Renaissance and Reformation Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Stella Fletcher
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 July 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 July 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0355


Thomas Wolsey (b. 1470/1–d. 1530) was the English Renaissance cardinal par excellence: archbishop of York, lord chancellor, prince of the Church, papal legate, peacemaker between nations, and patron of the arts and of education. The more he sought to achieve, the more he was resented by the king’s other subjects; the higher he rose, the further he had to fall. When he failed to secure the papal annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he lost everything apart from the benefices he had long neglected. There is no shortage of Reference Works with entries devoted to Wolsey, just as there are numerous Primary Sources that may be mined for relevant material. On the other hand, there is only one Collection of Papers devoted to the cardinal’s career and cultural patronage. Biography has to be at the heart of the present bibliography, but such is the nature of the literature that it is appropriate to emphasize not merely the cardinal’s life, but his Life, Death, and Afterlife. In the Renaissance period itself, Wolsey acquired a literary afterlife that was without parallel, in part because of the potential lessons to be learned from rising so high and falling so far. His Reputation was first established by his critics, during his lifetime and soon after his death. In the midst of that process, his former servant George Cavendish sought to counter those negative assessments by writing down his own personal recollections of the cardinal. Such is the significance of the Life by Cavendish that it merits its own section. Only then is it appropriate to turn to analysis of the cardinal’s Downfall and Death and finally to his Modern Biographies, those which have been published from the late 19th century onward. Thereafter, the bibliography assumes a more thematic character, addressing English domestic history in Wolsey and Tudor Politics, and relations between states in Diplomacy and War. Ecclesiastical matters are dealt with in Wolsey as Churchman, though his Educational Patronage was essentially about forming future generations of clerics. Finally, Wolsey’s taste for magnificence is most evident in the section devoted to Cultural Patronage. Overall, interest in Wolsey peaked with Gwyn 1990 (cited under Modern Biographies) and Gunn and Lindley 1991 (under Collection of Papers), meaning that more recent years have proved to be relatively fallow in comparison.

Reference Works

At least in terms of reference material, Eubel 1910 is the second edition of a work that can be regarded as the foundation stone for all subsequent scholarship on the Renaissance cardinalate. For present purposes, it is valuable as a means of appreciating Wolsey as part of a considerably greater whole: the universal Church. That contrasts with Emden 1959, which derives largely from English sources. These two approaches are perpetuated in the more recent reference works in this selection, for Catholic Hierarchy and Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church are both in the tradition of Eubel 1910. The former is more limited in the range of material on offer relating to Wolsey, but its utility is more obvious; the latter offers considerably more raw information, including of a bibliographical nature, but needs to be used with a little care. In the insular tradition, Matthew and Harrison 2004 is invaluable, whether for an account of Wolsey’s career or for those of his more significant contemporaries.

  • The Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church. 1998–.

    Pope Leo X created forty-two cardinals, of whom Wolsey was the fifth, promoted on 10 September 1515. Miranda lists them in order of promotion. From the general list links can be followed to more specific biographical and bibliographical information. In the way of electronic resources, this one tries to be all-inclusive and needs to be treated with an element of caution.

  • Catholic Hierarchy.

    This online resource derives much of its information from Eubel 1910 and other volumes in that series. Wolsey’s personal entry includes a list of the prelates who consecrated him as a bishop (of Lincoln). Note that those dioceses that emerged from the Reformation in Anglican hands—including all those previously held by Wolsey—appear as “historic.”

  • Emden, A. B. A Biographical Register of the University of Oxford to 1500. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1959.

    Wolsey’s entry (Vol. III, 2077–2080) extends far beyond his university record and is an excellent source for his minor benefices. His contributions to domestic and foreign policy are summarized, as are his fall from power and his educational and cultural patronage. The register is no less useful for tracing many of the cardinal’s clerical contemporaries.

  • Eubel, Konrad. Hierarchia catholica medii aevi. Vol. III. Münster, Germany: Sumptibus et typis librariae Regensbergianae, 1910.

    Originally intended to list only medieval popes, cardinals, and bishops, Hierarchia catholica eventually reached the modern era. Wolsey appears in Vol. III, as cardinal-priest of Santa Cecilia (1515–1530), archbishop of York (1514–1530), bishop of Lincoln (1514), of Bath and Wells (1518–1523), of Durham (1523–1530) and of Winchester (1529–1530). Detailed references make this superior to superficially similar works.

  • Matthew, H. C. G., and Brian Harrison, eds. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 60 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.

    This is the most convenient biographical and bibliographical resource for all the more significant English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh figures in Wolsey’s life story. The wide-ranging entry on Wolsey himself is by Sybil M. Jack and can be supplemented by those of the cardinal’s son, Thomas Wynter, and biographer, George Cavendish.

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