Thomas Wolsey was a priest from relatively humble beginings, who was blessed with academic brilliance and rapacious ambition. It’s a matter of opinion which of these was more responsible for his rise to become Henry’s first minister, and chief political confidant, but once he’d got to the top, he had a lot to offer. He was perhaps the finest ministerial mind England had ever had until at least the 19th century.
He collected ecclesiastical titles and properties like stamps. He went from being a royal chaplain to Bishop of Lincoln, then Archbishop of York, finally Lord Chancellor of England. He also became Cardinal Wolsey, Papal Legate, whose authority in some respects therefore went beyond that of King Henry VIII himself.
Wolsey began building Hampton Court Palace in 1514, and carried on making improvements throughout the 1520s. Descriptions record rich tapestry-lined apartments, and how you had to traverse eight rooms before finding his audience chamber. He was accused, after his death, of imagining himself the equal of sovereigns, and his fall from power a natural consequence of arrogance and overarching ambition.
Yet Wolsey was also a diligent statesman, who worked hard to translate Henry VIII’s own dreams and ambitions into effective domestic and foreign policy. When he failed to do so, most notably when Henry’s plans to divorce Katherine of Aragon were thwarted by Katherine herself and the Pope, his fall from favour was swift and final.
Thomas Wolsey died on his way to a possible final and fatal meeting with royal wrath, at Leicester Abbey in 1530.