So for the next couple of days while I was in London I would get acquainted with the Cardinal. I had two destinations in mind. First, I wanted to see St. Paul’s Cathedral. It had been England’s spiritual center since the 11th century, and it was there that Cardinal Wolsey had publicly burned Martin Luther’s books on sunny afternoon in May of 1521.
Second, I wanted to visit the Cardinal’s beloved home, the opulent Hampton Court Palace. After Wolsey was made a Cardinal he spent years building Hampton Court into England’s ritziest residence. He entertained lavishly there, and some of his greatest diplomatic triumphs originated there. But when he sensed that Henry VIII was jealous of his Lord Chancellor’s residence, the politically savvy Cardinal gave it to his master.
Despite the power and influence he wielded in England during the early 16th century, Thomas Wolsey today is largely forgotten. But he still shows up in the strangest places. Take, for example, the old nursery rhyme, Little Boy Blue.
Little Boy Blue,
Most of the nursery rhymes we know today began life in 16th century England as drinking songs for the amusement of drunken tavern patrons. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes, Little Boy Blue most likely referred to Cardinal Wolsey. He received his B.A. from Magdelan College in Oxford at such a young age that he was referred to as the Boy Bachelor.
From 1515 to 1530 he wielded enormous power in England as both Lord Chancellor – the country’s most powerful political figure – and Papal Legate – its highest ranking church official – all of which put him in charge of the people (the “sheep”) in more ways than one. But he was not a popular administrator. Wolsey was hated for the high taxes he demanded in order to pay for Henry’s, and his, ambitious foreign campaigns, so it’s a pretty safe bet that Little Boy Blue was composed by a disgruntled taxpayer, and for a while it was a popular song about an un-popular shepherd.
Wolsey was born in Suffolk, in the town of Ipswich, which is believed to have been the first town founded by the Anglo-Saxons. Chaucer satirized the merchants of Ipswich in Canterbury Tales, and in Charles Dickens’ sprawling The Pickwick Papers Mr. Pickwick famously found romance there.
Since church records from that time and location no longer exist, we don’t know the exact date of Thomas’s birth, but he was probably born around 1475. At that time England was in the middle of the infamous Wars of the Roses, the intermittent series of battles waged for more than 30 years between the houses of Lancaster and York which ended in 1487 when the king whom Thomas would later serve, Henry VII, dramatically defeated Richard III in battle and began the revolutionary reign of the House of Tudor.
Thomas’s father, Robert Wulcy, is most often described as having been a butcher by trade, but one Wolsey biographer, Mandell Creighton, wrote that Robert Wulcy’s will showed he was both a grazier and a wool merchant. That would mean Thomas was born into wealth, which would explain how he was able to receive the quality of education he did.
Thomas Wolsey has been referred to as the last great medieval figure in England’s history, but given his lofty ambitions, the tremendous energy he exerted to pursue them, and the fact that despite being a commoner he was able to achieve the incredible levels of power he did, he may also have been England’s first Renaissance man.
His resume reveals a combination of intellect, ambition, and valuable connections. After the Boy Bachelor earned his B.A. he was ordained as a priest in 1498, and he became a teacher at the Magdelan College School. Among his many pupils were the three sons of the socially prominent Marques of Dorset, who was impressed enough by the young Wolsey to introduce him to Oxford society, which led to important – and lucrative – appointments within the church.
In 1503 he became the chaplain for Sir Richard Nanfan, the aging governor of Calais, the small outpost in northern France directly across the channel that England still clung to, a remnant from the Hundred Years War. It was during this time that Wolsey gained valuable diplomatic experience, and because Nanfan was not well and nearing retirement, he eventually turned day to day administrative duties over to his eager protégé, a working relationship that foreshadowed his experience years later with Henry VIII. When Nanfan died in 1507, Wolsey joined Henry VII’s court as chaplain.
Knowing the right people may open doors, but you still have to prove yourself, and Wolsey did just that. There is a famous incident about Henry VII dispatching his young chaplain on a diplomatic mission to Flanders. Almost immediately, Wolsey was in a coach headed south that took him to a port where he boarded a ship across the English Channel to the continent. By the next day, he was conducting the business the king had assigned him and that evening he headed back. He was back in London on the third day. When Henry spotted him a day later, he chided his young aide for not having yet carried out the mission he had been assigned. With great pride, Wolsey was able to announce the mission had already been completed. The king was duly astonished, and Wolsey’s reputation was established.
Wolsey served Henry VII until the king’s death in 1509. When 19 year old Henry VIII ascended the throne he retained most of his father’s advisors including – most providentially – the chaplain Wolsey who was at that point almost twice the king’s age. The two of them laid the groundwork for the British Empire that would last for almost three centuries. But after 20 years together the relationship ended badly, and the cause of the schism led to the creation of the Church of England.