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Christchurch Mansion is fine Tudor setting for Wolsey’s Angels exhibition in Ipswich

PUBLISHED: 08:03 15 October 2017 | UPDATED: 08:04 15 October 2017

Actor Paul Jesson who plays Cardinal Wolsey in the RSC production of Wolf Hall visits Wolsey's Angels which were designed to mark Wolsey's tomb. Picture: The V&A

Actor Paul Jesson who plays Cardinal Wolsey in the RSC production of Wolf Hall visits Wolsey's Angels which were designed to mark Wolsey's tomb. Picture: The V&A

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Cardinal Wolsey, advisor to Henry VIII was one of the most influential figures to emerge from Suffolk. Arts Editor Andrew Clarke takes a look at a major new exhibition which brings four bronze angels from Wolsey’s tomb back to his birth-place.

Philip Wise, of the Ipswich and Colchester Museum Service, who curated the Wolsey's Angels exhibition at Christchurch Mansion. Photo Nicole Drury Philip Wise, of the Ipswich and Colchester Museum Service, who curated the Wolsey's Angels exhibition at Christchurch Mansion. Photo Nicole Drury

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the son of an Ipswich butcher, was once the most important person in the land – after his sovereign King Henry VIII. In many respects he was the power behind the throne and, to reflect this status to the world, he designed himself a very elaborate tomb which would herald his arrival into the afterlife.

But, power could be a very fleeting thing in Tudor England and as we know Wolsey fell from favour after failing to persuade Rome to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, his brother’s wife. After Wolsey’s disgrace and swift death in 1530, his ornate tomb was appropriated by Henry along with the angels and other tomb carvings. They later passed to Elizabeth I, before being sold off to raise funds to fight the Civil War.

The black stone sarcophagus ended up being used, many years later, by another great East Anglian, Admiral Horatio Nelson, while the four decorative angels were thought lost, possibly melted down for their precious bronze.

However, the angels eventually turned up as gate post decorations at Wellingborough Golf Club and after a foiled burglary were acquired for £5 million by the Victoria and Albert Museum with help from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund.

Bronze candle-bearing angel, about 1524-9, England, by Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1554). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Bronze candle-bearing angel, about 1524-9, England, by Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1554). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Now the four sculpted bronze angels have arrived back in Thomas Wolsey’s home town and will be on display for the next six months in Christchurch Mansion, alongside contemporary portraits of Wolsey and documents which he would have handled or crossed his desk during his lifetime.

The Ipswich exhibition has been made possible with support from the Friends of Ipswich Museum, who have also launched a fund-raising drive to help pay for future high profile exhibitions.

Richard Wilson, chairman of the Friends, is delighted that such an important part of Wolsey’s heritage has returned home.

“We are so lucky that these magnificent sculptures have not been lost. They are the most amazing examples of Renaissance art. The Wolsey Angels are a vital part of our national heritage and it’s only fitting that they are on display in The Wolsey Gallery in Christchurch Mansion, our own piece of Tudor history.”

Bronze candle-bearing angel, about 1524-9, England, by Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1554). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London Bronze candle-bearing angel, about 1524-9, England, by Benedetto da Rovezzano (1474-1554). © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

He said that the bronze angels were the work of Florentine sculptor Benedetto da Rovezzano. “The four bronze angels were commissioned in 1524 and were designed in the Renaissance style that Wolsey loved and were supposed to reflect Wolsey’s wealth and statesmanship.

“In those days it was believed that the more you invested in the afterlife the better it would be for you, so he was going to have the most extravagant tomb imaginable.”

The angels, each measuring around a metre in height, were created between 1524 and 1529 and were designed to be the corner pieces of the sarcophagus but after Wolsey failed to persuade the Pope to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, Benedetto was commissioned to complete the tomb for the King, however Henry VIII did not see the tomb finished.

In addition to Wolsey’s Angels, Richard Wilson said that the exhibition would feature a portrait of Cardinal Wolsey, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, which provides a good representation of what Ipswich’s most famous son looked like. “Education was very important to Wolsey and he planned to set up a number of schools across the country but he only set up one before he died and that was in his home town of Ipswich. The foundation stone was laid on June 15 1528 and then on July 3 he signed the charter and the statutes for the college and we have both of those in the exhibition. But, just two days after that he wrote to Henry VIII from Hampton Court saying: “I am about to die of sweating sickness,” and it is interesting to note that although he was very unwell, he still felt that it was important to get work on the college underway.”

He said that it was important that the town recognised and embraced the work carried out by this local man who rose from humble beginnings to become the King’s key advisor. “The idea behind the exhibition, which has been curated by Philip Wise, has been to make Wolsey a real person rather a historical icon or a long-dead figure in a history book – that’s why we wanted to include items that he handled or signed.”

Thomas Wolsey: Ipswich’s Greatest Son is at The Wolsey Gallery, Christchurch Mansion from October 14 to March 11 2018. For those wanting to donate to support this and other exhibitions can do so at www.foim.org.uk/angels

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