The Life and Death of Cardinal Wolsey Essay - Critical Essays

George Cavendish

Critical Evaluation

George Cavendish was the eldest son of Thomas Cavendish, an officer of the king’s exchequer. He was born about 1500, went to Cambridge University, left without taking a degree, and married in 1524. He entered Cardinal Wolsey’s services about 1522 as his gentleman usher. He left Wolsey’s household after the cardinal’s death in 1530, refused an offer to enter the royal service, and went to live on his family estate in Suffolk until just before his death, about 1561. No evidence of the date of his death exists.

He undertook to write the biography of Wolsey in 1554; he completed it in 1558. His purpose was to give the world the truth about the controversial cardinal. Cavendish, a Roman Catholic, felt the cardinal’s reputation suffered from slander and Protestant distortions of fact. The work remained in manuscript until 1641, when a first edition appeared. The first scholarly edition was produced by Samuel Weller Singer in 1815.

The biography is an eyewitness account and its tone is moralistic. It attempts to show the fall of the great by the turn of fortune’s wheel and the sin of pride. Most of the first half and all of the second half of the book come from the direct experience of the author; other portions come from accounts by the cardinal himself and from Hall’s chronicles. Among the factual errors in the Life are the misnaming of some people, some mistakes in the sequence of events, and certain omissions of the facts of Wolsey’s personal life, such as the failure to mention Wolsey’s noncanonical wife, his son, Thomas Wynter, and his intrigues after his fall. Cavendish never mentions Sir Thomas More, prominent during this period. On the other hand, Cavendish has a Renaissance eye for detail: gorgeous clothing, sumptuous banquets, and scenes of pomp and luxury.

Wolsey, son of a well-to-do butcher, went to Oxford, received his B.A. degree at the age of fifteen, was elected fellow of Magdalen College about 1497, and after graduating M.A. was appointed master of the school adjoining the College. He was ordained a priest at Marlborough in March, 1498.

In 1503, Henry Deane, the Archbishop of Canterbury, died. Wolsey then became chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, the deputy of Calais, who entrusted him with his money and affairs and commended him to the service of King Henry VII. In 1507, Sir Richard Nanfan died and Wolsey became the King’s Chaplain and befriended Richard Foxe, Bishop of Winchester, and Thomas Lovell. In 1508, the king sent him to Scotland to prevent a break between the two countries. In the same year, sent as a special envoy to the Emperor Maximilian, in Flanders, he made the journey there and back with such speed that the king was much impressed. In 1509, King Henry, shortly before his death, made Wolsey Dean of Lincoln.

Under King Henry VIII, Wolsey became very powerful and was responsible for diplomatic intrigue playing France against Spain. In 1512 he accompanied the king in his successful campaign against France. In 1514, he was made Bishop of Lincoln. Later, after the death of Cardinal Bainbridge, he became Archbishop of York. When the marriage of Charles of Castile and King Henry’s daughter Mary was broken off through the duplicity of Maximilian, Wolsey secretly laid the foundations for an alliance with France which resulted in negotiations for the marriage of Mary and the Duke of Orleans. In 1515, Pope Leo X made Wolsey a cardinal. In December of the same year he was appointed Lord Chancellor of England. Wolsey worked hard in the king’s service. Besides his duties as a maker of foreign policy, Wolsey helped in domestic affairs, putting down a riot on “Evily Mayday” and earning the gratitude of merchants and rioters, after he had twenty of the ringleaders executed and the others pardoned. In 1518, on the king’s insistence, he was made Cardinal Campeggio’s associate in England. In July, 1519, secret articles were signed by King Henry, Wolsey, and the French ambassador for the marriage of Princess Mary and the son of the French king and for the surrender of Tournay. A splendid embassy was sent to France. Cavendish describes in detail the magnificent supper and entertainment offered. Wolsey supported the French alliance in opposition to the...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)