The king's Cardinal: The Rise and Fall of Thomas Wolsey by Peter Gwyn (Barrie & Jenkins, £20).
Norman Tanner SJ HOW far can Cardinal Wolsey be rehabilitated? In terms of private life Peter Gwyn does not alter our views much. We still know that Wolsey had a concubine, "Mistress Lark", to whom he remained faithful, and two children. He was probably less rotund and more handsome than the single nearcontemporary portrait of him suggests. He loved music and buildings.
Gwyn says the book contains "very little about his private life, not because it is of little interest, but because there is virtually no evidence for it." Readers may hope that a little more could have been said from indirect evidence.
In terms of his public career, however, the book is a major rehabilitation, or rather an attempt to take Wolsey seriously. We are given weighty chapters on the principal aspects of English affairs during the sixteen years from 1514 to 1529 when he was at the centre of state and church, occupying the offices of Lord Chancellor, Archbishop of York, cardinal and papal legate. That is to say, several chapters on England's role in European politics in the era of Emperor Charles V and King Francis I of France; the North, Ireland and Wales; the law and court politics; various chapters on church affairs, including Henry VII1's divorce and the early Reformation in England.
The book runs to nearly 700 pages, which is a long biography for any person. Nevertheless the thoroughness with which Gwyn pUrsues the cardinal through the various aspects of his career makes it surprisingly interesting reading. It is a kind of detective story in which the author is determined to do justice to his subject.
Above all, Wolsey emerges as a serious character, very different from the pompous buffoon that he has sometimes been portrayed as being. Capable, diligent, conscientious, for the most part fair-minded, indeed generous; though he still appears worldly, ambitious and not deeply religious. And of course his life remains something of a tragedy with his own fall from power, the failure of his foreign policy and above all his inability to obtain an annulment for Henry VIII or to avert the Reformation.