The rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey

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The rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey

Wolsey, born in Ipswich in 1473, was not of noble birth, but his exceptional academic abilities ensured a bright future for him.

Wolsey became a Bachelor of Arts at 15, having studied at Oxford.

He came to the attention of Elizabeth of York's brother, Thomas Grey in 1500.

In 1507 he became chaplain to Henry VII.

By 1509 he was the Dean of Lincoln, and the 'informal royal secretary'.

He went on to rise to great heights under the patronage of the King. Posts that he held throughout his reign include, Bishop of Tournai, Bishop of Lincoln, Archbishop of York, Cardinal, Lord Chancellor, Papal Legate, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Bishop of Durham and Bishop of Winchester. All of these positions brought him considerable wealth.

Although there is enormous controversy over the amount of power he yielded, there is little doubt that due to his capacity for hard work and attention to detail he made a large impact on government.

But he did not have an untarnished reputation then or since. His vast wealth was acquired, in part, because he kept bishoprics open when a bishop had died, and took the rents for himself. He had two sons, despite being a bishop, archbishop, cardinal and papal legate!

He had a close relationship with the papacy as well as with the king. He felt that he had to support the policies of the papacy, especially following his promotion to Papal Legate.

He believed in justice for all. But at the same time he persecuted the rich (was he jealous because of his low birth?).


Was he Henry's servant or the second king? There is much debate about whether he was responsible for policy making or simply carrying out the king's wishes.

Henry's relationship with Wolsey has been likened to a father - son relationship (David Starkey).

It is a mistake to call Wolsey a 'minister'. He was the king's servant, and exactly that. (John Guy) He played a major part in informing Henry about both business and people.

He ruled in an astutely political way. He would consult ministers on policy, but only after it had been formulated!

One of his major failures was the Amicable Grant, which was a kind of tax, which led to rebellion. The resistance was successful, and in order to save himself face, Henry made Wolsey the scapegoat.

Foreign Policy

He was more disposed towards a policy of peace, seeing himself as the peacemaker of Europe. He was sympathetic with the Humanistic ideas of the time which heralded peace above war. Bu this could not always be reconciled with Henry's desire for glory through military victory.

His crowning glory in foreign affairs was the Peace of London. This set the scene for England's ensuing role as the 'Peace maker of Europe'. Soon afterwards, Henry met Francis at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

But did he want the reputation of peacemaker for himself, or for his master?

The Fall

Things began to go badly for Wolsey in 1526 when he came head to head with the nobility over the Eltham Ordinances. Faction at court was getting the better of him, and he found himself no longer being able to contain the nobles, especially since the arrival of Anne Boleyn. Not only this, but increasingly, Henry was calling the shots on policy.

"Wolsey was destroyed because he had become a liability in the eyes of the king and was expendable. This has fundamental implications for reassessing his relationship with Henry." (John Guy)

Love him...

George Cavendish: "The king displayed a most loving disposition towards him, especially as he was most earnest and readiest among all the council to advance the King's mere will and pleasure." (contemporary)

Hate him...

Prof. G. Mattingley: "an unwieldy hulk of corrupted flesh bearing perilously the supple, powerful brain, a daemonic incandescence of ambition and pride driving and lighting from within the bloated, rotting body." (historian)

Polydore Virgil: "Wolsey, with his arrogance and ambition, raised against himself the hatred of the whole people and, in his hostility towards the nobles and common folk, procured their great irritation at his vainglory. His own odiousness was truly complete, because he claimed he could undertake himself almost all public duties." (contemporary)

John Skelton:

So rygorous revelyng,

In a prelate specially;

So bold and so bragging,

And was so baselye borne;

So lordlye of his lokes,

And so dysdayneslye;

So fatte a magott,

Bred of a flesshe-flye...(contemporary)

Thomas More: "vainglorious far above all measure." (contemporary)

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