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Les Cardinaux de la Renaissance et la modernité artistique - Frédérique Lemerle, Yves Pauwels et Gennaro Toscano (dir.)

The Cardinal of King Henry VIII of England. Thomas Wolsey

Simon Thurley
p. 39-50

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  • 1 The best modern biography of Wolsey is P. Gwyn, The King’s Cardinal. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wo (...)
  • 2 Gwyn, p. 102-3.

1Thomas Wolsey was created Cardinal by Pope Leo X in September 1515. That he was, as was so often the case, had little to do with Wolsey’s spirituality or the needs of the English Church, rather the Pope’s need for international political support. Francis I had begun his invasion of Italy the previous month and Wolsey’s elevation was a naked ploy to buy the support of Henry VIII. To a degree it worked for there is no doubt that Henry took Wolsey’s creation as a significant personal compliment1. More importantly Wolsey’s creation as Cardinal and crucially later as Legate a latere gave Henry VIII complete control over the English church including power to override even the Archbishop of Canterbury and the exempt orders. This was vitally important for Henry VIII who already he had a series of jurisdictional problems with the Church. Wolsey’s promotion gave the king a minister who had absolute authority over both church and state2.

  • 3 King’s and Princes across Europe frequently petitioned the Pope for the elevation of their senior c (...)
  • 4 See Gwynn, p. 4  ; S.J. Gunn and P.G. Lindley, ‘Introduction’, S.J. Gunn and P.G. Lindley ed., Card (...)

2None of this set England or Wolsey apart from continental norms or previous English practice3. But in many other senses Wolsey was different for England. In the previous century King Henry V had blocked the ambitious royal born Henry Beaufort from becoming a Cardinal. In contrast Henry VIII was more than content for Wolsey to hold wide ranging ecclesiastical jurisdiction because Wolsey owed everything to the king and could be trusted (or so he thought) to exercise papal powers in the national interest and for royal benefit. Another difference is that unlike his very powerful English predecessors such as John Morton who was both archbishop of Canterbury and a Cardinal, Wolsey held posts in commendam. Holding an archbishopric, a bishopric and an abbacy together put Wolsey into the league of churchmen on the continent, where the practice of holding in commendam was commonplace. It also made him very rich  : his annual income was probably in excess of £ 30,000 a year. This wealth, although acquired in the same manner as say, Morton’s, was amassed on a much more efficient and systematic basis, making Wolsey proportionately richer4.

  • 5 B. McClung Hallman, Italian Cardinals, Reform, and the Church as Property, (Berkeley CA, 1985), p.  (...)

3Unlike his English cardinal predecessors Wolsey came from a humble background. His father was probably a butcher in Ipswich, Norfolk whereas the vast majority of contemporary cardinals came, in one way or another, from the ruling classes.5 Perhaps most important of all was his relationship with the king. Henry was not only content, he was keen to delegate to the energetic and highly able Cardinal as much as possible of the tedious business of running the country. Wolsey therefore had powers enjoyed by few if any previous minister of the English crown.

***

4So on one hand we have a low born cleric who enjoyed an extraordinary rise to absolute power as Cardinal and Legate and who loved every ounce of precedence it gave him  : a man whose love of display and consumption, of robes and plate, of building and of ceremonial was legendary. But on the other we have an age when this was expected. There is no doubt that status communicated through magnificence was just as much part of a high born cardinal’s life as it was of Wolsey’s. His wealth and status made him, from the king’s point of view, a powerful diplomatic and political tool.

5Wolsey’s role in international diplomacy is crucially important. This was the age when the four powers of Europe had been reduced to three by the union of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. In this England played a vital balancing role between the greater powers of France and Imperial Spain and Wolsey was to become the key. He danced on the European stage for ten years as arguably the most powerful diplomat of his age. He personally treated with both Francis I at Amiens and Charles V at Bruges, he tried to adjudicate between the two at Calais, and of course set up the field of Cloth of Gold as well as numerous treaties and state visits in England.

  • 6 K. Mertes, The English Noble Household 1250-1600  ; Good Governance and Politic Rule, (Oxford, 1988 (...)

6In all this he was effectively vice-regent and the scale his household reflected this. Wolsey’s household was very big at 500 people - it was 200 larger than the Archbishop of Canterbury’s William Wareham’s. But we should remember that the two greatest noblemen of the early part of Henry’s reign had retinues as large  : Henry Percy the 5th earl of Northumberland had a household of 550 and Edward Stafford 3rd duke of Buckingham from had 500. Buckingham was executed in 1521 leaving Wolsey’s household the largest in southern England apart from the king’s (who had 800)6.

  • 7 S. Thurley, The Royal Palaces of Tudor England, (Yale, 1993), p. 40-48.

7This the context in which Wolsey lived, it is now time to turn to his buildings. During Wolsey’s lifetime Henry VIII was not really very interested in architecture. The ancient royal palace at Westminster had burnt down in 1512 and Henry had shown no sign of wanting to rebuild it. Instead he set up his court at one of his father’s favourite country houses - Greenwich to the east of London. This was fitted up with all the sporting facilities needed by a teenage king  ; Jousting, tennis, armour manufactories. This palace effectively became the principal royal house of the kingdom. Meanwhile Wolsey by virtue of his position as archbishop of York acquired York Place, the largest house in Westminster, immediately adjacent to the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the law courts and parliament. So there was a unique coincidence of a lazy and detached king and an incredibly rich, able, powerful and energetic administrator. To Wolsey were delegated all royal building projects in the first half of Henry’s reign. These included remodelling the king’s own palaces such as Eltham, overseeing the temporary building at the Field of Cloth of Gold and the exchequer at Calais7.

  • 8 For example TNA E36/235 p. 823-6.
  • 9 S. Guistinian, Four Years at the Court of Henry VIII, 2 vols., (London, 1854), II, p. 1-2, 315.

8Yet Wolsey himself owned and built a number of important houses. This paper will focus on the two most significant, his town house in Westminster, York Place and his private country residence, Hampton Court. It is clear from the surviving building accounts that work on York Place and Hampton Court advanced at the same time. Workmen and materials were moved between the two sites and even the same patterns for stone mouldings were used in both places8. Yet the two projects were entirely different. York Place, smaller than Hampton Court, was focussed on the needs of the working cardinal at Westminster. It was not particularly useful as a location to get to the king, he had to take a barge to Greenwich for that, but vitally important for the exercise of his duties as Lord Chancellor, effectively chief justice. From York Place he processed in public daily in legal term time to the law courts at Westminster with the utmost splendour. In doing so he would be seen by the great and the poor exercising his comprehensive powers. York Place was also the location for the huge amount of diplomatic business, where Wolsey received envoys, ambassadors and messengers9.

  • 10 S. Thurley, Hampton Court a Social and Architectural History, (Yale, 2003), p. 15-41  ; Calendar of (...)
  • 11 S. Thurley, Whitehall Palace. An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240-1698, (Yale, 1 (...)

9At Hampton Court Wolsey set out to create a country seat which would be used as the setting for great state and royal events, a place to entertain the king and foreign dignitaries, a stage upon which he could dance in the full view of all Europe. So it was here that Wolsey entertained the Emperor Charles V in 1522 and Anne de Montmorency, Great Master of France in 1527. The Venetian ambassador Marco Antonio Venier wrote in November 1527 that, ‘Wolsey lately entertained the Lord Steward [Montmorency] for three days hunting at Hampton Court, the palace being sumptuously decorated. He is still there, to see at his leisure the cardinal’s side-boards of gold plate’, which he went on to describe and value at 300,000 golden ducats10. The differing functional requirements of Hampton Court and York Place were reflected in their plans. At York Place, for instance, there was a single range of guest rooms  ; at Hampton Court an entire courtyard. At York Place no rooms were set aside for royal visits  ; at Hampton Court suites of rooms were provided for the whole royal family. Crucially the chapel and chapel cloister at Hampton Court was much larger than at York place giving scope for major ceremonial events11.

10These two houses belong to a group of major residences constructed between 1450 and 1530 that share a common plan. In its essentials the plan combines chapel, cloister and hall, with residential buildings on an axis (fig. 1). The classic expressions of this arrangement are Lambeth Palace and York Place, the town houses of the archbishops of Canterbury and York. Ely Place in Holborn in the City of London, the town house of the bishop of Ely, and the priory of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell on the edge of the City of London are also part of the group. These houses are very different to those of the nobility. They all have on an axis the hall, chapel and a cloister. The cloister is the key differential. The great houses of the secular nobility did not have cloisters and tended to have relatively small chapels. Yet none of the houses of these great churchmen did despite the fact that they did not house contemplative orders, nor did they have need for a cloister for a scriptorium or other conventual purpose. These cloisters played a ceremonial role in the religious life of their households.

Fig. 1 : Block plans showing a group of late medieval palaces in and around London with a hall, chapel and cloister

Fig. 1 : Block plans showing a group of late medieval palaces in and around London with a hall, chapel and cloister
  • 12 Mertes, p. 139-160  ; C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England, (Yale, 1999), p. (...)

11Of course all great households were to a greater or lesser extent religious communities acting as agents of salvation for themselves and particularly their Lord. Household regulations in the largest institutions such as that of the Duke of Buckingham at Thornbury Castle set out an ideal showing their households operating as a corporate religious community sharing worship and prayer daily. Of course these great lords manipulated religious ceremonial in their chapels for political purposes12. Likewise for the monarch, the royal household was a religious body corporately sharing worship under its own Dean and with the ceremonials of everyday life being regulated by the canonical year.

  • 13 R. Bowers, ‘The cultivation and promotion of music in the household and orbit of Thomas Wolsey’, S. (...)

12But for the church-statesman the requirements were heavier than either. Wolsey was to host not only diplomatic occasions but Kings and emperors and he, himself would play the role of both the head of the household, chief minister, papal representative and the central figure on the liturgical stage. Wolsey celebrated divine office with pontifical rites while dukes and earls waited on him. At the field of Cloth of Gold his celebration of Mass was assisted by a papal legate, three cardinals and 21 bishops. To support this level of ceremonial Wolsey maintained a very large chapel establishment, taking on embassy to France in 1521 a dean, sub-dean, ten chaplains, ten gentlemen lay clerks and ten choristers. This was a larger number of singers than at Salisbury, York or St Paul’s Cathedral, and certainly the cardinal’s chapel contained voices of better quality. In fact Wolsey’s chapel establishment was only surpassed in size and quality by that of the king himself13.

  • 14 For the priory see B. Sloane and G. Malcolm, Excavations at the priory of the Order of the Hospital (...)

13In this way these houses were far more akin to the royal residences than to the houses of the great secular lords who had no need for religious processional space. In pre-reformation royal houses, where royal etiquette was dominated by the monarch’s attendance at chapel, the plan of the palace reflected the need to express this publicly. Westminster Palace itself was made up of a series of cloisters linked to hall and chapel for just this purpose. Another example of such a building was the Priory of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, London. Their priory was on the western boundary of the City of London. The Prior of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem was considered the chief baron of England, outranking all the nobility and answering directly to the Pope himself. In Henry VII’s and VIII’s reign particularly close links existed and both Kings were awarded the title ‘Protector of the Order’. Before the rise of Wolsey, Thomas Docwra, the Prior, was England’s premier diplomat travelling to France and Spain a major figure in the early years of the reign  : at the field of the Cloth of Gold he stood between Henry VIII and Francios I. This was a place for large scale hospitality, receptions, the headquarters of an international diplomat and the administrative centre for a major business. So this house above all others in England was functionally similar to Hampton Court, sharing the combined functions of high ranking churchman and international diplomat14.

  • 15 I will be publishing a detailed article on the cloister and processional space in royal palaces in (...)

14The plans of these great houses developed from the colleges of Oxford. Here from 1360 to 1400 William Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester and sometime royal chancellor built New College, the building that was to create the template for all subsequent oxford colleges (fig. 2). Wykeham’s colleges were not just for learning they were fully functioning religious corporations where masses were said for the king, Queen and the colleges founder and benefactors. Ceremonial was vitally important and the cloisters played a central role in elaborate processions on feast days and commemorative occasions. It was here in Oxford at New College in the late fourteenth century that the essential plan for the great archiepiscopal palaces was invented. A fusion of functions centred round the necessity to create processional space15.

Fig. 2 : Diagrammatic plan of New College Oxford showing its hall and chapel in a single range and its detached cloister

Fig. 2 : Diagrammatic plan of New College Oxford showing its hall and chapel in a single range and its detached cloister
  • 16 S. Thurley, ‘The Domestic Building Works of Cardinal Wolsey’, S.J. Gunn and P.G. Lindley ed., Cardi (...)
  • 17 B. Dix, ‘The Excavation of the Privy Garden’, in S. Thurley, ed., The King’s Privy Garden at Hampto (...)

15The list of those responsible for Wolsey’s buildings highlights an important point. These architects and master craftsmen and their circle had been responsible for the greatest late-gothic buildings in England - at Windsor, Eton, Westminster and Oxford Cambridge - and would also have known the great aristocratic and Episcopal mansions of the age. Yet for Wolsey they moved beyond the confines of late perpendicular gothic and were commissioned to incorporate fashionable motifs from renaissance buildings. The most stylistically innovative of these elements were applied to the long gallery at Hampton Court. At each of Wolsey’s houses there was such a gallery, and a number of influential courtiers had them too, including George, earl of Shrewsbury at Sheffield Manor, and Archbishop Cuthbert Tunstall at Fulham Palace16. Externally, however, the Hampton Court gallery may have been one of the most important and avant-garde structures yet built in England. This claim is based upon the discovery of a large number of moulded and decorated architectural fragments made of terracotta. During the restoration of the seventeenth century privy garden in 1994-5 a large number of these fragments was found discarded in a late seventeenth-century gravel quarry immediately adjacent to the south front. In the pit were found nineteen window-mouldings including a large angled piece which was almost certainly part of a bay window, three pieces of a projecting cornice decorated with an egg and tongue motif, and eight pieces of classical orders. Four of the latter were fragments of half columns (two fluted), three were fragments of column bases, and one piece was part of a capital of a Corinthian type. In addition there was a large plaque with a cusped trefoil and part of a circular laurel garland17. The columns, bases and capitals were parts of pilasters which varied in diameter between 20 cm and 28 cm and would have formed columns between 1,63 m and 2,23 m tall. These would have been applied to the face of the building.

  • 18 R. K. Morris, ‘Windows in Early Tudor Country Houses’, in D. Williams, ed., Early Tudor England, (P (...)

16The exterior of the gallery was therefore probably enlivened by richly decorated window surrounds, one or more plaques incorporating roundels and a series of applied pilasters. The mix would have been typical of the most fashionable architecture of its day, a subtle mix of late-gothic moulding and decorative forms with a strong renaissance theme expressed in ‘antique’ decoration on the mouldings of the windows. Much of this is familiar to us from other sites including Sutton Place in Surrey, not far away, where terracotta embellishment survives, and on which many of Wolsey’s craftsmen almost certainly worked18. Such features also appear at the Prior of St. John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell, where a window has recently been reconstructed. Yet although St. John’s and Sutton Place can give a flavour of the appearance of Wolsey’s Hampton Court, Wolsey’s gallery was far more remarkable than either of these. It was one of the first buildings in England, if not the very first, to have classical pilasters on its exterior. Also remarkable, but possibly not unique in its day was the consignment of eight large terracotta roundels and three large plaques made by the Italian sculptor Giovanni da Maiano. The roundels were positioned on the gatehouses and on the walls of an inner courtyard. While the plaques bearing scenes from the life of Hercules were on the faces of the gatehouses over the entrance arches.

17Despite these applied terracotta decorations it is important not to exaggerate the importance of Italian influence here. It was really only skin deep. Hampton Court was a product of its function as the house of an alter-rex. Both York Place and Hampton Court were profoundly influenced by the pre-existing structures on the site and the practical and aesthetic legacy of Wolsey’s predecessors. Only one building built in the period from 1500 to 1530 was influenced significantly by a foreign model. This was the Savoy hospital- not an almshouse but a hospital in the modern sense. It had a unique cruciform plan for the dormitories (fig. 3). The idea for this came from Florence. Henry VII himself had written to the patron of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova for information about the running of the hospital and probably for details of its design. But we should remember that the hospital was built in 1334 and by no stretch of the imagination could be considered in the latest Italian style.

Fig. 3 : The Savoy Hospital in London c. 1510-19

Fig. 3 : The Savoy Hospital in London c. 1510-19

18In conclusion we have in Cardinal Wolsey one of a distinctive group of cardinal-ministers who served the rulers of late fifteenth and early sixteenth century Europe. Wolsey was, amongst these, unusual his low born origins, in his rapid rise to absolute power, in his relentless pursuit of power and riches, in his longevity in service, in his contempt for his fellows and his massive architectural patronage. York Place but Hampton Court, in particular, is a singular building, certainly in England. Functionally it is in a class with probably only one other  ; and in its early use of renaissance decoration in the vanguard of a new style. But Hampton Court and York place were deeply rooted in the middle ages springing from a fourteenth century Oxford college.

19Ultimately Wolsey is a footnote in English architectural history. As the reformation broke so the need for a great house combining the religious and secular needs of a cardinal-minister ended and as England turned in on itself artistically after 1530 the purer forms of French renaissance decoration became engulfed in a welter of eclecticism that characterised the palaces of Henry VIII.

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Notes

1 The best modern biography of Wolsey is P. Gwyn, The King’s Cardinal. The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey, (London, 1990). See p. 33-4 for the above.

2 Gwyn, p. 102-3.

3 King’s and Princes across Europe frequently petitioned the Pope for the elevation of their senior churchmen  ; Henry VII of England had petitioned hard for the promotion of Archbishop Morton which he finally obtained in 1493. Originally, on appointment, cardinals left their home country and took up residence at the Curia. But by the early sixteenth century there were increasing numbers (almost a quarter of the total) who were non-curial. This coincided in an increase in the total number of red hats as a cardinalate became an honorific position rather than part of the close workings of the papal civil service. J. A.F. Thomson, Popes and Princes, 1417-1517  ; Politics and Polity in the Late Medieval Church, (London, 1980) p. 57-8, 74-5  ; P. Partner, The Pope’s Men  ; The Papal Civil Service in the Renaissance, (Oxford, 1990), p. 205-6.

4 See Gwynn, p. 4  ; S.J. Gunn and P.G. Lindley, ‘Introduction’, S.J. Gunn and P.G. Lindley ed., Cardinal Wolsey, Church State and Art, (Cambridge, 1991), p. 3-5.

5 B. McClung Hallman, Italian Cardinals, Reform, and the Church as Property, (Berkeley CA, 1985), p. 12-13.

6 K. Mertes, The English Noble Household 1250-1600  ; Good Governance and Politic Rule, (Oxford, 1988), Appendix A, p. 194-215. For Wolsey’s household composition and size see The National Archives (TNA) E101/518/14

7 S. Thurley, The Royal Palaces of Tudor England, (Yale, 1993), p. 40-48.

8 For example TNA E36/235 p. 823-6.

9 S. Guistinian, Four Years at the Court of Henry VIII, 2 vols., (London, 1854), II, p. 1-2, 315.

10 S. Thurley, Hampton Court a Social and Architectural History, (Yale, 2003), p. 15-41  ; Calendar of State Papers Venetian, IV, no.205.

11 S. Thurley, Whitehall Palace. An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240-1698, (Yale, 1999), p. 13-34.

12 Mertes, p. 139-160  ; C. M. Woolgar, The Great Household in Late Medieval England, (Yale, 1999), p. 176-180.

13 R. Bowers, ‘The cultivation and promotion of music in the household and orbit of Thomas Wolsey’, S.J. Gunn and P. G. Lindley, ed, Cardinal Wolsey, Church, State and Art, p. 179-83.

14 For the priory see B. Sloane and G. Malcolm, Excavations at the priory of the Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem, (Museum of London, 2004).

15 I will be publishing a detailed article on the cloister and processional space in royal palaces in an English Journal in 2009.

16 S. Thurley, ‘The Domestic Building Works of Cardinal Wolsey’, S.J. Gunn and P.G. Lindley ed., Cardinal Wolsey, Church State and Art, (Cambridge, 1991), p. 97-9.

17 B. Dix, ‘The Excavation of the Privy Garden’, in S. Thurley, ed., The King’s Privy Garden at Hampton Court 1698-1995, (Apollo, 1995), p. 112-14  ; S. Thurley, Hampton Court, p. 22-24.

18 R. K. Morris, ‘Windows in Early Tudor Country Houses’, in D. Williams, ed., Early Tudor England, (Proceedings of the 1987 Harlaxton Symposium), p. 125-30.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 : Block plans showing a group of late medieval palaces in and around London with a hall, chapel and cloister
URL http://hleno.revues.org/docannexe/image/213/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 280k
Titre Fig. 2 : Diagrammatic plan of New College Oxford showing its hall and chapel in a single range and its detached cloister
URL http://hleno.revues.org/docannexe/image/213/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 252k
Titre Fig. 3 : The Savoy Hospital in London c. 1510-19
URL http://hleno.revues.org/docannexe/image/213/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 433k
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Simon Thurley, « The Cardinal of King Henry VIII of England. Thomas Wolsey », in Frédérique Lemerle, Yves Pauwels et Gennaro Toscano (dir.), Les Cardinaux de la Renaissance et la modernité artistique, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 40), 2009, p. 39-50.

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Simon Thurley, « The Cardinal of King Henry VIII of England. Thomas Wolsey », in Frédérique Lemerle, Yves Pauwels et Gennaro Toscano (dir.), Les Cardinaux de la Renaissance et la modernité artistique, Villeneuve d'Ascq, IRHiS-Institut de Recherches Historiques du Septentrion (« Histoire et littérature de l'Europe du Nord-Ouest », no 40), 2009 [En ligne], mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2012, consulté le 18 octobre 2017. URL : http://hleno.revues.org/213

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Simon Thurley

English Heritage, Londres

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