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"If you want to keep the love of a Prince, Thomas, you must be prepared to give him the one thing you value most in the whole world."- Cardinal Wolsey

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, portrayed by New Zealand actor Sam Neill, was the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Winchester in Season 1; who is king Henry VIII's most trusted and powerful advisor, holding the title of Lord Chancellor. He proves Henry's most valuable counselor for the early years of his reign, but draws hatred from the nobility for his arrogance and his common-born origins; he also earns the ire of Queen Catherine of Aragon for his pro-French policies. Wolsey's road to ruin begins once Henry becomes infatuated with Anne Boleyn and orders Wolsey to secure an annulment of his marriage so he can marry her instead. Wolsey's failure to do so (as he is caught between the Pope and Henry) allows his enemies to persuade Henry to remove him from office; ensuring his downfall.

Role in season 1[]

Wolsey is shown to secretly have a common-law wife and two children despite his position as a Catholic clergyman. For the first three and a half episodes, he is the deciding voice (aside from his old colleague Sir Thomas More) on the King's policy, although he is always careful to ingratiate himself to Henry. Wolsey has also apparently patronized many prominent members of Henry's court, and appears to consider More his friend, although More - aware of Wolsey's willingness to overlook religious doctrine - is sometimes wary of him.

Wolsey usually advocates in French interests, since the French government secretly pays him in a pension. In episodes 1.01-1.02 he supports Thomas's idealistic peace plan (which allows for a betrothal alliance between France and England) as a secret gift to the French clergy in return for their support in electing him as the next pope; however, when Henry makes it clear that he intends to go to war with France and ally with the Holy Roman Empire instead, this support is withdrawn by both parties, dissappointing Wolsey. When the French are notified of this by accident through Henry's Secretary, Richard Pace (who is aware of Wolsey's arrangements with France) Wolsey brands Pace as a French spy and has him thrown in the Tower of London to cover his own tracks. He replaces Pace in 1.04 with a relatively unknown protege of his, a commoner named Thomas Cromwell.

Wolsey, however, is facing problems on the home front, as most of Henry's court despises him - mainly because he supplies ladies for Henry's deviant sexual appetites and lives a lavish and corrupt life despite his commoner origins (he is the son of a butcher), for which reason the nobility resent his power. In particular, Wolsey is blamed by the nobles for the execution of the Duke of Buckingham (episode 1.02, although he actually advised Henry not to kill Buckingham) who secretly plotted to usurp Henry's crown.  In spite of this, Wolsey remains a highly intelligent and able minister, but his willingness to curry the King's favor above all else sometimes interferes with his judgement.  Wolsey maintains a powerful spy network throughout England, the likes of which is only rivaled by his successor, Thomas Cromwell.  Through this network, he eventually discovers an alliance forming against him at court, composed of the Duke of Norfolk, Charles Brandon the Duke of Suffolk, and  Lord Thomas Boleyn of Rochford.

In terms of securing a foreign alliance, Wolsey (despite preferring to work with the French) attempts to favor the Spanish/Imperial alliance when the Imperial Ambassadors privately tell him the Emperor will support his bid for the Papacy. However, when Emperor Charles V releases the French King Francis he quickly switches his position after informing king Henry. Meanwhile, a near-death experience for Henry causes him to seek a way to have a male heir quickly - his love for Anne Boleyn fueling his desire to seek a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. Wolsey must therefore take up a position against the Holy Roman Empire when German-Italian troops sack Rome and take the Pope prisoner. By doing so, Wolsey makes an enemy of Catherine of Aragon; who is aunt to Charles V and hopes to remain allies with her home country of Spain. In episode 5 Catherine also accuses him of plotting to make Henry's bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, the heir to the throne over her daughter Princess Mary. Wolsey truthfully states that he is merely doing the king's bidding, but he increases his spy network around Catherine, seeing her as a threat to his position.

Thinking Henry just wants the divorce to satisfy his "conscience", Wolsey attempts to persuade the Bishops of England in episode 4 to agree to Henry's proposal of an annulment. Archbishop of Canterbury Warham remains neutral on the matter, but Wolsey faces sharp objection from Bishop of Rochester John Fisher, a strong supporter of the Queen. Ultimately, the Bishops refuse him the authority to declare the annulment, forcing him to take the matter to Rome- much to Wolsey and Henry's impatience. Wolsey is initially dismissive of Anne Boleyn as a nobody until he realizes the degree of the King's affections for her in episode 6 and in episode 7 he belatedly attempts to ingratiate himself to her as well as Henry. In the same episode, he is severely debilitated for a period of time when he falls victim to a massive outbreak of sweating sickness.

Wolsey first attempts to gain Henry's annulment by convening a Conclave in France, in episode 6, citing the Pope's inability to exercize his authority while an Imperial captive; Thomas More darkly remarks that this would make Wolsey de facto Pope. However, the Cardinals ultimately do not attend the conclave, on the orders of the Pope. Wolsey then tries again by sending envoys to the exiled Pope in episode 7, but the Pope delays the matter, skeptical of Henry's motives and pressured by his Imperial captors.

These clumsy attempts by Wolsey to solve the 'Great Matter' damage his standing with the King, although Henry retains him as his chief minister and advisor.  Despite delivering the King's threats to break with the Church of Rome (which gain nothing since the Pope unwisely thinks Henry is bluffing) Wolsey privately abhors Henry's plan to secede the Church of England from the Papacy, as the split would shackle him forever to the King rather than allow him to one day become Pope; he also fears that it would both cause anarchy in the kingdom and unite Catholic France and Spain against England, destroying the balance of power in Europe. Sensing he is vulnerable, the Boleyn family encourages Anne to make Henry think Wolsey is deliberately delaying the annulment. Wolsey gains himself temporary respite during the plague outbreak in 1.07 when he removes the Duke of Norfolk from court, but Henry's impatience forces him to take his eyes off his enemies among the nobility.

As Wolsey repeatedly fails to gain the King's divorce from the Papacy and privately obstructs the possibility of the Reformation, the matter comes to a head with the ecclesiastical court held in London in episode 1.08, presided over by Wolsey and Cardinal Compeggio  of Rome (representative of the Pope) despite Wolsey's intimidation of Compeggio before the trial, Catherine's impassioned testimony (supported by Bishop Fisher) wins over the clergy, and Wolsey not only fails to satisfy Henry yet again but loses control of the trial after Catherine leaves without permission, to the cheers of those present. In her absence, he attempts to provide false testimony to convince the clergy and Compeggio that Catherine's first marriage was consummated. However, Wolsey is not able to spin false testimony the way Thomas Cromwell later proves able to do, and his arguments and evidence are highly unconvincing.  

Desperate, Wolsey attempts to intimidate Catherine herself; however, Catherine, having proven herself before God, is resigned to the fact that she will lose the fight against Henry and finds satisfaction from knowing she will bring Wolsey down with her. To Wolsey's horror and fury, in episode 1.09 Compeggio indirectly rules in favor of the queen by forcing another massive postponement, in which he says the king's "Great Matter" is too complex to pass judgment on here and now and the trial will resume in Rome in the autumn. Wolsey then attempts to seek help through the diplomatic actions of Thomas More at a peace summit in Calais, in which war should be instigated in order to force the King into more pressing issues for England, but Thomas has his own private motivations behind the diplomacy (preventing war and protecting Catherine of Aragon) and inadvertently thwarts him despite their former friendship.

Having seen Henry yelling furiously at Wolsey a few days earlier, Boleyn, Norfolk and Suffolk sieze this moment to discredit him as much as possible. They succeed when Wolsey attempts to communicate with the king through the man who is secretly the most capable of destroying him; Cromwell, whom Wolsey appointed as the King's new secretary in episode 1.04, but who is also secretly an ally of the Boleyns. Although Wolsey is Cromwell's longtime mentor and patron at the Royal Court (and empathizes with him, as they are both common-born) Cromwell is secretly a supporter of Protestantism, and reluctantly decides to help discredit Wolsey as it will push Henry away from the Catholic Church. Lord Boleyn and Norfolk deal the final blow by revealing that Wolsey has been ordering corrupt monasteries shut down (as he is authorized to do) however, Wolsey has then been using the seized money to invest in his own private enterprises (including Oxford College) instead of depositing it in Henry's exchequer. 

Wolsey calls for Henry as he is stripped of his power.

Despite Wolsey's pathetic loyalty, Henry expells him from most of his offices and removes him from court, allowing him to keep only the title of Bishop of York- a role which leaves him in obscurity. Sir Thomas More is (reluctantly) appointed as the replacement chancellor, and the Boleyn coalition (Thomas and George Boleyn, Norfolk and Brandon) takes control of Henry's council. However, following Wolsey's disgrace, the King quickly becomes unsatisfied with how his kingdom is being run by the new coalition; he threatens to reinstate the Cardinal, reasoning that at least he got things done efficiently and without complaint. Knowing Wolsey will take terrible revenge on them in every way possible if he is ever restored to power, Norfolk urges Brandon to look for a way to end him for good.

Wolsey and his mistress Joan, living in obscurity in York.

After Wolsey lost his power, in the final episode "The Death of Wolsey", he tries far too late to plead for help from Anne Boleyn in an effort to retrieve his power; when Anne snubs him he attempts to contact Catherine of Aragon instead, reasoning that she is more likely to forgive him despite their long history of emnity. He proposes a deal in which he will use his influence in Rome and, combined with the support if the Holy Roman Emperor (her nephew) pressure Henry to leave Anne Boleyn and return to Catherine; in exchange for this, the Emperor is also to insist that Wolsey be reinstated as Chancellor. Unfortunately for Wolsey, despite her interest in the deal Catherine is out of favor and not allowed communication. One of his letters is intercepted by Cromwell's informant, giving the court the excuse they need to arrest him.  Wolsey is sent to the Tower for high treason, facing a trial and almost-certain execution; he finally accepts that he has lost and prays to God, apologizing for his many sins and for the one final sin that will follow. He accepts that he has no right to ask God for forgiveness, but says he will throw his unworthy soul on God's mercy all the same, reasoning that he is not a truly evil man. He then picks up the small dagger used to eat his food and commits suicide by slitting his own throat. 

Wolsey commits suicide.

Henry is later stricken when he learns of Wolsey's death from Cromwell, and instructs that nobody is to know it was a suicide.  He tells the courtiers to leave him alone and stands on the grounds for a while, a look of regret on his face; his longtime mentor and First Minister is now gone.

Subsequent References[]

In the early part of Season Two, several bishops are arrested by Henry and accused of disloyalty due to having shown support for Wolsey, though they are later released. Anne Boleyn mentions Wolsey in an argument with Thomas Cromwell in episode 2.07; she disagrees with his confiscation of the wealth of all monasteries that he closes down for the royal exchequer, reasoning that some of the property should be used to fund educational and charitable causes "which even Wolsey did". Indicating the Cardinal was not entirely as greedy and corrupt as he was made out to be by the court.

Wolsey was mentioned once again in the third season when Henry is considering remarriage yet again and his court has different ideas. When Charles Brandon suggests wooing a Spanish princess, Henry grouses how he has put everyone elses' interests ahead of his own and how Charles wants "an imperial wedding, as did my father, just like Wolsey always wanted me to have a French one!".


Despite Wolsey's corrupt, ruthless and somewhat sycophantic nature in The Tudors, he was a very effective first minister to Henry VIII, at least for the first decade of his reign; like his protege and successor, Cromwell, he carefully managed England's financial, foreign and social policies.  At the same time, he also made important contributions to England's architecture and education: he greatly expanded colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, as well as constructing Henry's favorite palace, Hampton Court.

Wolsey also sought to have Henry's ministers promoted based on their brains and merits, rather than their noble birth alone (as he himself was common-born); he was very loyal to those whom he patronized and befriended, and to those who showed him loyalty. This attempt to loosen the power hold of the old nobility earned him many enemies at court; his frequent attempts to ally England with France were also unpopular.  Ultimately, only his desire to please the King above all else could interfere with his judgement. His downfall came because he was caught between two masters, Henry and the Pope.  Although Thomas Cromwell eventually betrayed Wolsey, in the series he showed some genuine regret for doing so- which makes sense, as Wolsey had been his mentor for years and had launched his career at the Royal court.

Wolsey was to stand trail for treason in actuality. Unlike the series however, Wolsey's life ended when he was arrested and taken from York to London. It was not suicide, but myocardial infarction, which had killed him. This was hinted at when Henry shows regret for Wolsey's death and asks if he was ill, to which Cromwell quietly replies Wolsey ended his own life. Henry orders a top secret mission covering up Wolsey's death as natural in order to help vindicate Wolsey's posthumous reputation, as well as steer attention away now that Wolsey's treason trial is moot.


  • "What would a silly girl like you have to say to the King?" (to Anne Boleyn)
  • "If you refuse to grant this divorce, Cardinal Compeggio, you will lose the King!  And you will lose Papal authority in England, and you will also utterly destroy me, and that I cannot allow!  Do you understand?!"
  • "I don't think anything, but I imagine everything- and it is those imaginings that cause me great pain, Thomas." (to Thomas More)
  • "You are of obscure stock, but then, so am I.  It should not be held against you." (to Thomas Cromwell)
  • Thomas More: "There's only one way to reach the King's ear, and that is through the good offices of Cardinal Wolsey."
  • "I have recently had cause to remember the old saying- 'when the cow rideth the bull, then priest, wear thy skull.'"
  • (as he is arrested, to Charles Brandon) "If I had served God as diligently as I had served the King... he would not have given me up in my gray hairs."
  • "Lord we have not spoken as long or... as often as we should. I've often been about other buisness.  If I wanted forgiveness, I should ask for it but... for all that I have done, for all that I am yet to do, there can be no forgivness. And yet, I think I am... I am not an evil man. No, evil men pray loud, and seek penance, and think themselves closer to heaven than I am. I shall not... see its gates, Lord.  Nor hear your sweet words of salvation.  I have seen eternity, but it was but a dream... I know myself for what I am.  And I throw my poor soul upon your forgiveness, in the full knowledge that I deserve none at your loving hands." (kills himself)