Iconology of a Cardinal Was Wolsey Really so Large?

Characterised as manipulative, power-hungry, and even an alter rex, Henry VIII’s right-hand man Cardinal Thomas Wolsey has been typically depicted with a body mass to rival his political weight. Katherine Harvey asks if he was really the glutton of popular legend, and what such an image reveals about the link between the body, reputation, and power in Tudor England.

May 3, 2018

dsdScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, artist unknown, late 16th century — Source.

Robed in cardinal’s red and of considerable bulk, Thomas Wolsey’s is one of the most enduring images of the Tudor period. Over the past five centuries, he has been consistently represented as a corpulent churchman, in art, on stage and screen, and in popular culture.

Yet this familiar version of Wolsey (1470/1–1530) comes not from a contemporary likeness, but from a portrait painted towards the end of the sixteenth century, at least six decades after Wolsey’s death. It may be based on a contemporary portrait of him, but if so the original has not survived. Not only is there a lack of visual evidence for Wolsey’s appearance, we also lack detailed written descriptions. One Venetian ambassador, Sebastian Giustinian, judged him to be “very handsome”, and another described him as “hale and of good presence” — neither description helps to answer the question of the cardinal’s physique. Hostile biographers have typically assumed that Wolsey was indeed a very fat man; more sympathetic historians have been more sceptical, with Peter Gwyn arguing that “there has to be a suspicion that since his death the poor cardinal’s girth has increased, even as his fame has diminished!”1 The truth is, we don’t know (and almost certainly never will know) what Wolsey actually looked like.

Whatever the reality, the image of the fat cardinal was a potent one. As Henry VIII’s chief minister and the most powerful churchman in England, Wolsey was always a divisive figure: he had many critics during his lifetime, and the criticism continued for many years after his death. In the decades after the English Reformation, he became a symbol of everything that was wrong with the late medieval church: it was greedy, corrupt, and self-serving, with no interest in caring for the souls it was meant to save. His fat body, which proved to the world that he was gluttonous and self-indulgent, hinted at his deeper and more damaging flaws.

Wolsey’s contemporaries had a strong idea of what a priest’s body was supposed to look like and how he should behave around food. The ideal churchman was an ascetic, or at least was austere: he ate little, took scant interest or pleasure in food, and had a correspondingly slender physique. In theory, Wolsey should have modelled himself on his saintly predecessors — men such as Thomas Becket, who apparently fasted so much that he nearly died of starvation and had to be forced by his confessor to relax his diet in order to save his life. Although such extreme behaviour was rare in early Tudor England, fasting remained an important religious practice. Wolsey’s fellow bishops included William Warham, archbishop of Canterbury, and John Fisher, bishop of Rochester — men who were renowned for their piety and strict living, and who were depicted by Holbein as elderly, distinguished, and gaunt.

dsddScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Portrait of Bishop John Fisher (ca. 1532–35) by Hans Holbein – Source.

When compared to such men, the corpulent cardinal appeared as a symbol of decadence, and this impression was reinforced by contemporary ideas about overeating. In pre-Reformation Christianity, gluttony was widely viewed as a gateway sin: a man who overindulged in food and drink would be prone to many other vices. In particular, gluttony was thought to breed lechery. In theological terms, the association was rooted in the Garden of Eden — it was only after Adam and Eve had eaten the forbidden fruit that they began to experience sexual desire, and thus fell prey to the sin of lust.

This cultural link between gluttony and sexual sin was supported by medical theory. The proximity of the stomach to the genitals meant that the latter would be warmed by the food and drink contained in the former, providing the heat which was the defining characteristic of the male body and necessary for the production of semen. Furthermore, semen was thought to be a product of completely digested food, with particularly nourishing foods such as meat and eggs being especially conducive to its production. As Thomas More declared in Utopia (1516), there were two types of people: those who lived unmarried and chaste and abstained from meat, and those who married, had children, and ate flesh.

Sampson Strong’s portrait of Cardinal WolseyScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Sampson Strong’s portrait of Cardinal Wolsey, dated to circa 1610, hanging now in Christ Church, Oxford — Source.

This association between gluttony and lechery was problematic for fat priests because the pre-Reformation clergy were supposed to be celibate, and obesity implied that a cleric was not keeping his vow. When, in the 1520s, the poet John Skelton wrote a series of satirical verses about Cardinal Wolsey and the Tudor court, he made full use of such associations to make insinuations about his target. Skelton’s verses make only vague allusions to Wolsey’s love life, but he leaves us in no doubt that Wolsey is a glutton, with all that implied. In Collyn Clout, he describes the lavish manner in which certain contemporary prelates dined:

Thus they make theyr boost
Through every coost,
Howe some of you dothe eate
In lenton season flesshe meat,
Fesauntes, patryche and cranes;
Men call you therfore prophanes.
Ye pyke no shrympes nor pranes,
Saltfysshe, stockfyssh nor herynge,
It is not for your werynge,
Nor in holy lenton season
Ye wyll neyther beanes ne peason.
But ye loke to be let lose
To a pygge or to a goose,
Your gorge not endued
Without a capon stued
Or a stewed cocke
Under her surfled smocke
And her wanton wodicocke.2

And in Why Come Ye Nat to Courte?, a vicious attack on Wolsey’s court, he adopts a similar tone — and here segues straight from gluttony to lechery:

Welcome dame Simonia,
With dame Castrimergia,
To drynke and for to eate
Swete ypocrus and swete meate.
To kepe his flesshe chast
In lent, for a repast,
He eateth capons stewed,
Fesaunt and patriche mewed,
Hennes, checkynges, and pygges.
He foynes and he frygges;
Spareth neither mayde ne wyfe.
This is a postels lyfe.3

Is it coincidence that Wolsey (and some of his fellow bishops) are accused of existing almost entirely on the meat-based dishes which were believed to increase semen production and to promote lechery? Possibly, but it seems much more likely that Skelton was deliberately using the contemporary connotations of gluttony to imply further sins and to raise questions about the conduct of certain individuals. In Wolsey’s case, such suspicions were justified: he is known to have had at least one liaison, with a certain Mistress Lark, which produced two children.

Nor was lechery the only unfortunate side effect of overindulgence at the table. Throughout the later Middle Ages, it was taught that it was the Christian duty of wealthy households to give vast quantities of alms to the poor. These alms often took the form of food left over from the household’s own meals. One of the benefits of fasting, or even moderation, was that there would be more leftovers, and thus more alms for the needy. On the other hand, a man who ate everything put in front of him left nothing for those who needed it most: he was literally condemning the poor to starvation. Wolsey’s fat body thus proved what so many critics had claimed: he was a greedy, grasping man who had enriched himself at the expense of the English people.

wolsey eatingScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Illustration of a sizeable Wolsey being waited upon by noblemen, from Young Folks: History of England (1879) by Charlotte Mary Yonge — Source.

In the pre-Reformation world in which Wolsey lived, fat bodies were problematic chiefly as emblems of sin — gluttony, lechery, and a want of charity — rather than in their own right. But during the course of the sixteenth century, the fat body began to revolt in a recognisably modern way, and consequently Wolsey’s critics increasingly described his body in ways which were designed to disgust the reader. John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1570) describes the cardinal’s corpse, which was “blacke as pitch, and also was so heavy that vi could scares beare it. Furthermore, it did so stincke above the ground, that they were costreyned to hasten the burial therof.”4 And in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, Buckingham wonders

That such a keech can with his very bulk
Take up the rays o’th’beneficial sun,
And keep it from the earth.5

The image of the “keech” (a lump of animal fat), like that of the black, stinking corpse, is a deliberately repulsive one, making use of the disgusting body to shape the reader’s view of the long-dead man.

fdfScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

The Disgrace of Cardinal Wolsey (1869) by John Pettie (slightly cropped) — Source.

But despite the prevalence of such images with their emphasis on Wolsey’s ever-increasing bulk, the cardinal was not without his defenders. Foremost amongst his champions was George Cavendish (1494–1562), who wrote a biography of Wolsey in the mid-1550s. As his former gentleman-usher, Cavendish offered a first-hand account of life in Wolsey’s household during the 1520s, including intriguing insights into his employer’s relationship with food.

Cavendish’s Wolsey stands in stark contrast to the popular image of him: if not a saintly man, he is at least a good one. His hospitality (an important clerical virtue) is much celebrated: he hosts lavish meals for his royal master and various important guests, including “great banquets and solemn feasts” at which Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn were present. Moreover, his generosity is not limited to the great and good: at York, after his fall from grace, “he kept a noble house and plenty of meat and drink for all comers, rich and poor.”6 Yet, strikingly, Wolsey does not join in the overindulgence on such occasions. For example, at one Hampton Court banquet, he toasted the king, but then retired to his private chamber where he took “a very short supper, or rather a small repast” before rejoining his guests.7

Cavendish is also the source of an anecdote which is often used to demonstrate Wolsey’s formidable work ethic, but which also hints at a less-than-expected capacity for food. During the negotiations with France, the biographer reports, Wolsey rose at 4 a.m. and went straight to his desk, where he stayed until 4 p.m., “all which season my lord never rose once to piss, not yet to eat any meat.” Only once his letters were dispatched did he allow himself a drink. He then went to mass, walked in the garden, said evensong, then “went to dinner and supper all at once. Making a small repast, he went to his bed to take his rest for the night.”8

Such restraint — hours without food or drink followed by a single small meal — echoed the self-denial of Wolsey’s saintly predecessors, men who supposedly ate only once a day and restricted their intake of fluids (even water) as well as of foodstuffs. These men were also celebrated for their refusal to relax their strict regimen even as death approached, and Cavendish similarly adopts this motif for his life of Wolsey. On his deathbed, the life claims, Wolsey wanted meat in order to strengthen himself for confession. When the food was brought to him, he took a spoonful or two of chicken broth and then realised that it was a fast day. The doctor said that Wolsey’s illness made him exempt, but he refused to take any more, and made his confession. Cavendish’s account of Wolsey’s final hours presents him not as the glutton of legend, but as a man for whom the needs of the soul took precedence over the desires of the body.9

Scroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Wolsey riding in procession to Westminster, detail from an 1578 version of George Cavendish´s biography of Wolsey: Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 363, fol. 052v — Source.

dsdScroll through the whole page to download all images before printing.

Wolsey surrendering the great seal of England to his enemies, the Dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, detail from an 1578 version of George Cavendish´s biography of Wolsey: Bodleian Library, MS. Douce 363, fol. 071r — Source.

Although Cavendish, a Catholic sympathiser who retired to live in rural obscurity after Wolsey’s death, did not attempt to present his beloved master as a potential saint, his decision to record something of his food practices suggests that he was well aware of how bodies and bodily behaviours shaped Tudor reputations. Fewer than two decades after Cavendish’s death, his work was copied and illustrated with scenes from the cardinal’s life. This manuscript (now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford), shows Wolsey riding to Westminster and to France on horseback and travelling by barge to Greenwich; he is also depicted delivering the great seal to the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk, and lying on his sickbed. In all five of these images, he is unrecognisable to the modern eye. Why? Because, rather than the corpulent cardinal of legend, he is a depicted as a thin, black-robed man with a long, somewhat straggly beard.

Like the famous portraits, these sketches probably bear little resemblance to the real Wolsey. They are symbolic images, designed to represent a character rather than to provide an accurate likeness. In the sixteenth century, as today, most people did not know what Wolsey actually looked like, and few cared. Instead, they were concerned with what he stood for, so they reimagined his body in ways which reflected their version of the cardinal’s character. Whatever truth was contained in George Cavendish’s life of Wolsey, his efforts to rehabilitate his former master were probably doomed to failure from the beginning. Amidst the religious upheaval of the sixteenth century, it was inevitable that the grotesquely obese image — complementing as it did the Protestant stereotype of Wolsey as a symbol of everything which was wrong with the pre-Reformation Church — came to dominate the popular imagination.

Katherine Harvey is a UK-based historian, writer and reviewer, specialising in medieval history. She holds a BA, MA and PhD in History from King’s College London, is an Honorary Research Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London, and teaches for both Birkbeck and the Open University. She has published widely in both academic journals and popular periodicals, including BBC History Magazine, History Today, Aeon and The Atlantic. She reviews regularly for publications including the The Sunday Times and The Times Literary Supplement. Her most recent book, The Fires of Lust: Sex in the Middle Ages, was published by Reaktion in October 2021.

The text of this essay is published under a CC BY-SA license, see here for details.