Video: Thomas Wolsey by The Silburys; music animation includes Ipswich buildings and features. 

Thomas Wolsey (c.1471(?)-1530) was a Catholic priest from relatively humble beginnings in Ipswich, who was blessed with academic brilliance, rapacious ambition and, until the end of his life, remarkable good fortune. Early references spell his name ‘Wulcy’. His birthplace was probably a house in St Nicholas Street (or St Nicholas Church Lane), long since demolished, at the corner of a passage through into the churchyard; another mooted birthplace is on the site of The Black Horse public house. Writings and statements in favour and against Wolsey, particularly after his death, obfuscate his father’s social status in Ipswich and other basic details including his precise birth date. There is only one reasonably reliable painting of the man and that was painted well after his death. Virtually all depictions of Wolsey since are based on that portrait profile – quite surprising for such an important figure, but perhaps indicative of his knack of making as many enemies as friends in his rise to power in the land.

It is a matter of opinion which of Wolsey's characteristics was more responsible for his rise to become first minister of Henry VIII, and chief political confidant, but once he had got to the top, he had a lot to offer. He was perhaps the finest ministerial mind England had ever had until at least the 19th century. He was obsessional in his micro-management of affairs of state and refusal to delegate – his overwork was eventually to take its toll on his health. He collected ecclesiastical titles and properties like stamps. He went from being a royal chaplain to the Bishop of Lincoln, then Archbishop of York and finally Lord Chancellor of England. He also became Cardinal Wolsey, Papal Legate whose authority in some respects, therefore, went beyond that of King Henry VIII himself. 



Wolsey began building Hampton Court Palace in 1514, and carried on making improvements throughout the 1520s. Descriptions record rich tapestry-lined apartments, and how you had to traverse eight rooms before finding his audience chamber. He was accused, after his death, of imagining himself the equal of sovereigns, and his fall from power was seen as a natural consequence of arrogance and overarching ambition. Yet Wolsey was also a diligent statesman, who worked hard to translate Henry VIII’s own dreams and mercurial ambitions into effective domestic and foreign policy. When he failed to do so, most notably when Henry’s plans to divorce Katherine of Aragon were thwarted by Katherine herself and the Pope, his fall from favour was swift and final. Thomas Wolsey died on his way to a possible final and fatal meeting with royal wrath, at Leicester Abbey in 1530. Henry ordered the dismantling of the only recently finished college in Ipswich; he also seized Hampton Court Palace.

Over the fourteen years of his chancellorship, Cardinal Wolsey had more power than any other Crown servant in English history. As long as he was in the king’s favour, Wolsey had a large amount of freedom within the domestic sphere, and had his hand in nearly every aspect of its ruling. For much of the time, Henry VIII had complete confidence in him and, as Henry's interests inclined more towards foreign policy, he was willing to give Wolsey a free hand in reforming the management of domestic affairs, for which Wolsey had grand plans in the fields of taxation, justice and church reforms.

[Source: Ipswich Historic Lettering]

LinksIpswich Historic Lettering websiteThe Ipswich Society Newsletter; The Ipswich Society Image Archive; the story of the Wolsey tondo; David Stainer (The Silburys).