Wednesday, 27 November 2013

The day Cardinal Wolsey went to Hell

In January 1531, two months after the death of Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas Boleyn - father of Anne Boleyn - invited to his London home French Ambassador Claude la Guische. For this evening, Thomas Boleyn and Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, put together a performance to be acted out especially for the ambassador.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey
Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote of the event;

"invited to supper Monsieur de la Guische, for whose amusement he caused a farce to be acted of the Cardinal going down into Hell"

This play was a farce entitled 'The going to Hell of Cardinal Wolsey' which depicted the deceased Cardinal's journey down to Hell.
The two men wanted to show off their own new positions as important court figures now that Wolsey had gone, as well as to emphasise that Wolsey's reign is over and that his methods and influences were in the past and a new era had begun; a Howard era. The inclusion of having a Cardinal, a man of the Catholic church, being abused and sent to hell was a euphemism for the growing hatred King Henry held for the Catholic church and the Pope, which had arisen due to the Pope's refusal to grant Henry a divorce.
The fact that this was performed specifically for the French ambassador is also of significance; immediately before Wolsey's downfall the French were plotting with him, as the two had shared a 'special relationship'. Also, Boleyn and Howard saw this as an opportunity to present themselves to the French as the possible new intermediaries between the French and King Henry.

The French ambassador was not amused by the spectacle - Chapuys wrote that;

"he much blamed the earl, and still more the Duke for his ordering the said fare to be printed"

Following the performance Thomas Howard gave the order to have the play printed so that the sentiments expressed in it could be spread to many others at court.
The play was later performed at the royal court for the king; Wolsey being played by the court jester and the devils dragging him down to hell by four noblemen.


  1. Do we know who the four noblemen who dragged him down to hell in the court performance were? In Hilary Mantel's novel they were four of the five who later got executed with Anne Boleyn, Cromwell specifically picking them out as punishment for their having participated in the performance. Are they really known, or was that just a supposition, artistic license for the sake of the novel?

  2. I noticed this too. I think it unlikely. Bereton was very different to the other three- much older