Thomas Wolsey: Biography, Facts & Death

Instructor: Mary Deering

Mary has a Master's Degree in History with 18 advanced hours in Government. She has taught college History and Government courses.

Meet Thomas Wolsey, an intelligent clergyman who rose from a middle class background to be the Lord Chancellor of England. Explore Wolsey's rise to power and witness his fall from grace.

Early Life

As an adult, Thomas Wolsey would count some of the most powerful men in England among his close friends -- including the young King Henry VIII -- but those relationships weren't exactly secured from the time of his birth. He was likely born near Ipswich around 1473 to Robert and Joan Wolsey. Historians are divided about the social and economic position held by the Wolsey family before their son's meteoric rise to power. For generations, the popularly held notion was that Robert Wolsey was a poor butcher, thus making his son's rise all the more surprising; however, modern historians have concluded that he was more likely a glazier, or glass maker, a position of some importance and prestige in Tudor England.

Banner of Cardinal Wolsey
Banner of Wolsey

Whatever his father's standing, young Thomas Wolsey appears to have been remarkably intelligent, and his family was able to send him to some of the best schools in England. After completing his education, Wolsey decided to enter the Catholic priesthood.

Unlike with the modern Catholic Church, many young men in the 15th century joined the priesthood for social and economic position. Religious commitment was a bonus, but the primary effect of entering the church for intelligent young men like Wolsey was the life of contemplation and the potential for higher social status as a member of the clergy.

Rising to Power

The first step in Wolsey's rise to power came 1499, when the Marquess of Dorset hired Wolsey to become the teacher for his three sons. Although this position lasted only a brief time, Wolsey's work came to the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the most important clergymen in the nation.

Wolsey accepted a position as the Archbishop's assistant, and when the Archbishop died in 1503, Wolsey planned a magnificent public funeral. Wolsey's work again attracted the attention of a wealthy benefactor, Sir Richard Nanfan, chief advisor to King Henry VII. With Nanfan's help, Wolsey was declared the official chaplain to the king in 1507 -- a remarkable rise for the son of a glassmaker.

Working with Kings

With his new position, Wolsey gained access to the highest levels of English government. He heard the king's confession and met regularly with his councilors, the most powerful nobles in the nation. His service was rewarded with economic benefits as well. Wolsey gained income from several wealthy church properties and the titles that went with them.

When Henry VII died, his only living son King Henry VIII, who was only eighteen years old when he came to the throne, preferred hunting and dancing to matters of state. He came to rely on Wolsey, the trusted advisor of his father, to undertake the more mundane parts of ruling the country.

Wolsey became one of the most important men in Henry's court. The Pope, the leader of the Catholic Church, elevated Wolsey to the position of Cardinal in 1515. Later in the year, King Henry made Wolsey the Lord Chancellor of England, the highest secular position in the country aside from the King himself. As a Cardinal and Lord Chancellor, Wolsey used his position to amass a large amount of personal wealth and political power. He regularly entertained the King at his palaces, including Hampton Court, one of the most beautiful palaces in Tudor England.

Photograph of main gates of Hampton Court by Duncan Harris
Photo of Hampton Court

Wolsey's Final Years

Wolsey's rise to political and religious authority did not come without a cost. Many of Henry's other advisors were men from the wealthiest and oldest families in England, and they were not particularly pleased that a commoner had risen to such heights. Wolsey had spent most of his adult life solving problems and offering advice to his powerful benefactors; however, in the late 1520s, the king would present Wolsey with an unsolvable problem.

Photograph of household ordinance written by Cardinal Wolsey for the Tudor court in 1526
Household Ordinance, 1526

King Henry had been married for over twenty years to Catharine of Aragon, but the couple had only one daughter, Mary, survive past infancy. As he grew older, Henry became increasingly concerned about his lack of male heir. He had also fallen in love with a captivating younger woman, Anne Boleyn. Henry asked Wolsey as the Lord Chancellor and Special Papal Legate to petition the Pope for an annulment from Catharine.

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