Thomas Wolsey

English political figure, archbishop of York and cardinal-priest of Santa Cecilia (1473-1530)
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Thomas Wolsey (c. March 1473 – 29 November 1530) was an English political figure and a cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. When Henry VIII became King of England in 1509, Wolsey became the King's almoner. Wolsey's affairs prospered, and by 1514 he had become the controlling figure in virtually all matters of state and extremely powerful within the Church. The highest political position he attained was Lord Chancellor, the King's chief adviser. In that position, he enjoyed great freedom and was often depicted as an alter rex (other king). He fell out of favour after failing to negotiate an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon and was stripped of his government titles. He retreated to York to fulfil his ecclesiastical duties as Archbishop of York, a position he nominally held but had neglected during his years in government. He was recalled to London to answer to charges of treason—a common charge used by Henry against ministers who fell out of favour—but died en route of natural causes.


  • Master Kingston, I see the matter against me now it is framed; but if I had served God as diligently as I have done the King He would not have given me over in my gray hairs.
  • I am come to leave my bones among you.
    • To the Abbot of Leicester, knowing that he was dying.[2]


  • Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out.
    • Attributed to Cardinal Wolsey by columnist George Will, a line that he says was "uttered about Henry VIII", as quoted in William A. Henry In Defense of Elitism (Anchor Books, 1995), p. 45.
  • Begot by butchers, but by bishops bred,
    How high his Highness holds his haughty head!
    • Attributed to Cardinal Wolsey in English Etymology; Or, a Derivative Dictionary of the English Language (1783) by George William Lemon, "Alliteration".

Quotes about Thomas Wolsey

  • Wolsey turned out to be the most disappointing man who ever held great power in England and used it for so long with skill and high intelligence... His foreign policy, often brilliant and never negligible, had resulted in the isolation of England, the enmity of both Spain and France, and the king's failure to get his divorce; it had been based on a false estimate of English power and directed consistently to ends in which England had little interest. The administration, badly in need of reform, was on the contrary more confused than before; the reserves of treasure were gone, prosperity was declining, trade neglected. The Church, his special charge, Wolsey left in an unprecedented state of weakness... Only in the law he had done things that bore fruit, and much though he liked the work of a judge he would surely have been dissatisfied with a verdict that allowed him but this piece of success. And yet it is hard to see what else one can say. Embodying in himself the link with Rome and the height of the medieval polity, he pulled them down in his fall; his death marks the close of the older order with as much definition as any man's fate ever marks the fate of nations.
  • Summitry was now reaching its premodern heyday, for reasons relevant to our larger story.Although by about 1500 several strong national states had emerged in Europe, they remained greatly dependent on their monarchs. This kind of personalized power is at the heart of summitry. One of the most famous encounters took place on the so-called Field of the Cloth of Gold in June 1520, toward the summit bringing together Henry VIII of England and François I of France. The young English monarch, whose titles still included “King of France,” had resumed the old struggle in 1512. But his advisor Cardinal Thomas Wolsey secured a truce and then arranged a summit to consummate an enduring peace. It took place on the edge of Calais, the last English enclave in France, in a shallow dip known as the Val d’Or. Both sides of the valley were carefully reshaped to ensure that neither party enjoyed a height advantage. A special pavilion was constructed for the meeting and festivities, surrounded by thousands of tents and a three-hundred-foot-square timber castle for the rest of those attending. Henry’s entourage alone numbered more than five thousand, while the French crown needed ten years to pay off its share of the cost.
    • David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Changed the Twentieth Century (2007), p. 16
  • At the appointed hour on June 7, 1520, the Feast of Corpus Christi, the two monarchs with their retinues in full battle array appeared on the opposite sides of the valley. There was a moment of tense silence—each side feared an ambush by the other. Then the two kings spurred their horses forward to the appointed place marked by a spear in the ground and embraced. The ice was broken. They dismounted and went into the pavilion arm in arm to talk. Then began nearly two weeks of jousting, feasting and dancing that culminated in a High Mass in the open air. Choirs from England and France accompanied the mass and there was a sermon on the virtues of peace. n both choreography and cost, the Field of the Cloth of Gold resembles contemporary summits. In a further similarity, style was more important than substance: by 1521 the two countries were at war again. In many ways they were natural rivals, whereas Henry was bound—by marriage and interest—to France’s enemy Charles V, king of Spain. Both before and after the Cloth of Gold Henry met Charles for discussions of much greater diplomatic magnitude. And although Wolsey hoped the meeting of the British and French elites might build bridges, this soon proved an illusion. As the Cloth of Gold demonstrated, egos were everything in these summits, with each side alert to any hint of advantage gained summits by the other. Commines was implacably opposed to such meetings for this very reason. It was, he said, impossible “to hinder the train and equipage of the one from being finer and more magnificent than the other, which produces mockery, and nothing touches any person more sensibly than to be laughed at.”
    • David Reynolds, Summits: Six Meetings that Changed the Twentieth Century (2007), pp. 16-17
  • The Royal Navy was Henry's creation, and it saved both himself and his daughter after him when they adopted an island policy and defied the Catholic powers of Europe. Wolsey had no notion of the importance of sea power to England. He was a great medieval churchman, a civil servant of the old school, and a diplomatist of the Renaissance type. But of the future development of England at home and on the sea Wolsey had no vision at all. His master, with that curious instinct of oneness with the English people which was the secret of Tudor greatness, saw deeper. He could use Wolsey's consummate administrative powers during the years of his own apprenticeship in statecraft, and then pass over him along a path of his own which no Cardinal could be expected to tread.
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