Cardinal Wolsey’s Final Words

On 29th November 1530, Cardinal Wolsey died at Leicester Abbey while travelling to London to be tried for high treason. He’d been suffering from dysentery for a couple of weeks but his health had declined by 26th November and when he arrived at Leicester Abbey he told the Father Abbott “I ame come hether to leave my bones among you”.

After making his final confession on the morning of 29th November 1530, the man who had once been King Henry VIII’s right hand man uttered his final words. It is a long speech but I wanted to share all of it with you as it shows what was on the mind of this man as he faced death:

“I see the matter against me how it is framed; but if I had served God as diligently as I have done the king, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs. Howbeit this is the just reward that I must receive for my worldly diligence and pains that I have had to do him service; only to satisfy his vain pleasure, not regarding my godly duty. Wherefore I pray you, with all my heart, to have me most humbly commended unto his royal majesty; beseeching him in my behalf to call to his most gracious remembrance all matters proceeding between him and me from the beginning of the world unto this day, and the progress of the game: and most chiefly in the weighty matter yet depending; (meaning the matter newly began between him and good Queen Katherine) then shall his conscience declare, whether I have offended him or no.

He is sure a prince of a royal courage, and hath a princely heart; and rather than he will either miss or want any part of his will or appetite, he will put the loss of one half of his realm in danger. For I assure you I have often kneeled before him in his privy chamber on my knees, the space of an hour or two, to persuade him from his will and appetite : but I could never bring to pass to dissuade him therefrom. Therefore, Master Kingston, if it chance hereafter you to be one of his privy counsel, as for your wisdom and other qualities ye are meet to be, I warn you to be well advised and assured what matter ye put in his head, for ye shall never put it out again.

And say furthermore, that I request his grace, in God’s name, that he have a vigilant eye to depress this new pernicious sect of Lutherans, that it do not increase within his dominions through his negligence, in such a sort, as that he shall be fain at length to put harness upon his back to subdue them; as the king of Bohemia did, who had good game, to see his rude commons (then infected with Wickliffe’s heresies) to spoil and murder the Spiritual men and religious persons of his realm; the which fled to the king and his nobles for succour against their frantic rage; of whoin they could get no help of defence or refuge, but [they] laughed them to scorn, having good game at their spoil and consumption, not regarding their duties nor their own defence. And when these erroneous heretics had subdued all the clergy and spiritual persons, taking the spoil of their riches, both of churches, monasteries, and all other spiritual things, having no more to spoil, [they] caught such a courage of their former liberty that then they disdained their prince and sovereign lord With all other noble personages, and the head governors of the country, and began to fall in hand with the temporal lords to slay and spoil them, without pity or mercy, most cruelly. Insomuch that the king and other his nobles were constrained to put harness upon their backs, to resist the ungodly powers of those traitorous heretics, and to defend their lives and liberties, who pitched a field royal against them; in which field these traitors so stoutly encountered, the party of them was so cruel and vehement that in fine they were victors, and slew the king, the lords, and all the gentlemen of the realm, leaving not one person that bare the name or port of a gentleman alive, or of any person that had any rule or authority in the common weal. By means of which slaughter they have lived ever since in great misery and poverty without a head or governor, living all in common like wild beasts abhorred of all Christian nations. Let this be to him an evident example to avoid the like danger, I pray you.

Good Master Kingston, there is no trust in routs, or unlawful assemblies of the common people; for when the riotous multitude be assembled, there is among them no mercy or consideration of their bounden duty; as in the history of King Richard the Second, one of his noble progenitors, which [lived] in that same time of Wickliffe’s seditious opinions. Did not the commons, I pray you, rise against the king and the nobles of the realm of England; whereof some they apprehended, whom they without mercy or justice put to death? and did they not fall to spoiling and robbery, to the intent they might bring all things in common; and at this last, without discretion or reverence, spared not in their rage to take the king’s most royal person out of the Tower of London, and carried Him about the city most presumptuously, causing him, for the preservation of his life, to agreeable to their lewd proclamations? Did not also the traitorous heretic, Sir John Oldcastle, pitch a field against King Henry the Fifth, against whom the king was constrained to encounter in his royal person, to whom God gave the victory? Alas! Master Kingston, if these be not plain precedents, and sufficient persuasions to admonish a prince to be circumspect against the semblable mischief; and if he be so negligent, then will God strike and take from him his power, and diminish his regality, taking from him his prudent counsellors and valiant captains, and leave us in our own hands without his help and aid; and then will ensue mischief upon mischief, inconvenience upon inconvenience, barrenness and scarcity of all things for lack of good order in the commonwealth, to the utter destruction and desolation of this noble realm, from the which mischief God of his tender mercy defend us.

Master Kingston, farewell. I can no more, but wish all things to have good success. My time draweth on fast. I may not tarry with you. And forget not, I pray you, what I have said and charged you withal: for when I am dead, ye shall peradventure remember my words much better.”

As the clock struck eight, Cardinal Wolsey slipped away.

As his body was prepared for burial, it was found that he was wearing a hair shirt. He was then dressed in “all such vestments and ornaments as he was professed in when he was consecrated bishop and archbishop” and laid in an open coffin in the lady chapel of the Abbey. There he was surrounded by candles and men holding torches who guarded the body during the night while “the canons sang dirige and other devout orisons”. Mass was sung at four o’clock the next morning and then the body was interred at the Abbey. Unfortunately, the Abbey now lies in ruins and his grave is lost. Visitors can visit the ruins in Abbey Park – click here for more details.

Notes and Sources

  • The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, Volume I, George Cavendish p320-327

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