Polydore Vergil on the Rise of Wolsey
While these things were being done abroad by Henry’s friends in the alliance, at home one concern preoccupied Richard Bishop of Winchester and Earl Thomas of Surrey, as each asked himself how he might deprive the other of his fortune.
But Winchester did this more anxiously, now thinking the earl’s power was to be feared because he was daily heaping honours on his friends and relatives, and so he was looking for a man to set up in opposition to the earl, who might eventually cast him down from his high position. There was in the royal household a priest named Thomas Wolsey, one of the number of royal chaplains, not unlearned in Scripture, a clever fellow, and most ready for any undertaking. Although he did not know him well, Winchester (as is reasonable to believe) thought him suitable to attach to the royal side.
First he began to praise him to the skies in the king’s hearing, and then to confer with him, revealing his thoughts, and urging and exhorting him to think hard about acquiring the reins of government. He had already taken a step in that direction, and, if he would apply himself, he had the ability to attain to supreme dignity and become the equal of the highest in the land. Wolsey did not turn a deaf ear to these things, and quickly came to be optimistic that he would employ certain methods to achieve that which Winchester wanted, the removal of the earl from all responsibility and power, if only he could obtain a place with the king where he could gain the royal ear and tell him the things he was prepared to say directly, and not through an intermediary.
These things having been arranged, a few days later Winchester managed to have Wolsey made the royal almoner and given a seat on the Privy Council, and gave him much credit, publicly and in private, for his prudence, vigilance, and industry. The earl was not unaware why Winchester was favouring this upstart, but thus far he thought it best to dissimulate until Thomas, like a novice sailor setting forth on the sea, would run his ship onto some reefs. But Wolsey, gaining this office, now began to cling to the royal side, and it is wonderful how quickly he made himself welcome and pleasing to the company of young men who were Henry’s favourites. For he was a witty fellow who would often cast aside his priestly personage, abandon his gravity, and strum the lute, dance, indulge in pleasant conversation, smile, joke, and play. But in all seriousness he would promise the king great things.
And do so more effectively in the absence of all onlookers, he turned his own house into a shrine of all the pleasures, and would take the king there frequently, where he would inculcate, instil, and drum into his ears that the commonwealth was in a bad state because of its many governors, since each one was serving his own interest. But if the supreme administration of affairs were entrusted to himself, undoubtedly he would deal much better with public affairs without bothering his prince.
For, since he was in the flower of his young manhood, it was much more fitting for him to devote himself to learning, and occasionally to honest pleasures, rather than be bothered by cares. By saying this and similar things over and over, he brought the young man to such a pitch of hope that he persuaded himself that the government of the realm would be more safely entrusted to one than to many, and that it was permissible to commit it to somebody other than himself until he attained maturity of years, when he himself could manage things.
Having by this means obtained great power, Wolsey began to rule the commonwealth as he wished, and to do much in his own right and as he saw fit, relying most of all on Winchester’s help, who preferred his protégé above all others. And because Winchester was held in bad repute by many good men, although he was virtuous, he gradually retired from public affairs.
Wolsey, having gained power, was above all mindful of the old proverb, he who is not wise to his own advantage is not wise at all, and decided that his very slender fortune needed to be increased. For we should not ignore our interests, when we are in need. In a brief while he so abounded in wealth and throve in authority that he became so puffed-up and arrogant that he did not even hold noblemen in any great esteem, nor did he value his friends, especially old his old ones, who came flocking to him (and indeed a great many did come a-flocking), partly to congratulate him on his newly-gained honour, and partly to further their own affairs.
He spoke to some of these grudgingly, and did not even want to look at others, although from boyhood he had been most close to them in familiarity, use, and habit. For not only his mind, but even his ears quailed at being reminded of his previous life, for he had for a father who was an upright man, but a butcher, which he did not like to remember, as something unworthy of his station.
For all day long he would think about what he was, not where he had come from, although in truth he should have gloried and boasted that he had risen to greatness from such a state. So it came about that no man dared remind him of their old friendship.
Soon thereafter he gave a greater and clearer sign by which his arrogance could easily be marked. As far as I am aware, he was both the first the first and the last of the entire priesthood, including bishops and Cardinals, to wear an outer garment made of silk, also rashly adopted by those priests who wished to curry his favour. And indeed this mannerism, silly as it was, created great hostility among the priesthood.
Charles Brandon also held great authority in the king’s eyes, although he avoided competing for this with Wolsey, so they were harmonious in thought and in word. Others, too, enjoyed the royal favour, each one acting so as to serve his private interest. And so the result of the quarrel between Winchester and the earl was that Henry let Wolsey bear a share of his burden.
Relieved of this as he was, since Henry was a man of good character, well raised, and born to govern, he did not entirely shirk his duty, but so that he might pass his time honourably and usefully he took the time to devote himself attentively to his studies, for relaxation he played music, and he carefully pored over the books of St. Thomas Aquinas. This he did at Wolsey’s urging, who was a dedicated Thomist. Likewise, being avid for glory, he was deeply involved in military matters, for he knew its glory surpasses all the others.