Was Cardinal Wolsey an Animal Lover?

Tudor England’s Cardinal Wolsey has been connected to many creatures, including cats, dogs, horses, pigs, monkeys, and even spiders.

Oct 30, 2023By Elizabeth Morgan, BA History w/ Tudor concentration

was cardinal wolsey animal lover


Any historian would like to believe that their favored figure possessed a charming trait such as a weakness for animals. Evidence of a strong and loyal relationship with a pet is something that can make even the darkest of characters seem more like a real human with real emotions.


A tenderness toward animals is something that connects us  to Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry VIII, who lived in the sixteenth century. Cardinal Wolsey was associated with many creatures, including cats, dogs, horses, pigs, monkeys, and even spiders. But was Wolsey really a lover of these creatures?


Cardinal Wolsey and His Eight-Legged Namesakes 

cardnal wolsey portrait
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, by Sampson Strong, 16th century, via Wikimedia Commons


It is estimated that around 75 percent of people living today are afraid of spiders. Arachnophobia is reportedly one of the most common phobias in the world, ranking as highly as acrophobia (fear of heights), agoraphobia (fear of open spaces), claustrophobia (fear of enclosed spaces), and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes).


Many scientists consider arachnophobia to be deeply rooted in the minds of human beings since as long ago as the Stone Age. Even since our earliest life on Earth, our brains have been programmed to avoid what can hurt us. There are 40,000 species of spider, almost all of which are venomous. Throughout history we have been conditioned, through no choice of our own, to fear them all. Many psychologists, on the other hand, insist that the fear of spiders comes not from nature but nurture, and is learned from the influence of others at an early age.

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Of course, not everyone in the world recoils with repulsion upon seeing a spider. Proof of this can be found in the British Arachnological Society, which has a particularly active membership and aims to encourage interest in arachnology in people of all ages.


Due to their worldwide and longstanding unpopularity, a species of spider is, perhaps, not the most flattering thing for a man of the Church to have named after him. However, had he lived to see it happen, Cardinal Wolsey might actually have taken it as a compliment. Yes, according to tradition, Cardinal Wolsey was one of the few arachnophiles of his era.


cardinal wolsey cardinal spider
A Cardinal Spider, via Wikimedia Commons


The Tegenaria Parientina is currently the biggest spider that can be found in Britain, and due to its connections with Thomas Wolsey, it is now more often referred to as the Cardinal Spider. To arachnophobes and arachno-philes alike, the Cardinal Spider is quite a sight to behold. They possess a body of up to 20mm (0.7 inches), which is commonly complimented by a shocking 12cm (5 inches) leg span. Cardinals are reddish-brown in color, although they may easily be mistaken for black when seen from a distance. In his 1885 book, A History of Hampton Court Palace, Earnest Law wrote that “when seen crawling about a bedroom at night, a Cardinal Spider will startle even persons of tolerably composed nerves.” 


So, how did Cardinal Wolsey become associated with a seemingly random species of spider? Was it purely due to the unusual redness of the spider matching the redness of the Cardinal’s robes? Or did these two unlikely companions share a more sinister story? The legend begins in 1515, the year in which Wolsey began building the Palace of Hampton Court.


While anticipating the completion of his new residence, Cardinal Wolsey elected to stay at the nearby Esher Palace. It was here that he oversaw the renovations taking place. To Wolsey, it was essential that everything ran smoothly, and the only way to do that was to monitor the progress himself. To adorn his new Palace, Cardinal Wolsey ordered and imported building materials, furniture, carpets, upholstery, and many other items from all over the known world.


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Hampton Court Palace, gatehouse, by Luke Nicolaides, via Wikimedia Commons


One of Cardinal Wolsey’s chosen items was a Turkish carpet. This carpet was made from the finest quality of material available, and therefore we can only imagine what he might have been prepared to pay for it. It is likely that, when it arrived, he would have placed it in one of his most prominent living areas, perhaps in a room where he would entertain the most prestigious of guests.


However, when placing his order, Cardinal Wolsey would have been blissfully unaware that he would receive an accompaniment alongside it, free of charge. Legend has it that, before the carpet in question had been loaded onto the ship and transported across the sea to England, two spiders had boarded it unintentionally. As Wolsey’s new carpet left Turkey, so did the spiders. As you might have guessed, these spiders were Tegenaria Parientina.


When the carpet was finally unrolled at the newly renovated Hampton Court, the spiders were unknowingly set free to begin their new life and start a family in England. According to the legend, they spent their days scuttling about Wolsey’s palace and were extremely successful in populating the residence with their own kind. If this was so, they certainly did an excellent job, for the species is rumored to be particularly active at the Palace, even today.


If this legend holds any truth, it means that every Cardinal Spider in Britain is descended from the couple that originally lived at Wolsey’s palace, on the banks of the River Thames. It also means that the Cardinal Spider is only present in the United Kingdom as a direct result of Wolsey’s decision to import a carpet from the Mediterranean.


16th century ottoman rug
An Ottoman carpet, 16th century, via the MET Museum, New York


The whole idea may seem dubious at best, but surprisingly, there is some evidence to support it. Up until the early sixteenth century, the Cardinal Spider was not present in England at all, and only inhabited regions of Africa and some countries on the Mediterranean Coast. It was not until the early Tudor period, (around the time when Cardinal Wolsey built Hampton Court), that they made their first recorded appearance in the British Isles.


According to Earnest Law, the spiders barely left Hampton Court until many hundreds of years after Cardinal Wolsey’s death. Even during the late nineteenth century, he claimed that the species was certainly found in extraordinary abundance in the old nooks and corners of Hampton Court, but was now not unknown elsewhere in the valley of the Thames. 


It is said, even in the twenty-first century, that Cardinal Spiders are rarely found in Wales, Scotland, or Ireland, but have remained largely in the Southern parts of England. Many staff members at Hampton Court still complain regularly of the enormous spiders which make regular appearances inside the Palace.


Is it really possible that these Cardinal Spiders are the direct descendants of the originals who arrived, at Wolsey’s command, during the year of 1515? Happily for Cardinal Wolsey and his household, he was untroubled by his eight-legged stowaways, and actually welcomed them into his residence as warmly as if he had invited them himself.


dismissal of cardinal wolsey
The Dimissal of Cardinal Wolsey, by Laslett John Pott, 19th century, via Artuk.org


Cardinal Wolsey was reported to have enjoyed the company of the arachnids, and apparently, would occasionally point out their sudden and unexpected appearances to his guests. At Wolsey’s Palace, spiders were even admitted entry into the banqueting hall, and apparently, nobody was allowed to remove them.


It is unknown why Cardinal Wolsey took a liking to spiders, but it may have had something to do with the fact that, throughout history, their presence has often been associated with good luck, health, and great fortune. Perhaps Wolsey abided by the ancient proverbs, if you want to live and thrive, let the spider run alive, or step on a spider and it will rain. 


In reality, Cardinal Wolsey was likely to have believed, like many of his era, that to kill a spider was to bring bad luck upon oneself. Traditionally, it was poor practice to remove a spider whose blessings you might otherwise have benefited from.


Oliver Cromwell, who also lived at Hampton Court during the mid-seventeenth century, was also rumored to have welcomed his unusual guests. It is not known for certain whether or not the legend is true, but the tale of the spiders in the Cardinal’s carpet certainly makes for a good, if slightly frightening story. It is well known that the Cardinal referred to in the name of these spiders refers directly to Wolsey, and therefore the legend offers us a reasonable explanation of why the two became connected.


Cardinal Wolsey and the Golden Monkeys 

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Black-tufted Marmoset, by Minguelrangeljr, via Wikimedia Commons


Unlike dogs and horses, monkeys kept as pets were a rarity in Tudor England. Ownership of a monkey was nothing more than a display of wealth and prestige. Pet monkeys (most commonly marmosets), were viewed as an exotic and exclusive edition to a Lady’s menagerie. Due to their cost, they were usually kept only by women of Royal birth. Two of the most notable figures who kept marmosets as companions include Catherine of Aragon (the first Queen Cardinal Wolsey served), and Margaret Tudor (the elder sister of King Henry VIII).


The likeness of these monkeys can still be viewed by us today, for both were painted alongside their Mistresses in various portraits. Catherine of Aragon’s monkey appears in her portrait by Lucas Horenbout, and Margaret features in a portrait by Daniel Mytens.


A particularly amusing monkey appears in one of the most famous artworks of the Tudor era; The Family of King Henry VIII, which was painted in 1545 by an unknown artist. All these monkeys are portrayed as friendly and tame, if not a little mischievous. Cardinal Wolsey was no stranger to monkeys and was likely to have treasured his fond memories of them, particularly on returning to England after The Field of the Cloth of Gold, one of the most significant events of his life.


In June during the year of 1520, at the grand summit between the English and French Courts, King Henry VIII brought with him two small monkeys. Especially for the occasion, the creatures had been wrapped, quite humanely, in layers of exquisite gold leaf. It was reported that the pair had been given as a gift to King Henry by the Ottoman Sultan, Selim I. King Henry had then taken it upon himself to share his gifts with King Francis I of France.


katherine of aragon with monkey
Katherine of Aragon holds monkey, by Lucas Horenbout, 1525, via Wikimedia Commons


Although he was unlikely to have had further connection with them, Cardinal Wolsey was extremely taken with the monkeys, and was reported to have found them very entertaining. Along with the majority of the English attendees, Wolsey was keen to have the monkeys present at events such as banquets and dances. Wolsey declared that even “the French King was overcome with much curiosity playing with those little knaves that they did all they could to steal and pester his advisors, yet he willed them to be present.”


Although they remained an unusual choice of pet, many notable figures continued to keep monkeys up until the twentieth century. Virginia Woolf, Frida Kahlo, and Pablo Picasso were all known to consider monkeys their companions.


Cardinal Wolsey the Cat Lover

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Cardinal Wolsey with cat, statue in Ipswich, via Atlas Obscura


The theory that Cardinal Wolsey harbored a weakness for feline company is practically undisputed. So famous is Wolsey for his love of cats that one even appears beside him in one of his most notable depictions. The famous Wolsey statue, which stands to this day in his hometown of Ipswich, features a particularly timid-looking cat. This permanent, bronze companion of Wolsey’s is so small and hidden that it may be missed if it is not known about or searched for.


The statue, which was designed by David Annand and unveiled in 2011, portrays the moment at which the cat peers around from behind the Cardinal’s throne. The cat looks toward the viewer, as sheepishly as if it is hiding behind its powerful master and waiting for him to administer justice.


The cat is a clever addition to the statue and is also an obvious reference to the real-life creature who is reported to have sat at Cardinal Wolsey’s side as they received their petitioners. As innocent as the notion may seem to us now, during the sixteenth century, a public profession of cat-loving took significant courage and disregard for the good opinion of others.


Throughout the Medieval Era, cats had become an unpopular choice of companion and were associated with witchcraft and persecution. In Tudor England, cats were good for one thing: mousing. Certainly, they were not to be petted or shown any affection.


By Cardinal Wolsey’s era, cats and their owners still had a very poor reputation. In 1484, when Wolsey would have been around ten years old, Pope Innocent VIII condemned cats as unholy beasts, and declared that they should be burned along with the witches by whom they were owned. As a result, cat-keeping became a risky pursuit, particularly for women.


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Cats dancing, detail from the Witches’ Cove, 16th century, via History Posts Daily


As we know from many other examples of his behavior, Cardinal Wolsey was not a man to abide by rules and restrictions he did not agree with. He defied normality, and actually became an advocate for the cats and kittens of London. He completely ignored the advice set out by the Church and did exactly as he pleased. He kept numerous cats throughout his life, not only tolerating their company, but actually treating them as honored members of his household. Cardinal Wolsey’s pets became his constant companions; it has been stated by chroniclers that his favorite cat would rarely leave his side.


Carl Van Vetchen (1880-1964), was an American writer and cat-lover. In 1938, he wrote that “Holy Men as well as devils found the cat the most attractive of animals.” Vetchen attributed this to the fact that a cat possessed “profound wisdom, concealed claws, a stealthy approach and a final spring,” all of which he claimed would “typify the superior attorney.” He went on to declare that “we should not be astonished that Cardinal Wolsey placed his cat by his side while acting in his judicial capacity as Lord Chancellor.” 


Cardinal Wolsey’s cats featured heavily in his daily routine. Apparently, they would even accompany him to Mass, perhaps on the condition that they behave with adequate piety. It is believed by some historians that while out with King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey routinely took his favorite cats. One of the most notable trips these lucky creatures were permitted to take was to Calais, to attend Wolsey’s grand summit between two Kings in June of 1520. Yes, it is thought that one of Wolsey’s cats was present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.


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Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1545, via the Royal Collection Trust


The only notable objection to the idea of a cat-loving Cardinal seems to come from English zoologist, Doctor Desmond Morris. In his 1997 book, Cat World, Morris claimed that there is no reliable evidence to support the idea that Wolsey actually cared for cats at all. Instead, Morris put forth the theory that the whole idea may have been invented by his enemies after his death, their intention being to connect him with the sinister connotations that came with cats.


In her 2009 work of historical fiction, Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel includes a short scene based on the idea that Cardinal Wolsey was a cat lover. While in disgrace, Wolsey spends much time with his cats and despairs when a litter of kittens is born beneath his bed. Thomas Cromwell cheers up his employer by declaring that it must surely be a sign of a new start.


Cardinal Wolsey the Expert Horseman 

hunting scene
Hunting Scene, from Livre de La Chasse, by Gaston Phoebus, via Wikimedia Commons


When we think of the gallant knights, brave hunters, and expert horsemen throughout history, we do not automatically bring to mind Churchmen such as Cardinal Wolsey.  Instead, we may initially think of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, or King Henry VIII and his entourage of fun-loving companions. We may even consider Queen Elizabeth I, who loved nothing more than riding into the countryside with the famous Robert Dudley, her Master of Horses and rumored lover.


Once again, however, the records of Cardinal Wolsey’s life can prove us wrong. Wolsey was actually an extremely capable rider and was perfectly comfortable when required to keep up with the King and his boisterous young gentlemen. Wolsey could ride quickly, efficiently, safely, and with as much expertise as if he had been learning to do so since he was a boy.


In fact, it was quite possible that this was the case. The young Thomas Wolsey was likely to have been familiar with the company of horses from a very early age. We know Wolsey’s father, Robert Wolsey, kept a stable full of horses in their hometown of Ipswich. Records of the family hold only fleeting references to the Wolseys as horse keepers, but we can be sure that they owned numerous horses from just a single line. Robert was notably charged with the crime of defiling the highway and pavement with filth from his stables. 


Thankfully, Thomas Wolsey grew up to be more respectful not only of his surroundings but also of his animals. His early familiarity with horses, and his respect for them, would have inadvertently prepared him for his later life at Court. During the sixteenth century, horses were supreme among all other animals. They were essential not only for sport, hunting, and entertainment but more importantly for plowing, farming, warfare, and transportation.


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Cardinal Wolsey, c. 1520, via shipoffools.com


By the time Thomas Wolsey had grown into a man, horses had begun to replace oxen for plowing and farming. This was because they had proven to be faster, stronger, and more agile. The rise in the use of horses rather than oxen was made possible due to the increase in the farming of oats, which were a staple food for hard-working or worn-out horses.


A little later, by the time Thomas Wolsey had arrived at Court, horse ownership was at its peak. One of the most notable stories regarding Wolsey as a horseman can be found in the chronicles of George Cavendish, entitled Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinal, His Life and Death. The story takes place in October of 1508 when King Henry VII sat on the throne of England, and thirty-five-year-old, up-and-coming Thomas Wolsey worked as a Chaplain and Diplomat to the Court.


King Henry VII trusted Cardinal Wolsey to undertake an important, solo mission to Flanders. This, of course, required a significant amount of travel using varying methods of transport. Henry’s aim was to secure a marriage contract with a new bride; the beautiful, recently widowed Margaret of Savoy.


According to Cavendish’s account of the trip, Wolsey received his final instructions from King Henry VII at four o’clock in the afternoon at Richmond Palace. After bidding the King farewell, Wolsey took a barge at once to Gravesend so that he might journey from there to Dover. A boat had been arranged to meet him at Dover to take him across the Channel. He had arranged for a series of post horses to wait for him in relay, all of which would take him a little further on towards his final destination.


Wolsey’s trip was swiftly and expertly carried out. If the chronicles of Cavendish are to be believed, Wolsey left Richmond and arrived at Dover the next morning. As planned, he took his boat across the Channel and arrived in Calais by noon. He arrived on horseback at the residence of Margaret of Savoy and her brother by evening. He was granted an immediate audience, in which he discussed the details of his mission and achieved the results he had been hoping for. He spent a peaceful night at Court, left for Calais the next morning with a horse provided by his host, and boarded a ship to take him back to Dover by the following morning.


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Henry VII, 1505-9, via Wikimedia Commons


According to our only record of these events, the whole mission took Wolsey no more than seventy-two hours to complete. That night, as he awaited an audience with King Henry, Wolsey slept at Richmond Palace. The story continues that, when King Henry caught sight of Wolsey on their way to Mass that morning, he was displeased. He called across the corridor and asked why Wolsey had failed to set out on his journey. Wolsey replied, “Sire, if it may stand with Your Highness’s pleasure, I have already been with the Emperor and dispatched your affairs, I trust this is to Your Grace’s liking.” 


Another example of Wolsey’s skill on horseback can be found just a few months earlier, in March of 1508. The young Wolsey was sent by King Henry to the Court of King James IV of Scotland in Edinburgh. This was a difficult journey at the best of times, let alone at the end of the winter season, and we know by records of the trip that it took him at least two weeks to reach his destination. This was partly due to the poor conditions of the roads, and partly due to the numerous diversions he made in order to attend to other business on his way.


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Pilgrims leaving Canterbury on horseback, from Siege of od Thebes, by Lydgate, 15th century, via the British Library


This was not a journey that Wolsey undertook alone. His traveling companion was Lord Darcy of Templehurst; a man who, by all accounts, shared a close friendship with Wolsey throughout what remained of their lives. We can assume that due to their inhospitable resting places the two men would have been required to share accommodation both on the way there and on the way home. In later years, Darcy wrote to Wolsey several times, humorously referring to him as his bedfellow. 


There is no doubt that Wolsey’s ability to ride a horse quickly and efficiently contributed significantly to his success at Court. Had he been unable to travel so easily during his early career, he may never have been so greatly favored by King Henry VII, and probably would not have been selected to undertake any foreign mission in the first place.


The inability to ride well would have been something that held him back from fulfilling his potential. Not to have perfected this skill would have been the only thing, among his many talents, that let him down. Wolsey’s early trips to Scotland, France, and the Netherlands prepared him for the negotiations he would engage in over the coming years, particularly when he became Archbishop, Cardinal, and Lord Chancellor.


Even during the most painful days of his life, Cardinal Wolsey was required to ride. In November of 1530, he was summoned from Cawood Castle in North Yorkshire to face his charges in London. As we now know, he never reached London but died on his last journey after a long period of stress and anxiety. It was a mule, rather than a horse, that carried Wolsey to his final resting place of Leicester Abbey.


Thomas Wolsey the Butcher’s Son

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Kitchen Still Life, by Frans Snyder, 1605-10, via Wikimedia Commons


One surprising fact about Cardinal Wolsey is that his father was a petty criminal. Robert Wolsey enjoyed an extremely long and varied career throughout his life, and supported his family by undertaking some dubious and occasionally illegal work.


By the time Thomas Wolsey was ten years old, Robert had embarrassed him by becoming known locally as “the greatest offender before the leet.” Some of Robert Wolsey’s most famous crimes included brewing and selling ale in illegal measures, supplying and selling horse feed for ridiculous profit, failing to maintain the guttering at the front of his shop, and fostering harlots and adulterers within his house.


Robert Wolsey was also charged with the crime of allowing his pigs to wander freely around the borough. The modern historian cannot help but bring to mind a picture of the Wolsey family, Thomas included, rushing out into the street and attempting to shoo a herd of pigs back into their sty. As Robert was a butcher by trade, it is animals such as pigs and cows that are likely to have featured in some of Thomas Wolsey’s earliest memories.


Cardinal Wolsey the Animal Lover

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


All reliably recorded evidence points towards the fact that Cardinal Wolsey was not only respectful of animals, but he also showed them great warmth, love, and compassion. It is likely that he saw animals not just as the essential workers or tolerated beasts of his household, but as favored friends and personal companions. Just as it does with Cardinal Wolsey, a love of animals can bring a kinder, more relatable element to any threatening and controversial character.

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.