Thomas Wolsey: Life Story

Chapter 1: Obscurity (1470 - 1501)

Ipswich, Suffolk, in the 1470s was one of the most prosperous towns in England. East Anglia was an important centre of the wool trade, with English fleeces being sent from its ports to the Low Countries and goods imported in return. Within Ipswich there was a school, possibly founded by the Guild of Corpus Christi, or perhaps attached to one of the monasteries, where the sons of local traders and farmers could learn to read and write in English and Latin, and study enough mathematics to run a business. To this school, in the late 1470s, went a young boy by the name of Thomas Wolsey.

St-Nicholas’-Church-Ipswich-where-Wolsey’s-father-was-Church-Warden
St Nicholas' Church, Ipswich, where Wolsey's father was Church Warden

Thomas Wolsey's birth date and parentage are not absolutely proven, but the generally accepted view is that he was born in the early 1470s to Robert Wolsey (or Wulcy) a butcher and grazier of Ipswich, and his wife Joan Daundy.

It seems likely that he had an older brother, both from his name (most first sons were named for their father) and from the fact that his father was keen for him to become a priest, as evidenced by Robert Wolsey's Will. Had Thomas been the older son, he would have been expected to carry on the prosperous family business.

1828-print-by-Nash-of-Dining-Hall-of-Magalen-College-–-showing-picture-of-Wolsey-as-a-notable-alumnus
1828 print by Nash of Dining Hall at Magdalen College, showing picture of Wolsey as a notable alumnus

Thomas did so well at the school that he was given one of the four scholarships in the gift of the Bishop of Norwich to Magdalen College Oxford.

His exceptional intellect enabled him to complete his BA by the age of fifteen – even in a time when many scholars completed their BA earlier than is done now, this was considered remarkable.

Magdalen-College-School-where-Wolsey-was-appointed-Master
Magdalen College School where Wolsey was appointed Master

As with most scholars, the next step was a Fellowship of his College, followed by ordination as a priest on 10 th March 1498. Later that year, Wolsey was appointed as Master of Magdalen School and then College Bursar in 1499.

It has been alleged that whilst in his position of Bursar, he misappropriated funds - not for his own use, but for building works on the College tower.

This story is plausible, given his later penchant for building, but, according to his chief biographer, Peter Gwyn in " The King's Cardinal", there is no record of it in the documents of Magdalen, and he was not deprived of his Fellowship.

Arms-of-Sir-Thomas-Grey-1st-Marquess-of-Dorset-1455-1501.-Wolsey’s-first-patron
Arms of Sir Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset (1455 - 1501). Wolsey's first patron.

Among the schoolmaster's pupils were the three sons of Thomas Grey, 2 nd Marquess of Dorset, half-brother to Queen Elizabeth of York. At Christmas 1499, Wolsey was called upon to accompany the young Grey boys to their home at Bradgate in Leicestershire. He obviously impressed his host, the Marquess, and was granted a living at Limington in Somerset.

Receipt of a living of the scale of Limington (£21 per annum) obliged him to resign his Fellowship. Priests were also supposed to live in their parishes, unless they had a licence to be absent.

Remains-of-Bradgate-House-Leicestershire-home-of-the-Grey-family
Remains of Bradgate House, Leicestershire home of the Grey family

According to his earliest biographer, Cavendish, Wolsey went to Limington and carried out his functions as parish priest and schoolmaster, and whilst there fell out with the local landowner, Sir Amyas Paulet, who had him set in the stocks for some misdemeanour.

Later biographers have cast doubt on this, not only as it would be most unusual to shame a priest in such a manner, but also because there is some doubt as to whether Wolsey went to Limington at all. However, if the rumour were current during Wolsey's lifetime, or just after, it no doubt gave rise to a good deal of sniggering.