Thomas Wolsey: In History & Literature

A Reading List

Chapter 1: History

Wolsey was one of the first politicians and statesmen in England to be the subject of a biography.His early biographer was George Cavendish (brother of the Sir William Cavendish whose descendants are now Dukes of Devonshire). Cavendish was Wolsey's Gentleman-Usher in the last few years of his life. Thus, he was not close to Wolsey in his triumph, but his position gave him access when Wolsey had less to do, and was therefore more inclined to talk to his attendants at length about the past.

Cavendish's biography, which is still in print, is a very positive portrait of his master (buy here).

Far less complimentary were Polydore Vergil and Edward Hall. Vergil, who is generally a balanced reporter, had a personal grudge against Wolsey, whom he believed had blocked him from promotion.Edward Hall was a reformer who saw Wolsey as the exemplification of every ill of the old Church.

Throughout the following centuries Wolsey was seen as a villain – an early attempt by Richard Fiddes in 1724 to rescue his reputation was roundly condemned for casting aspersions on the glory of the Reformation. It was not until the late nineteenth century that he was rehabilitated by historians such as Creighton, who saw a foreshadowing of Empire in his efforts to make England centre stage in European politics.

In the twentieth century he was the subject of a major biography in the 1920s by that colossus of Tudor History, A F Pollard. Pollard is definitely of the school that believes Wolsey wanted to be Pope, and that he dominated Henry VIII.

Much of Pollard's basic thesis is overturned by Dr Peter Gwyn, whose several hundred pages of densely printed text give a complete picture of the political ins and outs in England between the years 1509 and 1530. Gwyn convincingly shows that Henry was in charge all along, but, the work, though a superlatively detailed political biography, tells us very little about Wolsey as a man.

The Cardinal is a joint subject with Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell respectively in Jasper Ridley's " The Statesman and the Fanatic", and "The Cardinal and the Secretary".

Any student of Henry VIII will, of course, meet Wolsey in J J Scarisbrick's work of 1968 which still retains its primacy as an account of Henry's reign. For a more modern take, there is Dr David Starkey.

Gwyn’s biography was so detailed and dense that there was definitely room for a more digestible format – hence Matusiak’s work of 2015 (reviewed here). Matusiak, however, although he provided some valuable insights, does not have the depth of knowledge of the court of Henry VIII, and the part that Wolsey played in, that Richardson has, having devoted his career to the period, particularly the event surrounding Wolsey’s greatest organisational and diplomatic triumph, the Field of Cloth of Gold. Hence Richardson’s 2020 work is a very welcome addition to the field.

Life of Cardinal Wolsey - George Cavendish (Forgotten Books, 2009)

Cardinal Wolsey - Mandell Creighton (Bibliolife, January 2009)

The King's Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey - Peter Gwyn (Pimlico, 1992)

Wolsey: The Life of King Henry VIII's Cardinal - John Matusiak (The History Press Ltd, 2015)

Wolsey - Glenn Richardson (Routledge Historical Biographies, 2020)

SThe Statesman and the Fanatic: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas More - Jasper Ridley (Constable, 1985)

Henry VIII (Yale English Monarchs Series) - J. J. Scarisbrick (Yale University Press, April 1997)

The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics - David Starkey (Vintage, October 2002)

The Cardinal and the Secretary: Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell - Neville Williams (Macmillan, 1976)