Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal and Archbishop of York

© National Portrait Gallery, London
Thomas Wolsey
Unknown artist | 1589-1595, based on a work of c. 1520
Oil on panel | 33 in. x 22 in.
NPG 32

Thomas Wolsey (1473-1530) rose from modest beginnings to become one of the most powerful men in early sixteenth-century England.

The Church gave opportunities to men of talent, and Wolsey quickly rose through the ranks from parish priest to Bishop of Lincoln.

In 1514 Wolsey was made Archbishop of York, and in 1515 a cardinal.

Wolsey’s rapid promotion has been attributed to his great energy and steadfast loyalty to King Henry VIII.

Wolsey was Henry’s key diplomat abroad, and as Lord Chancellor (a position he held from 1515) Wolsey was also the lead minister for English domestic matters.

Wolsey’s usher and then biographer George Cavendish wrote:

“The King…called him more near unto him and esteemed him so highly that his estimation and favour put all other councillors out of their accustomed favour that they were in before.”

By the mid 1520s, Wolsey had a rival for King Henry’s favour.

Desperate for a male heir, the king was determined to divorce his wife Katherine and to marry Anne Boleyn, a young woman he’d met at the royal court.

Wolsey was tasked with securing papal permission for Henry’s divorce. When these efforts repeatedly failed, Wolsey was made a scapegoat.

In 1529, Wolsey was dismissed from all his offices, bar the archbishopric of York. He died just over a year later in November 1530.

The portrait of Wolsey displayed
in this exhibition is from c.1520, and
shows Wolsey in his sumptuous red
Cardinal robes and hat. In his left
hand he is holding a scroll.

The painting was commissioned by
the nobleman Ralph Sheldon to be
hung in his Warwickshire home.

Explore the Tudor history we tell through this portrait:

The Year 1520


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