Cardinal Wolsey is King Henry’s Lord Chancellor and chief adviser. He is deeply ambitious, thoroughly corrupt, and very generous.
The son of a butcher, he has made his way up in the world through his own abilities, despite the hatred of noblemen who regard him as an upstart. Despite his protestations, he works for himself before the King, installing his puppets in all the major jobs he can to surround the King with his own people, working against both Katherine and Anne Bullen, and hoping to become Pope. He overtaxes the people behind the King’s back and refuses to take responsibility for it, bribes witnesses to bring about Buckingham’s downfall, makes peace treaties without consulting the King, has his own personal symbol added to the coinage, and amasses a vast personal fortune, as he inherited none. He is a slippery speaker, proclaiming his meekness and goodwill, but he is intensely proud, something recognized by all of his enemies, though not by the King, who trusts him implicitly until he sees visual proof of Wolsey’s machinations. He is named by the Pope co-judge with Campeius of the validity of Queen Katherine’s marriage to the King. He becomes agitated when he realizes that the King’s love for Anne Bullen is making him act independently and listen to heretics. He realizes that he is done for as soon as he discovers that the King has read the letters he sent to the Pope and found out how much he has planned to use to bribe his way to the papacy, but he still refuses to accept his fall unless it is confirmed by the King in person. He takes his fall with resignation and philosophy. Despite everything he is loyal to the King. A bureaucrat to the last, he insists on making a complete inventory of all that he owns when it is confiscated by the King. After his death, even his enemies admit that he was a remarkable man, highly generous and a lover of learning. He enjoys a good party, and knows the King well enough to realize that he must be one of the masked men who crash his feast, and recognizes him behind his disguise.