Leicester Abbey and the missing remains of Cardinal Wolsey, right-hand man to Henry VIII

Posted by ap507 at May 18, 2015 12:38 PM |
We may have identified the remains of Richard III, but many other famous figures remain lost to the tides of history…
Leicester Abbey and the missing remains of Cardinal Wolsey, right-hand man to Henry VIII

John Finnie, ‘Leicester Abbey in the later middle ages’, a reconstruction based on excavation and documentary evidence

The discovery of Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, in a Leicester car park in 2012 and the subsequent research into his remains has helped to acquaint members of the public with the nation’s history – and now some have set their sights on the search for another lost historical figure in Leicester.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s right-hand man and Archbishop of York, died in Leicester in the winter of 1530, and was buried in Leicester Abbey in the modern-day Abbey Park.

Perhaps best known by modern audiences as the character portrayed by Jonathan Pryce in BBC Two historical drama Wolf Hall, the fate of Cardinal Wolsey has remained a mystery for centuries, and, despite numerous digs having taken place at Abbey Park, his remains have never been located.   

From 2000-2005 Dr Richard Buckley, co-director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), spent 10 seasons at the abbey site with undergraduates honing their fieldwork skills. He compiled their findings in a book Leicester Abbey: Medieval History, Archaeology and Manuscript Studies, to mark the 150th anniversary of Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, published in 2006.

Professor Jo Story from the School of History co-edited the book with Dr Buckley and Dr Jill Bourne. According to Professor Story, the recent work on the Abbey outlined in the book have located a surprising large amount of the abbey's breathtaking library, as well as charters about the abbey’s buildings, lands and rentals.

"The book records 95 medieval charters relating to the abbey - before we thought there were five or six," said Professor Story. 

"Among the records of the abbey, we have got a surviving catalogue of their late medieval collection, of which there were more than a thousand books. This catalogue tells you the scale of the operation at Leicester Abbey. Wolsey, who died there quite by coincidence, controlled an awful lot of the country's religious houses but he didn't really control Leicester.”

Despite enjoying favour with Henry VIII as one of his leading political advisers, Wolsey’s position became precarious when he was charged with treason for failing to get the Pope at the time, Clement VII, to annul the king's marriage to Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey was arrested in 1529 and was stripped of his government office and property.

He was summoned to London, and fell ill while travelling south from York. He arrived at Leicester Abbey and is reported to have told the abbot that “I ame come hether to leave my bones among you”.

He died there on November 29, 1530, having been taken ill with colic after eating a dessert of baked pears.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London; One of the Wolsey Angels
Evidently, Wolsey had planned to go out in style. He had acquired a black marble tomb and in 1524 commissioned an Italian sculptor to create four bronze angels (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum) to accompany it.

Though intended for Wolsey’s remains, his tomb ended up being occupied by Lord Nelson, the great British naval commander during the Napoleonic War. The Abbey itself fell victim to Henry’s Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, and the abbey church and most of its associated buildings were swept away; so the specific location of Wolsey’s remains has been lost to history, although it is widely believed he is buried somewhere around Leicester Abbey.

For 400 years Leicester Abbey was one of the wealthiest Augustinian abbeys in England, comparable in scale and grandeur to Westminster Abbey. The layout of the low stone walls at Abbey Park today are what remains of a 1934 plan by archaeologist W. K. Bedingfield to map the layout of the principal buildings of the abbey.

"The abbey is a bit of the city that needs attention. We could do an awful lot more with it,” says Professor Story. “If things go well with the city, with Richard III, then Leicester Abbey is ripe for development as a heritage attraction, for which Wolsey could be the hook.

"It would certainly be true and fair to say there is a lot more history in Leicester than Leicester often realises. Leicester is a best-kept secret in that regard. The abbey has an important role to play in the reputation of Leicester.

"With Wolsey, here is a sensitive and interesting story about both the man and the importance of Leicester in the late medieval age. If people need a figure or individual to make that connection, so be it."

Leicester has made several concerted efforts in the past to locate Wolsey, including after the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922, but so far the lost Cardinal has escaped the gaze of eager archaeologists.

Even if his remains were found, it may prove difficult to identify him, as it is unlikely that DNA matches with living descendants would be located – but who knows? Maybe one day the remains of another big man of history will be found in Leicester. 

The book, 'Leicester Abbey: medieval history, archaeology and manuscript studies', on the LAHS website can be found here: https://www.le.ac.uk/lahs/publications/leicester_abbey.html

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