My flight landed at London’s Gatwick Airport at 8:30am local time. I grabbed my wheelie and shoulder bag, filed past the other passengers at the luggage carousel, sailed through customs, inserted my debit card in an ATM that provided me with a wad of Pound notes and headed for the express train that runs every fifteen minutes between the airport and Victoria Station in London. At Victoria Station, I climbed the stairs to the street level, grabbed a cab and headed to my hotel in the City district. I was on my way.
The Protestant Reformation actually began in Germany when the Augustinian monk Martin Luther had the audacity to suggest that Christians could achieve salvation by their faith alone. They didn’t need the good works required by the Church in Rome. The notion swept through Europe, splintering the Church and forever altering the course of Western Civilization.
But the English Reformation was different. It wasn’t about an idea. It was the result of a power struggle between a king and a pope, with a cardinal caught in the middle. That cardinal was Thomas Wolsey.
A couple of private genealogical Web-sites claimed my 10x great-grandfather George Woolsey was the Cardinal’s great-grandson, which would have made him my 13x great-grandfather. Five consecutive generations of my line of Woolseys named a son Thomas, the only male name to repeat that frequently, and a sixth generation actually named a son Cardinal. He was the younger brother of my great-great grandfather William Woolsey, born June 10, 1853 in Knoxville, IL, but he lived only eight years.
As impressive as it all seemed, after several months of research I concluded that there was no connection between the Cardinal and my family. The monument in Bedford, NY, the Web-sites and many of my ancestors simply got it wrong.
First of all, there was the spelling of the last name. While my family has long spelled it Woolsey, the Cardinal’s last name was spelled Wolsey. Admittedly, there were no hard and fast spelling rules around the time of the Reformation; that wouldn’t happen until Noah Webster compiled his first dictionary, originally called The Speller, in 1783. Before then, a difference of one letter in a name was no big deal. In fact, the Cardinal himself often signed his name Wulcy. But in this case the difference may have been significant, because single-O Wolseys generally hailed from Suffolk, England – the Cardinal was born there in the town of Ipswich – while double-O Woolseys came from Norfolk where George Woolsey and his family lived in Great Yarmouth.
Biographers say Cardinal Wolsey fathered two children: a son Thomas and a daughter Dorothy. Dorothy became a nun while Junior grew up to become something of a playboy who lived the good life on his father’s power and income. After the Cardinal’s death, the younger Thomas vanished from public records, and I can find nothing anywhere to suggest that he had any children. If my ancestors had a record of some kind that connected us to the Cardinal, it is lost to history.
Whether or not we were related, I came to realize that the more I understood about Wolsey, the more I would understand the English Reformation which had a profound impact on England, America, and – oh by the way – my family.