Boleyn.

Annulment proceedings began in 1527 and Wolsey fought the case firstly by pointing out to the Pope that the original dispensation for Henry and Catherine’s marriage was invalid because the marriage was against Biblical law, secondly by claiming that the dispensation contained errors, and thirdly by arguing that the case should be tried in England by him as Papal Legate. Pope Clement VII ruled that the case could be heard in England but in the presence of two legates, Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio. Although Wolsey was confident that there would be no problem with this, Campeggio’s visit to London kept being delayed, then it was found that Campeggio’s “powers were not complete”1 which necessitated “further wearisome and unsatisfactory negotiation with the papal Curia.”2 Campeggio, who had been ordered to stall proceeding as much as possible, managed to stall things until the 31st May 1529 when the trial began at Blackfriars. Catherine was definitely the victor in the trial. Not only did she make the King rather uncomfortable by kneeling at his feet and making the “speech of her life”3, the Pope also approved her appeal that the case should only be heard in Rome. In July 1529, Campeggio adjourned the court and the court was never to sit again. Wolsey had failed in his mission.

Wolsey’s Downfall

Henry VIII had been expecting the Legatine Court to rule that his marriage to Catherine was null and void, so it was a bitter disappointment when the court was adjourned and then news reached him that the Pope had approved Catherine’s appeal. However, although many people believe that it was Wolsey’s failure to get the King his divorce which was solely responsible for the Cardinal’s downfall, Eric Ives points out that Wolsey “lost Henry’s confidence from late August onwards by miscalculating the king’s mood and by mishandling the Treaty of Cambrai, in which Francis I totally deceived him and caused him, in turn, to mislead his master.”4 Wolsey’s mistakes, combined with his failure to get Henry his much-needed annulment, enabled the Boleyn faction to “bring him down”5. Wolsey began to fall in favour as the likes of Norfolk, Suffolk and Rochford rose in favour and Wolsey was painted as a man who had not only sought to delay Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, but also as a man who was “in the pocket of Francis I’s mother and mentor, Louise of Savoy”6 and so was not working for England’s best interests.

Wolsey was able to see the King on the 12th September 1529 at the King’s hunting lodge at Grafton, near Milton Keynes, where the two of them had lengthy meetings together. We do not know exactly what was said during these meetings but Eric Ives points out that Wolsey managed to retain his office and chair council meetings as late as the 6th October. However, on the 9th October, Wolsey found himself being charged with “praemunire” which is described by Webster’s Dictionary as being “the offense of introducing foreign authority into England”. Around a week later, Wolsey was forced to hand over his seal of office and on the 22nd October 1529 he pleaded guilty to the charge of praemunire and surrendered all of his property to the King. Henry, however, secretly kept in touch with his former chancellor and Wolsey was fully pardoned and restored to Henry’s favour on the 12th February 1530.

Although Wolsey managed to gain much support from the King’s council, he was once again losing favour by autumn 1530, something which Ives puts down to Anne Boleyn:-

“The one person who kept her nerve was Anne. It was thanks to her that Wolsey’s ‘hinderers and enemies’ retained the initiative and were able always to count on having ‘time with the king before his friends’.”7

Although I do not believe that Anne was seeking revenge on the Cardinal for breaking up her relationship with Henry Percy a few years earlier, it is clear that Anne had lost faith in Wolsey and wanted him removed from power.

Wolsey, meanwhile, was digging his own grave by acting against Anne in working towards “a rapprochement with Katherine, Charles V and Rome”8 which saw a papal edict being sent to Henry in October 1530 ordering him to leave Anne. Anne, of course, was furious and Ives writes of how “she brought out again her wasted youth and the reputation she had risked for Henry”9 and vowed to leave him. The only way that the King could calm Anne and keep her was by agreeing that he would move against Wolsey.

On the 1st November a groom of the King’s chamber was sent to York, where Wolsey was staying, with a warrant for the Cardinal’s arrest. Henry VIII believed that Wolsey had “intrigued against them, both in and out of his kingdom”10 and entered into “presumptuous sinister practices made to the court of Rome for reducing him to his former estates and dignity”11, treason in other words. On the 4th November, Wolsey was arrested while he was eating dinner and was made to set out for London to be tried for treason. J J Scarisbrick writes of how Wolsey’s natural death at Leicester Abbey on the 29th November 1530 “cheated his master of the final reckoning”12, Wolsey had avoided the axeman and died in in a place of God, his true master. His successor, Thomas Cromwell, was not so lucky.

Trivia

  • The beautiful Renaissance style Hampton Court Palace was built for Cardinal Wolsey so it is he, not Henry VIII, who we have to thank for its beauty. Henry ‘inherited’ the Palace when Wolsey fell from favour.
  • In “The Tudors” Wolsey commits suicide by slitting his throat!

Notes and Sources

  1. The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn, Eric Ives, p96
  2. Ibid.
  3. Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII, David Starkey
  4. Ives, p120
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ives, p122
  7. Ives, p130
  8. Ives, p131
  9. Ibid.
  10. Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4. 6720
  11. State Papers of Henry VIII Volume 7. 212
  12. p316 of my old copy of J J Scarisbrick’s “Henry VIII

Comments on
"The Death of Cardinal Wolsey"

28 Responses to “The Death of Cardinal Wolsey”

  1. Richard says:

    The 4 large chandeliers that did belong with the black marble sarcophagus of Wolsey are bought by cardinal Triest of Gent Belgium and a few weeks ago I was in “The Sint Baafs” catedral in Gent and there they are.
    Very big black chandeliers and now they are carrying the wapons of Henry VIII on it.
    Normally you are not allowed to come very near them but a guide did let me behind the big doors and there I was standing next to them and touching a big part of History and I most say somewhat I was moved about that…………..hmmmmmmm silly me.

    P.s Sorry for my English but I do the best I can

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    Claire Reply:

    Hi Richard,
    I don’t think it’s silly to be moved in that way, I get moved by historical objects too. I didn’t know that those pieces were in Belgium so thanks for sharing that and by the way your English is wonderful!

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    miladyblue Reply:

    You are NOT silly for being moved, and your English is just fine, Richard!

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  2. TinaII2None says:

    Thanks so much for some information on Wolsey I didn’t know about. What a complex character. Has anyone ever written a biography on him to do him justice?

    While I knew that The Tudors fictionalized his manner of death (I’m not sure why except that him “dying in bed” would be too dull), I did enjoy Sam Neill’s performance, and found myself feeling sorry for him when he prays to God that he deserves neither forgiveness or mercy or to see his Lord. As a Christian that saddened me.

    But I always did like the real Wolsey’s comment near the end of his life, and to paraphrase: if only he had served God with the intensity he had his King. Not a man I think I would have liked, but what an incredible character in Tudor history.

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  3. I would have felt the same way. I probably would have gotten teary eyed!
    Your English is wonderful! I wish I could speak as well in another language.

    Great synopsis of the life of Cardinal Woolsey – such an intriguing person he was!

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  4. miladyblue says:

    Thank you again, Claire for “the other side of the story” with yet another important person in the Tudor era. Many times, I have read small, tantalizing bits about an influential person, and then pfft! they disappear, leaving me wondering, “Why did they do what they did? What made them tick?”

    Ack!! I wish we could come across some treasure trove of hitherto undiscovered papers and notes from this era that would fill in the gaps!

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  5. Anne Barnhill says:

    Wolsey was certainly a man of many parts–religious leader, proud homeowner, intelligent and able to please, yet also having carnal appetites–he had a mistress and I think there was inscribed in Latin across one of the rooms in Whitehall–for the Cardinal’s prostitutes–or some such meaning. He grew too big for his britches, as my grandmother used to say and so, Henry had to chop him back down to size. Quite fascinating the relationship between Wolsey and Anne–He called her the night crow, which makes her sound horrible. No love loss there I think.

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    Lucy Reply:

    Hi, where did you find the ‘night crow’ comment?, and the Latin inscription? I love such tiny, insightful details :>)

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  6. Richard says:

    Thank you all so much.

    Next week I wanted to go to Gent and I will try to make a few pics trough the doors so everybody can see the chandeliers (don’t know if we are allowed to make pics but I will try)

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  7. Lucy says:

    Thanks Claire! Another brilliantly informative article :>)

    Why is it your instinct that Anne didn’t seek revenge on the Cardinal for breaking up her relationship with Henry Percy? I’m sure his lack of success regarding the divorce was the greater cause, but don’t you think she would have resentfully remembered his earlier lack of respect towards her?

    When I went to Windsor recently there was a display featuring the proposed design of Henry V111′s memorial, and it said that the blocks of stone had been appropriated by Henry from Wolsey on his downfall. Obviously they didn’t work out for Henry either as he shares with several others a very modest slab of slate on the floor of St George’s chapel (one can easily walk over it without noticing!) It’s nice to know that some of the blocks of stone found a home in Ghent and can be visited – and touched :>)

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  8. Fiz says:

    I think it was Campeggio who christened Ann “the night crow”. Claire, have just read Guy’s biography of Anne – hate it and very few proper footnotes. I’ve also read the new Catherine of Aragon biography and think even less of it. It doesn’t exceed 400 pages and yet it says vaguely that “sometime” footnotes and authorities quoted will appear on Faber’s website! The only book where that was justified was Vincent Bugliosi’s book about JFK which needed to hand to hold and ran above 4,000 pages! I was really looking forward to them and they both were very disappointing.

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  9. Fiz says:

    Bugliosi’s book need to hand to hold it, I meant!

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  10. Fiz says:

    I give up! I needed two hands to hold the last book. I must stop thinking I can touch type and read what I’ve written before I’ve posted it :-(

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  11. Anne Barnhill says:

    Lucy, I think the ‘night crow was in Eric Ives but have not beenable to find it yet. AS for the other, I can’t remember where I read it but will try to find it again. Maybe someone else has it at the tip of tongue??

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  12. Jennifer says:

    Alison Weir makes mention of Wolsey calling her “the night crow” in her book, The Six Wives of Henry VIII.

    [Reply]

    Claire Reply:

    I’ve just found it in my e-reader version of Alison Weir’s Six Wives:-
    “Wolsey himself realised that ‘there was this continual serpentine enemy about the King, the night crow, that possessed the royal ear against him’ ”
    but Weir doesn’t give the reference for that quote.

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  13. Jennifer says:

    I turned to my yahoo group for any thoughts or answers. Alison Weir responded with this reference for that quote:

    It was Wolsey! It comes from Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey. Wolsey, in conversation with Cavendish, said: ‘And also there was a continual serpentine enemy about the King, that would, I am well assured, if I had been found stiff-necked, have called continually upon the King in his ear (I mean the night crow) with such a vehemency that I should, with the help of her assistance, have obtained sooner the King’s indignation than his lawful favour.”
    From: ‘Introduction, Section 11′, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4: 1524-1530 (1875), pp. DXL-DCV. URL: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=91181&strquery=night+crow

    Hope that helps!

    Alison.

    Pretty interesting! I had never heard of her being called that before.

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    Claire Reply:

    I’ve just found the reference in Ives. He says that Wolsey called Anne “the midnight crow” and cites Cavendish p137 so I looked in Cavendish and I actually found it on p193 – http://www.archive.org/stream/lifeofcardinalwo00caveuoft#page/192/mode/2up/search/midnight+crow if anyone wants to read it themselves.

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  14. Fiz says:

    In that case everybody who disliked Anne used that expression. I’ve read it many times and it’s always the pro-Spanish camp that used it.

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  15. Keithe says:

    Wolsey is said to have died in Leicester Abbey. The footings of this building can be seen in Abbey Park Leicester. There is a commemorative plaque to the cardinal but his burial place is not known. His Sarcophagus though can be seen in the crypt of St Paul’s cathedral London. Henry VIII had It made for Woolsey though it remained unused untill after Trafalgar when George lll gave it as the sarcophphagus of Vice Admiral Lord Nelson following Nelson’s death at The battle of Trafalgar on 21 October1805.

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  16. princess says:

    Hi, I am a student of History from Nigeria and your write up has assisted me a lot in my academics. Tanx a lot

    [Reply]

  17. A.S.Mir says:

    My father held a Masters degree in British history and he used to relate many interesting anecdotes and trivia. One particular alliteration I remember very well. It may be of interest to some readers. It was about Cardinal Wolsey and it went like this :
    Borne by a butcher,
    Bred by a bishop,
    How high His Highness holds his haughty head.
    Clever! Don’t you think?

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  18. BanditQueen says:

    I find these articles well researched and informative. I heard recently that having found the body of Richard iii the University of Leicester now have plans to search the Abbey, now the Cathedral Church for the remains of Cardinal Wolsey, who as you know and write died there in November 1530. He was also buried in the Abbey, but for some reason his tomb has vanished and they are not even certain if the marked place is correct. They have some old plans and are going to get out the science stuff and look for human remains and then, presume they will dig or at least send in the camera to confirm that there are bones there. I then speculate that they will do the same experiments on his bones to confirm that they belong to Cardinal Wolsey or not. It was rumoured that Wolsey had two adult children,so I wonder if it is possible to trace any living descendants and so confirm his identity with DNA.

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  19. Peter Wimsey says:

    I recommend the life of Cardinal Wolsey entitled, “Naked To Mine Enemies”, by Charles W. Ferguson.

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  20. BanditQueen says:

    Hi—Recently just come back from the grave site and the memorial for Richard 111 at Leicester Cathedral and were shown also the memorial marking the so called tomb of Cardinal Wolsey in the Abbey remains in Abbey Park at Leicester. Found both experiences moving and admire the plans now to confirm the grave as that of Cardinal Wolsey or was it to actually find the grave as the experts say that the actual body is now lost. A great shame as someone of his status should have been very much left in peace. The site is in the place of honour and is very much in the centre of the site and is very peaceful as it is away from the noise of what is today avery busy city. The Cathedral site now of course is anything but peaceful although inside it has quiet places, but with hords of people all looking for the memorial to KIng Richard you hardly have a moment before having to make way for another curious person. When they place the tomb next year: I hope it gets the peace and respect it deserves.

    Cardinal Thomas Wolsey has also been given a disservice by historians as he actually did a lot to help poor boys who could not afford education and paid for them to attend his college foundations. He was also very popular in York as he did a lot for the local people there and was very approachable. Until his being given the stressful job of getting Henry a divorce his administration was very effective and very fair. He probably ran the country single handed. He may have travelled around in pomp and ceremony and had great houses but he was expected to do so by his station in life. We may not approve but his only real crime was that he failed to give the king what he wanted most. Well to be honest he was never going to succeed in the circumstances.

    Yes, he also as did a lot of people in charge keep money for his own foundations but the charges against him were exaggerated and brought by his enemies. His tomb is actually very plain, if beautiful and is in a lovely place. If Cardianl Wolsey is there or close by; then I think he would have approved. The ruins are very lovely and the entire complex is now very well cared for. Enjoyed the entire day: a great end to a 2 weeks of Richard 111, Tudor, Henry VII and Bosworth travels, wells, tombs, churches, battle ground markings and historical finds. A peaceful end also to a very busy day.

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  21. PAT says:

    Shame on Show time for portraying Cardinal Wolsey as committing suicide.

    [Reply]

  22. Natalia says:

    Hello, Just wanted to enquire if the “King’s hunting lodge at Grafton, near Milton Keynes” mentioned is the same as Grafton Manor in Bromsgrove. Or are these two different Graftons…? Thank you in advance.

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  23. thomas says:

    Ich bin schon lange auf der Suche nach Hinweisen, wo Seine Eminenz, Kardinal Wolsey begraben wurde. Auch er hat ein Anrecht, dass für seine Seele gebetet wird. Er war ein faszinierender Mann, über dessen Leben und Wirken bislang viel zu wenig veröffentlicht wurde.

    [Reply]

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