Few figures in British history have risen as high or become as powerful as Thomas Wolsey. As a cardinal and statesman in the government of King Henry VIII, he was almost as powerful as the king himself. So when a new statue was unveiled of Wolsey in his hometown of Ipswich, it was something of a surprise to see this towering character represented in a more approachable manner, presenting Wolsey as an enlightened teacher rather than a titan of Tudor England.
Thomas Wolsey was born in Ipswich around 1472. Though he was the son of a butcher rather than a nobleman, he received a good education at Oxford University and was ordained a priest in 1498. He served as a chaplain to Henry VII, but his rise to prominence began during the reign of Henry VIII. Upon his succession, the young monarch appointed Wolsey as royal almoner, or distributor of alms for the poor. King Henry VIII soon gave Wolsey more power over state affairs.
In December 1515, Wolsey became Lord Chancellor of England, serving as the King’s chief advisor. His power grew, and with it the jealousy and rivalry of many nobles. For 14 years Wolsey served as Lord Chancellor, using his intelligence, shrewdness, and experience to cement his position as the most powerful man in Britain (apart from the King himself). But his desire for wealth, his penchant for scandal—he fathered an illegitimate son and daughter—and his lowborn background earned him even more enemies.
His fall from power was swift. When Henry sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, he tasked Wolsey with carrying out the act. But when Wolsey failed to persuade Pope Clement VII to annul the marriage, his rivals pounced. They turned Henry against him, and Wolsey was stripped of all but one of his offices. In 1530 he was accused of treason and ordered to return to London. He set out for the capital but died during the journey.
Despite his eventual fall from grace, Wolsey was a hugely influential figure in British history. His energetic nature, sharp legal mind, and keen intellect helped him amass a great fortune. He was a major benefactor to the arts, humanities, and education, and brought about or proposed many reforms in the nation’s financial, taxation, educational, and justice systems.
The bronze statue of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in Ipswich was designed by David Annand and unveiled in 2011. Slightly larger than life but deliberately kept to lifelike proportions, the statue sits in the town center surrounded by a handful of Tudor houses that would have been there when Wolsey was born.
It represents Wolsey not as a political heavyweight but rather as an enlightened educator. The seated figure holds a book in one hand with the other raised as if in the act of teaching. Around the base of the statue are the following words: “Cardinal, archbishop, Lord Chancellor and teacher who believed that pleasure should mingle with study so that the child may think learning an amusement rather than a toil.”
The overall effect is an approachable and contemporary statue of Wolsey—and his cat. Peering out from the side of Wolsey’s seat is an attentive-looking cat, a reference to the Cardinal’s supposed love for feline companions. Historical evidence is scarce on this subject of Wolsey’s pets, and it’s possible that the stories were made up by his rivals. Cats didn’t have the best reputation at the time—in 1484 Pope Innocent VIII declared cats “the devil’s favorite animal and idol of all witches.” So either Wolsey’s affection for cats was great enough to ignore the Pope’s strange proclamation, or his enemies spread false rumors to make him appear more sinister.
Know Before You Go
The statue of Cardinal Wolsey is located at the junction of Silent Street and St. Peter's Street in Ipswich town center. It’s near the spot where Wolsey is believed to have grown up.