Lo­cal hero

Sarah E Doig cel­e­brates the life of Ip­swich’s fa­mous son, Thomas Wolsey

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

The ex­tra­or­di­nary life of Thomas Wolsey

IN June 1930, a rather ex­tra­or­di­nary event took place on the lawn in front of Christchurch Man­sion in Ip­swich. Lo­cal gov­ern­ment, busi­nesses and towns­peo­ple came to­gether to stage a se­ries of nine per­for­mances of a pageant, the like of which had not been seen in the county town of Suf­folk in mod­ern times.

This his­tor­i­cal play in­volved a cast of around 1,000 lo­cal men, women and chil­dren. It drew an au­di­ence of 25,000 who had paid ticket prices rang­ing from 1 shilling and 6 pence to 21 shillings for the best seats. In ex­change, the spec­ta­tors were treated to a lav­ish feast of theatre, danc­ing and mu­sic. No ex­pense was spared in pro­duc­ing stun­ning cos­tumes, scenery and props to ac­com­pany this ex­trav­a­ganza. It was staged to com­mem­o­rate the 400th an­niver­sary of the death of one of Ip­swich’s most fa­mous res­i­dents who, de­spite his rel­a­tively hum­ble ori­gins rose to be­come King Henry VIII’s chief ad­viser.


Thomas Wolsey was born in the early 1470s in the heart of pros­per­ous me­dieval Ip­swich. The town had been founded in An­glo-Saxon times when it was an im­por­tant cen­tre for the man­u­fac­ture of pot­tery, the kilns pro­duc­ing the dis­tinc­tive Ip­swich Ware. Ip­swich’s po­si­tion on the north bank of the River Or­well meant its promi­nence as an in­ter­na­tional trad­ing port grew rapidly. By the Mid­dle Ages, Ip­swich was a bustling, thriv­ing com­mu­nity with nu­mer­ous churches, five monas­tic or­ders and four hos­pi­tals. The town cen­tre was packed with mar­kets and shops of­fer­ing all man­ner of goods. Wolsey was, dur­ing his life­time, de­scribed as a butcher’s boy by his en­e­mies who sought to be­lit­tle the great man. How­ever, it is prob­a­ble that his fa­ther, Robert, was a mod­est landowner who sold the live­stock he reared on his land. Robert was also church­war­den at nearby St Ni­cholas’ church where Thomas must have gone on Sun­days too.

Lit­tle is known about Thomas Wolsey’s early life other than he was for­tu­nate enough to re­ceive an ed­u­ca­tion at Ip­swich Gram­mar School, later the Ip­swich School. Like other such gram­mar schools, the estab­lish­ment in Ip­swich benefitted from an en­dow­ment, in this case from a rich mer­chant and politi­cian. This meant that some free places at the school could be of­fered to chil­dren from fam­i­lies who could not af­ford school fees. From this point on­wards, Wolsey did not look back. He moved to Ox­ford and re­ceived fur­ther ed­u­ca­tion at Mag­dalen Col­lege, mov­ing on to study the­ol­ogy and to be or­dained as a priest. The stu­dent then turned into an ed­u­ca­tor be­com­ing Mas­ter of Mag­dalen Col­lege School.


Thomas Wolsey’s rise to power be­gan at the court of Henry VII when he was ap­pointed royal chap­lain. Clearly a very able and am­bi­tious man, Wolsey benefitted from the king’s in­tro­duc­tion of mea­sures to curb the power of the no­bil­ity, favour­ing in­stead men

from more hum­ble back­grounds. And by the time of the monarch’s death in 1509 and the ac­ces­sion of his son, Henry VIII, Thomas Wolsey was prov­ing his skill at diplo­macy and po­lit­i­cal af­fairs. Sev­eral ap­point­ments to high of­fices in the church quickly fol­lowed, cul­mi­nat­ing in Septem­ber 1514 with Wolsey’s ap­point­ment as Arch­bishop of York and a year later by the pope cre­at­ing him a car­di­nal. Just one month later, Henry VIII ap­pointed Car­di­nal Wolsey as Lord Chan­cel­lor of Eng­land. So, at the age of just 40, the ‘butcher’s boy’ from Ip­swich had at­tained one of the high­est ranks in both church and state.

As one of Henry VIII’s clos­est coun­sel­lors, Thomas Wolsey be­came a rich man. In 1514, Wolsey ac­quired a site on the Thames near Lon­don and over the next seven years, he spent a small for­tune on the con­struc­tion of a palace at Hamp­ton Court; a home fit for a car­di­nal. But he did not use his money purely for his own en­joy­ment. Wolsey founded his own Ox­ford col­lege, Car­di­nal Col­lege (now known as Christ Church) and then set about con­struct­ing a school in Ip­swich. The Col­lege of St Mary, as it was called, was founded on the site of the dis­solved pri­ory of St Pe­ter and St Paul, one of the many monas­ter­ies across the coun­try which Wolsey had had closed due to al­leged cor­rup­tion. In 1528, Car­di­nal Wolsey ap­pointed a dean and staff for his Ip­swich col­lege who were to teach 50 chil­dren. The for­mer pri­ory church of St Pe­ter’s in one cor­ner of the col­lege site be­came Wolsey’s school chapel.

He had great plans to trans­form the church into some­thing re­sem­bling Eton Col­lege chapel and the mag­nif­i­cent King’s Col­lege chapel in Cam­bridge. Just one year af­ter open­ing, the school was such a suc­cess that dis­cus­sions took place for it to be en­larged. How­ever, Wolsey was des­tined not to im­ple­ment these more am­bi­tious plans.

Be­ing Henry VIII’s right-hand man came with its per­ils and Car­di­nal Wolsey fell vic­tim to the king’s own ruth­less am­bi­tions. Henry was deter­mined to get an an­nul­ment of his mar­riage to Cather­ine of Aragon so he was free to marry Anne Bo­leyn. But de­spite stren­u­ous ef­forts, Wolsey was not able to se­cure this an­nul­ment as fast as Henry and Anne wanted. And so, in De­cem­ber 1529 he was stripped of his role of Lord Chan­cel­lor and his property, in­clud­ing Hamp­ton Court, was seized. Car­di­nal Thomas Wolsey died a year later in Le­ices­ter where he is buried.

Wolsey’s Ip­swich col­lege was closed in Oc­to­ber 1530 and the king or­dered the de­mo­li­tion of the build­ings. Iron­i­cally, the bricks and other ma­te­ri­als from the dis­man­tled school were shipped to Lon­don to en­large York Place, an­other of Wolsey’s for­mer prop­er­ties, which was to be­come Henry’s royal palace of White­hall. Only the for­mer wa­ter­side gate, the south­ern­most en­trance to Thomas Wolsey’s col­lege, re­mains to­day, stand­ing along­side St Pe­ter’s Church.

Thomas Wolsey, 1514.

Above: Wolsey’s Gate in Ip­swich Be­low and top right: A grand pro­cess­sion pa­raded through the streets of Ip­swich to un­veil the new statue of Car­di­nal Thomas Wolsey cre­ated by David An­nand in St Pe­ters Street. The late Dr John Blatchly was the force...

The Thomas Wolsey Free House is close to where the man was born

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