Cardinal Wolsey – The Palace of Esher

Cardinal Wolsey

Cardinal Wolsey

Cardinal Wolsey is perhaps the most universally known of the Tower’s residents and as his renown overshadows Wayneflete the gatehouse is sometimes referred to as Wolsey’s Tower.  Wolsey stayed at Esher regularly as the guest of Bishop Fox, whilst supervising the building of Hampton Court Palace and later, rather ironically, this was where he served his penance after falling out of favour with Henry VIII, who acquired Hampton Court for himself.

By October 1529, Cardinal Wolsey was forced to surrender the Great Seal and his many possessions. He was duly stripped of the office of Lord Chancellor and ordered to retire to Esher. No-one could have predicted that Esher would be the setting for Wolsey to serve his penance, but he soon became only too aware that he had fallen from the King’s favour. 

 

Shakespeare presents his lamentation to dramatic effect in Henry VIII, Act III, Scene II:

Nay then, farewell!
I have touch’d the highest point of all my greatness;
And, from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more.

and later in the same scene:

O Cromwell, Cromwell!
Had I but served my God with half the zeal
I served my king, he would not in mine age
Have left me naked to mine enemies.

After 20 years of friendship and a working partnership, Henry unceremoniously dropped Cardinal Wolsey, who was flung from high estate, banished from his presence, stripped of his dignities, robbed of all his fine collections and goods and sent in disgrace to his Palace at Esher. Whilst this could not be regarded as an enormous hardship, it was a public display of the King’s abandonment of the Cardinal. Henry was under enormous pressure from Wolsey’s enemies and clearly felt compelled to oblige their demands by demonstrating that he was expendable.

Shakespeare refers to his earlier greatness:
…, Wolsey, that once trod the ways of glory,
And sounded all the depths and shoals of honour, …

and to his sentence when Norfolk delivers his fate as the curtain finally falls on Wolsey:

Hear the King’s pleasure, Cardinal, who commands you
To render up the great seal presently
Into our hands, and to confine yourself
To Asher House, my Lord of Winchester’s,
Till you hear further from his Highness.

Wolsey travelled from York House to Putney by water and upon taking his barge he was greeted by no less than a thousand boats full of men and women of the City of London, wrongly supposing that he was heading directly to Traitors’ Gate at the Tower of London. Wolsey then rode his mule leisurely on to Esher, “with a great following of clerks, gentlemen and yeomen.” In the course of this journey Sir Harry Norris, of the King’s Bedchamber, brought a message from the King that he was still as much in the King’s favour as ever. He further pointed out that this “unkind treatment was not on account of any displeasure that he beareth you, but only to satisfy others, than for any indignation.” As a token of his sincerity, he delivered to him a gold ring with a rich stone, which Wolsey knew well, for it was always used as the private token between the King and himself, whenever the King had a special matter despatched at his hands. In gratitude of the “comfortable and joyful news”, the Cardinal pulled from his neck a golden cross, in which a piece of the Holy Cross was enclosed and gave it to Sir Norris. Wolsey was so elated at this and presumably anxious to have belief in his imminent return to his position of favour, that upon dismounting he fell on his knees into the dirt and gave thanks to God and the King. Wolsey also sent him his fool, Patch Williams, who was so unwilling to leave his master that six of the tallest yeomen could scarcely conduct him to the King, who received him most gladly.

Wolsey remained at Esher in retirement and disgrace for several months, brooding over his fallen greatness and the King’s ingratitude, while Henry, accompanied by Anne Boleyn, the Cardinal’s most persistent enemy, was close by at either Hampton Court or Windsor. Their proximity led to almost daily messages from the Court, sometimes of hope and sometimes of new hardships in store for him, keeping him in a continual state of suspense and nervous anxiety.

When Wolsey first arrived at Esher, he and his household were in a most pitiful state as the Palace had not been prepared and soon his health deteriorated. When the King heard of this, he seemed to relent for a while and to feel some remorse for his ungrateful treatment of one who had served him well. He sent messages of comfort and a ring, as a token of goodwill and incredulously even induced Anne Boleyn to send him a tablet of gold from her girdle. The Cardinal spent the last winter of his life at Esher but by the February had succeeded in obtaining the King’s permission to reside elsewhere. However, in November 1530, Wolsey was arrested on a charge of high treason.  He cheated the executioner and died en route to London, at Leicester Abbey.

Cardinal Wolsey arriving at Leicester Abbey

Cardinal Wolsey arriving at Leicester Abbey

 

The Cardinal’s demise and time spent at Esher has recently been brought to life in Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall.”

Early in life, Wolsey was familiar with Wayneflete’s buildings, as he studied at Magdalen College, the Bishop’s Oxford foundation. The striking similarities between the Esher and Hampton Court Palace gatehouses blatantly demonstrates how Wolsey emulated Wayneflete’s much earlier work and highlights how Tudor architecture was pioneered half a century earlier at Esher by Wayneflete.  Unquestionably, Esher was the precursor to Tudor architecture in England.