Famous Men of Modern Times - John Haaren

Cardinal Wolsey


Not far from London is an old palace called Hampton Court. Had you been standing near its gateway on a Sunday about four hundred years ago, you might have heard the cry, "Make way for my Lord's Grace."

Looking toward the palace you would have seen a curious procession leaving the doorway. You would have noticed one gentleman carrying a scarlet hat; two very tall and handsome persons each carrying a silver cross; another carrying a mace, which is a wooden staff with a spiked metal ball for its head; and still another carrying the great seal of England.

After these you would have seen a number of gentlemen who made the cry which you heard. Following these was the most important person of all—a high officer of church and state, mounted on a mule which had trappings of crimson velvet and gilt stirrups. This was "my Lord's Grace." His name was Thomas Wolsey; and when people were told to make way for him, he was setting out to pay his Sunday call upon the king of England.

The red hat showed that he was a cardinal. He was also the Pope's legate, or the representative of the Pope in England. The mace, and the great seal, showed that he was Lord Chancellor of the kingdom.

Wolsey was second only to the sovereign in the kingdom—second only to the Pope in the church.

He was not born to all this greatness. His father was a butcher who lived in the town of Ipswich, in England, and in addition to his business as a butcher, kept sheep and sold wool. He was a prosperous man—neither rich nor poor.

Thomas was born in the year 1471. He was sent to the grammar school in his native town; and when only eleven was ready for college. He graduated at fifteen—so young that at college he was called the "Boy Bachelor."

One thing that made him great was that he was very clever and very industrious. He learned his lessons so well and so quickly that all his teachers were astonished.

He made up his mind after graduating to become a priest and was ordained. Then he was put in charge of a church called Limington.

Some time after he began preaching in Limington, King Henry VII wished to marry a certain Spanish princess, and had to obtain the consent of the emperor of Germany. He needed some very wise and trusty messenger to send to Europe to arrange with the emperor about this marriage.

Bishop Fisher and other good friends of Wolsey told the king that no better man than Wolsey could be found in all England. So the young priest was invited to a conference with the king, and Henry told Wolsey what he wished him to say to the emperor. After this Wolsey hastened to Dover and embarked upon a vessel which was waiting for him.

Fair winds soon wafted Wolsey's ship across the English Channel, and swift post horses brought him to the town where the emperor was staying. The king's message was delivered and everything was arranged as Henry had desired. Wolsey then sailed back to England.

He took post horses and reached the palace by night. Next morning the king saw him, and asked why he had not yet started on his journey. He had not been away a whole week; and the king could scarcely believe that he had gone to see the emperor and had returned. Henry was greatly pleased, and put the swift and sure messenger into a much better position in the church than he already held.

After the death of Henry VII, his son Henry VIII found Wolsey a most useful person. The young king was fond of amusement, but not at all fond of business. Wolsey liked to manage the business of the kingdom.

Henry saw that Wolsey could do this, and save him a great deal of trouble; and for this reason the king made him Lord Chancellor of England. Wolsey was now for a time the real ruler of the kingdom.

Wolsey thought it wise to live in a great deal of show. He saw that it pleased the people and the king.

He built for his home the palace called Hampton Court. It was very handsome and the king greatly admired it. So, after living in it about ten years, Wolsey gave it to his majesty as a present; and to this day it belongs to the sovereign of England.

Hampton Court


Twice Wolsey was sent by Henry VIII with messages to Charles V; and when he traveled on state business he seemed as grand as the king himself.

The Parliament met in a large building called Westminster Hall. Wolsey used to go there from Hampton Court in great pomp, just as when he went to visit the king.

Several times every year the king went to visit the great cardinal. Then the most expensive luxuries that could be bought were served at the table. There were music and dancing. The finest singers of England were employed; and the king and the lords and ladies of the court often took part in the festivities.

But there was something more serious in Wolsey's life than the love of luxury and merrymaking. He wanted to found a college at Oxford, as other great churchmen had done, but the means were not at hand. He had received from the king the revenues of the abbey of St. Albans, and he applied to the Pope for permission to suppress a monastery at Oxford and apply its property to the new college. As the need for a new college was said to be most pressing, and as the monastery was well adapted for a house of learning the Pope consented.

Still there was not money enough for Wolsey's purpose. So he wrote to the Pope that there were many monasteries in which the monks were so few that they could not perform their office properly. Then the Pope gave to Wolsey increased powers to suppress monasteries wherever he might deem it necessary, provided the king and the founders did not object, and the monks were admitted to other monasteries. Wolsey received the king's approval and began his work.

He met with strenuous objections from the people, however, and in some places there was a riot when Wolsey's agents attempted to expel the occupants of the monasteries.

Nevertheless, the means were secured, and Christchurch College was founded, as well as a school at Ipswich.

Wolsey was a very ambitious man. He got for himself the highest positions in England; and he hoped sometime to be made pope.

He was the favorite of the king for many years; but Henry was a fickle man. If a man or woman did not do exactly as he wished, his love soon changed to hate.

Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, the widow of his brother Arthur, the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and aunt of the emperor Charles V. Nevertheless, he fell in love with another woman named Anne Boleyn, and wished Wolsey to persuade the Pope to annul the marriage with Catherine.

Henry said he feared his marriage was illegal, and Wolsey tried to get the Pope to do what Henry and Wolsey wished. After considerable delay, for the Pope was then a prisoner, a cardinal was sent to form with Wolsey a court to try the case.

Catherine was called before the court, but as Wolsey was her subject, she would not recognize the authority of the court, and appealed to Rome.

Wolsey and Queen Catherine


No decision was made for a long time, and Henry began to consider his case hopeless when he learned that a shrewd young man named Cranmer had said that the King ought to get opinions about his marriage from the universities.

That speech was the making of Cranmer. Henry followed his advice. No foreign university, however, would give an opinion, but pressure was brought on the English universities and a favorable answer was rendered. The women of Oxford, however, stoned the king's messengers when they came for the formal documents.

The answer of the professors was just what Henry wanted. They said he ought never to have married Catherine; and that it was right for him to marry Anne. The king was overjoyed. Catherine was divorced and Anne became the queen.

Henry thought Cranmer ought to be handsomely rewarded for helping him out of his difficulty, and so he made him archbishop of Canterbury.

Anne Boleyn thought that Wolsey was to blame for the delay in having Henry's marriage annulled and she became the bitter enemy of the cardinal. Then the king grew cold, and was easily persuaded that Wolsey had broken one of the laws of the land in having directly sent to him the Pope's "bulls."

There is a law in England that the Pope's bulls shall not be published unless the king allows it. But Henry himself, as he well knew, had allowed the bulls sent to Wolsey to be published. So the great cardinal had done nothing wrong against the laws of the land.

However, Henry took from him the honors he had previously bestowed upon him, and ordered him to give up the great seal.

Thomas Wolsey


Wolsey was soon afterwards accused of high treason, and the king ordered that he should be tried. He was in a distant town at the time, and a guard of twenty-five men was sent to take him to the Tower of London.

At that time Wolsey was very sick, but he rode several days with his guard toward London. When he reached the Abbey of Leicester and the abbot came out to meet him, Wolsey said to him, "Father Abbot, I have come to leave my bones with you;" and so indeed he did. He went at once to his bed and never left it.

As he was talking to Sir William Kingston, the chief of the guard, a little while before he died, he said, "If I had served God as diligently as I have served the king, he would not have given me over in my gray hairs."

The next morning, as the abbey clock was striking eight, he passed away.

He was the greatest English statesman of the age of Henry VIII.

After Wolsey's death Henry married Anne Boleyn; and he and the Parliament did just what Wolsey had foretold. They declared the Church of England independent of the Church of Rome.