Great Englishmen - M. B. Synge

Thomas Wolsey (1471-1530)

Thomas Wolsey was the son of "a poor but honest man." Some people say his father was a butcher, but of this we are not quite sure. He was born at Ipswich in Suffolk in the summer of 1471. He probably went to a school in Ipswich, for he was well-taught, but we hear nothing more of him till we find him at Oxford while still young.

At the age of fifteen he took his bachelor's degree, and was given the title of the "Boy Bachelor." He showed such cleverness and industry that when still quite young he was made head-master of a school in Oxford. He worked hard and well among the boys, and became noted for his energy and at the same time for his pride.

One Christmas holidays the Marquis of Dorset, who had three boys in Wolsey's school, invited him to stay. The Marquis was much struck with the way his sons had been taught, he took a fancy to the clever and handsome master, and having a living vacant at the time offered it to Wolsey. He accepted it, became a clergyman, and went to live at his rectory in Somersetshire. But Wolsey did not behave well there, and only stayed two years.

One day he went with some friends to a fair that was going on in the adjoining town. Wolsey was easily led away by his companions. They all got very drunk and then quarrelled. A noble who was present selected Wolsey as the most guilty, and ordered him to be put in the stocks. Little did he think that the young man with his feet in the stocks, would ere long be the Lord Chancellor of England.

Wolsey next became Chaplain to the Governor of Calais, a great favourite of the king, Henry VII. His master became very fond of him, and told the king about him. Soon after, the king said he would like Wolsey to be his chaplain. This was just what Wolsey liked; he was a very proud and ambitious man, and he had always wished to be about the king and court. He was now with the king daily. Henry liked him. His manners were graceful, he talked cleverly and amusingly, and all the courtiers tried to win his favour.

Soon after this Henry VII. died, and Wolsey was called upon to attend the now king Henry VIII., a gay youth of eighteen, fond of amusement and skilled in games and sports of all kinds. Wolsey soon became a favourite with the new king. He sang with him, played, joined in his sports, and at the same time helped him to govern and advised him well.

In 1515 Wolsey was made Lord Chancellor of England, and this gave him more power than he had before. The Pope had also made him a Cardinal, that is, one of the clergy who are counted as the highest in Rome and have a right to choose the Pope. These cardinals wear scarlet hats, capes, and shoes, and are next in rank to the Pope himself.

Now Wolsey hoped one day to be Pope himself, but, as you will see, this wish never came to pass.

Cardinal Wolsey was now a very great man. He lived even more splendidly than the king himself. His household was made up of eight hundred persons. In one kitchen he had two men cooks with twelve undercooks, while in his private kitchen he had a "Master Cook," who went daily in damask, satin, or velvet, with a chain of gold about his neck.

The Cardinal himself was waited on by all the officers of the court and four footmen dressed in long coats of rich white fur. Many English nobles placed their children in his household to act as his servants and win his favour. He rode out on a mule entirely covered with crimson velvet, having gilt stirrups.

You must not think that Wolsey's life was all made up of show. His toil was ceaseless. He would rise early and work hard all the morning. Nightfall still found him working: managing Church affairs, planning schools and colleges, or drawing up despatches to send abroad. He was brisk, vigorous, full of energy and passion, strong and handsome at the age of thirty-seven, weary and old and worn at the age of forty-seven.

Now I must tell you of a cruel thing that Wolsey was the means of doing, and which has left an everlasting stain upon his memory.

There was an old Duke of Buckingham living in England at this time. He looked with envy and jealousy at the "butcher's son," now Lord Chancellor of England, and had several times offended him. Wolsey had tried to gain his good-will, but failed. He therefore told Henry that this Buckingham was a bad man, and accused him too of high treason. Now it is true the Duke of Buckingham had once said that he was the rightful heir to the English throne, but he never meant to dethrone Henry, or take any steps against him. The Duke was brought to trial. He was very popular, being the greatest noble in England, and loud were the cries raised against the Chancellor as the old Duke was led to trial. He was found guilty and condemned to suffer the death of a traitor. Cries and wails rent the air as the Duke of Buckingham was taken to the Tower to be killed. We see the last of him standing at the water's edge ready to step into the barge that was to take him up the Thames, and speaking calmly and sadly to the people: "I must now forsake ye, the last hour of my long weary life is come upon me. Farewell."

One of the best and greatest things Wolsey did was to help on learning in England. He loved it himself, and wished others to love it too. He saw how much better it would be if everyone was taught to read and write, and how much happier they would be themselves. He made rules for a large boys' school in London, which was founded by a great man named Dean Colet, and made reforms everywhere.

Wolsey was not popular: the people did not like him, because he tried to do so much without the king's leave, and once he had even tried to tax the people without leave from the Parliament. However, Henry still liked him and trusted him entirely.

Up to this time Henry himself had been a good king, and he had done what he thought best for the people, but now we are coming to a very wrong thing that he did; and which led to many more wrong doings. Eighteen years before, Henry had married a Princess Katherine, with whom he had lived very happily for some time. But now he became very fond of Anne Baleen, one of the Queen's maids of honour. She was very beautiful, and lively too, and the king wished to marry her. So he sent to the Pope and begged him to give him leave to divorce Katherine—that is, to send her away. The Pope would not answer at all. Henry then begged Wolsey, as Cardinal, to beg the Pope to give him leave. But Wolsey would have nothing to do with the marriage of Anne Baleen. He would help Henry if he would marry some great princess, because then Wolsey knew it would favour him. This was thinking of himself, and not of what was right, and this is what Wolsey too often did. When the king found that Wolsey was against his marriage, he was very angry, and ordered Wolsey to be put down from all his high offices. When Wolsey heard that the king had forsaken him, his courage gave way and he wept. Soon after he was obliged to give up all his possessions and retire to his country house in the north of England. His parting with Thomas Cromwell, his faithful servant, was very sad, for both master and servant felt it keenly.

"Oh, my lord, must I then leave you? Must I needs forego so good, so noble, and so true a master?" asks Cromwell, gazing at the now worn face of his ruined master.

"Oh, Cromwell, Cromwell, had I but served my God as I have served my king, He would not have forsaken me in my old age!" are the last words that Wolsey cries as his servant Thomas Cromwell goes out to take his place as the king's adviser and Wolsey retires to die alone and friendless.

When Parliament met in 1529 Wolsey was accused of high treason. He was seized while sitting at dinner and taken prisoner. The next day he started for London, but never arrived. He was ill when he started, but soon became much worse, and at last was unable to support himself upon his mule. His servants walked beside him weeping. They got him with difficulty to Leicester. He was taken to the Abbey and laid upon a bed from which he never rose again. As the great Abbey clock struck eight, a few days after, Wolsey passed away. He was buried by the abbot and monks near the Abbey. No stone was erected to his memory, the spot where he was laid is unknown.

With Cardinal Wolsey ended the first twenty years of Henry's reign and all that had ever been good in it. Wolsey did a great deal for the country: he kept peace with France, he helped on learning, and though he was selfish, proud, and ambitious, yet the name of the man "that once trod the ways of glory "will never be forgotten in the history of England.