Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York (1475-1530) 

16th Century English School 

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York (1475-1530), 16th Century English School
Oil on oak panel
16th Century
13 x 11 ins., (33 x 28 cm.)
Private Collection UK.
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This rare late-Tudor panel portrait depicts Thomas Wolsey, chief advisor to King Henry VIII and one of the most influential and powerful figures of the Tudor court, and can be dated to the second half of the 16th century.

Popular history best remembers Wolsey as the great statesman who failed to secure an annulment between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (‘The Great Matter’), which ultimately lead to England’s break from Rome and one of the most turbulent religious periods in English history. In reality, the diplomatic difficulties of the annulment (or ‘The Great Matter’), were beyond Wolsey's talents to resolve, as they would have been beyond any minister. The King became impatient with Wolsey's failure to secure French support in petition to the Pope and when Wolsey returned from his embassy he was alarmed to learn that Bishop William Knight -an old a trusted diplomat in Henry's service- had already been despatched to Rome to persuade the Pope to a divorce. The revelation that Wolsey no longer enjoyed his Sovereign's complete confidence was devastating, as was the danger posed by Anne Boleyn, who was increasingly frustrated by Wolsey's lack of progress.

The Pope appointed Cardinal Campeggio to try the case in England with Wolsey, although the English cardinal soon learnt that the matter was entirely in his colleague's hands. All Campeggio's efforts to avoid holding the trial at all having failed, the court sat at Blackfriars on 18 June, 1529. Before this Anne Boleyn, regarding Wolsey as responsible for the long delay, had set herself to bring about his fall. The failure of the trial rendered this possible, and during August and September he was kept at a distance from the Court and was known to be in disgrace. In November a Bill of Indictment was preferred against him, and on 19 November he had to surrender the great seal of England. On 22 November he was forced to sign a deed confessing that he had incurred a praemunire and surrendering all his vast possessions to the king, including his magnificent Hampton Court residence. On 30 November judgement was given that he should be out of the king's possession and should forfeit all his lands and goods. He remained at Esher through the winter, disgraced, though not without occasional messages of kindness from the king. His health, which had been bad for many years, now failed seriously. In February he received a general pardon, and the possessions of his archbishopric were restored to him, except York House, which he had to convey to the king. He was then allowed to retire to York, where he spent the last six months of his life in a sincere effort to exercise the proper duties of a bishop.

He was in residence at Cawood near York, preparatory to being enthroned in York Minster, when, on 4 November, commissioners from the king came to arrest him on a charge of high treason. Slowly and as an invalid he travelled towards London, knowing well what to expect, although he died in Leicester on the 29 November before reaching the city.

The majority of Wolsey’s iconography derives from this portrait-type in which he is shown in profile to the left and wearing cardinal’s robes. It is difficult to say for certain whether this portrait-type was originally taken from a life sitting given the absence of an obvious original dateable to within his lifetime, however this likeness has regardless become the established image of Wolsey.

Stylistic analysis suggests this work was painted in the late-sixteenth century, although dendrochronological analysis (tree-ring dating) of the panel on which this work is painted suggests an earliest possible creation date of c.1530, suggesting the panel was reused and painted over with the image of Wolsey in the late-sixteenth century. This practice was not wholly uncommon given the cost of seasoned wood panels, the same panel sometimes being updated two or even three times with a likeness of the latest monarch or important political figure.

It might seem unusual that Wolsey’s image should be reproduced after his fall. To orthodox opinion under Edward and Elizabeth he was a priest of an illegal religion, and as a Cardinal Legate he was answerable not only to the English Crown but also to a foreign and -necessarily- hostile power. To the Marians, conversely, he was party to the divorce and ignominy of the Queen’s mother. Despite these impediments, men throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries recognised Wolsey’s outstanding talents in statecraft and diplomacy, and remembered him as a remarkable minister. His biography remained compelling, and George Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey, written contemporary with its subject, was reissued in editions such Dr Stephen Batman’s illustrated transcription of 1578. This present portrait was no doubt commissioned and appreciated in the same spirit. As one of a number of portraits of prominent men it would have been hung placed, perhaps in a nobleman’s library, as an inspiration and as a visual record of one of the great moments of English history and of the Tudor dynasty.

Three-quarter-length variants are in the collection of the New Zealand Church Commissioners and at Christ Church, Oxford, the latter of which has been traditionally attributed to Sampson Strong and dated to c.1611-12. A smaller example is in the collection of the Bodleian Library. These examples are datable to c.1600, and though the type is widely disseminated (an example of which was painted among a gallery of historical worthies at the Chateau de Chambord at the beginning of the seventeenth century), the original of c.1520 remains untraced. A further example in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London (NPG 32) was painted in the early seventeenth century for William Sheldon’s gallery of English monarchs and represents a more generalized interpretation of the portrait, in which the details of characterization and costume have been blunted in comparison with the present example.
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