Was portrayal of Wolsey a cardinal sin?

A NEW depiction of Thomas Wolsey shows Henry VIII's adviser as a Machiavellian manipulator whose machinations led to his own downfall. So was this famous son of Ipswich a hero or villain? TV editor LYNNE MORTIMER looks at the evidence.

A NEW depiction of Thomas Wolsey shows Henry VIII's adviser as a Machiavellian manipulator whose machinations led to his own downfall. So was this famous son of Ipswich a hero or villain? TV editor LYNNE MORTIMER looks at the evidence.

IT is, by all accounts, an unusual Henry VIII that reigns in the latest ITV1 drama about the six-times-married monarch.

Ray Winston, with an accent that seems to have ascended to the throne by way of Walthamstow, looks the part of Bluff King Hal, but it is the first time we have heard him talk about wanting to be wiv Anne Boleyn and dropping aitches like there was a 25-letter alphabet

The King's accent certainly singled him out from the rest of England's aristocracy who, unlike Henry, had clearly not skipped their childhood elocution lessons.


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It was a strange way of talking for a king who, though he may have been thuggish in his political dealings, was a cultured man - he is famously credited as the composer of Greensleeves.

But it is an interesting portrayal - and equally interesting is David Suchet's Wolsey, twice referred to as nothing, but a butcher's son in the first episode of this two-parter on Sunday night.

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An honoured citizen of Suffolk's county town, Wolsey is remembered with gratitude as the man who, had he managed to survive a few more years of Henry's reign, would have put Ipswich on the map with a college to rival those in the great university cities of England.

But building had barely begun when he fell from favour over the King's desire to offload his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, for the more beguiling and fecund Anne Boleyn.

Today, Wolsey's Gate, a ramshackle edifice on a ring road behind the docks, is all that remains of the great man's philanthropy. Supported by scaffolding poles, it seems as rickety as the Cardinal's reputation.

Cardinal Park, the Wolsey Theatre and the Wolsey Art Gallery are named in tribute to him. But are we right to revere him?

Thomas Wolsey was born in the parish of St Nicholas, Ipswich, in about 1475, reputedly the son of a butcher.

He went to Oxford University and then became a priest. He was appointed royal chaplain and, in 1509, when Henry came to the throne he was at the King's side, a trusted confidant.

Wolsey rose rapidly through the ranks of the Catholic Church to become the pope's representative in England and, Henry's Lord Chancellor - it is probably fair to say he was the power behind the throne.

He was also incredibly wealthy and his opulence was legendary. In terms of his authority, few would dare to discuss a matter of state with the king before broaching it with Wolsey.

He founded Christchurch College at Oxford, but observes one commentator, his “greed, arrogance and insatiable lust for power outweighed his many great qualities”.

Wolsey fell from grace when he was unable to gain the Pope's approval for the annulment of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. After forsaking his possessions, he retired to his archbishopric of York.

Summoned to London to answer a charge of treason, Wolsey died on the way in November 1530.

During the early years of Henry VIII's reign, Cardinal Wolsey shaped England's policy abroad and was the leading figure in both church and state at home.

Wolsey held this power for more than 10 years and historians have dubbed him “the proudest prelate that ever breathed”.

Yet Wolsey was a great man. He certainly achieved more than any other ordinary man in the 16th Century.

He worked his way up, enduring the snobbery of the Court to become chief adviser to the one of the most important monarchs in our history.

Remarkable today, it was even more remarkable in the 1500s.

If he was Machiavellian, he lived in brutal times - you had to stay one step ahead of the game.

Kindness and sensitivity were not among the attributes listed on the CVs of the ruling classes.

Ipswich historian Peter Underwood believes the television portrayal does Wolsey a disservice.

“It shows him as very servile, a Uriah Heep-like character. In fact, Wolsey was a very clever man, with a quick mind, who learned very fast,” he said.

“He was exceptionally clever at a time when there were people who were every bit as determined to succeed as we have today.

“Wolsey was as ambitious and ruthless as the king himself. That is why they got on so well for so many years. Wolsey's failure in the end was part of the king's collapse.”

Mr Underwood said the portrayal of Wolsey's as a lowly butcher's son was also inaccurate.

“His father was much more than a butcher, he was one of the leading people in the town. That's how Wolsey gained a classical education in Ipswich, which led to him gaining his university degree at about the age of 16,” he added.

lynne.mortimer@eadt.co.uk

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