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Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

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Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

The influence of Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Henry’s confidante and closest advisor for almost twenty years, was far greater in secular matters than in ecclesiastical ones. Wolsey was ordained a priest in 1498, and, following a series of appointments, including one as chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, he was appointed chaplain to Henry VIII in 1507.  In 1515, the pope named him cardinal, and later the same year, Henry named him lord chancellor, giving him the highest secular position in the land (save for the King). Although reviled by many as a self-aggrandizing, over-powerful butcher’s son, he was responsible for many good works, including the founding of Cardinal College, later renamed Christ Church.

Richard Westall. Wolsey Disgraced. Oil on canvas, 1795

Wolsey lost Henry’s confidence following his failure to obtain for the king a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. He fell from favor and was stripped of his government office and property, lamenting, “if I had served God as dyligently as I have don the Kyng, he wold not have gevyn me over in my gray heares.”   He was arrested and accused of treason in his diocese of York. In great distress, he set out for London, but fell ill and died on the way, on November 29, 1530, around the age of sixty.


The painting above depicts Wolsey’s downfall in Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. The artist shows the cardinal being stripped of his power by the duke of Suffolk, Lord Surrey, the duke of Norfolk, and the lord chamberlain. His right hand rests on a bag containing the great seal. The figures’ faces are based on actual portraits of the men involved. This painting is one of four Henry VIII scenes Westall painted for the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery. The three smaller paintings, this one included, were engraved for the nine-volume edition of Shakespeare published by Boydell in 1802.


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