Naked to Mine Enemies: The Life of Cardinal Wolsey, by Charles W. Ferguson

So much serious writing is merely adequate. Seldom does it excel. Ferguson excels: in description, in expression, in structuring his narrative, in everything. Because of this, there is added enjoyment to this excellent biography, even if sometimes there is excess. You will learn about the importance of the wool trade for England in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. You will learn about the political situation, not only in England, but in the Holy Roman Empire and France. You will learn about the buildings Wolsey built, and how and why. Of course, the main thing you will learn is about the cardinal himself.

Thomas Cardinal Wolsey is a tragic figure, fascinating for his weaknesses, rather than his considerable abilities. He rose from a very low condition to the highest eminence, with power, riches, honor, a concubine, and even a bastard son. Wolsey was till the end of his life a very worldly man, and in his last days he was pathetically religious—he was a man who would do anything to gain and retain temporal eminence. He desired to be the Pope, and would have thrived in Rome, the Rome that so disgusted Martin Luther in 1510. These were the days of the wool-trade in England, of encroaching sheep and continual pestilence, and the days after the chaos of the wars of the Roses. Henry VII laid the foundations for organizing the country again, and after him Wolsey, product of the advantages of a university, labored most diligently. Unfortunately for him, because his ambition was not limited to ecclesiastical, but mostly to political eminence, and because he only favored those beneath him, groveled to those above him, and competed with those equal to him, his successful career depended in the end too much on the capricious Henry VIII. His demise came when he failed to secure the annulment which was at that point in time the one thing Henry VIII had his heart set on. Of all the things Wolsey dared to do, this was the one thing he had no stomach for. Wolsey was proud, ostentatious, addicted to pomp and ceremony, besides being shrewd about the importance and uses of such things, and because of this his ruin was calamitous. The story of his life is a cautionary tale.

203      “It can be judged how he regarded himself when one notes the playacting he did whenever he received a fresh legatine commission from the Pope. He would absent himself from court, and then, having passed around the stage and changed his costume, so to say, he would reappear and be received in state as though he were really an ambassador fresh from Rome. By such posturing of his soul he lived, wrapping his nakedness in rich symbols, masquerading among the lords towering above the clergy. If he could not be Pope in Rome he would be Pope at home.”

359      “This was the anomaly of Thomas Wolsey. As with so many men, including the King, his devotions had at many junctures of his life little bearing on his conduct. Yet he did not neglect those devotions, and the office which he said daily and the obeisance which he made to religion at least served to remind and accuse his soul.”

421      “The forces that were carrying the Cardinal to his fall in the reluctant spring of 1529 were political as well as moral, the result of reasoned policies undertaken in good faith as much as of personality and behavior offensive alike to the nobles and the commons. These policies, in which he steadfastly if wrongheadedly believed, had been ambushed by events which none had foreseen.”

424      “In this stately setting, surrounded by the costumes of history, my lord of York was to play out the last act of his career. It was appropriate that he should do so under these implausible circumstances. The rise and power of this talkative fellow, sitting here in judgment of the King and the Queen, had been incredible, and the court itself was sheer fantasy. The fact that it was actually held and that it continued in session for two months taxes human credulity, and its proceedings would be dismissed as legend if they were not a matter of explicit record.”


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