Cardinal Wolsey: Innocent Advisor or Alter Rex?

Favourite of king Henry VIII until his downfall, Cardinal Wolsey remains a controversial figure from Tudor History.

Feb 4, 2023By Elizabeth Morgan, BA History w/ Tudor concentration

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King Henry VII had Jasper Tudor. Queen Elizabeth I had William Cecil. King Edward IV had Warwick, the Kingmaker. Arthur had Merlin; Rameses had Joseph; Cleopatra had Charmion. Throughout the ages, Kings historical, Biblical, and mythological have had, in their service, a friend in whom they could place their full and certain trust. The idea of a Monarch placing their affairs of state into the hands of a competent and willing candidate is hardly a new concept, and in many cases, the candidate in question became as powerful as the King or Queen themselves. This is who Cardinal Wolsey was. He was the court favorite. He was the right-hand man of King Henry VIII. When a problem occurred, it was Wolsey who was immediately looked to for a resolution. With King Henry’s blessing, Wolsey is known to have aided him in all his affairs, both professional and personal, throughout their decades of friendship.


Who Was Cardinal Wolsey?

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Cardinal Wolsey, 15-early 16th century, via


But what do we actually know about Cardinal Wolsey? Thanks to many contemporary sources, there is a wealth of facts available regarding his life and works.


Wolsey lived between 1473 and 1530. He served two Kings; Henry VII and his infamous son, Henry VIII. From 1513 until his death, Wolsey ruled England arm-in-arm with royalty. At the highest point of his life and career, Wolsey was Bishop of Durham, Archbishop of York, Cardinal, Lord Chancellor of England, and a Papal Legate. He even built Hampton Court; the seven-hundred-and-fifty-acre residence, which is still visited by a quarter of a million people annually.


What is not known is the motivation behind Wolsey’s hard work and determination.  What makes Wolsey’s story particularly astonishing is the fact that he was not born into power or wealth. He was the son of a butcher, landowner, and innkeeper, and he grew up in the town of Ipswich in Suffolk.

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It was entirely by his own efforts that he rose to become the wealthiest man in England but for the King. Many noble-born members of King Henry’s Court and Council resented Wolsey for his humble and poor upbringing. They considered him to have taken a place that was not his to take; one that one of their own should have filled.


To not only survive, but thrive for twenty-one years in Royal service, Cardinal Wolsey must have possessed something very special. King Henry would not have given such great favor to a councilor simply for the pleasure of his company. However, neither would he have someone he disliked so close.


The famous chronicler, George Cavendish, described the early years of King Henry’s reign as being part of a golden world. This golden world was one which Cardinal Wolsey sat happily at the center of, hand-in-glove with King Henry.


Cardinal Wolsey’s Rise to Prominence and Power

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Cardinal Wolsey’s coat of arms, via


From a very early age, Thomas Wolsey’s exceptional talent and intelligence were apparent. As a child, while attending a grammar school in Ipswich, he was selected for a scholarship to study at Magdalen College in Oxford. He accepted and moved from Ipswich to Oxford to study for a Bachelor of Arts Degree. He graduated at the age of just fifteen and became known locally as “The Boy Bachelor”. After graduating, Thomas Wolsey immediately found work at Magdalen College as a manager of their finances, but later, on the tenth of March, 1498, was ordained a Priest at Saint Peter’s Church in Marlborough.


He went on to work for a long string of other employers, each one of them taking him a little further down the road to greatness. In an unbelievable stroke of luck, Thomas Wolsey suddenly found himself in the service of Richard Foxe, who just happened to be one of the Chief Ministers at the Court of King Henry VII.


Thomas Wolsey began his Royal career in the service of King Henry VII, when his many skills and talents were recommended by Foxe. Henry sent Wolsey on numerous foreign missions, and was impressed with the results he achieved on each of his trips. So close did King Henry VII grow to Wolsey that he referred to him, on one notable occasion, as his loyal and well beloved Chaplain. 


It was Henry VII’s son, the new King Henry VIII, with whom Wolsey’s career really began to flourish. These two men got on extremely well; the inexperienced, eighteen-year-old King automatically turned to men that his own father had trusted with Royal affairs.


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Portrait of Henry VII, 1509, via


By 1514, just five years after King Henry VIII inherited his father’s throne, Thomas Wolsey had already reached higher than anyone could ever have imagined. He had been given a seat on the Privy Council, had maintained a tight friendship with the new King, had been made Royal Chaplain and Almoner, was given an honorary Doctorate of Divinity by Oxford University, and had even been made Bishop of Lincoln.


In September of that same year, Wolsey received his most important title yet; that of Archbishop of York. It was this office that had the greatest impact on his wealth and standard of living. Even this was not enough for Wolsey. The best was yet to come, and he knew it.


On the twelfth of August, 1515, Pope Leo X received a letter from King Henry. Apparently, Henry wrote that he could do nothing of the least importance without Wolsey, and that he esteemed him among the dearest of friends. King Henry begged that our most secret Councillor should be made a Cardinal. 


Pope Leo X agreed, and the official ceremony took place on the fifteenth of November of that same year. It is now speculated that it was Wolsey himself who composed the letter and presented it to King Henry to sign.


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Henry VIII, 1540, via


And so, with a procession of guests, the Mass of a Bishop, the Reading of the Bulls, the singing of an Antiphon, and the setting of a red hat upon Wolsey’s head, he was created a Cardinal. The only Cardinal. This, without a doubt, was the highest point of his career, and possibly his life.


Alongside a promotion to the Cardinalate came a wealth of other benefits. Wolsey was a member of the governing body of the Catholic Church; at the time, the only Church in Britain. He possessed a heavy influence on the election of any future Pope and he would be required to journey to Rome in order to cast his vote in the event of a death in the Vatican. He was permitted to wear the Cardinal’s attire, including the red hat and robes, on a daily basis. He was also allowed the use of the Red Galero, the symbol which indicates a Cardinal, on his personal Coat-of-Arms. Every monk, friar, and religious community was brought under his direct control.


The title of Cardinal gave Wolsey an air of respectability he had not yet had. Thanks to his promotion, he could confidently speak to Kings, Queens, and other European rulers from a highly authoritative and prestigious position. Not only was he a man of the cloth, but a reputable spokesman for the King and for the Church. After all, his mark of approval had been stamped by the Prince of Rome himself.


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Hampton Court Palace, via


Next, not eight weeks later, came the title of Lord Chancellor of England. On Christmas Eve of the same year, Cardinal Wolsey accepted the Seal of Office in a small and private ceremony at Eltham Palace. Then, as if nothing of any significance had happened, both King and Cardinal continued with their Christmas celebrations. It is probable that this was the happiest Christmas of Wolsey’s life; he now had all that he had desired.


In the years that followed this promotion, the titles and offices continued to pour in thick and fast. Throughout his life, he had the pleasure of holding some of the most prestigious Bishoprics in the country. He was, at varying stages, Dean of Lincoln, Dean of Hereford, Bishop of Bath and Wells, Bishop of Winchester, and finally, and most importantly of all, Prince-Bishop of Durham. These titles combined gave him power over virtually every matter in the Kingdom, and made him the richest man in the country, save the King himself.


Cardinal Wolsey: Innocent Advisor or Alter Rex? 

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Cardinal Wolsey in Disgrace, by John Seymour Lucas, 1901, via Orleans House Gallery


Many history-enthusiasts have preconceived ideas about Cardinal Wolsey, many of which are unfavorable to his character and works. He is thought of as a manipulative and power-hungry upstart; as an unwelcome addition to the lives of the other noblemen at Court. After all, he was branded by his contemporaries as an Alter Rex, or Other King. They believed Wolsey to have been nothing more than an imposter; a man who strove to control the King, attempted to secure his own desires, and meant to take more than was owed him in return for his sinful works.


Others perceive that Cardinal Wolsey was a friend of King Henry, a kind and charming representative of the Crown, and a loyal servant not only of King and Country, but of God and the Catholic Church. He was thought of, by some, as a man on whom Henry could rely.


But, at what point does a King become too reliant on his chosen advisor? At what point does a loyal servant of the crown become less of an innocent advisor and more of an Alter Rex? These are the questions that historians have asked themselves regarding these two men for many centuries.


Two of the men who gave written accounts of Wolsey’s character were George Cavendish and Polydore Virgil. Virgil stated that Cardinal Wolsey was arrogant, ambitious, and vainglorious, and thought himself able to undertake all public duties by himself. Cavendish, on the other hand, tells us that Wolsey had a special gift of natural eloquence, was full of subtle wit and policy, and was a man of great warmth and personal kindness.


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The Disgrace of Wolsey, by Henry Monro, 1814, via the Tate Gallery, London


Neither of these testimonies can be trusted, for both men had reason to sway their opinions. Cardinal Wolsey was responsible for Virgil’s arrest and imprisonment in the Tower of London, while Cavendish was the most loyal member of Wolsey’s household and remained at his side even until the moment of his death.


Despite this, throughout their two decades of friendship, there are many examples of Cardinal Wolsey going above the head of the King. In December 1525, Cardinal Wolsey failed to obey King Henry and instead did exactly as he pleased. Outbreaks of the plague had occurred in London, and with concern for his own health, King Henry canceled the Christmas celebrations at his Court. He declared that the twelve days of Christmas should be kept quietly and with minimal fuss.


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Cardinal Wolsey at the Gates of Leicester Abbey, by Charles West Cope, 1847, via the Royal Collection Trust


Cardinal Wolsey had other ideas. His own plans for the season were every bit as lavish and exciting as they had been every other year since his arrival on the scene. Doing exactly as he pleased, Wolsey took up residence at Richmond Palace, planned his own celebration, and kept an open house for anyone who had been denied the chance to join the King. Even Edward Hall admitted that the King was sore grieved to hear of the Christmas Wolsey was keeping at Richmond. 


This is just one of the many examples of his haughty behavior. His other offenses include writing to ambassadors in his own name without the King’s knowledge, refusing to let other men speak during council meetings, giving himself charge over the country in the King’s absence, and as a final flourish, stamping the Cardinal’s hat under the King’s arms on coins made in York.


Undoubtedly, Wolsey occasionally overreached himself and even abused the power he had been granted. Surely, a man in his position would find it difficult to deny himself the luxury of a few hard-earned rewards?


Cardinal Wolsey’s Death and Legacy

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Cardinal Wolsey Memorial, Abbey Park, Leiscester, via


Naturally, when the late 1530s arrived and a male heir to the throne was still non-existent, King Henry entrusted his “Great Matter” to the same man he had entrusted every other affair in his life. Nonetheless, and not for want of trying, Wolsey failed in this final task, and his inability to give his King his heart’s desire was ultimately his own undoing. King Henry wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon, and Wolsey, for the first time in his life, was unable to secure what was needed.


Among the forty-four charges brought against Cardinal Wolsey, many revolved around actions which made him appear as though he was attempting to usurp the King. Within a year, he went from being the most favored servant in the Kingdom to complete disgrace. His enemies (who were great in number), took advantage of his downfall and helped to further it with their own accusations.


Cardinal Wolsey responded to his undoing by accepting his secular downfall and traveling North, where he hoped to live as Archbishop of York. He spent some of his final weeks at the neglected Cawood Castle in Yorkshire. In early November 1530, King Henry sent two of Wolsey’s enemies to arrest him, and bring him back to London. Perhaps it was a blessing that, halfway through his journey, he died peacefully after a long period of unhappiness.


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Anne Boleyn, 1550, via Wikimedia Commons


Long before his death, Cardinal Wolsey had originally planned to be regally interred at Saint George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, the place where King Henry was, seventeen years later, laid to rest. In life, Wolsey had even gone as far as to design what has been described as a magnificent sarcophagus, made from black marble, with the help of the Italian artist Benedetto da Rovezzano of Florence.


His specially designed sarcophagus, and his chosen location for his burial, are two clues as to how Cardinal Wolsey may have thought of himself as being equal to a King. These two things combined gave a clear message from the Cardinal to the mourner; look who I was.


In reality, his funeral and burial were much less extravagant than he would have liked. Both took place at Leicester Abbey the day after his death. Since the Abbey itself no longer stands, the exact location of Wolsey’s remains is unknown to this day.


The extent of Cardinal Wolsey’s rags-to-riches story is what makes him so interesting, so inspirational, and so relevant to young people living in our modern era. He is a figure that, despite his many flaws, we may look up to and even take a lesson from. Wolsey’s memory may encourage those who wish to achieve their aims through their own skill, hard work, and perseverance. Both his rise and fall can remind us of the possibility that, whether in good ways or bad, we can suddenly find ourselves in a very different position from the one we dared imagine.


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Cardinal Wolsey, by Hans Holbein, 16th century, via


The modern historian may never draw a firm conclusion over whether Cardinal Wolsey worked so hard out of genuine love for King and Country, or out of a desire to further his own power and wealth. What we do know is that King Henry truly did believe in their friendship. He despaired after Wolsey’s death and, during the years that followed, he found no permanent or satisfactory replacement, neither Minster nor wife.


If King Henry’s intention was to nominate Wolsey as his Other King, he certainly chose a willing and competent candidate for the job.

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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.