|Hampton Court, Gate House|
Wolsey was born in 1473 in Ipswich. Reports differ as to his Father’s occupation, some claiming he was a butcher, others a merchant. In any case, Wolsey’s origins are middle class, though perhaps rather prosperous. In fact, his father died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in which Henry VII Tudor defeated Richard III and became King. An ordinary merchant, much less a common butcher, would not have had his death noted even if he had been involved in a battle and so Robert Wolsey must have been a man of some prominence and means—perhaps a wealthy businessman (whether in the meat-trade or cloth trade) seeking to earn a knighthood by fighting valiantly on the right side. We don’t know, of course, which side he was on and, though as he might have fought valiantly, he was killed and so he did not become a knight. Thomas would have been a boy of twelve or thirteen when his father died. Wolsey had studied at Ipswich school and went on to matriculate at Magdalene College, Oxford. At the age of 25 he was ordained priest, not an unusual choice for a university graduate and not necessarily a sign of his having a genuine vocation. Priesthood was about career and did not usually involve a call from God. His career was somewhat meteoric. He went from being Master of Magdalene, to being chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately Archbishop Deane died after only a year and the young chaplain found himself in search for a new patron. Entering the service of Richard Nanfan, a knight, he was named executor of Nanfan’s estate and when Nanfan died, had come to the attention of Henry VII who brought him into the royal service.
Wolsey was an ambitious man; he was also extremely capable. Today we would label him a “workaholic.” Henry VII, distrustful of the old nobility, relied on men from the middle class who were efficient and hardworking to perform the tasks of government administration. Wolsey was perfect for this role. The old king died when Wolsey had only completed two years in the royal service, but the young Henry VIII had noticed Wolsey and appointed him almoner, a post that gave him a seat on the privy council—the King’s “cabinet.” The almoner was the royal servant in charge of disbursing charity in the King’s name but in fact he controlled the royal budget and had immense power to act in the King’s name. You wanted the favor of the Almoner. You might give the Almoner a handsome gift now and then to be sure of his favor. Wolsey grew to be a wealthy man.
Wolsey certainly used his position to do good to those who were good to him, but first and foremost he was there to serve the King. He did not always agree with Henry, but he always bowed to Henry’s will and he made Henry’s choices work out well. Some of the older counselors were more forthright in opposing the King’s choices and advising against him. Henry did not like that. He liked Wolsey’s approach—do what the King wants and make it work. In 1515 Henry asked Archbishop Warham of Canterbury to resign as Lord Chancellor and he appointed Wolsey to that post. (Warham remained Archbishop of Canterbury—and that is an important part of our story to which we will get in a few postings down the road.) Today the Lord Chancellor’s role is more ceremonial than anything else, but in the sixteenth century the Lord Chancellor was the King’s chief minister. The Lord Chancellor made the government work.
And Thomas Wolsey made the government work. Henry had only to communicate his choices, and Thomas made sure they were carried out. He was so efficient that Henry felt no need to oversee the day to day operations of government. Wolsey had it all in hand. To provide sufficient financial support for his aide-de-camp, Henry nominated Wolsey first as Bishop of Lincoln, and then, later in the same year, 1514, as Archbishop of York. York was England’s second Primatial See if you remember from earlier postings. In 1515, at Henry’s request, Leo X named Wolsey a Cardinal.
Wolsey did not go to Rome to receive his Cardinal’s hat. It was common in those days that the hat was sent and placed on the new Cardinal’s head by whoever was the Cardinal’s Sovereign. Wolsey arranged for a magnificent pageant for the hat being received at Dover and brought in solemn procession to Westminster Abbey where it rested on the altar until the day when Henry placed it on Wolsey’s head. Just as a note, the royal crown traditionally rested on the altar of Westminster Abbey between the funeral of the previous Sovereign and the coronation of the next. In arranging this pageant, Wolsey was setting himself up as a second king in England. Henry was too busy having a good time to realize this.
Wolsey used the immense resources at hand to build a lavish palace for himself at Hampton Court. He already had a palace in the city—York Place—the traditional London residence of the Archbishops of York, but he wanted a “country house” as well and so built Hampton Court. Wolsey spent £50,000, which would probably be worth over 350 million dollars in today’s currency. Wolsey’s extravagant designs were based on Paolo Cortese’s De Cardinalatu, a manual to instruct the prelates of the Roman Court on how to live graciously as Renaissance princes. Henry knew of the house—he stayed there as a guest of Wolsey’s on several occasions, but at first it never crossed his mind how this butcher’s boy from Ipswich had found the resources to live as well—if not better—than the King. Ah, but that would all come to a close