Cardinal Wolsey: A Life In 9 Artworks

In this article, we will explore nine artworks, beginning with the heights of Cardinal Wolsey’s glory and ending with the depths of his despair.

Oct 6, 2023By Elizabeth Morgan, BA History w/ Tudor concentration

cardinal wolsey artworks


Throughout the centuries since his death, Cardinal Wolsey has appeared in many more artworks than we might initially imagine. London’s National Portrait Gallery alone is home to forty of his finest depictions. It is not just ancient portraits that Cardinal Wolsey features in, but also countless modern and narrative works, all of which aim to recreate his most poignant moments.


It is thanks to these artworks that the 21st century viewer may now observe the significant happenings of Cardinal Wolsey’s life in chronological order as if they were taking place before their very eyes.


1. Cardinal Wolsey On His Way To Westminster Hall 

Cardinal Wolsey on His Way to Westminister Hall, by John Gilbert, 1887, via


Artistically speaking, no-one cared about Thomas Wolsey before he became a Cardinal. Of course, in fifteenth-century England, no artist would have cared to paint the poor son of a butcher and landowner. In fact, nor would any artist have cared to paint one of the hundreds of clergymen looking to further their ecclesiastical careers. Even the greatest Victorian artists, all of whom lived and worked three hundred years after Wolsey’s death, failed to find the inspiration required to create a work called The Birth of Thomas Wolsey, or The Promotion of Cardinal Wolsey to the Bishopric of Lincoln. 


It was not until the 18th of November in 1515, when Thomas Wolsey received his red hat and robes in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey, that the artists began to take notice of a potential new subject. Cardinal Wolsey On His Way To Westminster Hall is probably the artwork that depicts the earliest moment of his life. Wolsey’s promotion to the Cardinalate is quite possibly the first important event to be brought back to life with paper and paint. It was Sir John Gilbert, a self-taught artist who lived between 1817 and 1897, who had the pleasure of recreating one of the most important moments of Cardinal Wolsey’s career.

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We know that Gilbert certainly did take pleasure in his work, for he went on to paint Cardinal Wolsey with alarming frequency, reimagining his life over and over again. Although he appears to have been interested in many historic figures, Gilbert was particularly fascinated by Cardinal Wolsey and used several of the major dates on his timeline as motivation to paint. Cardinal Wolsey served Gilbert well; the unlikely partnership was extremely successful.


Westminster Palace in the Reign of Henry VIII, by Henry William Brewer, 1884, via historyofparliamentonline


Gilbert is now best remembered not only for his depictions of Cardinal Wolsey, but also for his recreations of tales by William Shakespeare. His complete Shakesperean collection is thought to hold seven-hundred-and-fifty depictions of various scenes from various plays. Gilbert was extremely prolific; he exhibited over four-hundred of his works at the most prominent societies in London.


Cardinal Wolsey On His Way To Westminster Hall is one of Gilbert’s lesser known works. The scene itself portrays the moment at which Wolsey, the newly-made Cardinal of York, took leave of his ceremony at Westminster Abbey and walked to his reception at the nearby Westminster Hall.


Viewers should be aware of several interesting elements included within this scene. Each one of these elements tells us something about the way in which Gilbert perceived Cardinal Wolsey as a person. For example, why not look to Cardinal Wolsey’s left hand? In his palm, he is holding a small but essential item known as a pomander. These handheld devices were usually filled with herbs, spices and other aromatic ingredients, and were a common sight in sixteenth century England.


The use of pomanders was a popular method of disease prevention, and Cardinal Wolsey is known historically to have kept his own version about his person, particularly when dealing with the general public. He is likely to have believed that his pomander would stop noxious vapors from entering the body through the nose or mouth. Just like King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey is remembered both for his fear of disease and for his obsession with cleanliness. It is for this reason that the pomander holds such a prominent place in the picture.


Pomader and Rosary from Diptych with portraits of the Pilgrim couple, by Batholomaeus Bruyn the Elder, 1528, via Wikimedia Commons


We may also take note the many petitioners surrounding Cardinal Wolsey. A lady on the bottom left of the scene can be seen kneeling in his presence while thrusting a document in his direction. This simple, seemingly unimportant feature of the painting acknowledges the fact that Cardinal Wolsey was a man to be petitioned about matters of importance.


George Cavendish, Cardinal Wolsey’s friend and biographer, wrote that “his gentlemen ushers cried out and said, ‘Oh My Lords and Masters, on before, make way for my Lord’s Grace!’ And thus, he passed down from his chamber and through the hall.” 


By the year 1518, Thomas Wolsey was Almoner, Dean of Lincoln, Archbishop of York, Papal Legate, Lord Chancellor of England, and the greatest friend and confidante of the King. These positions combined gave him control over virtually every matter in the Kingdom.


2. Ego Et Rex Meus 

Ego Et Rex Meus (My King And I), by Sir John Gilbert, 1888, via


This fascinating and meaningful work is another of John Gilbert’s creations. Thomas Wolsey is beautifully dressed in the red hat and robes of a Cardinal, and as both King and Cardinal appear completely at ease in each other’s company, we can assume that the scene must depict a moment that took place somewhere between November 1515 and September 1529.


Arm-in-arm. Hand-in-glove. Trusting. Confident. Secret. Richest. Orderly. Loving. Indispensable. Closest. These words and phrases hold one thing in common; they have all been used by notable historians to describe the relationship between King Henry and Cardinal Wolsey.


This artwork perfectly captures such a relationship. King Henry is relaxed; Wolsey is concentrated. King Henry leans leisurely on Cardinal Wolsey’s shoulder; Wolsey clutches a document as if to convey to the viewer that his work never ceases. King Henry confesses the burdens of his mind; fatherlike, Cardinal Wolsey accepts the familiar touch of the King’s hand and listens. The expression on his face insinuates that he is already searching for a remedy to whatever problem he has just been presented with.


3. The Field Of The Cloth Of Gold 

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1545, via Wikimedia Commons


Anyone who knows anything about the Tudors will be familiar with the Field of the Cloth of Gold; it was one of the most spectacular displays of wealth and Kingship in European history. Even those who have very little interest in the sixteenth century will say, when asked about King Henry VIII, wasn’t he the King who went to the Field of the Cloth of Gold? And of course, they would be correct.


Essentially, this two-week event was a peace summit between England and France. However, after studying its schedule in-depth, we may conclude that the meeting was less about peace and alliance-building and more about pleasure and spending money.


For King Henry, this was an opportunity not only to achieve an unprecedented friendship with King Francis I of France but also to show himself off to a rival Court. For Cardinal Wolsey, this was an expensive and time-consuming project which took great effort to pull off, and achieved very little in return. Cardinal Wolsey spent a year of his life arranging the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and since he was solely responsible for its success, for many preceding weeks he is likely to have thought of little else.


The statistics are shocking to behold. Present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold were two Kings, two Queens, five Cardinals, 10 Countesses, 14 Ladies in Waiting, 30 Knights, 50 Grooms, 60 Officers, 94 cooks, 363 skilled servants, 3,217 horses, 5,172 members of the English entourage, 6,475 birds, 29,518 fish, 98,050 eggs and one million pieces of firewood.


There is little wonder that the artwork above, (one of our most reliable representations of the summit), is filled with so much activity. This well-loved piece was painted by an unnamed artist, probably within a quarter of a century of the summit. The scene, simply entitled The Field of the Cloth of Gold, has since been acquired by the Royal Collection; reportedly the largest private art collection in the world.


Francis I, 1538, via Saint Louis Art Museum


Although the scene portrayed is both crowded and exciting, it is a composite interpretation of events, and should not be taken literally as an accurate record of what occurred. The timings are all out of sync; King Henry himself can be found not once, but three times, in various areas.


Due to the large number of people included in the scene, Cardinal Wolsey can be quite difficult to identify. Naturally, as he is dressed in eye-catching gold cloth and sitting upon a white horse, our eyes are drawn to King Henry.


Cardinal Wolsey sits on a horse slightly behind King Henry. Notice how he is dressed in dull colors, very unlike his scarlet robes that we have become so familiar with. To the artist, whomever it may have been, King Henry was the important figure, and although present at the side of Royalty, Cardinal Wolsey was insignificant in comparison.


Other details to look out for include King Henry greeting King Francis (inside the gold tent at the very back of the painting), Queen Catherine and Queen Claude watching a jousting tournament (inside the wooden structure on the far right), a notable gentleman being sick over the side of the fountain, and the famous Field of the Cloth of Gold dragon which appears at the top left. Some historians say that this dragon was a kite flown to signify the climax of the event. According to reports of those present, it was capable of smoking and hissing. Although it ultimately achieved very little politically, the Field of the Cloth of Gold will always be remembered as one of Cardinal Wolsey’s greatest triumphs.


4. Cardinal Wolsey And The Duke Of Buckingham 

Cardinal Wolsey and the Duke of Buckingham, by John Gilbert, 1861, via


It is no secret that Cardinal Wolsey acquired many enemies during his two decades at the Court of King Henry VIII. Nor is it any secret that he possessed a skill for swiftly orchestrating their downfalls.  One of Cardinal Wolsey’s most notable rivals was Edward Stafford, third and apparently treasonous Duke of Buckingham.


Wolsey and Buckingham are thought to have despised each other. Popular culture would have us believe that the Cardinal and Duke shared a mutual hate from the moment they set eyes on each other. Both on paper and on screen, theirs is one of the many relationships that is given much focus.


It is likely that the hate began with Buckingham; he is assumed to have resented Wolsey’s rise to power. But who could blame him for developing such a dislike of Wolsey? Why should he not have been outraged that a man of such low birth had been so keenly welcomed into the inner-circle of a King? After all, Wolsey had risen from complete obscurity, while Buckingham was of a Royal line which stretched back many hundreds of years. Despite this difference in background, it was Wolsey, and not Buckingham, who was now the richest and most powerful man in the country.


Edward Stafford, the 3rd Duke of Buckingham, 1520, via Wikimedia Commons


No doubt, Wolsey hated Buckingham with equal intensity. It was rumored that, during the late 1510s, Buckingham had purposely tipped a bowl of water over Wolsey’s feet, and had claimed that the spillage was accidental. If he had been indifferent before, Wolsey certainly would have been enraged by Buckingham from that day forward.


It was Sir John Gilbert who made the interesting decision to pair these powerful adversaries together. Using ink and watercolor, Gilbert brought them back to life. In doing so, he condemned their figures to stare at each other for eternity.


The scene itself portrays Cardinal Wolsey as he walks through a Presence Chamber, probably toward the private rooms of the King. On his journey, he unexpectedly happens upon the Duke of Buckingham, who it seems is traveling in the opposite direction. The expressions on their faces speak volumes; so clear are their emotions that the viewer can almost feel the animosity between them.


It is little wonder that, when King Henry requested that he investigate the behavior of Buckingham, Wolsey jumped at the chance. With remarkable ease, Wolsey discovered that Buckingham was plotting to displace the King. We can assume that Wolsey was eager to be rid of such a dangerous presence at Court. Even if he had been innocent, Buckingham was a powerful figure and had potential to cause serious harm if he had so desired.


As usual, fate was on the Cardinal’s side rather than the Duke’s. With the approval and relief of the King, Buckingham was executed on Tower Hill on the 17th of May, 1521. Whether he was guilty or not is left for us to decide, but it is popularly believed by historians that Buckingham’s downfall and death were brought about solely by Wolsey’s orchestration.


5. Cardinal Wolsey in Disgrace 

Cardinal Wolsey in Disgrace, by John Seymour Lucas, 1901, via


We now make the vast jump from the heights of Cardinal Wolsey’s glory to the depths of his despair. This long-lasting despair is captured perfectly in this scene, Cardinal Wolsey In Disgrace, painted by John Seymour Lucas during the year of 1901.


The man adorned in a red hat and robe is undoubtedly Cardinal Wolsey; the face bears shocking resemblance to the Wolsey from traditional, 16th century portraits. But somehow, he looks nothing like the confident and self-important Cardinal with whom we are all so familiar. Clearly, he has lost whatever it was that made him so special; probably the love and admiration of the King.


To the right of Wolsey, King Henry stands with his new advisor, Thomas Cramner. Just behind them, an unknown figure, perhaps Thomas Cromwell, raises his hat in farewell. In the background, we see Cardinal Wolsey’s treasured residence of Hampton Court, which now belongs to the Crown.


On the far right of the lawn, an unwelcome addition pecks at the grass beneath its feet. A single raven, the eerie symbol of ill-fate, has been painted onto the scene. Perhaps the raven is an omen of Wolsey’s impending downfall and death?


6. Wolsey Surrendering the Great Seal

Cardinal Wolsey surrendering the Great Seal, by John Leech, 1897, via


Lovers of Thomas Wolsey; prepare yourselves. The artwork that follows will surely cause any sympathizer of the Cardinal to recoil in disgust. The work in question, sketched by John Leech during the year 1897, is most commonly referred to as Wolsey Surrendering the Great Seal. 


The original purpose of the image was to make the viewer laugh. So amusing was the depiction considered that it appeared in Gilbert Abbot’s satirical publication, The Comic History Of England. This delightful series, consisting of eight volumes, retold the well-known tales of British History, in an engaging and light-hearted manner, beginning with the Roman Conquest and ending with the ascension of King George III. Wolsey’s image adorned the pages of volume number five, under one of the many chapters dedicated to the life of King Henry VIII.


Photo of John Leech, 1859-1870, via Wikimedia Commons


It was on the 18th of October, 1529, that Cardinal Wolsey was finally forced to hand over the Great Seal of Office.  Turning his face away from the pair, Cardinal Wolsey handed it over. In doing so, it wasn’t just the Seal he was surrendering, but also the position of Lord Chancellor of England.


This work intentionally makes a mockery of one of the saddest, most poignant moments of Cardinal Wolsey’s life. Two gentlemen stand, smiling and smug, to Wolsey’s left. Wolsey reluctantly hands over the Great Seal as he sobs visible tears into his handkerchief.


Our best record of this event comes from a manuscript known as Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinal, His Life And Death, written by George Cavendish, Wolsey’s friend and biographer. According to Cavendish, when the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk left York Place, Cardinal Wolsey broke down and cried, and described himself as being at the very gates of hell. Wolsey also declared that he would be willing to leave behind his former life and give up all his wealth, even to the shirt, in return for King Henry’s friendship.


Some hours later, Wolsey wrote a letter to one of his few remaining friends, Jean Du Bellay, the French Ambassador to England. Du Bellay later wrote of the despair that Wolsey had conveyed. “Wolsey’s heart and tongue failed him completely,”  Du Bellay claimed. He also stated that he had written sorrowfully and desperately “… in the worst rhetoric I (Du Bellay) had ever witnessed.” It was shortly after this event that Wolsey began referring to himself in his letters as Wolsey, Most Miserable Cardinal of York.


7. The Death of Cardinal Wolsey  

The Death of Cardinal Wolsey, engraved by A Smith, 1812, via


It was early on a Tuesday morning, on the 29th of November 1530, that Cardinal Wolsey finally passed from this world. It is thought that his death may have been a blessing to him; he had endured a long period of great suffering and even greater sadness.


Over the last few days, Cardinal Wolsey’s health had continued to deteriorate rapidly. He spent his last night in a semi-conscious state, and for some time had been unable to move from his bed. One of his only comforts was the knowledge that he was surrounded by the brothers of Leicester Abbey who, no doubt, were showing him much hospitality and taking great care to bring him peace.


However, perhaps most importantly of all, Cardinal Wolsey had at his side his most loyal servant and friend, George Cavendish. The faithful Cavendish had not yet faltered in his loyalty, and he was certainly not about to start now. After giving his last confession and delivering his final words of advice, Cardinal Wolsey breathed his last breath. Wolsey, the man who was born as the son of an Ipswich butcher, and who had grown to become the most powerful man in England, died in disgrace at the age of around 57.


Take note of a few particular elements included in this scene; George Cavendish weeping at Wolsey’s side, Richard Pexall (the father Abbot) with his hands clasped in prayer, and the Cardinal’s hat hanging above the deathbed of one of England’s greats.


8. Untitled (George Cavendish?) 

Wolsey’s Funeral at Leicester Abbey, from the Life of Wolsey, c.1558, via the


After his death, Cardinal Wolsey’s body was treated with utmost respect. Lit by hundreds of candles and accompanied by solemn, mournful singing, it lay throughout the night at Leicester Abbey. Early the following morning, at around four o’clock on the 30th of November, it was delivered to its final resting place. We know that his body must have been buried somewhere within a short window of time; it is recorded that the service was held directly after Lauds, the first prayers of the day in a monastery.


After the peaceful recitation of the Divine Office, Wolsey’s body was laid to rest beneath the main aisle of the Lady Chapel. This, perhaps, was the true end to his glorious but tragic story. The funeral service was attended by several prominent figures in Wolsey’s life, including Richard Pexall (the Father Abbot of Leicester Abbey), George Cavendish (Wolsey’s Gentleman-Usher), and Master Palmes (the confessor who had attended Wolsey’s deathbed).


To the modern and critical eye, it may seem that this image is less of an artwork and more of a scribble. It appears the biography, Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinal, His Life And Death. The scene, which includes a childlike depiction of the Chapel and a selection of shockingly similar clergymen, was obviously created by an unskilled artist. It is probable that it was sketched quickly by Cavendish himself; his talents lay more in writing than they did in drawing.


Cardinal Wolsey in France from the Life of Wolsey, 1588, via


Nonetheless, the completed work achieves what the artist intended. It successfully depicts the moment at which Wolsey was buried. Although the picture is not pleasing to behold, it may hold the key we need to unlock the answer to one of the biggest mysteries regarding Cardinal Wolsey. That question is, of course, where is he now? 


There have been many attempts to locate the remains of Cardinal Wolsey, especially back during the 18th and 19th centuries. None have been successful, and the public appetite for a modern search program seems to have diminished over the last hundred years. It is due to this that the exact location of Wolsey’s final resting place remains a mystery. Leicester Abbey now lies in ruins, but surely this minor detail will not deter the most determined of archaeologists?


Wolsey’s body was dressed a final time in everything fitting for a Cardinal, and was placed in its coffin with a series of unmistakable objects. Even more excitingly, in his chronicles, George Cavendish left us with a clear, concise account of where Cardinal Wolsey was buried. Could this artwork give us any clues as to where we may finally discover Wolsey?


9. Cardinal Wolsey in Death: England’s Worthies 

England’s Worthies, 1684, via the National Portrait Gallery


It does not seem right to finish this article with the death and burial of Cardinal Wolsey. Instead, we may finish with a grand title such as England’s Worthies. Or, as it is more formally known; England’s Worthies, The Lives Of The Most Eminent Persons From Constantine The Great To This Present Time. 


It speaks volumes that Cardinal Wolsey was included in a work such as this, and even more so considering that it was created one hundred and fifty years after his demise. Yes, when an unidentified artist of the seventeenth century sat compiling a list of the most significant gentlemen of the last thousand years, Thomas Wolsey was one of a few that came to his mind.


Since it was completed during the year of 1684, Cardinal Wolsey has appeared in England’s Worthies alongside forty-three of British history’s greatest figures. Cardinal Wolsey’s companions include not only Monarchs of England (King Arthur, King Henry V, King Richard III, King Charles I) but also their most famous companions (Lancelot, Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More, Robert Dudley). Since its donation by Mary Elizabeth Stopford during the year 1931, England’s Worthies has been housed at the National Portrait Gallery in London.


But it is, perhaps, one of the smallest surviving depictions of Cardinal Wolsey. The paper on which the faces were printed measures only six by four inches, and manages to hold not only its own title but also 44 faces and 44 names. Wolsey’s face may be miniature, but since it is included in a depiction of England’s 44 worthiest gentlemen, its significance could not be greater.

Author Image

By Elizabeth MorganBA History w/ Tudor concentrationElizabeth is a historian, writer, and student with a passionate interest in the Tudor era. She also enjoys religious history, mythology, and Renaissance art. Recently she has studied King Henry VIII at Oxford University and history at the Open University and the University of Roehampton. She has also gained two Certificates (King Henry VIII & The Tudors) and a History Diploma (The Tudors). Elizabeth lives in Wales, United Kingdom, and can often be found exploring its many castles, cathedrals, and churches. She regularly writes about her trips to Museums and Heritage sites. Much of her research is dedicated to Cardinal Wolsey. She is the Founder of The Cardinal Wolsey Society, writes daily articles, and publishes its monthly newsletter.