Thomas Wolsey, a cardinal who was named Lord Chancellor under Henry VIII, became the subject of the children’s rhyme Humpty Dumpty when he suffered a “great fall” in 1530. His descent ended on November 29 when he died on his way to prison.
Wolsey is thought to have been a spectacular example of social climbing: he was born around 1473 to Robert Wolsey, who may have been a fairly well off cloth merchant (not a butcher, as later tales would have it). Thomas was educated at Ipswitch School, Magdalen College School, and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he studied theology. He was ordained a priest in March 1498 and served as Master of Magdalen College School before being named dean of divinity.
In 1502, Wolsey became a chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury, who died shortly after. He then joined the household of Sir Richard Nanfan, and after Sir Richard died, Wolsey entered the service of Henry VII as royal chaplain. Wolsey rose quickly within the royal household, being named Almoner (a post that gave him a seat on the Privy Council) by Henry VIII shortly after he came to the throne in 1509. Wolsey backed the young king in his desire to go to war with France, earning Henry’s gratitude and gaining the post of Lord Chancellor in 1515. As he gained secular power, he also gained prominence in the church, becoming Bishop of Lincoln and then Archbishop of York in 1514, then receiving the cardinal’s hat in 1515.
Wolsey probably would have continued being a friend of the king and would have died a rich and respected old man, but then Henry decided he wanted a divorce, and it was Wolsey’s job to get it for him. Suddenly, Wolsey’s whole life was wrapped up in the “Great Matter”, and it didn’t matter how well he’d served the king in the past. It also didn’t help that he didn’t get along with Anne Boleyn, who blamed him for breaking up her romance with Henry Percy and set out to undermine him with the king.
Wolsey did his best to appeal to the Pope to grant Henry his divorce, or to at least allow the case to be heard in England, where Wolsey, as Papa Legate, could oversee (and influence) the proceedings. The Pope dispatched Cardinal Campeggio to hear the case alongside Wolsey, who got a little overconfident that victory was his. Campeggio took his time arriving in England, however, and infuriated Henry by holding up the proceedings. Henry took out his rage on the nearest target: Wolsey.
With Anne and her family against him, Wolsey didn’t stand a chance, especially once Campeggio weasled out of the hearing and decided the matter could only be settled in Rome. Enraged, Henry stripped Wolsey of his government office and property, which included the recently completed Hampton Court. Soon after, Wolsey was accused of treason and was ordered to go to London. He set out with his personal chaplain, but fell ill and died along the way at the age of 60. “If I had served my God as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs,” he is believed to have said.
Wolsey is now mostly remembered for his role in Henry’s divorce (which led to the subsequent break from Rome), but his legacy included far more than just that. He held more power than any other Crown servant in English history and helped reform the taxation system (taxing on income instead of relying on an unfair flat tax). He also reconstructed the country’s judicial system, re-establishing the courts of the Star Chamber and Chancery to hear simple, inexpensive cases and creating the Court of Requests, where the poor could have their cases heard for free. The result was more equality and fairness in the way justice was handed out in England. So, we have him to thank for that. Although Henry thought Wolsey had failed him, Wolsey was, in fact, a devoted servant to Henry and an able administrator who did a great deal for king and country. Unfortunately, as in many things, Henry was too selfish and short-sighted to see it.