Ipswich boy who could have been Pope

The Ipswich boy made good who rose to become the second-most powerful man in England . . . a cardinal who might have become Pope . . . possibly even the inspiration for Humpty Dumpty.

Steven Russell

The Ipswich boy made good who rose to become the second-most powerful man in England . . . a cardinal who might have become Pope . . . possibly even the inspiration for Humpty Dumpty. Steven Russell (no, it's not him) discovers a new biography on Thomas Wolsey

SERENDIPITY is a marvellous thing. As historian Stella Fletcher was praising the way Ipswich remembers its most famous son, she had no idea campaigners were putting the final touches to a plan to raise Thomas Wolsey's profile even higher. She was pleased to learn later that her new biography of Henry VIII's right-hand man coincided by chance with the appeal to build an �80,000 statue. This would be next to St Peter's Church - the former chapel at the Cardinal College of St Mary, which was the school Wolsey established in Ipswich in 1528. The site's just along from the college gateway that has survived for nearly 500 years. The idea was that boys should later move on to Cardinal College in Oxford, founded by Wolsey a few years earlier.

Naturally, Stella came to Ipswich while writing her book - visiting said gateway, Wolsey's birthplace a stroll away, the area's concentration of medieval churches, Christchurch Mansion and the Wolsey Art Gallery.


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“I came away really impressed with the pride the people of Ipswich show in their most famous son. I can think of very few parallels in any other English towns. It could be that it's eclipsed only by the cult of Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon.” Really? “It's a thought, isn't it? You look at Ipswich and you've got the Wolsey Theatre, the Wolsey car dealership - everything's Wolsey.”

But didn't her heart sink when she clapped eyes on that historic gateway, dusty and lost in the middle of a busy traffic gyratory system?

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“I took it all in,” she laughs, diplomatic and measured. “Well, yes, it is a shadow of its former self, but, then, in a way it helps you to appreciate what happened at Wolsey's school. The college he established there was only a few years old at the time he fell in 1529 and it was dismantled straight away. Any rich furnishings were taken away by the Duke of Norfolk and it was destroyed very, very quickly.

“Actually, the strange thing is that although Thomas Cromwell gets a bad press in many places, because of his association with the dissolution of the monasteries, he tried to do what he could to salvage part of Wolsey's foundation in Ipswich; so the school part of the college remained thanks to Cromwell.”

Stella, who lectures in history at the universities of Manchester and Liverpool, was largely motivated to write her book so Cardinal Wolsey wasn't totally eclipsed by the hoo-hah over the charismatic Henry VIII.

A few years ago she became aware of plans for a major exhibition at Hampton Court Palace to mark the 500th anniversary of the accession of Henry VIII. (An exhibition has also opened at the British Library. Henry VIII: Man and Monarch is guest-curated by historian, author and TV presenter David Starkey.)

“I thought 'What they need is a new biography of Wolsey, because if they're saying 'Hampton Court and Henry VIII', surely Wolsey is the missing link? It was Wolsey who turned Hampton Court from being a small-scale manor house into a vast palace fit for a king,” says Stella.

“I hope this book will remind people that monarchs such as Henry may have been rather powerful in theory but they needed able ministers like Wolsey to execute and realise that power.”

She admits being in some awe of Wolsey's ability. “He created more of an impression on the international stage than had any other non-royal Englishman before him, and that again is part of the reason I've gone into print.”

Wolsey stood out from his English contemporaries on the European stage. “His command and statecraft meant that for a short period around 1520 he effectively dictated inter-state relations between the Emperor Charles V, Francis I of France, Pope Leo X and of course Henry VIII of England. That really impresses me.”

Wolsey was also papal legate - the Pope's ambassador in this country. All these things made him more powerful than the Archbishop of Canterbury, “and he wielded quasi-papal authority”. And, of course, he got to the top through his own ability, rather than nepotism or being born with a silver spoon in his mouth.

The precise date of Wolsey's birth in Ipswich in the early 1470s isn't known. Legend has it he was the son of a butcher, but no-one can be so definite. “His father was basically a businessman with fingers in many pies,” says Stella. “His businesses tended to be linked to livestock, so some of it was butchery. Also there was tanning, and farming. It's the whole range. But you can guarantee - this was typical of the day - that when people wanted to criticise a non-noble figure they'd say 'His origins were really obscure, totally vile,' and they would overplay it.”

Robert Wolsey was able to send his son to Oxford University. Towards the end of the 15th Century Thomas was ordained. It was common for priests to hold numerous rectorships at the same time, and Wolsey was no different. One of his roles was chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, where his administrative abilities shone. Wolsey later joined Henry VII's royal court as a chaplain, proving his worth by successfully carrying out diplomatic tasks and getting the court running more smoothly.

His star continued to rise under Henry VIII, who benefited from Wolsey's administrative skills. As Hampton Court Palace puts it today, “Henry was impatient and in a rush; Wolsey was diligent, painstaking and comprehensive.” Political power subsequently flowed from the king, both in England and abroad.

During war with France, Wolsey dealt with supplies and vessels, as well as raising the huge sums to maintain the military effort. In 1520 or so, his safe hands made sure the arrangements went smoothly for a big European summit known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Wolsey had accumulated key posts like Monopoly properties, becoming Archbishop of York (and a cardinal) in 1515 and Lord Chancellor of England that Christmas.

It wasn't all sweetness and light, however. Nobles were envious of his power, an apparent love of ostentation gave his critics plenty of ammunition, and new taxes inevitably made him enemies.

Henry VIII's desire to replace his queen, swapping Katherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, spelled the beginning of the end for the cardinal - the monarch's fixer-in-chief. Wolsey had the union of Henry and Katherine declared invalid in his legatine court and hoped the Pope would then annul their marriage.

But with Katherine having none of it, and the Pope also refusing to play ball, Wolsey was caught between a rock and a hard place. The king took back most of his titles and properties, although Wolsey remained Archbishop of York. He was charged with treason in 1530 but died at Leicester Abbey on the journey to London.

The cardinal's dramatic fall from grace shouldn't overshadow his achievements, though. It's not over-egging it, confirms Stella, to say he was the second-most powerful man in England - although it was always dependent on the monarch's backing.

“He was in charge of virtually every department of state. He was the king's principal minister; he was principal legal officer of the realm; led on foreign policy. But, then again, what is an all-powerful minister? The only power they could ever wield was in the gift of the king, and the king could take that away at a moment's notice. I think Henry appreciated his ability and sent him tokens of his esteem even in the last months of his life. But it wasn't enough to rehabilitate him.”

In many ways Wolsey could be regarded as a man of the people, because he essentially acted as the king's agent in upholding justice against unreasonable nobles.

“He was keen the poorer litigants should get justice, and poorer litigants tended to be women: widows who were overlooked. The male nobility rode roughshod over them. Wolsey was really appreciated by those poorer litigants but, of course, that was how by the same measure he stored up trouble with the nobles, who maintained he was out to get them.

“They were looking for ways of catching him out, certainly by the late 1520s when the foreign policy interventions he was involved in had begun to go wrong: when it proved too expensive or led to riots and rebellions, particularly in loss-making areas such as East Anglia.”

Stella's doctorate was on late 15th Century Venetian cardinals, which led to the co-authoring of a history of English cardinals called Princes of the Church. “In the thinking of the time, the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope were sort of on a level - one the secular head of Christendom, the other the spiritual head - and then cardinals were the next level down on the ecclesiastical side: 'princes' of the Church.

“They considered themselves the equivalent of secular princes. And Wolsey really did, on some occasions, act as if he were the social equivalent - even of the emperor himself on one occasion!”

Wolsey's is an intriguing story. It fizzes with oddly-vulnerable political power whose flow could be staunched by the monarch whenever he decreed. Then there's the religious authority conferred by the Pope. Is he something of a King Lear figure, with his rise featuring the structural faults that contribute to his crash?

“I don't think he's ever been likened to King Lear, but it has been speculated that he was the original Humpty Dumpty, who had a great fall, though the story varies in different parts of the country and there are various candidates,” says the historian.

“To have so great a fall he'd have to have risen from the humble origins we hear about - the butcher's cur from Ipswich and all that. There was that episode - and this represents the height of his achievement - when he went to Bruges on a diplomatic mission and met the Emperor Charles V, and they knelt together in prayer, effectively as equals. Wolsey maintains he was there as the representative of his king, but the very fact he did that was terribly significant.”

Wolsey was indeed unusual in coming from a non-noble family. Most bishops belonged to clerical dynasties. “What mattered was they'd got uncles who were bishops and who promoted their careers and who encouraged these young chaps to go and study in Italy, and therefore advance their careers. Wolsey's CV was very different. He didn't have those influential clerical contacts and he didn't go off and study in Italy.”

Most cardinals of that generation were Italian. Most were of noble birth, and many were nephews of Popes. Wolsey was in a minority; but there were other cardinals -non-Italians - who rose to the top through their own ability.

It's tempting to speculate about Wolsey's motives and personality. Was he a humble religious believer adept at the administrative chores that bored or baffled other folk, or was he more a Machiavelli who loved the good life and state-funded “bling” like richly-decorated Hampton Court?

We simply can't tell, points out Stella. Wolsey didn't leave any kind of commentary that explained his political and diplomatic priorities, or his thoughts. “Partly that's what makes him an interesting figure, because we don't know much about his personal attitudes towards power. His message was always the same: he was serving his king. Beyond that you never really get.”

Does the world give him enough credit?

“Scholars certainly appreciate the things he did. In the popular imagination it tends to be the stuff you called bling - Hampton Court - that people remember. The popular imagination might still, I think, be influenced by Protestant Reformation and post-Reformation historiography which condemns him because he was a prince of the Roman Church - and that, hopefully, is thoroughly outdated now. It is in my version, anyway.”

STELLA Fletcher says one of the fresh perspectives offered by her biography examines the portrayal of Thomas Wolsey after his death - through plays such as Shakespeare's Henry VIII, for instance; on TV and film, and through non-contemporary portraits: “the sort of 'cult of Wolsey', if you like”.

Nineteenth-century paintings, for instance, were often based on a Shakespearean scene-inspired view of the cardinal, “and they helped to create this picture of Wolsey as a fat, worldly figure. Maybe we can try to separate Shakespeare's Wolsey from the Wolsey of history”.

Cardinal Wolsey is published by Continuum at �20. ISBN 9781847252456.

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