Thomas Cardinal Wolsey

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 15)

Although he is vastly overshadowed in importance by the two towering figures of Henry VIII and Thomas More with whom he was chiefly involved, Thomas Cardinal Wolsey has received much attention from biographers from his time when his gentleman-usher George Cavendish wrote one of the first modern English biographies, down to the present age. Every generation, it seems, attempts to reinterpret the far-reaching events of the King’s “secret matter” of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and the key person originally involved, the son of an Ipswich butcher, was Thomas Cardinal Wolsey.

Through his logical and efficient mind and considerable organizational skills, Wolsey worked his way up through various ecclesiastical offices to become the leading prelate of England, a candidate for the papacy, and lord chancellor of England, second in power only to the king. From this position of eminence he had virtually unlimited powers, and he personally conducted most of the realm’s important affairs including arranging for the minutiae of provisioning English troops in their overseas campaigns. Unfortunately for him, the cost of such power was also high, for while King Henry VIII received the benefits of his talents, Wolsey was held personally responsible by the nobility and the public for the negative aspects of such things as the various taxes levied to carry out the King’s foreign wars. As with all great men, Wolsey acquired important enemies on the way to power. Two of them, Thomas II (Howard), third Duke of Norfolk, and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, were to hound him until, in 1529, they succeeded in having him indicted for his abuse of legatine authority. The real reason for his fall, of course, was his failure to resolve the matter of Henry VIII’s divorce.

Cardinal Wolsey is still an intriguing and elusive enigma after more than four hundred years. On the one hand, he sincerely attempted to achieve reforms within the church prior to the suppression of the monasteries (a fact not emphasized in the present biography), and in fact, the Cardinal was also responsible for the money derived from that suppression which went to set up Cardinal College, usually considered merely another of his attempts at self-aggrandizement. He was also instrumental in devising the first graduated tax in history. Yet, he is remembered today for his amassing of great personal wealth such as Hampton Court with its sumptuous art collection, and his pride in achievement exemplified in his extensive retinue, for which his stables alone housed more than one hundred horses.

In this brief biography by Nancy Lenz Harvey, the author attempts to evaluate and interpret the Cardinal’s actions, motivations, and mental state based upon the inconclusive records of the times. Without adding any new factual information, the author attempts to delve into the psychological well-springs of Cardinal Wolsey. One clue to his actions which she attempts to establish is presented in the opening description of the Cardinal suffering from constipation. Harvey suggests this was a lifelong torment of the Cardinal which he interpreted as the “wages of sin.” It is true that the cardinal suffered from the usual illnesses common to the people of the day, and Harvey takes pains to point out these illnesses at every opportunity. For example, she even includes one of the more frivolous charges brought against him when the Great Seal was taken from him, that of knowingly coming in contact with the King when he was suffering from the pox. Simply by emphasizing all these maladies suffered during the course of a long and eventful life invests them with an importance perhaps unwarranted in an age of poor sanitation, nutrition habits, and medical knowledge.

Without indicating why, Harvey dates Wolsey’s birth on March 24, 1472-1473 (the year depends on whether one refers to the old style or new style calendar); yet, other biographers trace his birth to the year 1471, a year in which the plague was ravaging England. Also, she fails to point out the effects of the plague on the lower classes, especially on someone like Wolsey’s father, a butcher by trade. According to some accounts, there were three sheep for each human being in England because of the plague, a...

(The entire section is 1737 words.)