3 June 2018

The Amazing Story of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s Tomb


On November 29, 1530, Thomas Wolsey died, having been taken ill with colic after eating a supper of baked pears. (I think it was rather convenient, as he was on his way to be tried for treason, and was not expected to go quietly – could the pears have been poisoned?)

Sadly, Wolsey’s remains were lost, although it is believed that he is buried somewhere around Leicester Abbey. (In a car park?) The Abbey was destroyed during Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, and only the outline of some buildings remain.

Cardinal Wolsey was a wealthy man and had exciting plans for his funeral and entombment in a magnificent edifice of black and white marble and gilded bronze. He’d already had the black marble sarcophagus designed and made for him, with impressive angels on columns at each corner by the Florentine sculptor, Benedetto da Rovezzano. (One of Rovezzano’s commissions in 1508, was to finish Michelangelo’s bronze of David.)


Keen recycler Henry VIII decided the tomb would be perfect for himself (along with York Place, Hampton Court and Wolsey’s fortune) and commissioned Benedetto to do some remodelling to make it even grander.

As you probably know (having seen Princess Megan happily walking over Henry’s grave in St George’s Chapel recently) the work was never finished in his lifetime. All his three children Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, were of course too busy to finish it.

In 1565 Elizabeth showed her good intentions by having her father’s tomb moved from Westminster to St George’s Chapel Windsor Castle, but they stayed in storage for eighty-five years until the bronze sculptures were sold during the Civil War.

The Bishop of Ghent bought four candlesticks Rovezanno made for Henry VIII’s tomb, and the originals are at the Cathedral of St Bavo in Belgium. (Replicas are in St George’s Chapel, next to the high altar).

So, what became of the black marble sarcophagus?  When Lord Nelson died in the Battle of Trafalgar on October 21, 1805, his body was placed in a coffin made from the mast of a French ship.  King George III thought Wolsey’s tomb would be perfect for Nelson, so Horatio’s coffin was put inside and has been in the crypt of St Paul's Cathedral since the 9th of January 1806.


The story of the angels is even more bizarre, as they ended up on the gate piers of the 18th century Harrowden Hall (now Wellingborough Golf Club) from where they were stolen in 1988. They turned up for auction in 1994 and were bought by a Parisian art dealer.

Italian scholar Francesco Caglioti realised what they were and in 2015 the Victoria and Albert Museum launched an appeal and bought them for the nation. The National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Art Fund found £2.5m and the rest came from donations - and the sale of ‘Save The Wolsey Angels’ badges. I think Thomas Wolsey would have been pleased.

Tony Riches

(Images Wikimedia Commons)

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