On This Day: Thomas Wolsey - Cardinal, Traitor or Defender of the People? 

Rather a long post today but it is about one of my ultimate historical heroes….Cardinal Thomas Wolsey who on the 15th November 1515, 500 years ago, was invested as Cardinal putting his allegience to Rome in contention with his his allegience to his King, the infamous and murderous Henry VIII. Anybody spot the danger?

Thomas Wolsey gets a bit of a bad name these days. In fact he has had a bad name ever since the moment of his spectacular fall from grace when he failed Henry VIII over the little matter of the divorce (from Katherine of Aragon allowing Henry to wed the enticing Anne Boleyn). Although Henry later regretted the loss of his friend (as he did many of the other friends that he butchered in childish fits of rage) poor Wolsey’s reputation has never much recovered which I think is decidedly unfair. He was certainly wealthy far beyond necessity and could definitely not claim total innocence from the sin of greed but he was, quite simply, one of the most fair, brilliant minds and one of the most selflessly hard working people ever to grace this ungrateful land. 

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Cardinal Wolsey, 1526
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

The son of a butcher, Wolsey rose quickly in the world attaining vast heights at a time when bloodline was everything. He rose through the church acquiring titles that left him more free from the sneers of the nobility than other self-made men. That being said, the nobles never really took to him much, he was far too successful for their liking. You would have thought that an intelligent and incredibly hard working man coming along and helpfully removing all of their burdens allowing them far more time to eat, drink and hunt would have pleased them enormously but these were men who never liked to relinquish control, even if it benefitted them. Logical the English nobles were not…

Wolsey disgraced (Westall, 1795)

Cardinal Wolsey with the noblemen who became his enemies
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

He had far too many triumphs to go into them all in great detail (we really would be here all night) but I will touch on what was, in my opinions, the most impressive thing Wolsey ever did - that being his tireless efforts to give the common people a voice. Despite his great love of pomp and ceremony he never forgot the classes he grew up amongst and often went entirely without sleep to ensure he got through the vast number of cases presented at his specially created Star Chamber. The Star Chamber along with Wolsey’s other creations, the Court of Chancery and the Court of Requests offered inexpensive (in the case of the Court of Requests, free) chances to have your case examined with the promise of impartial justice. At this time most disputes were dealt with locally, expensively and by a local landowner judge who was nearly always extremely biased and wanting a result that suited his own pockets. The poor were therefore left totally to the mercy of whomever wanted to take advantage of them next and the Star Chamber offered a chance to readdress that balance. 

John Roque map detail, Palace of Westminster

A map of Westminster showing the Court of Requests - by John Rocque
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Wolsey is also to be remembered and applauded for his phenomenal and extremely daring overhaul of the taxation system which up till that point had been crippling the poorest of society whilst leaving the rich largely untouched. Wolsey’s new system was based upon valuations of individual wealth meaning that the burden was significantly lifted from the poor and the rich were finally forced to start paying more like their fair share. Looking at the taxation system today you can’t help but wonder where Wolsey is when you need him?!

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Wolsey’s sumptuous palace of Hampton Court from which he conducted much of his business
- Own photo -

Wolsey is to be remembered specifically today for his elevation to the rank of Cardinal, a promotion that was of great pride to Henry VIII in 1515 (having an English Cardinal was quite something to boast about around the card tables) but sadly in the end it proved Wolsey’s undoing. This wonderful man who dedicated his whole life truly to the service of the public as well as never-ending devotion to his master and King was to end his life in ruin, heart and soul broken by the men he had dedicated everything to and for no other real reason than that the King was a bit fed up. Wolsey’s enemies (noblemen jealous of his power and influence) used the King’s impatience for the divorce as a method of twisting Henry’s mind against his former friend. Even then they could find no decent fault to charge him with for Wolsey had never put a foot wrong so they contented themselves with the only thing the could find - an utterly absurd (even in those days of ludicrously trumped up charges) accusation of praemunire (serving a power higher than the King) which was of course later bumped up to treason. After all that he did in Henry’s service Wolsey was flung out for the very reason we remember him today, for become a Cardinal and serving Rome and God above the selfish, dangerous and perhaps mad, King. In a cruel moment of irony just before his death Wolsey was reported to say: “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.” Thankfully for Wolsey he died on route to London, escaping the executioners block, but in all probability because the cruel and undeserved attitude of Henry utterly broke his heart. And so died one of Henry’s most faithful servants and perhaps one of the most hardworking public servants we shall ever see. In these days of grasping politicians, greedy bankers and the shameless lies we are daily told, let us not forget a man who spent his days working for a King but chose to give up his nights to work tirelessly and thanklessly for the rights of the common man. 

© Isla Robertson 2017