Sunday, August 28, 2011

Did Cardinal Wolsey Commit Suicide?

Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, a Roman Catholic Cardinal, Henry VIII's chancellor, trusted official, and friend, meets an untimely end in prison on his way to London after his arrest in York. Season one of The Tudors documents two major plot developments--Henry VIII's growing infatuation with Anne Boleyn and his desire to end his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and the fall of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey is Henry VIII's closest advisor in episode one and in prison by the finale of the season--a remarkable victim of political circumstances and his own maneuvering, greed, and desire for power.

Cardinal Wolsey begins to lose his grip on power, and on Henry, when he is unable to use his influence over the Pope to secure Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon. To counter the familial alliance between Catherine and Holy Roman Emperor,
Charles, Wolsey attempts to gain the support of the French clergy to pronounce judgment on the matter while the Pope remained under the control of Charles' military and politics. This fails, and a Papal representative, Cardinal Campeggio, is sent to arbitrate on the matter. The result? After months of deliberation, the case must be tried in Rome.

All along, Anne Boleyn and her family work carefully against Wolsey, and this culminates in Wolsey being stripped of his post as chancellor. He returns to York, but Anne Boleyn and her family still fear his potential return to power. A letter is intercepted written by Wolsey to Catherine of Aragon, and this prompts his arrest. Cardinal Wolsey is arrested in York by the Duke of Suffolk, and, on the way to London, he kills himself in prison.

So, how true is this story?

Who Was Cardinal Wolsey?

Thomas Wolsey, unlike many other high-ranking governmental officials traditionally in the English government to this point, was not nobility. Contemporaries branded him the son of a butcher, but it is equally probable that his family's origins were mercantile. He was born around 1473, and he had an excellent education at an early age. Wolsey was recommended to Henry VII by Sir Richard Nanfan, Deputy Lieutenant of Calais, and he became a royal chaplain in 1507. Wolsey joined the Privy Council of Henry VIII in 1509, but he proved himself energetically loyal to Henry during his campaign against the French between 1512 and 1514. This truly secured royal patronage, favoritism, and advancement.

Wolsey's Downfall

Depending upon, and being trusted by the king had its drawbacks. First and foremost, Cardinal Wolsey made many enemies during his career. He introduced methods of forced loans, a means of taxation without Parliamentary approval, to help fund Henry's campaigns abroad. Many people who had been handicapped in their advancement in office similarly hated Wolsey. When Henry VIII wanted to divorce his wife, Catherine of Aragon, he naturally turned to Wolsey, both trusted advisor and Catholic Cardinal, to help bring the situation to the desired closing. The stumbling block was the Pope, Clement VII, who was beset by Catherine's nephew, Charles, and unwilling to provoke the Holy Roman Emperor by appeasing Henry, even if Henry's conscience was truly troubled by having married his dead brother's bride. Clement did allow for Henry and Catherine's case to be heard by Wolsey and Cardinal Campeggio in England at first in 1528, but Clement recalled the case to be heard in Rome and Rome alone. In the meantime, Wolsey's enemies, including Anne Boleyn's family, were set about convincing Henry that Wolsey was deliberately stalling the proceedings. Wolsey was not invited to join the council when it met in 1529. Instead, he was given the option to appear before Parliament to hear a to-be created list of grievances against him or to throw himself upon the king's mercy. He chose the latter option.

Cardinal Wolsey was deprived of a number of his offices and his estates, which were forfeit to the crown. He was allowed, however, to retain the office of Archbishop of York, and he began the journey north late in 1529. He had reason to believe that the king wasn't irrevocably against him--he received both rings and promises from him, and he was even attended by the king's personal physician when he fell ill in January 1530.

Cardinal Wolsey's biggest problem was his own ambition. It is clear, viewing his entire career, that ambition and love of power truly drove him. When bishoprics became vacant, he chose his own candidates or appointed himself to the post to collect the profits. He worked out his own agreements with the King of France and the Holy Roman Emperor in the hope that he would be elected pope, which never came to pass. Once evicted from the seat of power, Wolsey sought power in any form he could find it, including communicating with the Holy Roman Empire's ambassador to England, Chapuys, claiming he could give him important information about Henry. Wolsey also communicated with Clement, and this was enough for Henry. Wolsey may, or may not, have truly been working against Henry. More likely, he was trying to hold on to the different spheres of influence he had gained when he was in power in the hopes he could emerge in the future from exile still a significant power-player in Europe. Henry, encouraged by Wolsey's enemies, decided instead this was treason.

Wolsey's Death

On November 4, 1530, the Earl of Northumberland arrested Wolsey at Cawood. From there, he was taken to Sheffield Park. On November 22, Sir William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London arrived with the Tower guard. He continued south, under guard, to Leicester where the party stopped at the abbey of St. Mary. However, he had been ill with a bowel infection for some time, and it was clear upon arrival that he wasn't going to travel any farther alive. The Cardinal died on November 30, 1530, and he was buried in the Lady Chapel of the abbey.


The interpretation put forth by The Tudors series is highly improbable. In the series, it is implied that Wolsey killed himself, and Henry, once made aware, immediately ordered that the suicide be covered up. Wolsey was simply surrounded by too many people who could account for the circumstances to have killed himself and it have been "swept under the rug" for the ages. The Constable of the Tower, his guard, the abbot of St. Mary's, and the brothers would have made up a band of perhaps 75 people, all of whom would have had a fairly intimate knowledge of the events. Even if Henry had somehow successfully managed to cover up Wolsey's suicide, Henry became the enemy of all monastic orders when he dissolved their establishments in England later in his reign. His daughter, Mary, was a fully-pledged Catholic herself, and both of these circumstances would have afforded opportunities for disaffected people to talk, even if they had been somehow silenced or paid off previously. In addition, it may have been to Henry's advantage to have allowed Cardinal Wolsey's suicide to become public knowledge. Wolsey's enemies would have rejoiced, if rather quietly given the scandal of the circumstances. Wolsey could have been denounced as "ungodly" and used as an example of how pride produces a fall--and that would have single-handedly destroyed his remaining reputation and have handicapped anyone who sympathized with him.

The contemporary series of events was never challenged in later, more tolerant, ages. Therefore, there is no question that this was put into the narrative of the series for dramatic effect and there is absolutely no basis for it from a historical standpoint.


Cardinal Wolsey by Sampson Strong, painted at Christ Church, 1526.

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