Historical Portraits Picture Archive

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York (1475-1530) 1600c.

 English School 

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York (1475-1530),  English School
Oil on oak panel
17th Century
12 x 10 inches 31.1 x 26.7 cm
Private Collection
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This painting is an example of the only known oil portrait type of the Cardinal that has a claim to derive from a portrait executed in the cardinal''s lifetime. Three-quarter-length variants are in the collection of the National Portrait Gallery (NPG 32) and at Christ Church, Oxford, Cardinal Wolsey's foundation. Both of these 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. The Cardinal, forcefully characterised, is depicted in profile, an old-fashioned idiom, by his lifetime, holding a document, which may well represent the Papal Bull appointing him Cardinal or Legate a latere. The coat of arms in the top right of the portrait are not present in all versions -though they may be seen in the portrait at Christ Church- are topped by Wolsey's Cardinal's hat. Certain of the charges on the arms are thought to allude to personalities relevant to Wolsey: the rose in chief plainly refers to Wolsey's Tudor patronage, the lion, it is suggested, to Pope Leo X Medici, who made him cardinal, and the choughs to the arms of St Thomas Becket. The blue leopards'' heads may be borrowed from the de la Pole Earls of Suffolk, in which county Wolsey was born.

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 century 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 the of Tudor dynasty.

Thomas Wolsey's tireless industry and inspired statecraft alone should secure him the renown of one of this country''s greatest public servants. It is his misfortune, however, to have combined this talent with an undeniable love of magnificence for its own sake. The splendour of his office does indeed appear remarkable to modern readers -as indeed his much-repeated use of ''I and the King'' did to contemporaries- but it must be interpreted in more generous light. When, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, it was stated that those who attended a Mass celebrated by the newly-appointed Legate a latere in his Pontificals would receive a full remission of sins Wolsey was proposing nothing in excess of Catholic dogma or his legatine authority.

He has survived, therefore, in the popular consciousness as the epitome of the wordly clergyman, who by the reformation was already being replaced in political office by the lawyer-caste that dominates government to this day. His true crime was to fail to obtain Papal consent for the King's divorce from Katherine of Aragon. That this matter would not succeed was assured by the fact that Clement VII was in the power of the Queen's nephew, Charles V, whom politics and familial piety prevented from allowing any such divorce. Wolsey's power was broken by this refusal -as was the influence of the Roman court of which he was a legate- and his enemies, led by the Duke of Norfolk and Anne Boleyn, pounced.

His father, Robert, was a landowner in Ipswich. He would undoubtedly have sold livestock, though whether he was ever a butcher, as the cardinal's noble enemies were pleased to suggest, is a matter for debate. Thomas was educated at Oxford, where he took his degree at the age of fifteen, winning the title the boy bachelor. About 1497 he was elected fellow of Magdalen, and after becoming M. A. was appointed master of the adjoining school. In March 1498 he was ordained as a priest. The father of three of his pupils, the Marquess of Dorset, presented him the rectory of Limington in Somerset in October 1500. He also received other benefices, and became one of the domestic chaplains to the Archbishop of Canterbury. On the archbishop''s death in 1503 he became chaplain to Sir Richard Nanfan, who entrusted him with his financial affairs and introduced him to the notice of King Henry VII.

Wolsey's rise in Royal favour may be dated to this patronage, and when Sir Richard died in 1507, Wolsey became one of the court chaplains, and was befriended by the influential Bishop of Winchester, Richard Fox. At about this time, the King began to employ him in the diplomatic service, including a celebrated mission to the Emperor Maximilian, which Wolsey accomplished in toto in three days. At the accession of King Henry VIII in 1509 Wolsey was given assurance of favour by the new monarch.

By 1512 he was exercising marked influence in political affairs and his share in the royal favour was already attracting the dislike of the old nobility. In foreign and domestic business alike the king followed his counsel and entrusted increasingly greater matters to his judgement. He became successively Dean of Hereford, Dean of York, Dean of St. Stephen's, Westminster, and Precentor of London. He began to keep some state and when he accompanied the King to France in June 1513, he was followed by a train of two hundred gentlemen. He was present throughout this campaign, and at the king's request the Pope named him Bishop of Tournay. In the same year he was made Bishop of Lincoln, the papal bulls being dated 6 February 1514. In the following September he succeeded Cardinal Bainbridge as Archbishop of York, and on 10 September 1515, was created Cardinal with the title S. Caecilia trans Tiberim, receiving the hat in Westminster Abbey on 18 November. A month later he became Lord Chancellor of England. At the age of only forty, therefore, Wolsey had attained the highest rank in Church and State that a subject of the Pope and the King might hope for. His power with the king was so great that the Venetian Ambassador said he now might be called ipse Rex (the King himself).

Wolsey's foreign policy had always been to steer Henry in the direction that his father had taken; alliance with France against the power of Maximilian of Austria and Ferdinand of Spain. The succession, however, of Charles V to the throne of Spain and then, by reversion, to the Imperial Crown changed this straightforward balancing act. England now faced only two powers on the Continent, and though an alliance with France was effected in 1519, Henry's personal taste was for closer association with the Emperor Charles V, his wife's nephew. In 1520 the King met with Francis I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, whose diplomatic success was more apparent than actual. More significant progress was made at the less spectacular meeting with Charles V at Canterbury, and after a second meeting a treaty was signed with the Emperor. There was a benefit for Wolsey in this alignment: when a successor was required from among the College of Cardinals for the ailing Leo X Medici, Charles promised that he would bring his influence to bear in Wolsey's favour. In this the Cardinal was deceived; Charles's help was not forthcoming and he received very few votes.

During the year 1522 the alliance with the Emperor continued and drew England into war with France. The financial exaction required for this campaign made Wolsey an unpopular figure in the nation. The new pope, Adrian VI, died on 14 Sept. 1523, and again Wolsey was a candidate for the papacy. The English ambassadors at Rome were confident that the united influence of Charles and Henry would secure his election, but again Charles disappointed him and Clement VII was chosen. The new pope not only confirmed his legateship for life, but also gave him the Bishopric of Durham in addition to his Archbishopric of York. It does not seem that Wolsey himself was particularly anxious to become Pope, though doubtless he would have accepted had he been chosen. On the election of Pope Clement he wrote, For my part, as I take God to record, I am more joyous thereof than if it had fortuned upon my person.

The Imperial alliance, in which Wolsey had placed little confidence, lingered through the early 1520s, as Austrian faith in England was forfeited by Henry's financial inability to wage warfare in their behalf. Popular opinion remained set against Wolsey as a result of his money gathering, just as aristocratic sentiment was affronted by his power. As the Cardinal recognised, Henry's favour alone buoyed him up and saved him from ruin. Just at this point the ''Great Matter'', the King's desire to divorce Katherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, surfaced. This unexpected product of the King's frustrations at the lack of a male heir and of Anne Boleyn's ingenious power play was to dominate the rest of Wolsey''s life and lead to his fall.

The diplomatic difficulties of this business 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. 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 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. 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. Master Kingston, I see the matter against me now it is framed; but if I had served God as diligently as I have done the king He would not have given me over in my grey hairs. The end came at Leicester Abbey where on arrival he told the abbot, I am come to leave my bones among you.
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