Stories From English History: II - Alfred J. Church

The Great Cardinal

In the first years of the sixteenth century, every one that knew about such things would have said that there was no man more likely to rise to high place in the Church than Thomas Wolsey. He was, it is true, but a butcher's son; but this, though it would have hindered him if he had wished to be a soldier, did not matter to a Churchman. He was sent to Magdalen College, and did very well, taking his degree so soon—he was but fifteen—that he was known as the "Boy Bachelor." He remained at Oxford for some fourteen years in all—he was born in 1471. When he left it he soon became a very important person. Bishop Fox of Winchester, who was one of the King's chief advisers, employed him, both at home and abroad. If Henry VII. was pleased with his shrewdness and habits of business, so Henry VIII. found him always a lively companion, ready to join in his amusements, and not without learning, for which Henry had a certain taste. The old King made him Dean of Lincoln; the young one seemed never to be satisfied with heaping gifts and honours upon him. In 1514 he was made Bishop of Lincoln, and in the course of the same year Archbishop of York; fourteen years later, when Bishop Fox died, he was allowed to become Bishop of Winchester also. At the same time he was allowed to hold numbers of livings. These he never visited, and he had so much employment at Court and abroad that he seldom went near the dioceses which he was supposed to govern. Even this was not all. Certain bishoprics were in the hands of foreigners. As they resided abroad, their revenues had to be collected for them. This was managed by Wolsey, or rather by people whom he employed. For a time he had also a great share in the revenues of St. Alban's Abbey. Altogether he was the richest person in England, the King only excepted. We may even doubt whether the King himself had as great a command of money.

In 1515 the Pope made him a Cardinal, and very soon afterwards his Legate in England, that is, the person who ruled the Church there for him. This last appointment made him superior to the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. Finally the King made him Lord High Chancellor. There never was a man who held so many high offices at the same time.

Retinue of a Great Man


There was both good and bad in the use which Wolsey made of all these riches and honours. He wanted to do something great for learning, and accordingly he set about founding a college at Oxford. He was allowed to take for its use the property that had been given to certain other institutions, and he also gave large sums of money out of his own purse. If he had been able to carry out his plans, the college, which was to have been called "Cardinal" or "York College," would have been the most splendid in Europe. As it is, Christ Church, for that is the name which it actually received, is a very noble place, and though Henry VIII. is called its founder, the honour of it really belongs to Wolsey. He also founded a grammar-school in his native town, and had other great schemes which he would certainly have carried out if he had remained in power.

And then he was really anxious to improve the state of things in the Church of England. Many of the parish clergymen were quite unfit for their offices, and many of those who lived under a religious rule in the monasteries were even worse. Wolsey was really anxious to make them better, though unfortunately he did not go the best way of setting about it. He did not show a good example in his own life; and there was certainly no man who more neglected his duties, seeing that he had more to do than ten men could possibly have performed.

But the show and display which Wolsey kept up were beyond all bounds of reason. He had such a train of followers and servants as was not to be seen in any house in the land, scarcely in the King's palace itself. Even the persons who waited on him at table were of noble birth. All this splendour would in any case have caused much envy and dislike. But these were greatly increased when people remembered that this great man was of humble birth. Had he been of royal descent much might have been excused which could not be pardoned in the "butcher's dog," as his enemies loved to call him.

Much might be written about the cause of his fall, but to tell the story at length would not be suited to this book, and I shall put it very shortly. The King had married the widow of his elder brother Arthur. This was of course against law, but the Pope had given leave. It was the doing of the old King, who was very fond of money, and was unwilling to give back the dowry of 50,000 gold crowns which the Princess Katharine had brought with her. And now Henry was troubled in conscience, and doubted whether the marriage, even with the Pope's leave, had been lawful. And then he had seen some one else whom he would have been glad to make his Queen. This was a certain Anne Boleyn, daughter of a Norfolk knight, whose wife was a daughter of the Duke of Norfolk. Wolsey had at first been anxious that the marriage should be pronounced null, for he wished the King to marry a French Princess. But he found that it could not be managed. The Pope was unwilling or unable to undo what another Pope had done, and also did not wish to offend the Emperor Charles, who, it should be said, was Queen Katharine's nephew, and was of course very angry at the way in which Henry was treating her. So Wolsey began to hang back. The King was furious at being disappointed; Anne Boleyn hated the man who seemed to hinder her chance of being Queen.

It was in 1529 that the end came. At the beginning of November Wolsey, as Lord Chancellor, opened the Courts of Law in the usual way. The next day two great nobles came to him with the King's orders that he was to give up the Great Seal, and was to go to a house at Esher, which belonged to the Bishops of Winchester. This was a kind of banishment. He went, and waited. Parliament, which had not met for seven years, had been called together, and it ordered him to be tried for having taken office from the Pope without the King's leave. The charge was not true; the King had not only given him leave, but had been very desirous that he should have it. This leave Wolsey had under Henry's own hand and seal. Yet he would not bring this forward, but pleaded guilty. The fact was that Henry again and again sent kind messages to him, assuring him that it was not intended to do him any harm, and that all would come right in the end. And he believed him, though he must have known the text, "Put not your trust in princes." The truth was that Henry had kind thoughts about his old companion, but let himself be turned by those about him who hated Wolsey, chief of all, by Anne Boleyn. If Wolsey could have seen the King, the end might have been different; but this was never permitted. As the Cardinal had pleaded guilty, sentence was passed upon him. All that he had was to be forfeited to the King. He wrote to Henry, and begged that at least the Oxford College might be spared. To this he got no answer. And yet the King now and then gave him some little comfort. He fell ill, and Henry sent his own physicians to him; and when they reported that his old favourite was suffering more from trouble of mind than from sickness of body, and that he would die unless he had some comforting words, he sent a ring with a kind message and bade Anne Boleyn do the same.

About two months afterwards Wolsey received the King's command to go down to York, and take up his duties there as Archbishop. He went, staying for a week on his way at Peterborough, where on the Thursday in Holy Week he washed the feet of fifty-nine pilgrims. He remained at York for some seven months, busying himself with his duties as Archbishop. Then at the beginning of November the last blow was given. Lord Northumberland brought a warrant to apprehend him for high treason. Some time was wanted for preparations. He started to go to London, and though he was ill, would not delay his journey. On the third day he reached Leicester Abbey. The monks with their chief were standing ready to receive him. "Father Abbot," he said, as he was helped to get down from his mule, "I am come to lay my bones among you." He was taken at once to bed, and lay there for two days; on the third he prepared for death. He sent a message to the King, in which among other things he said: "If I had served my God as diligently as I have served my King, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs." At eight o'clock in the evening he died. It was the 29th of November, the eve of St. Andrew, in the year 1530.