Ipswich’s greatest son, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, is depicted in new BBC2 costume drama Wolf Hall tonight
- Credit: BBC/Company Productions Ltd
Born in Suffolk without a silver spoon in his mouth, Thomas Wolsey would sit at the king’s right hand and at the feet of the Pope.
He’s being portrayed on the BBC tonight and here Steven Russell looks at the life of Ipswich’s greatest son (including, whisper it, his illegitimate children)
Humble beginnings aren’t always a ball and chain, though the rise of tavern-keeper’s son Thomas Wolsey in the 16th Century was truly spectacular. He became the power behind the throne and would be immortalised, along with his home town of Ipswich, in Shakespeare’s play Henry VIII. But, like all the best stories, there was an unhappy ending.
Wolsey is in the spotlight tonight with the start of the BBC’s long-awaited Wolf Hall. It’s based on the historical novels by Hilary Mantel that centre on Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s protégé and another self-made man from the wrong side of the tracks, who became Henry’s trusted adviser.
The opening episode sees Wolsey dismissed as Lord Chancellor and exiled, much to the delight of England’s old families jealous the cardinal has for so long enjoyed the ear of the king. Cromwell, who owes his position to Wolsey, strives to get his beloved cardinal back in favour.
It doesn’t help that the king, desperate for a male heir and keen to ditch queen Katherine of Aragon, can’t get an annulment from the Pope. It was Wolsey’s job to make that happen, and he hasn’t managed it.
To add to his woes, the cardinal had made himself an enemy of the Boleyns... and Anne Boleyn is lined up as the new queen.
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Damian Lewis is Henry VIII and Claire Foy plays Anne. Jonathan Pryce is Wolsey, and calls him “a smooth operator; a kind of Alistair Campbell of the Tudors”.
He adds: “I think he was a hugely charismatic and public figure, and he wore his power and his wealth on his sleeve. He upset a lot of people because he could have them removed from positions of power and he was a great manipulator.”
The TV serial could not have come in a more fitting year, as September marks the 500th anniversary of Wolsey being made a cardinal by Pope Leo X.
Dr John Blatchly, the former head of Ipswich School, was made “Honorary Wolsey Professor” by University Campus Suffolk. There’s no-one better to remind us about the town’s greatest son.
“This is the story of an Ipswich boy of humble origins whose tireless work and unswerving loyalty took him all the way to the top,” he explains. “He was known as Alter Rex, the other king, certainly the highest in the land next to the king himself.”
Pinpointing an exact date of birth is impossible. Our best guide is Wolsey’s gentleman usher and biographer, George Cavendish, also a Suffolk man.
“He recalled that on Maundy Thursday 1530, the already humbled cardinal, as an act of penance and piety, washed the feet of 59 poor men.
“Nowadays on that day the Queen gives Maundy money to as many men and women as her age in years. This means that Wolsey was born in 1470 or before Easter in 1471. He probably died before he was sixty, a good age in Tudor England.”
Thomas’s parents were Robert and Joan Wulcy, and he sometimes used that spelling of his surname.
Robert ran a tavern and butchery in the parish of St Mary at the Elms from 1464, if not before. “That year he was fined twelve pence for keeping an inn and selling food and drink for excessive gain. Since he was not a free burgess of Ipswich, Robert could only trade as a ‘foreigner’ and part of that fine was for the privilege. His ale and beer measures did not satisfy the alefounder (the tasting and measuring inspector).
“It would be nice to imagine that the present Black Horse pub in the lane of that name had been Thomas’s birthplace, and the site today is large enough to keep and slaughter stock...”
In 1473 Robert and Joan bought a house in St Nicholas Street. There, Robert traded as a butcher. The site, by St Nicholas church, is today home to Ensors chartered accountants.
“Thomas’s father still appeared regularly in the courts on charges which show that he did not care much about byelaws,” says John Blatchly. “On different occasions he was charged with selling halfpenny pies which were unwholesome, slaughtering oxen without showing their skins on the Cornhill and casting offal into the street where his swine wandered at will.
“Robert may of course have been a kind and attentive father, but how delighted would such a rough and ready tradesman have been to mark the signs of great intellectual (rather than practical) promise in his eldest son?”
It’s unlikely Robert could have paid for his son’s local grammar schooling, Dr Blatchly suggests, but Joan was from the Daundy family and her brother Edmund was a wealthy merchant who gave the town its first Market Cross, on the Cornhill, and built almshouses.
As a free burgess – which Robert Wulcy was not – he would have been able to nominate his nephew for an education. The chaplain of the Guild of Corpus Christi “probably taught the sons of members in the partly secular south aisle of St Mary-le-Tower church”.
Thomas went on to the University of Oxford. Dr Blatchly says: “We know little about Wolsey’s time at Oxford, except that he read Theology, an odd choice for the future administrator, and that he graduated Bachelor of Arts in 1475 or 6.
“He continued his studies and in course of time was made a fellow of the college.” Magdalen Hall. “Elected college bursar, Wolsey overspent on the building of Magdalen tower, and briefly served as master of the college school, today Magdalen College School, and in 1500 he was dean of Divinity.
“Thomas Wolsey was a great builder, interested in the latest fashions in architecture; he was also an enthusiastic teacher, his advanced ideas derived from the humanistic education coming with Renaissance from Italy and France.”
He was ordained in March, 1498.
Joan Wulcy, who died in 1509, lived long enough to see her son begin his meteoric rise under the new king, Henry VIII, “who looked up to Wolsey, twenty years senior in years, wisdom and experience”.
He might have become a man of God, but Wolsey had human weaknesses. He had a mistress, Joan – daughter of Thetford tavern-keeper Peter Larke. They had a son in 1510, Thomas Wynter, and a daughter in 1512. Dorothy Clansey became a nun.
Dr Blatchly explains that Joan’s brother Thomas was archdeacon of Sudbury. “At the time Joan bore the two children, Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Larke were clergymen of similar standing, and Larke was Wolsey’s confessor. How wise to keep one’s indiscretions and their remedies within the family...
“To do him credit, Wolsey appears to have been faithful to Joan until it was arranged for her to marry to a gentleman of Lancashire...”
After Henry VIII took the throne in 1509 he made Wolsey his almoner, chief dispenser of royal charity, and dean of Lincoln. Five years later he became bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of York.
“In 1515 Pope Leo X made Wolsey a cardinal and from then on his red broad-brimmed hat with fifteen red tassels on each side was routinely carried before him on his progresses and visitations.”
The king appointed him Lord Chancellor, head of the legal profession, and Wolsey became Pope Leo’s legate – representative – in England.
“From 1514 to 1528 he served the king and pope with tireless energy, devotion and total loyalty. He was a one man government, relieving the pleasure-loving king from almost all affairs of state so that he could hunt and joust, and indulge his other interests.”
But, explains Dr Blatchly, Wolsey’s high-wire act became ever more difficult to pull off.
One problem was the king’s infatuation with Anne Boleyn, whom he was convinced would bear him the male heir he desperately needed.
“Wolsey presided with Cardinal Campeggio from Rome over the court hearing the king’s case against the validity of his marriage to Katherine of Aragon. She had been betrothed to his elder brother, Arthur, but maintained that union had never been consummated.”
Henry claimed his marriage to Katherine had been sinful in the eyes of God and should be annulled. The pope did not agree.
“Wolsey, loyal to his king but also to the pope, was standing between the king and his divorce, making enemies of Katherine (for judging her marriage) and Anne Boleyn and the king for failure to provide the divorce which would enable them to marry.”
In November, 1529, Wolsey was charged with praemunire: the importation of foreign laws to England.
“The king advised him to make a progress to the north, and since he had been archbishop of York since 1514 but never visited the province or been installed in the Minster, he set out to put that omission right.
“He was two miles from York and three days short of 7 November, the date fixed for the ceremony, when he was arrested on charges of treason, with allegations that he had been ‘treating with foreign powers’.
“Totally disheartened and weakened by dysentery, Wolsey set out for London and the Tower on 6 November. The best he could hope for was long imprisonment, though execution might almost have been preferable.”
He arrived at Leicester Abbey on the 26th, scarcely able to sit astride his mule. The abbot gave him the last rites and he died on November 29.
“After Wolsey’s death, Cavendish, writing during the reign of Queen Mary, was almost alone in having a good word for him. He wrote: ‘I never saw this realm in better order, quietness and obedience than it was in the time of his authority and rule’.
“Unlike Sir Thomas More” – who replaced Wolsey as Lord Chancellor – “this humane statesman burnt no-one for their beliefs.”
* Wolf Hall is on BBC Two tonight at 9pm.
The implication is that Anne Boleyn destroyed Wolsey
It was Anne Boleyn who did for Wolsey, it seems. And Thomas Cromwell, still loyal to his dead patron and with a thirst for revenge, who in turn helped do for the Queen.
Historian Dr Stella Fletcher, who in 2009 published Cardinal Wolsey: a life in Renaissance Europe, says: “Mantel read Cavendish, so her Wolsey is very much his Wolsey. He has done it all, seen it all. Yes, his glory days are behind him, but he is still smarter than everyone else around.”
She adds: “In his final months he paid his one and only visit to his archdiocese of York. The people there had been without their bishop for so long that thousands of children/young adults required confirmation. People lined the roads to receive that sacrament or to be otherwise blessed by him.”
Wolsey’s enemies suspected he was using this new popularity to build a power base and make a bid to return to office. “His correspondence was intercepted and his arrest ordered.”
Stella tells us about Thomas Cromwell’s “glimmer of loyalty”, mentioned by Cavendish. Mantel makes much of this, she says.
“Wolsey had acted to prevent Anne Boleyn marrying Henry Percy, heir to the earldom of Northumberland. Did she hold that against him even when she made a better marriage?
“Wolsey had also been unable to secure the annulment of Henry’s first marriage, thereby delaying the second one. Did Anne hold that against Wolsey too? Was she responsible for his destruction, even though the king knew that he had no greater servant than the cardinal?”
She adds: “The implication is that Anne had destroyed Wolsey, so Cromwell readily participated in her destruction. That is the story told by Mantel.”
Centuries ahead of the real thing, he was planning a National Curriculum
Thomas Wolsey’s actions show “his real affection” for Ipswich, says Dr John Blatchly.
“He set about founding a pair of colleges, both to be known as The Cardinal College of the Blessed Virgin Mary – one in Ipswich to prepare boys for the other at Oxford. The Ipswich and Oxford establishments were designed to rival Eton and King’s, Cambridge, and Winchester and New College, Oxford.
“He began by obtaining permission from the king and the pope to close about a dozen small monasteries to raise money for the Oxford college. He then did the same for the Ipswich foundation, and took advice from Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk.
“He suggested that it would save a great deal of trouble and expense to take over the Augustinian priory of St Peter and St Paul, turning the church into his college chapel.
“A mixture of existing and new buildings were used when the college opened in September, 1528, and to judge from the quality of the brick watergate which still stands in College Street next to the church, no expense was spared.
“Wolsey framed the school curriculum, lively and advanced for its time, in great detail. It was explained in his book Rudimenta Grammatices (elementary grammar) which was to be used ‘not only in Ipswich School but in all the schools of England’. Centuries ahead of the real thing, he was planning a National Curriculum.”
Meanwhile, for this retirement home, Wolsey asked Sir Robert Curson for his house on the corner of Silent Street and St Peter’s Street.
“The wily old courtier graciously agreed but asked for three years to move out. That was long enough to see Wolsey dead and buried…”
Henry VIII took over the Oxford college. It became Christ Church.
“The Ipswich college was dissolved and demolished; all the useful building materials and rich furnishings were taken to London by water, where they were used to enlarge Wolsey’s York Place, which now became the Royal palace of Whitehall.
“The grammar school was then left high and dry until Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s loyal secretary who was now advising the king, successfully petitioned for the stipends of the master and the usher to be restored.”
Learning should be fun!
With the support of other enthusiasts, Dr Blatchly raised money for a bronze statue commemorating Wolsey.
It stands near the Silent Street/St Peter’s Street junction, and was unveiled in 2011.
Wolsey, sitting and teaching, has his back to Curson Lodge. His favourite cat sits beside him, and there’s an inscription – the cardinal’s “enlightened instruction” to all who teach and learn: Pleasure is to mingle with study, that the child may think learning rather an amusement than a toil.
Occasions for ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption
Five centuries ago this year, Thomas Wolsey began building work at Hampton Court to turn a grand private house into a magnificent bishop’s palace.
Those jealous of his power saw this ostentatious palace as evidence of his extravagant lifestyle.
Wolsey had leased Hampton Court the year before. “He carried on making improvements throughout the 1520s. Descriptions record rich tapestry-lined apartments, and how you had to traverse eight rooms before finding his audience chamber,” says Historic Royal Palaces, the charity that runs some of Britain’s glorious sites.
“He was accused, after his death, of imagining himself the equal of sovereigns, and his fall from power a natural consequence of arrogance and overarching ambition.
“Yet Wolsey was also a diligent statesman, who worked hard to translate Henry VIII’s own dreams and ambitions into effective domestic and foreign policy.”
Wolsey added sumptuous private chambers for himself, along with suites for King Henry VIII, Queen Katherine and their daughter Princess Mary.
One of the best surviving parts of Wolsey’s Hampton Court is Base Court, the vast outer courtyard built to house his guests, says HRP.
“The courtyard was originally cobbled and the gatehouse was higher, but the main features of the buildings themselves remain: 40 guest lodgings, each with an outer room and an inner room – and all en suite with a garderobe (lavatory).”
Wolsey also owned York Place, the London residence of the Archbishop of York, but needed Hampton Court as a dazzling country house for entertaining and for hosting diplomatic visits.
“These were occasions for ostentatious displays of wealth and conspicuous consumption, but also – and the two purposes were not mutually exclusive – for doing deals and signing treaties that would help improve England’s position in Europe.”
The palace was taken over by Henry VIII in 1528, and since then has been associated with royalty.