Wolsey, Thomas a celebrated English cardinal and statesman, was born at Ipswich, in March, 1471. He is said to have been the son of a butcher named Robert Wolsey, and his wife Joan, who were poor but reputable, and possessed sufficient means to give their son the best education his native town afforded, and then to send him to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he graduated at the age of fifteen, and gained by his early advancement the sobriquet of the boy-bachelor." He was soon after chosen a fellow of his college, and on taking his master's degree was appointed teacher of Magdalen grammar-school, and was ordained. In 1498 he was made bursar of the college, and has the credit of building Magdalen Tower about this time. While at Oxford he became acquainted with Erasmus (q.v.), and united his efforts with those of that eminent scholar for the promotion of letters. But in subsequent years, as Wolsey began to advance in position and preferment, while Erasmus continued to live the life of a mere scholar, the intimacy which existed between them began to diminish into a mere courteous formality, which circumstance drew from Erasmus the opinion, when Wolsey fell, that he was not worthy of the honor which he had received. While teaching at Magdalen College Wolsey acted as tutor to the three sons of the marquis of Dorset. By this means an acquaintance sprang up between Wolsey and the marquis, which resulted in giving the former his first ecclesiastical preferment— viz. the rectory of Lymington, in Somersetshire, conferred on him in 1500. While here he fell into disgrace. Being at a fair in the neighborhood, he was engaged in some kind of disorderly conduct (possibly drunk, as has been charged), and was arrested by one Sir Amias Poulet, a justice of the peace, and put in the stocks. The indignity was remembered by Wolsey, and when he became chancellor, Sir Amias was imprisoned for six years by his order. He next became domestic chaplain to Henry Dean, archbishop of Canterbury, and on his death, in 1503, was appointed chaplain to Sir John Nafant, through whose influence he became chaplain to King Henry VII. In 1504 he received the rectory of Redgrave, in Norfolk, which constituted his third living. His influence and favor at court were rapidly increasing, and in February, 1508, the king gave him the deanery of Lincoln and two prebends in the same church.
The death of the king in the following year brought to the throne a sovereign of a very different character from the one who had just left it. Great changes were to be made at court by Henry VIII; but amid them all Wolsey managed to be not only retained, but promoted still further. Many circumstances favored his promotion. He was in, the prime of life; he was accustomed to the court for which his manners and address peculiarly fitted him; and he also held an important place in the Church. Added to this, there were animosities between the Earl of Surrey, the lord-treasurer, and Fox, the bishop of Winchester, who was also keeper of the privy seal and secretary of state. Fox, desiring to strengthen his own influence by placing one of his friends and adherents near the king, made Wolsey the king's almoner. The adroit courtier rose so rapidly in the king's estimation that he did almost as he pleased. He studied to please the young king by joining in indulgences, which, however suitable to the gayety of a court, were ill becoming the character of an ecclesiastic. Yet amid the luxuries, which he promoted in his royal master, he did not neglect to inculcate maxims of state, and present to him the advantages of a system of favoritism, which he secretly hoped would one day result in his own advancement. Before the year of the king's accession had closed, he had become lord almoner, and had been presented with valuable lands and houses in London. In 1510 he became rector of Torrington; in 1511, canon of Windsor and registrar of the Order of the Garter; in 1512, prebendary of York; in 1513, dean of York and bishop of Tournay, in France; in 1514, bishop of Lincoln, and in the same year archbishop of York. In 1515 he was made a cardinal, and succeeded Warham as chancellor. In 1516 the pope made him legate a latere, a commission which gave him great wealth and almost unlimited power over the English clergy. He also farmed the revenues of certain dioceses which were held by foreign bishops, appropriating a good share to his own use, and received stipends from the kings of France and Spain and the doge of Venice. Thus Wolsey had secured to himself the whole power of the state, both civil and ecclesiastical, and derived from various sources an amount of revenue hitherto unknown to any but the royalty. Yet his ambition was not satisfied. He aspired to the papacy, and had a considerable following in 1522 as candidate for the place left vacant by Leo X, and again in 1523 for that of Adrian VI. Wolsey was fond of display, and indulged that fondness to a degree never before approached by a subject. At York Place (now Whitehall) his residence was furnished with every luxury; and at Hampton Court he built for himself a palace, which he eventually presented to the king. His dress was gorgeous, his manner of living sumptuous, and his household consisted of more than five hundred persons, among whom were many people of rank-lords, earls, and the like. Yet while his train of servants consisted of these persons, his house was a school where their sons were educated and initiated into public life. While he was dazzling the eyes or insulting the feelings of people by an ostentation of gorgeous furniture and equipage, he was a general and liberal patron of literature and art. He promoted learning with a munificent hand He established lectureships, professorships, and colleges at his own expense. He was the founder of a college, or school, at Ipswich, which, for a time, rivaled the schools of Eton and Winchester, but was discontinued at the cardinal's fall. He also founded Cardinal's College at Oxford, which remains today as Christ Church.
He was an opponent of the Lutheran Reformation, and manifested his zeal against it in 1521, by procuring the condemnation of Luther's doctrines in an assembly of divines held at his own house. He also published the pope's bull against Luther, and endeavored to suppress his writings in England. But he was always lenient towards English Lutherans, and one article of his impeachment was that he was remiss in punishing heretics. His ecclesiastical administration was exceedingly corrupt, furnishing to all clergymen an example of holding many preferments without performing the duties of any of them. The effect of this was to sow in England many of the seeds of the Reformation, which followed. In 1528 he resigned the see of Durham for that of Winchester; but to the latter place he never went. About this time was the beginning of difficulties, the end of which he might have foreseen, but had no power to avert. Henry VIII desired to employ the cardinal's talents in aid of his proposed divorce from queen Catherine and marriage with Anne Boleyn. But his tardy efforts and rigid adherence to legal forms and technicalities greatly exasperated the king, who was not to be trifled with even in the gratification of his baser passions. Unfortunately, too, for Wolsey, his conduct had been such as to inspire the hatred of both the queen and her rival. Catherine knew that he bad taken steps towards procuring her divorce, and Anne Boleyn knew that he was using his influence against her marriage with the king. Added to this enmity in high place were the jealousy and opposition of the numerous aspirants for preferment who had been less successful than himself. With such a combination against him, his fall was speedily and relentlessly accomplished.
On the first day of the term, Oct. 9, 1529, while he was opening the court of chancery at Westminster, the attorney-general indicted him in the court of King's Bench for procuring a bull from Rome appointing him legate, contrary to the statute, by which he had incurred a praemunire, and forfeited all' his goods to the king and might be imprisoned. The king immediately 'sent and demanded the great seal' from him, and ordered him to leave his magnificent palace at York Place. Before leaving this place he made an inventory of tie furniture, plate, and other works of art, which he had added, and it is said to have amounted to the immense sum of five hundred thousand crowns. From thence he started to Esher, near Hampton Court, and was met on the way, as he was riding from Putney on his mule, by a messenger who assured him that he still retained his place in the royal favor, and presented him with a ring which the king employed as a token to give credit to the bearer. The message was received by Wolsey with the humblest expressions of gratitude; but he seems not to have credited the mockery as he proceeded on his way to Esher. Wolsey might have produced in his own defense against the indictment the king's letters-patent authorizing him to accept the pope's bull; but he merely instructed his attorney to plead, in his absence, his entire ignorance of the statute, and that he acknowledged other particulars with which he was charged, and submitted himself to the king's mercy. The court, however, passed the sentence that he was "out of the protection, and his lands, goods, and chattels forfeit, and his person might be seized." His enemies continued their prosecutions. Forty-four articles were presented against him to the House of Lords, which were to serve as the basis of his utter ruin. But he had already suffered almost as much punishment as it was possible to inflict upon him, and Parliament could do little more than sanction what had already been done. Wolsey also found a friend in Thomas Cromwell, formerly his steward, subsequently earl of, Essex, who defended him with such spirit and eloquence as materially to change the tide of his fortunes. His speech had the effect to cause the Commons to reject the articles, and this brought the proceedings of the lords to a standstill. During his residence at Esher, the cardinal's health was found to be declining rapidly, and the king was induced, from the impression that it was mental rather than physical trouble that was preying upon his vitality, to show him such kindness as revived his spirits at once. Henry also granted him, Feb. 12, 1530, a free pardon for all crimes and misdemeanors, a few days afterwards restored to him a large part of his revenues, and allowed him to remove from Esher to Richmond. From thence he was removed to the archbishop's seat at Southwell; and then his residence was fixed at Cawood Castle, which he began to repair, and was beginning to gain favor with the people when the king had him arrested for high-treason, and ordered him to be brought to London. He set out on Nov. 1, 1530, but on the road he was seized with a disorder, which ended his life at Leicester Abbey on the 28th of the month. During his last hours he gave utterance to the expression. "If I had served my God as diligently as I have served my king, he would not have given me over to my enemies." "Wolsey attained his elevation by a winning address, combined with shrewdness, talent, and learning. His ambition was unlimited, his rapacity great; he was arrogant and overbearing, and extremely fond of splendor and parade. But he was a great minister, enlightened beyond the age in which he lived diligent in business, and a good servant to the king; for when his authority was established, he checked the king's cruelty, restrained many of his caprices, and kept his passion within bounds. The latter part of Henry's reign was very far more criminal than that during which the cardinal presided over his counsels." SEE HENRY VIII.
See the Life of Wolsey by Cavendish, his gentleman usher (Lond. 1641), Gait (1812), Howard (1824), and Martin (1862); Williams, Lives of he English Cardinals (Lond. 1868); Brewer, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of Henry VIII (1870-75); and the several Histories of England.