Thomas Wolsey Biography

Thomas Wolsey, an English cardinal and statesman, rose to power as the dominant figure in King Henry VIII’s government from 1515 to 1529. With a humble background as the son of a butcher in Ipswich, Wolsey’s intelligence and dedication led him to graduate from Oxford University and become a priest and chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury. King Henry VII recognized Wolsey’s talents and employed him on diplomatic missions, eventually appointing him as the royal chaplain. Wolsey’s rapid ascent continued with his appointment as the archbishop of York, then a Cardinal, and finally as the Lord Chancellor of England under King Henry VIII. However, his downfall came when he failed to secure an annulment for the king’s marriage, resulting in the loss of his position and subsequent arrest on treason charges. Unfortunately, Wolsey passed away before he could face trial in London.

Quick Facts

  • British Celebrities Born In March Died At Age: 57
  • Family: Spouse/Ex-: Joan Larke, children: Dorothy Clancey, Thomas Wynter
  • Priests
  • Political Leaders
  • Died on: November 29, 1530
  • Place of death: Leicester, United Kingdom
  • Notable Alumni: Magdalen College, Oxford
  • Cause of Death: Illness
  • Founder/Co-Founder: Christ Church, Oxford
  • Education: Magdalen College, Oxford

Childhood & Early Life

Thomas Wolsey was born in March 1473 in Ipswich, Suffolk, England, to Robert Wolsey, a local butcher, and his wife Joan Daundy. He received his early education from Ipswich School and Magdalen College School before attending Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied theology. At the age of 15, he obtained his Bachelor of Arts degree. In March 1498, he was ordained a priest in Marlborough, Wiltshire. Thereafter, he became the Master of Magdalen College School and was subsequently appointed the dean of divinity.

Later Life

In 1502, he became a chaplain to Henry Deane, Archbishop of Canterbury. Upon Deane’s death the following year, Wolsey was appointed chaplain by Sir Richard Nanfan, the deputy of Calais. Through Nanfan, Wolsey was introduced to the court. In 1507, when Nanfan died, King Henry VII appointed Wolsey as the royal chaplain. The following year, Henry VII employed Wolsey on several diplomatic missions to Scotland and the Netherlands. In 1509, shortly before the King’s death, Wolsey became the dean of Lincoln.

In 1509, Henry VIII inherited the throne and subsequently raised Wolsey to the post of Almoner. This position earned Wolsey a seat on the Privy Council and also earned him a chance to gain trust of the new King. In 1513, after Wolsey successfully organized Henry’s expedition against the French, the ties between the two men further strengthened. The following year, after signing the Wolsey’s treaty with France, England held the balance of power between France and the Hapsburgs.

With innate abilities and dedication, Wolsey rapidly acquired additional positions in the Church. On Henry’s recommendation, Wolsey was appointed the bishop of Lincoln in 1514 and the Archbishop of York later that year. The following year, Wolsey rose to the position of cardinal and in December 1515, King Henry VIII chose him as the Lord Chancellor of England. In 1518, Wolsey was appointed the Papal Legate in England. Same year, he engineered the ‘Treaty of London’, a treaty of universal peace embracing the principal European states.

In 1520, Wolsey achieved a diplomatic victory when he organized a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France on the ‘Field of the Cloth of Gold’, a tent city erected in Flanders. Though later, Wolsey sided with Emperor Charles V of Spain and signed ‘Treaty of Bruges’ (1521), confirming English support to Spain in case of war against France. In 1525, after Charles V captured Francis I and abandoned England as an ally, Wolsey signed the ‘Treaty of the More’ with France to challenge Spain. But, in 1529, the French made peace with Charles and Wolsey faced a downfall.

Major Works

He undertook monastic reforms, in addition to securing the papal permission, to close several decayed monasteries, and used the revenues to establish a grammar school in Ipswich and Cardinal’s College at the University of Oxford.

Personal Life & Legacy

For almost a decade, Wolsey lived with a woman named Joan Larke without being married to her. Subsequently, he also fathered two children; a son, Thomas Wynter, and a daughter named Dorothy. In 1529, while traveling to Yorkshire after being stripped of his position, Wolsey was framed of treason charges. Subsequently, he was ordered to reach London but he fell ill on the journey and died on November 29, 1530, at Leicester, at the age of 57.

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