“If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.” — Cardinal Wolsey on his death bed
As high and mighty as he later became, Thomas Wolsey rose from decidedly humble beginnings. He was born the son of a butcher in 1473 — about as common as it gets. His unprecedented upward climb socially and professionally began after he attended Oxford University and his ordination in 1498.
Shortly after, his ambition and ability were noticed by the governor of Calais, Sir Richard Nanfan, who appointed the young cleric as his personal chaplain. It was Nanfran’s influence that secured Wolsey’s position as almoner to King Henry VIII in 1507.
Then things really began to happen for the young priest. Tom was movin’ on up.
Wolsey was granted admission to Henry’s Privy Council by 1509. He proved himself indispensable to the King during his French campaign of 1512–1514, earning the monarch's trust and goodwill. By this time, the pleasure-loving young monarch felt entirely comfortable leaving most of the affairs of state in the very capable hands of Thomas Wolsey.
And he never ever let the King down.
This made him a bit of a teacher’s pet in the older nobility’s eyes, such as the Dukes of Buckingham and Norfolk. They resented the presence of “new men”(commoners raised up by the King, rather than those with ancient titles) like Wolsey at court. It was not the natural order of things when commoners were welcomed into the Royal Presence. This was a privilege jealously guarded by the ruling class.
Resentment against him simmered slowly — but steadily — to a boil.
Wolsey’s ascension in both the Church and the government was swift. With Henry’s patronage, Pope Leo X appointed him Bishop of Lincoln and Archbishop of York in 1514. During the following year, he rose to the rank of cardinal, and King Henry made him Lord Chancellor of England.
It did all go to Wolsey’s head just a bit. No-one would ever accuse the Cardinal of modesty or humility, no matter how humble his birth.
With his incredible ecclesiastical and secular power, only the King outstripped him. And even that was debatable, so Wolsey thought it wise to gift Henry Hampton Court Palace after he made pointed remarks about Wolsey having grander appointments than he, the King.
Wolsey was definitely Henry’s go-to guy. The Cardinal made it possible over the years for the King to enjoy all the cool trappings of kingship without most of the pesky kingly duties. So when Henry wanted to ditch his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, to marry Anne Boleyn in what became euphemistically known as his “Great Matter,” the King had no doubt that Wolsey would get the job done as always.
Henry’s case for ending his marriage hinged on Katherine’s marriage to his older brother Arthur, who died at 15. The young widow claimed they had never consummated their union. No-one questioned this at the time, but a papal dispensation was acquired as a formality.
Now, over 20 years later, the fact that Katherine had not produced a living son led Henry to believe their union was cursed by God because he married his brother’s wife. And there was, of course, the bewitching Anne Boleyn, all ready, willing, and more than a little impatient by this point, to start popping out Henry’s heirs.
Simple enough to rectify — kings had set aside wives many times in the past.
But Wolsey ran into a serious snag. Queen Katherine was the aunt of the extremely powerful Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who Pope Clement VII was very, very reluctant to antagonize. And Queen Katherine would not go quietly. It turned out Kate was not as meek as she appeared. She deftly out-maneuvered Henry any time he would plead with her to be “sensible,” much to Anne Boleyn’s annoyance.
The Pope stalled as much as possible, postponing a decision until the case could be heard in Rome. In September 1529, while Wolsey was away in France, Anne Boleyn’s family and the English nobles finally had their chance to knock the butcher’s son down a peg or two. They diligently set out to convince King Henry that the Cardinal was holding up the proceedings.
Henry was always an “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” kind of guy and was easily swayed by those in his immediate vicinity. With the Boleyns constantly in his ear, the King came to believe that the Cardinal was in cahoots with the Pope and deliberately preventing his annulment.
On September 22, 1529, the King stripped Wolsey of his office as Chancellor of England. He also lost many of his other holdings and grand trappings. Still, Henry allowed him to retain the Archbishopric of York, and the disgraced Cardinal headed there after Christmas.
Even while exiled in York, Wolsey was in touch with the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor, anticipating the day he would win back the King’s favor. When Henry heard this, Anne Boleyn passionately asserted this could only mean the Cardinal was guilty of treason, and Wolsey was arrested in November.
Wolsey was already ill before the long journey to London to stand trial. His health deteriorated with every passing mile. While on his death bed, still en route to obey Henry’s summons, he remarked, “If I had served God as diligently as I have done the King, he would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”
Thomas Wolsey died on November 30, 1530, at Leicester Abbey.