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Thomas Wolsey

c.1475-1530. English cardinal. He was born at Ipswich and educated at Oxford. He became a fellow of Magdalen College in 1497 and was ordained priest in 1498. In 1503 he became chaplain to the governor of Calais and so began his public career. He served both Henry VII and Henry VIII as chaplain. Royal service speedily led to ecclesiastical preferment. Among the many rewards he received, in 1514 he was made bishop of Lincoln and archbishop of York. In the following years he added further bishoprics and other important appointments. From all of these he gained enormous profit. The year 1515 marked the zenith of his power, when he was made cardinal by the pope and lord chancellor by the king. When in 1518 he was made papal legate, he became supreme in both church and state under the king.

He was thoroughly an ecclesiastic, although he was immersed continuously in affairs of state. He was trained in Scholastic theology, although he was no theologian. He was not purely a secular figure and frequently said Mass. Although he was not zealous in the pursuit of heresy, he was an orthodox Catholic in his outlook. His religion was “probably highly conventional, but not purely formal.”

Throughout his career the two authorities whom he served-pope and king-were in harmony. When that harmony was broken by the king's “divorce,” Wolsey's career was shattered. His great house, Hampton Court, his college at Oxford, and most of his appointments and wealth were confiscated in 1530. In the days after his fall he made an attempt to fulfill his duties as archbishop of York for the first time. None of this saved him, and only his death on the way to London cheated the royal executioner. He is well described as “not creative or reflective,” but an “uncomplicated activist” who was “a magnificent if extravagant manipulator of what was available.”

See A.F. Pollard, Wolsey (1929); editions by G.R. Elton (1965) and A.G. Dickens (1966).

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