Cardinal Wolsey was born c 1475 in Ipswich, Suffolk, to a butcher and his wife. He attended Ipswich School, then Magdalen College School, before studying theology at Magdalen College, Oxford and graduating at age 15.

He was Thomas #1 of Henry VIII’s Tetrad of Thomases.

At the time, for men not born into the gentry class, one of the few routes to influence was through the Church. Intelligent boys, educated at the local monastery schools for modest fees, could obtain university scholarships. Provided they applied themselves and were willing to become priests, they could become officials for the nobility or even the King’s Government, who considered scholarship beneath them and were perfectly happy to leave administrative tasks to others.

Accordingly, in 1498, Wolsey was ordained a priest; he became Bishop of Lincoln. Abbot of St Albans, Bishop of Winchester, chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury (all lucrative positions), and later chaplain to Henry VII, who employed him on diplomatic missions.

Wolsey quickly earned a reputation as an efficient administrator of both the Crown and the Church. After Henry VIII became King in 1509, Wolsey’s ascent was rapid. By 1514, he was created Archbishop of York; a year later, Pope Leo X made him a Cardinal, and soon afterwards became Lord Chancellor. He also personally represented the Pope in England as Papal Legate.

From 1515 to 1529, Wolsey’s rule was undisputed; his vast influence earned him the sobriquet, ‘the other King’. Two rival powers ruled Western Europe then: France, England’s traditional enemy, and the Holy Roman Empire of the Habsburgs. In 1518, Wolsey attempted to broker peace between the factions through a European-wide peace treaty. He arranged a meeting, known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, between Henry VIII and French King Francis I, followed by a meeting in 1520 between Henry and the emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, who happened to be the nephew of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon.

The efforts were futile—war broke out between France and the Empire in 1521. Two years later, Wolsey committed English troops against France, raising taxes to pay for it, inducing widespread resentment. Then, in 1528, England switched sides, joining France against Charles. By August 1529, peace had broken out between the former rivals France and the Holy Roman Empire, ensuring both sides were annoyed with England; so much for all your expensive political manoeuvring, Wolsey.

Hampton Court

These incessant diplomatic activities left him little time for ecclesiastical matters, his alleged full-time job. In addition to being arrogant and acquisitive, he had two children with his mistress, Joan Larke: Thomas Wynter, in 1510 (later Dean at Wells) and Dorothy Clancey in 1512 (later a nun at Shaftesbury Abbey).

Wolsey also had a great passion for building. He greatly expanded York Place in Whitehall, the London home of the Archbishop of York, and built lavishly at Hampton Court.

Hampton Court

He founded a school in his home town of Ipswich and, in 1525, Cardinal College, Oxford (now Christ Church), suppressing 29 religious houses to pay for it (a foretaste of the Dissolution of the Monasteries).

Christ Church College, Oxford

Wolsey’s fall from grace was sudden and swift.

Henry VIII requested Wolsey use his influence in Rome to obtain an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, allowing him to marry Anne Boleyn. An obvious barrier was Catherine’s nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who had a tremendous influence on the Pope.

Statue of Wolsey at Christ Church College, Oxford

Wolsey had long been unpopular among a group of nobles, and when his final attempt to obtain the annulment collapsed in July 1529, those enemies persuaded the King against him. In October, Wolsey was indicted on a charge of having overstepped his legatine authority. Stripped of all his properties and positions except that of Archbishop of York, he left London in April 1530.

Wolsey was arrested on November 4 at Cawood Castle, the country residence of the Archbishops of York, on greater charges of treason.

He was escorted south to the capital, reaching Leicester Abbey on November 26, where he became ill and died three days later. He was buried in the Abbey’s Lady Chapel.

Wolsey, never modest, had commissioned a magnificent tomb for himself at Windsor. Henry VIII considered it for his own internment, but it now contains the remains of Admiral Lord Nelson and lies in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Nelson’s tomb

A mercurial rise and a devastating fall for the first of the Tetrad of Thomases of King Henry VIII.