29 November 1530 – The Death of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey at Leicester Abbey

Cardinal WolseyAt around 8am on the 29th November 1530, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey died at the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis, Leicester.

Wolsey had been arrested for high treason at Cawood Castle, his home in North Yorkshire, on 4th November and taken into custody by the Earl of Northumberland and William Walsh. He bade farewell to his household on 6th November as he, Northumberland and Walsh set off for London. They travelled from Cawood to Pontefract and Doncaster, and then to Sheffield Park, home of the Earl of Shrewsbury, arriving there on the 8th. By this time, Wolsey had been taken ill with dysentery and so the group stayed at Sheffield until 24th November. In the meantime, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, had been dispatched from London to escort Wolsey to the Tower and he arrived at Sheffield on 22nd.

When Wolsey had recovered enough from his illness, the group travelled on to Hardwick Hall and then Nottingham. By 26th November, Wolsey’s health had taken a turn for the worse and when they arrived at Leicester Abbey Wolsey allegedly told the abbot, “Father abbott I ame come hether to leave my bones among you.” He spoke the truth. On the morning of the 29th November 1530, after making his last confession, Wolsey said his famous words:

“I se the matter ayenst me howe it is framed, But if I had served god as dyligently as I have don the kyng he wold not have geven me over in my grey heares.”

In his last hours, Wolsey was worried about the heresies he felt were taking root in England, so before he died he asked Sir William Kingston to advise the King to act against them. He then lapsed into unconsciousness and the abbot performed the last rites. He died at around 8am. His body was laid out in his pontifical robes for people to see before he was buried at the abbey, where he still rests today.

Sidney Dark, in his 1935 book on Wolsey, writes:

“The London crowd was robbed of the sight of his death upon the open block, but there were no doubt great rejoicings on the night that the news of his death reached the capital. Only among the Yorkshire villages had Wolsey set a new light burning in the evening of his life, a light that was remembered long after he had gone from among them, in the form of happier and more prosperous homes; and it may not count for nothing in the final scale of things that a few tears were shed for him, when the news of his death came to London, by a poor fool in the King’s service who mourned the death of a kind master.”

It was a sad end to someone who had served his King faithfully for many years, but at least Wolsey had died peacefully in bed, rather than on the scaffold. His burial in Leicester meant that he was denied the black marble sarcophagus he had commissioned from Benedetto da Rovezzano. Henry VIII planned to use the sarcophagus himself, but this never happened and it now houses the remains of Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, who was laid to rest in it in St Paul’s Cathedral after his death in the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Click here to read more about Cardinal Wolsey’s life and career.

Notes and Sources

  • ‘Wolsey, Thomas (1470/71–1530)’, Sybil M. Jack, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
  • The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey, George Cavendish
  • Henry VIII, J J Scarisbrick
  • Wolsey, Sidney Dark

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8 thoughts on “29 November 1530 – The Death of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey at Leicester Abbey”
  1. Cardinal Wolsey is one of Henry’s servants that I feel gets at least in media films a poor press; and is portrayed as someone who does not come over as one of history’s good guys. Certainly he had enough enemies at court to bring him down on charges that amounted to embesselment and treason, but they had the power to persuade the King that Wolsey in his career had mishandled funds and monies that allegiably should have gone to the treasury were being used for his two pet foundations: the schools and collages at Cambridge and Oxford Universities. The pamphlets that they put about probably made even more obscure claims about him in order to bring him down; I also believe that if it was not for the principle enemies Norfolk, Suffolk and the Boleyns bringing more and more so called evidence to the King’s notice, that Henry would have allowed the Cardinal to remain in York in retirement. Once he was persusaded that Wolsey had gone further, and he was accused of being in touch with foreign agencies to help the Queen; he had no choice but to bring him to London to answer treason charges. I feel sorry for Wolsey as he had been close to the King, worked hard in his cause, done almost everything with his master’s approval and his desire always seemed to serve the King. His enemies cashed in if you like on his failure to get Henry the verdict he desired at Blackfriars in 1529; and with Henry turning against Wolsey bit by bit because of that failure; they were able to use what evidence they could find or plant to get Henry to move against his former first minster. I am of the personal opinion that Wolsey was something of a fall guy to allow a new regiem to take the place of him as Henry’s advisors.

    Wolsey was also a churchman as well as a statesman and in his capacity as such he was actually well respected and well liked; in York people grew to know him and to be fond of him in the short time that he spent there; the last months of his life and there were crowds of people who came to say farewell to him at York when he set out on his last sad journey south to his death. I do not know what Kingston or Northumberlland , his former servant thought of him when they came to arrest him but they treated him with respect. I cannot help but feel that they allowed him to rest because of his health that they almost felt that he was dying and allowed him to do so; and thus escape life imprisonment or the axe in London. Northumberland must have had mixed feelings sent to arrest his former master and Kingston showed him nothing but respect. Wolsey going by the sources seems to have had an idea that he was dying and accepted these as his last hours. When he entered the bedroom at Leicester; there was no way he was going to leave it again, either by choice or by force. Wolsey knew he was going to die and he gave himself up to it. And for that I admire him; he robbed the enemies he had back in London their empty victory.

    Today a grave marker points to the place it was believed that he was buried, but it is not certain that this is the exact spot and at some point in the near future the University hopes to do a survey and look for the bones of Wolsey if they are there in the Leicester Abbey Park anywhere. Hope they find them and honour him as a man that has been misunderstood by those who tried to blacken his name; thankfully historians now give him a more balanced press. Pity films and media cannot do the same.

  2. I agree entirely with the sentiments of BanditQueen. Wolesley was a devout Catholic but in order to obtain the divorce that Henry so badly wanted he had to accept the advent of the protestant faith into the Kingdom and grant it high office. Thus Archbishop Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell exercised more control over religious affairs than did the Cardinal. The fact that when he was away from exercising the authority of the King he was well liked and respected for the kind manner in which he treated people confirms the view that he was not as bad as he now portrayed, although the recent eries of “The Tudors” did present him in a more sympathetic light. It is the priviledge of the King that he could make unpopular decisions and make someone else carry out the orders out so that they get the blame rather than the King.

  3. Claire – Excellent recounting of the facts of Wolsey’s last days. Thanks so much!

    This post brings up an interesting point. I enjoyed The Tudors’ miniseries because of the intrigue and it gave everyone a glimpse (albeit a stylized one) into Renaissance life at the court of Henry VIII and how one could be in favor one minute and be disgraced the next.

    However, the lowest point of The Tudors for me was when they showed Wolsey (played by Sam Neill) slitting his throat at the end of the season. When they showed that, I was like what is this, are they rewriting history or what?

    I felt like this was as blatant as The Other Boleyn Girl when they tried to show Anne sleeping with her brother George in a desperate attempt to get pregnant after her miscarriage.

    I understand that they want to have high drama in order to keep the viewer entertained but the problem with this kind of fiction is that they are rewriting history and it is not necessary as the Tudors have enough factual high drama that they don’t need to do it.

    1. yeah, that was pretty much when I quit making a point if watching The Tudors. I was already dissatisfied with the fictionalizing, but sometimes that happens. But to blatantly rewrite the actual event like that — there was drama enough in the old mean saying with dignity, had he served his God… — that was too much for me. If I should learn anything new, I wouldnt be able to believe it as new knowledge.

      1. yes, that was when i quit watching. fictionalizing; yeah, that happens a lot. Flat out telling a lie about a prominent death is something else. Wolsey’s death had its own inherent drama. There was no need to add anything, let alone completely change the facts.

  4. This man worked relentlessly for the King, he had a brilliant mind, was a great statesman and very loyal to his King. I do think he is over vilified, as many are from this era through their trying to please a King who changed his mind as often as he changed his wives 🙂

    In these times the higher you climbed, the more people there would be to try and pull you down. Envy, jealousy and greed, the need for power and favour when combined together become a powerful enemy. I feel he would have know the risks he ran in holding his powerful position, and used some dodgy deeds himself to get and stay there, it was a cut throat time, and who could blame him if he did.

    I have no doubt he was devout in his religion in the most part, even though he did have a long term mistress and 2 children. But personally I think his work at court and his privileged life style took over and became more important to him through time, he may have had the same thought, hence his famous statement.

    I don’t know if I can feel sorry for Wolsey, because it’s highly possible he had a hand in bringing down others in his time, but I certainly don’t think he was worse than any other who wielded power in those times, but I am always saddened by the ferocity of Henry’s behaviour towards those that served him long and well, but that is my modern sentiments, which had no place in the Tudor Courts.

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