Zoomable Image of Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York (1475-1530)

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York (1475-1530)

Italian School , Late Sixteenth Century

Portrait of Thomas Wolsey, Cardinal of York (1475-1530)

Italian School , Late Sixteenth Century

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Oil on board


12 1/16 x 10 ¼ in (30.6 x 26 cm)


Possibly the Counts Capponi, Italy (see wax seal on reverse); Private collection, UK, until 2016

Technical Expertise:

Prof. Dr. Peter Klein, Dendrochronological Analysis Report, 1 March 2017

The handling of the present work is notably smoother and more decisive than that seen in English portraits of Wolsey, and it bears a closer stylistic resemblance to a set of Italian portraits in Walker Art Gallery...

This late-sixteenth century portrait depicts Cardinal Wolsey, one of the most influential and controversial power players of the Tudor court.

Popular history best remembers Wolsey as the great statesman who failed to secure an annulment between Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon (‘The Great Matter’), which ultimately lead to England’s break from Rome and one of the most turbulent religious periods in English history. In reality, the diplomatic difficulties of the annulment (or ‘The Great Matter’), were beyond Wolsey's talents to resolve, as they would have been beyond any minister. The King became impatient with Wolsey's failure to secure French support in petition to the Pope and when Wolsey returned from his embassy he was alarmed to learn that Bishop William Knight -an old a trusted diplomat in Henry's service- had already been despatched to Rome to persuade the Pope to a divorce. The revelation that Wolsey no longer enjoyed his Sovereign's complete confidence was devastating, as was the danger posed by Anne Boleyn, who was increasingly frustrated by Wolsey's lack of progress.

The Pope appointed Cardinal Campeggio to try the case in England with Wolsey, although the English cardinal soon learnt that the matter was entirely in his colleague's hands. All Campeggio's efforts to avoid holding the trial at all having failed, the court sat at Blackfriars on 18 June, 1529. Before this Anne Boleyn, regarding Wolsey as responsible for the long delay, had set herself to bring about his fall. The failure of the trial rendered this possible, and during August and September he was kept at a distance from the Court and was known to be in disgrace. In November a Bill of Indictment was preferred against him, and on 19 November he had to surrender the great seal of England. On 22 November he was forced to sign a deed confessing that he had incurred a praemunire and surrendering all his vast possessions to the King, including his magnificent Hampton Court residence. On 30 November judgement was given that he should be out of the King's possession and should forfeit all his lands and goods. Wolsey remained at Esher through the winter, disgraced, though not without occasional messages of kindness from the King. His health, which had been bad for many years, now failed seriously. In February of 1530 he received a general pardon, and the possessions of his archbishopric were restored to him, except York House, which he had to convey to the King. He was then allowed to retire to York, where he spent the last six months of his life in a sincere effort to exercise the proper duties of a bishop.

He was in residence at Cawood near York, preparatory to being enthroned in York Minster, when, on 4 November, commissioners from the King came to arrest him on a charge of high treason. Slowly and as an invalid he travelled towards London, knowing well what to expect, although he died in Leicester on the 29 November before reaching the city.

This image of Wolsey, who is shown in profile wearing cardinal’s robes, was probably conceived during his lifetime in c.1515-20, although is now known only through a number of later copies painted the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth centuries.[1] The demand for imagery of Wolsey at this date was perhaps stimulated by the circulation in manuscript form of George Cavendish’s Thomas Wolsey, Late Cardinall, his Lyffe and Deathe, written between 1554 and 1558 and later published in 1641.

The present portrait bears a number of stylistic characteristics indicative of late-sixteenth century European portrait painting, and the handling of the paint combined with an old continental wax seal affixed to the reverse, may suggest this portrait was painted in Italy. When this work is studied under infrared light extensive under-drawing becomes visible, with the basic outlines of the head evidently traced from a standardised ‘head-type’ or ‘pattern’, and areas of shaded detailing sketched-in freehand. The costume and cap are painted largely unguided, as often seen in portraits of repeated compositions from this period.

When compared to other portraits of Wolsey painted in England in the late-sixteenth century, differences in painterly approach become clear. The handling of the present work is notably smoother and more decisive than that seen in English portraits of Wolsey, and it bears a closer stylistic resemblance to a set of Italian portraits in Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool depicting prominent historical political and church figures.

Given Wolsey’s close connections to Italy it is hardly surprising that the profile head-pattern was also in circulation on the Continent. As the papacy’s legate in England during a period of great political turmoil, eventually ending in England’s break from Rome, Wolsey’s image would have been a must-have for a late-sixteenth century Italian collector of historical iconography. It is also worth considering the relationship Wolsey maintained with Italian bankers, who largely financed his campaign to become a cardinal. Indeed a wax seal affixed to the reverse of the panel bears a coat of arms used by the Counts Capponi, a Florentine banking family who were active during Wolsey’s ascent.[2]

[1] R. Strong, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, (London, 1969), Vol. 1, p.335

[2] The coat of arms per bend argent and sable (shown in the standard form for engraved arms, argent is plain, sable is crosshatching) were also used by Sützel von Mergentheim of Baden-Württemburg and the Counts of Abensberg in Austria.

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