The conversion of the cardinal? Pride and penitence in some Tudor histories of Thomas Wolsey
The life of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, lord chancellor of England from 1515 to 1529, has inspired no small number of literary, historical, and dramatic retellings. A comprehensive study of these texts remains to be written, but this article seeks to make a start by examining how Tudor writers portrayed the cardinal’s response to his deposition and subsequent disgrace. For some authors, Wolsey’s fall only made him more proud, and he began to act erratically and disloyally, confirming the wisdom of the king’s decision to relieve him of office. For others, deposition moved Wolsey to become philosophical and penitent, and some such writers depict a cardinal who at the end of his life underwent nothing short of a conversion. This article traces both of these historiographical trajectories from their origins in writings of the late 1540s and 1550s through a range of late Tudor chronicle accounts. Elements of both narratives about the cardinal appear, prominently if not always congruously, in one of the best-known theatrical works about the events of the reign of Henry VIII, the play King Henry VIII (All Is True) by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Understanding the interrelationships between the Tudor texts presented here is essential to grasping later portrayals of Wolsey and his contemporaries.
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