Course of History

Cardinal Wolsey and Wealth

Cardinal Wolsey and Wealth

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Cardinal Wolsey acquired a huge fortune in the years from 1515 to 1529. Wolsey's wealth allowed him to live a lifestyle that to all intents was kingly. Wolsey had a number of homes and his wealth enabled him to purchase Hampton Court and York House (later the Palace of Westminster). Wolsey's court rivalled that of Henry VIII.

A great deal of the cardinal's energy was put into building up his wealth. By 1529, Wolsey was the richest man in the land after Henry VIII. However, such was the nature of his dealings, that much of this wealth was very well disguised and historians cannot give an accurate figure as to Wolsey's income. It is thought that the next richest person in the land after Wolsey only had 10% of Wolsey's income. Wolsey almost certainly had more disposable income than Henry, as the king was required to spend some of his income on specific things such as government. Wolsey had no such restrictions.

Wolsey's income from form many sources. He was well paid for the posts that he held in government but in terms of his overall wealth, the income from being, for example, Lord Chancellor, was but a minor part of his total income. Most of his wealth came from areas that were hard to track down. The fees he charged in the ecclesiastical courts were a good source of income but it was Wolsey's right to hand out ecclesiastical posts when they became vacant that made him his fortune. It was generally accepted that if someone was given a position in the Church, they had to pay for it - possibly as much as a year's income. As no evidence exists for this, it is impossible to speculate just how much this accounted for. Certainly many Church positions became vacant over the course of the years and the probability is that they brought in a vast sum of money for Wolsey, with the more senior positions offering the best chance of more money.

Wolsey spent his money in a manner that showed all and sundry just how important the butcher's son had become. He had four main palaces of which Hampton Court was the most famous and glorious. He spent prodigious amounts of money on these building projects to show people just how important he was. He also employed a great number of people. At the least, he had a court of 500 people and on great occasions like a banquet for a foreign visitor, it may have been double this. He gave very expensive gifts to foreign visitors in the hope that they would report his vast wealth back in mainland Europe. When he travelled abroad, he ensured that his staff wore the finest of clothes that he paid for. The only major problem Wolsey had - and money was not one of these - was ensuring that he did not outdo the king in the magnificence of his lifestyle. His hallmark when he travelled was two large silver crosses carried in front of him - one as Archbishop of York, the other as he was a 'legatus a latere' - the most senior of the Pope's representatives. All this ostentation was to ensure that people knew his wealth. Wolsey equated public respect with wealth and if you were wealthy, people should know about it. It was this attitude to wealth and his very public display of it that led to him having many enemies