Cardinal Wolsey suffers from being the image of the Catholic Church prior to Henry VIII’s break with Rome and consequentially a figure for anticlerical comment. He was also not careful about being nice to folk on the way up the greasy pole of ambition forgetting that he might well meet them on the way back down. There were plenty of members of the nobility who were more than happy to bring him down to earth with a bump most notably the duke of Norfolk. Today’s post, however, is about Cardinal Wolsey’s role in Henry VIII’s somewhat tangled love life.
Wolsey appears in a legal capacity in relation to Anne Stafford, the wife of Lord Hastings. Anne was the daughter of the duke of Buckingham. Her older sister Elizabeth was the wife of the earl of Sussex. Both sisters served Catherine of Aragon. A scandal broke during May 1510. We know of it thanks to the gleeful writings of Spanish Ambassador Luis Caroz. What appears to have happened is that Henry, now that Catherine was pregnant, looked elsewhere for diversion. He looked in the direction of his cousin Anne Stafford. She was eight years older than him, married for the second time but childless (she went on to have eight children with Lord Hastings). Somehow or other Elizabeth got to hear about the dodgy goings on and spoke with her brother who in turn summoned Lord Hastings. Sir William Compton, one of the king’s friends, was caught in Anne’s private chamber. There was a lively discussion with the duke of Buckingham announcing that his sister wasn’t for the likes of Compton or for Tudors either (he probably came to regret that particular phrase). The upshot of it was that Hastings took his wife away from court to a nunnery where neither Compton or Henry could dally with the lady in question. Henry VIII was deeply unhappy and banished Elizabeth and her husband from court for being a pair of tattletales which meant that the scandal came to the attention of Catherine of Aragon resulting in a very unpleasant argument between the royal couple.
Three years later Henry gave Anne a very expensive New Year’s gift well beyond what protocol or courtesy dictated giving rise to speculation that the couple resumed their relationship. Double click on Anne Stafford’s image to open a new page and an earlier post from the History Jar on the subject.
Where does Wolsey fit into this? Well in 1527 he had Sir William Compton charged with adultery with Anne. Compton swore an oath that he hadn’t been up to any such thing but his will written in 1522 suggests otherwise as not only did he ask for prayers to be said for Anne but he left money for her use as well.
Let us move to the next mistress – Bessie Blount (b 1499 ish). It is speculated that Henry’s affair with Bessie began sometime after 1513 during one of Catherine of Aragon’s periods of ill health but no one is certain of this. There is a letter in existence from Charles Brandon (Mary Tudor’s second husband) to the king giving his very best wishes via the king to Bessie Blount and to Elizabeth Carew (who may well have been yet another royal mistress). The letter gives rise to speculation that Brandon may have had a fling with Bessie prior to Henry showing interest, equally it might all have been part of the ritual of courtly love and have meant nothing at all or, equally, Brandon knowing the king’s interest in the ladies doing a spot of creeping. What we can be certain of is that in 1518 Catherine of Aragon miscarried a girl and that a month later Bessie Blount produced a bouncing baby boy.
Evidence suggests that Wolsey was given the task of arranging for Bessie to have somewhere suitable for her laying-in at the Priory of St Lawrence near Chelmsford or Jericho as it was known. The evidence is based on the fact that Wolsey was absent from London for much of June 1519 which coincides with Henry Fitzroy’s birth. Thomas Wolsey also became the child’s godfather. Fitzroy remained under the care of the cardinal until he fell from favour in 1529 when he moved under the auspices of the Howard family.
The next mistress in our story proved to be Wolsey’s downfall. Popular history has it that it was Wolsey who split the young lovers Henry Percy and Anne Boleyn from one another in 1523. Percy was the heir of the earl of Northumberland and was part of Wolsey’s household whilst Anne was nothing but a ‘foolish girl.’ George Cavendish, Wosley’s biographer, notes that the leading aristocratic families were happy to have sons in Wolsey’s household. He was at the heart of power after all. Cavendish says that Henry had already taken a shine to Anne Boleyn and wished to put a spoke in Percy’s plans to marry the girl. Wolsey sent Percy home with a flea in his ear to marry the girl his family had already selected for him; Mary Talbot, daughter of the earl of Shrewsbury. In 1532 Mary Talbot claimed that Henry Percy had been pre-contracted to Anne Boleyn and thus her marriage was null and void. Given that Henry was in hot pursuit of Anne Boleyn at that time it wasn’t the most politically astute thing to have been saying. Even though Henry no longer looked to Rome a dispensation from the Archbishop of Canterbury exists thawing that all impediments to marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were removed including the unknown ones!
We cannot know whether Anne and Henry Percy really did love one another or the extent to which their relationship had developed. We have circumstantial evidence in terms of Henry Percy weeping when Anne Boleyn was condemned and also the evidence of Cavendish as well as assorted hostile ambassadors. To find out more about George Cavendish and his version of events double click on the image of Anne Boleyn to open a new page and an earlier post.
What we do know for certain is that Wolsey was unable to unravel Henry’s marriage from Catherine of Aragon and that this was what led to his fall from favour in 1529 even though Henry is said to have declared he couldn’t afford to lose the cardinal and sent him a ring as a token of his affections when Thomas became ill. Come to think of it Wolsey didn’t get on very well with Catherine of Aragon either. She regarded him as pro-french and thus anti-spanish as well as being the man who ensured that she was sidelined in politics by making himself indispensable to the king.