Primary Sources: 1530: The fall of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

 

This account of Thomas Wolsey's fall from royal favor was written by the Tudor chronicler Edward Hall.

Wolsey was born c1473 and eventually held the titles Cardinal-Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor.  He was famous at Oxford University for taking his degree at the age of fifteen; he was intelligent, hard-working, and also very fond of pomp and ceremony.

He became King Henry VII's chaplain during the last two years of his life.  Henry VIII appointed him to a minor office upon his accession, but Wolsey's only became involved in government affairs in 1512.  He urged Henry to wage war against the French on behalf of Pope Julius II.  The war was successful and Henry generously rewarded its main proponent and organizer.  Wolsey subsequently became the king's chief minister from 1515 to 1529.

His powerful office and close friendship with Henry earned him many enemies, particularly aristocrats who resented his usurpation of their traditional influence.  They also resented his great wealth.  Over the years, Wolsey amassed a vast fortune, though he did so largely through his church offices.  He spent lavishly, but he was also charitable and personally financed many diplomatic missions.  It should be noted that most gentlemen entered government service for financial reward; Wolsey was no different.  And as the king's chief minister, he was expected to entertain foreign dignitaries and maintain a suitably impressive lifestyle.  His increasingly ostentatious displays of wealth did, however, damage both his personal reputation and that of the church.

Wolsey lacked the genius for administration of his protégé and successor, Thomas Cromwell.  But he was efficient and capable; when he found he could not control Parliament (it met only once during his years as chancellor), he simply refused to summon it.  He was also blamed for the high taxation necessary to support Henry VIII's ambitious foreign policy.

He maintained the king's favor until he failed to secure an annulment of Henry's first marriage.  From 1527-1529, as Anne Boleyn's influence rose, Wolsey's waned.  She disliked the Cardinal because of his interference in her earlier engagement to Henry Percy.  And both she and the king were increasingly impatient with the pope's endless prevarication.  Torn between his secular and spiritual masters, Wolsey chose Henry's side - but it did not matter.  On 9 October 1529, he was indicted for praemunire; he later confessed his guilt.  Parliament was summoned to indict him on forty-four charges.  The king kept him from prison but stripped him of many offices and all of his power.  Wolsey was ordered to retire to his archbishopric of York.  Indiscreet letters to Rome led to his arrest on 4 November.  He died on the 24th, while returning to London and, most likely, execution at the Tower.

Hall implies that Wolsey committed suicide.  He did not.  He did, however, avoid execution at the Tower which was the fate Henry VIII intended for him.

It should be noted that Cromwell defended Wolsey in parliament.

You have heard under the last year how the cardinal of York [Wolsey] was attainted in praemunire, and despite that the king had given him the bishoprics of York and Winchester, with great possessions, and had licensed him to live in his diocese of York.  Being thus in his diocese, grudging his fall and not remembering the kindness the King showed to him, he wrote to the court of Rome and to several other princes letters reproaching the king, and as much as he was able stirred them to revenge his case against the King and his realm; so much so that various opprobrious words about the king were spoken to Dr Edward Kern, the king's orator at Rome, and it was said to him that for the cardinal's sake the king's matrimonial suit would have the worse speed.  The cardinal would also speak fair to the people to win their hearts, and always declared that he was unjustly and untruly commanded, which fair speaking made many men believe that he spoke the truth.  And to be held in higher repute by the people he determined to be installed or enthroned at York with all possible pomp, and caused a throne to be erected in the Cathedral Church of such a height and design as was never seen before; and he sent to all the lords, abbots, priors, knights, esquires and gentlemen of his diocese to be at his manor of Cawood on 6 November, and so to bring him to York with all pomp and solemnity.

The King, who knew of his doings and secret communications, all this year pretended to ignore them to see what he would eventually do, until he saw his proud heart so highly exalted that he intended to be so triumphantly installed without informing the king, even as if in disdain of the king.  Then the king thought it was not fitting or convenient to let him any longer continue in his malicious and proud purposes and attempts.  Therefore he sent letters to Henry, the sixth earl of Northumberland, willing him with all diligence to arrest the cardinal, and to deliver him to the earl of Shrewsbury, great steward of the king's household.  When the earl had seen the letter, with a suitable number of men he came to the manor of Cawood on 4 November, and when he was brought to the cardinal in his chamber he said to him:  "My Lord, I pray you have patience, for here I arrest you."  "Arrest me," said the cardinal;  "Yes," said the earl, "I have orders to do so."  "You have no such power," said the cardinal, "for I am both a cardinal and a peer of the College of Rome, and ought not to be arrested by any temporal power, for I am not subject to that power, therefore if you arrest me I will withstand it."  "Well," said the Earl, "here is the king's commission, and therefore I charge you to obey."  The Cardinal somewhat remembered himself, and said, "Well, my lord, I am content to obey, but although by negligence I fell under punishment of the praemunire and lost by law all my lands and goods, yet my person was in the king's protection and I was pardoned that offence.  Therefore I wonder why I now should be arrested, especially considering that I am a member of the apostolic See, on whom no temporal man should lay violent hands.  Well, I see the King lacks good counsel."  "Well," said the earl, "when I was sworn warden of the marches you yourself told me that I might with my staff arrest all men under the degree of king, and now I am stronger for I have a commission for what I do as you have seen."  The cardinal at length obeyed, and was kept in his private chamber, and his goods seized and his officers discharged, and his physician, Dr Augustine, was also arrested, and brought to the Tower by Sir Walter Welshe, one of the king's chamber.  On 6 November the cardinal was conveyed from Cawood to Sheffield Castle, and there delivered into the keeping of the earl of Shrewsbury until the king's pleasure was known.  About this arrest there was much talk among the common people, and many were glad, for surely he was not in favour with the commons.

When the cardinal was thus arrested the king sent Sir William Kingston Knight, captain of the guard and constable of the Tower of London with some of the yeomen of the guard to Sheffield, to fetch the cardinal to the Tower.  When the cardinal saw the captain of the guard he was much astonished and shortly became ill, for he foresaw some great trouble, and for that reason men said he willingly took so much strong purgative that his constitution could not bear it.  But Sir William Kingston comforted him, and by easy journeys he brought him to the Abbey of Leicester on 27 November, where through weakness caused by purgatives and vomiting he died the second night following, and is buried in the same Abbey.

 

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