550-day celebration planned in honour of Thomas Wolsey

Wolsey 550 launch

Terry Hunt with Sophie Alexander-Parker from Ipswich Central at the Thomas Wolsey statue on St Peter's Street. - Credit: Warren Page

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey has been known for centuries as the most famous son of Ipswich - and now a year and a half of celebrations are being planned to mark the 550th anniversary of his birth.

Scholars have pored over his role in Henry VIII's divorce negotiations with the Pope in the late 1520s - but his early life in Ipswich is not so well known and the anniversary celebrations starting in March next year are aimed at shining a light on his whole life.

Wolsey 550 is designed as an 18-month festival, running for 550 days to highlight his role in England and in Ipswich itself.

The event is being run by Ipswich Central and board member Terry Hunt is chairing the Wolsey 550 Project.

He said: "There is some confusion over his early life - even his date of birth with people saying it might be 1472 or 1473 but this is the year that most seem to agree on.

St Nicholas Street, Ipswich, from St Peters Street, as it looks now.

Thomas Wolsey is believed to have been born in this area of the town near the junction of St Peters and St Nicholas Street. - Credit: Dave Kindred

"Whatever the date, Wolsey had an unbelievable rise for someone at that time - he was not a noble but he rose to become the most powerful person in the kingdom after the king himself.

"He is described as the son of a butcher. I don't think his father was a butcher as we would know it, he was more important than that - but he wasn't an aristocrat and that makes Wolsey's story of rising to the top so compelling."

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Wolsey 550 is applying for Heritage Lottery Fund support for its events which will be aimed at all sectors of society.

St Nicholas Church Ipswich

Thomas Wolsey is thought to have been baptised in St Nicholas Church. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

Terry Hunt added: "Wolsey’s story has so much importance, not just for Ipswich but to the country as a whole and the world beyond.

"This project will unearth his story which is about ambition, aspiration, the importance of education and the ability of anyone to succeed if they are given the right opportunities.

"An important aspect is that Wolsey was proud of his roots in Ipswich and this initiative can do a great deal for restoring civic pride.”  

Wolsey's Gate

Wolsey's Gate is the last part of his college building still standing - but St Peter's Church next to it was taken by the Cardinal to be the college chapel. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

The project has already attracted widespread support across the town.

Ipswich MP Tom Hunt said: “I applaud the vision that is being developed to mark the 550th anniversary of Cardinal Wolsey. Let's harness the legacy of Wolsey to benefit our town today. There is clearly the possibility of doing this across a number of different areas.

“I met with Terry Hunt and Paul Clement this week to discuss their vision for what could be done to mark the occasion and I was very excited by what I heard. There is great potential in what they’re working towards and they have my full support.

“At its best, the 550th anniversary of Cardinal Wolsey could boost pride in our past whilst at the same time aiding us in addressing some of the town’s present day challenges."

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey is thought to have been born in 1473. - Credit: Archant

James Fairclough, director at Ipswich Borough Council said: “We are pleased to be working with our partners to mark the 550th anniversary of Cardinal Wolsey’s birth.

"We hope to help secure lottery funding to enable a series of events and activities to be held in 2023 and 2024 that will help boost awareness of Ipswich’s central role in English history, provide activities for local people and visitors and bring economic benefit to the town.”

Wolsey is thought to have been born in a townhouse at the junction of St Peters St and St Nicholas St where Ensors' offices are currently. He is thought to have been baptised in St Nicholas Church.

St Peter's Church

St Peter's Church was taken to be the chapel of Wolsey's College. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

But it is St Peter's Church near the entrance to the Waterfront that is perhaps most closely associated with him - he sequestered this church to become the chapel of the new college he was building although that was never completed before his fall in 1529-30.

The organisers have submitted an expression of interest in getting HLF funding for the 18-months of events - and depending on how much is awarded will then draw up detailed plans.

However they are determined everyone in the town should feel involved, especially children because Wolsey saw education as vital for everyone.

If the 18-month festival is as successful as they hope they will then apply for further HLF support to develop a permanent Wolsey heritage trail and centre in the Waterfront and Saints area of the town.

St Peters Dock car park.

In the longer term the area between the silo and the Novotel roundabout could become an open green area enhancing St Peter's Church and the Merchant's House on the left that is currently being restored. - Credit: Charlotte Bond

This would include turning the land between the last silo on the Waterfront and the Novotel roundabout into a large green area to provide an attractive entrance to the Waterfront. This would also allow people to see Wolsey's Gate better.

And there are hopes of creating a viewing platform on the top of the silo from where visitors could use a tablet to see a virtual image of Wolsey's College.

At that point there would also be the chance to look for a site for a Thomas Wolsey Heritage Centre which could put the area on the map in a similar way to how the discovery of Richard III's body stimulated tourist interest in Leicester a decade ago.