Wolsey, Thomas

Wolsey, Thomas
(ca. 1472-1530)
   English clergyman and states-man. Born the son of an innkeeper and butcher at Ipswich, Wolsey was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he became master of the affiliated grammar school. In 1501, however, he left Oxford and entered the service of a series of powerful men. He was talented and ingratiating and soon became chaplain to King Henry VII, then almoner to young King Henry VIII, who recognized his energy and competence and appointed him to increasingly important administra-tive offices. The king made him bishop of Lincoln in 1514 and ele-vated him to the archbishopric of York in 1515.
   Later that year, Wolsey became chancellor, the highest office in the kingdom. He accumulated enormous political influence and personal wealth; foreign ambassadors and native petitioners quickly identified him as the person whose favor was crucial to their success. As chan-cellor he worked to expand the jurisdiction of the Court of Chancery and the Court of Star Chamber. Responding to the king's ambition to play a major role in European politics and war, Wolsey increased the revenues of the crown through forced loans, browbeaten out of re-luctant lenders. In Parliament, he pushed hard for new taxes and even tried (but failed) to levy taxes without parliamentary authorization. Although some of these activities were socially beneficial, Wolsey's ruthless drive to increase royal power and his own splendor was re-sented, all the more because of his humble origins. As long as he was useful to the king, he seemed secure. When Henry decided to end his marriage to Queen Catherine of Aragon and sought papal approval for a divorce, however, he expected Wolsey to produce results. His failure to secure approval of the divorce cost Wolsey his favor at court. He was dismissed as chancellor in October 1529. A year later, after he had retired to his archdiocese at York, he was summoned to court on charges of treason. He died on the journey south.
   Wolsey was in many ways a corrupt and worldly cleric, entering the clergy and taking high office solely for the power and wealth he could get, not out of any spiritual concern. He kept a mistress and fa-thered a son and a daughter. He used his control of church patronage to secure sinecures for his son. He was a notorious pluralist, holding one or another bishopric in addition to York, as well as the abbacy (and revenues) of the rich abbey of St. Albans.
   Yet however worldly his motives may have been, Wolsey did take measures to prevent the spread of Lutheran heresy; he encouraged re-form of both secular and monastic clergy (though not of his own life); and he showed special concern for the education of future priests. He founded a humanistic school in his home town and undertook the foundation of a splendid new college at Oxford, Cardinal College (1525), which he intended to make into a showplace of the new hu-manist learning. Wolsey's fall from power in 1529 left arrangements for the new college still in progress, and there was danger that its en-dowment would be seized by the crown, but it survived and later was reorganized as Christ Church, one of Oxford's most splendid col-leges. Wolsey extended patronage to a number of humanist scholars, employed some of the ablest artists, and built several palaces, of which Hampton Court, later seized by the king, was the most famous. Yet most contemporaries judged that his patronage of arts and letters arose more from his desire for display and elegance than from any true devotion to learning and the arts.

Historical Dictionary of Renaissance. . 2004.

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