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Museum of Oxford Digital Exhibitions

A cardinal's hat

Photo credit: By kind permission of the Governing Body of Christ Church, Oxford

Reformers argued that the medieval Church’s clergy, bishops, and cardinals interfered too much in political life and exploited their position in pursuit of wealth and power. One of these ‘princes of the Church’ was Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor. He was made a cardinal – one of the most senior priests in the whole Church – by Pope Leo X in 1515.

Second only to the king in his authority, Wolsey played a major role in brokering power. He was also a generous patron of the arts and education. In 1525, Wolsey dissolved St Frideswide’s Priory to found Cardinal College, planned as a lasting monument to himself. Wolsey’s rival Thomas Cromwell conceded, ‘Every man thinks the like was never seen for largeness, beauty, sumptuous, curious and substantial building’. Wolsey’s power did not last. When he failed to gain the Pope’s permission for Henry VIII to annul the marriage to  his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, who failed to give him male heir, and marry Anne Boleyn, he rapidly fell from grace. His property was seized, his titles removed, and Cardinal College became King Henry VIII’s College in 1532.

Wolsey was charged with ‘praemunire’, the crime of asserting the authority of a foreign power -- the Pope at Rome -- against that of the English monarch. Later accused of treason, he died before his trial in 1530. Wolsey’s hat survives in the library of the college he founded, now called Christ Church, and is depicted in the college’s arms. Cardinal and statesman, Wolsey’s career and fall belong to a world that would soon vanish from England.