Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Hey-Day of English Prelacy by Robert Hutchinson



Thomas Wolsey (c.1473 - 1530) was Cardinal Archbishop of York, Lord Chancellor, papal legate and King Henry VIII's Chief Minister 1515 - 1529. He was a prince of the Church - - 'the proudest prelate that ever lived' - and the richest man in England after the King himself. He pillaged the goods of every bishopric he took over and even managed to extract financial profit from the treaties he negotiated. As Lord Chancellor, he received a commission for every favour conferred and levied a shilling in the pound on the value of all the wills proved by his administrators. His annual income before he fell from power is estimated at an incredible 50,000 pounds, or 17,500,000 in 2006 monetary values.

The Cardinal's household numbered nearly 500 members, including 'the tallest and most comely yeomen that he could get in all this realm'. George Cavendish, Wolsey's gentleman usher, relates that the Cardinal had three dining tables daily in his hall, presided over by three principle officers: a steward (always a dean or a priest) a treasurer ( a knight) and a comptroller, who carried white staves as badges of office. His kitchen staff was legion and included two clerks, a surveyor of the dresser, a clerk of the spicery, a yeoman of the scullery and three yeomen and two grooms of the cellar. There were forty cup-bearers, carvers, waiters and sewers - who tasted Wolsey's food in case of poison. His two master cooks wore damask satin or velvet, with gold chains around their necks. Clearly someone else did the dirty work in the kitchen.

Then there were the officers of his privy chamber and the fifty-four staff attached to his personal chapel: the private masses regularly included forty priests dressed in very rich copes, or Eucharistic vestments, accompanied by Wolsey's own choir of twelve boys and sixteen men. The Cardinal blatantly copied the uniforms of Henry's royal bodyguard, the Yeomen of the Guard, for those of his personal servants, who wore tunics of crimson velvet with the letters 'TC' - - for Thomas Cadinalis - -embroidered in gold, back and front.


Cavendish describes Wolsey's daily processions to Westminster Hall from his palace at York Place to hear legal cases in the Chancery Court:

'After mass he would return to his privy chamber...and would issue out, apparelled all in red, in the habit of a cardinal, which was either of fine scarlet or else crimson satin, taffeta or caffa, the best he could get for money. Upon his head, a round pillion; he also had a tippet-cape of fine sable around his neck, holding in his hand a very fair orange, with the substance taken out, wherein was vinegar and other confections against pestilent airs, the which he most commonly smelt unto, passing among the press of people or when he was pestered with suitors.'


His procession formed up, led by a page bearing the Great Seal of England and another his cardinal's hat, and these were followed by tall priests carrying two large silver crosses, one symbolizing his role as Archbishop of York and the other, a double cross like that of Lorraine, his position as papal legate, and two pillars of heavy silver. Then came his personal herald or pursuivant of arms, carrying a 'great mace of silver gilt'. Wolsey himself was humbly mounted on a mule, but this was richly trapped out in crimson velvet with gilt stirrups, and he was surrounded by his foot guards, armed with gilded poleaxes. His gentlemen ushers continually cried out: 'On, my lords and masters, on before - make way for my Lord's grace. Make way for his grace, the Cardinal Legate of York, Lord High Chancellor of this realm.' Quite a mouthful for those trying to clear a path through the great unwashed for their master.

The Cardinal's nemesis turned out to be Anne, whom he described privately as the King's own 'night crow'. The olive-skinned, dark-haired daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn had been maid of honor to Henry's Queen, Catherine of Aragon, who was unlikely now ever to produce his longed-for legal son and heir. In the spring of 1526, the King, having drunk deeply of the sexual favors provided by Anne's elder sister Mary, fell desperately, ardently in love with the headstrong, determined Anne.

After much diplomatic huffing and puffing with the Vatican, a legatine court, presided over by Wolsey and the gout-afflicted Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio, sat in judgment on the 'King's Great Matter': the validity of his marriage to Catherine under canon law. During a series of dramatic hearings in May 1529, in the great hall of the Dominican monastery at Blackfriars in London, the cardinals heard testimony from both the King and Queen and a host of learned and pious witnesses. But it was all to no avail. Campaggio pronounced on 23 July, the last day of the tribunal, that the delicate issue could only be settled after full consultation with the Curia in Rome. Henry watched the proceedings from the gallery above and stalked away, his face black with anger at Wolsey's failure to procure the desired verdict. "By the Mass, cried the Duke of Suffolk, hammering his fist on a table, "now I see that the old saying is true: it was never merry in England while we had cardinals among us!"

On 9 October 1529, Attorney General Sir Christopher Hales preferred a Bill of Indictment for Praemunire against Wosley in the Court of King's Bench in Westminster Hall. This was the offense of serving a foreign dignitary ( in this case the pope) and thereby committing treason. Eight days later the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk gleefully arrived at York House, Wolsey's new London Palace, to demand the surrender of the Great Seal of England and his resignation as Lord Chancellor. All his lands, offices and possessions were now all forfeit to the crown.

It now became Wolsey's job to discharge his gentlemen and yeomen from service with 'good words and thanks' to give them courage to sustain their mishap in patient misery. Simple gratitude would be their only reward: the coffers were empty, so they could not be paid off. His household were summoned to the great chamber. Wolsey entered the silent room, wearing a modest white rochet ( a long lace surplice) over a bishop's purple cassock. Distressed, he could not bring himself to speak right away and was quickly overwhelmed by bitter tears of abject misery. The great churchman turned his face to the wall, ashamed of his emotion amid the uncomfortable and embarrassed throng of his retainers. Eventually, he wiped his eyes with his handkerchief, took a deep breath and told them:

'It has come to this pass, that it has pleased the king to take all that ever I had into his possession, so that I have nothing left me, but the bare clothes upon my back, which are simple in comparison to those you have seen me have. I would not stick [hesitate] to divide them among you, yes, and the skin of my back, if it might countervail any thing in value among you.'

Then Wolsey put on a brave front and regained a little of his hopeless optimism that he would eventually return to Henry's grace and favor:

' I doubt not but the king, considering the offense suggested against me by my mortal enemies to be of small effect, will shortly restore me again to my living, so I shall be able to divide some part thereof, yearly among you, whereof you shall be well assured...the surplus of my revenues, what ever remains at the determination of my accounts, shall be, God willing, distributed among you.

I will never, hereafter, esteem the goods and riches of this uncertain world but as a vain thing, more than sufficient for the maintenance of my estate and dignity that God has or shall call me unto in the world during my life.'

Alas, Wolsey was never restored to a position of favor that might have tested his new-found piety and unworldliness. Isolated, depressed and anxious he wrote constantly to his lawyer, Thomas Cromwell, for advice and assistance. Reading his appeals today, it is impossible not to feel at least a shred of sympathy for the once haughty and imperious cardinal, now consigned to the shadows of public life. He had tumbled far from his halcyon days as an arrogant and proud minister. The extravagant pomp and circumstance of his own glittering court, those battalions of obsequious, richly attired retainers, were now transient memories, clouded by his deep despair. With his status and vast wealth drained from him, he swiftly degenerated into a frail, sick and lonely old man, fearful of what the future might hold for him. Now Wolsey had been brought to his knees and could do nothing but beg for help from his former servants.

Soon Wolsey's enemies claimed that he was in secret communication with the Pope and was engaged in 'sinister practices made to the court of Rome for restoring him to his former estate and dignity'. He was arrested for high treason but died, probably of dysentery, if not 'suicide by purgations', on his way to imprisonment in the Tower of London. For a time the lid was left off the top of his coffin so that dignitaries could confirm that he was not feigning death. His body was buried in the Lady Chapel of St. Mary's Abbey, Leicester, at about four o'clock in the morning, amid a thunderstorm.

1 comment:

  1. Thomas Cromwell; The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII Most Notorious Minister by Robert Hutchinson; Thomas Dunne Books, 2007

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