Where’s Wolsey?

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With a world class archeaology department on our doorstep and a 16th century churchman at large, is it time to start disturbing the soil in Abbey Park? Cat Turnell reports.

The mortal remains of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey have lain sleeping beneath the ruins of Leicester Abbey since the winter of 1530… come on, let’s stop there, shall we? You know what’s coming next don’t you?

We’ve already given Richard III a 21st century wake up and send off – is it time we did the same to Henry VIII’s right hand man?

With the paint drying on the last of the Plantagenets, and with the BBC’s 16th century drama Wolf Hall – and Jonathan Pryce’s likeable portrayal of the cardinal still fresh in the mind – it’s a judicious time to be exploring Leicester’s next buried treasure…isn’t it?

Martin Peters, Chief Executive of Leicester Shire Promotions, thinks it over for a minute.

“The discovery of King Richard III was a remarkable archaeological find against enormous odds,” he says. “The resulting discovery has undoubtedly changed the way people look at Leicester and Leicestershire as a tourism destination forever.”

And you can almost hear the “but” coming…

“However, irrespective of the additional profile that the search for Cardinal Wolsey would bring to our history and heritage offer for visitors, it’s hard not to think that we might be pushing our luck to go looking for another lost historical figure.”

What Martin says is true. Efforts to locate Wolsey’s bones have repeatedly failed.

In fact, over the past 500 years, there have been numerous digs in Leicester’s premier park – a beautiful green oasis divided in half by a willowed stretch of the River Soar. And while these archaeological explorations have managed to ascertain the layout of the original abbey, a once sprawling testament to the potency of the church, the former chief minister has eluded them as much as he eluded the final grasp of Henry VIII.

Unlike other notable churchmen of the era, such as Thurcaston’s Hugh Latimer, the martyrd Bishop of Worcester, or Burton Overy’s Hugh Weston, the Dean of Westminster, who, strangely enough, was responsible for Latimer’s grisly martyrdom, Wolsey had no umbilical connection with Leicestershire.

But for the past 485 years, it’s been what estate agents may call his ‘forever home’.

The churchly statesman, once the Archbishop of York and the second most powerful person in England behind Henry VIII, arrived at the sprawling abbey while pausing on his way to London.

Wolsey, carrying the pallor and weight of fatal dysentery, had come down from Cawood Castle in York, to face charges of treason. Wolsey’s crime? He had failed to get the pope to annul the king’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon.

The Augustinian abbey, known in its day as the Abbey of St Mary of the Meadows or St Mary de Pratis, was built in 1143 by Robert le Bossu, the second Earl of Leicester. It was destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1538, when Henry VIII, declaring himself the Defender of the Faith, jetisoned Rome and stripped churches of their material wealth and power.

For 400 years Leicester’s was the largest Augustinian abbey in England and the most powerful. Second only in stature, it’s been said, to Westminster Abbey.

Copy of an artist's impression of life ar Leicester Abbey. Picture by John Finney.

Copy of an artist’s impression of Leicester Abbey.
Picture by John Finney.

Despite this, Leicester’s diocese hasn’t yet got the appetite for Thomas Wolsey as it had for the city’s most recent discovery.

“We have just reinterred King Richard and the wide implications of that are now our concern,” reasons the Dean of Leicester, the Very Reverend David Monteith.

The dean would not be drawn on wider questions over whether the diocese welcomed a move to search for Wolsey’s remains. The dean wouldn’t veer from the script.

“We are glad,” he added, “that there is vital new energy in our community to understand and discover more of our history.”

Wolsey, of course, was not a pious hairshirt churchman. Having once boasted that he “ruled the whole world” he’d been planning a lavish ceremonial funeral at Westminster Abbey. He’d already acquired a black marble tomb and, in 1524, commissioned an Italian sculptor to create four bronze angels, which were bought in February by the Victoria and Albert Museum for £5 million. His tomb, incidentally, was used to house Admiral Horatio Nelson.

Wolsey’s home was Hampton Court Palace before being relegated to Cawood Castle in York. After being arrested at Cawood he spent the next two weeks at Sheffield Park. It was here he became sick. One evening, finishing his dinner with a dessert of baked pears, Wolsey suddenly changed colour and had a violent fit of colic. A prescription from his apothecary allowed him to “break wind upward”. He was then struck by diarrhoea and from there it was a steep and unpleasant slide downhill. Sorry about the imagery.

By the time Sir William Kingston, the Lieutenant of the Tower, arrived on November 22, 1530, to escort him to London, Wolsey was very weak.

He made it to Leicester and the abbey on November 27 amid heavy bouts of sickness.

“Father abbott,” he is reported to have said, “I ame come hether to leave my bones among you.”

Amid the heavy smell of incense, the abbey’s three dozen canons, with their black cloaks and white habits, prayed for the archbishop over the next two days.

On his deathbed, Wolsey warned Henry in apocalyptic terms against his divorce and the threat of Lutheranism. On the morning of November 29, the inn keeper’s son who became the second most powerful man in England, shuffled off this mortal coil. Some time later his body was committed with ceremony to the eternal solitude of Leicester’s clay-clogged soil.

“It has been received opinion in Leicester that there was buried with him a considerable quality of riches,” recorded the historian John Throsby, “which has caused the inhabitants of that place, at various times, to dig for them.”

Lovely Lis in the press office at the city council brings us up to speed on crossing the is and dotting the ts for a potential dig. Anyone wanting to conduct an archaeological rummage in Abbey Park would need Scheduled Monument Consent from English Heritage. It would also need the approval of the city council, as Abbey Park’s landowner. They would also require the blessing of a man called Chris Wardle, the city archaeologist.

Chris has been with the city council for 11 years. There have been digs at Abbey Park within the past decade, he says, but they were to ascertain the layout and extent of the abbey – not to discover the holy statesman.

The first abbey dig took place as early as the 17th century, he reveals. This was when the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire – try saying that after a few pints – instructed her gardener to stop weeding and find Wolsey.

The duchess was then the owner of what became Cavendish House. The mansion had the abbey’s gate house at its centre. The house’s ruins exist today after a royalist Civil War makeover in 1645.

What was left of the abbey was a historic rockery in her backgarden.

What we see today – the low stone walls – are what archaeologist WK Bedingfield left in 1934 to plot the layout of principal buildings.

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“We don’t actually know where Wolsey was buried,” admits Chris, “it may have been the Lady Chapel, it might have been a place of high status near the alter.”

Moreover, says Chris, as Wolsey was a man given to conducting the rites of mass, there was a practice adapted by the Catholic church of burying churchmen with some of the vestments of the church, namely a chalice.

“But whether or not he would have been buried with this vestment, we don’t really know.”

There are other issues, he adds.

“To recover the remains of Cardinal Wolsey and then proving it’s Cardinal Wolsey would be rather more difficult because it’s most unlikely they will find DNA matches with living people.

“There wouldn’t be a series of battle wounds as it was in Richard’s case. As far as we know Wolsey died of natural causes.

“It certainly would be an interesting idea to look for him, but could it be justified in archaeological terms? From my personal point of view, not one from the city council, but in my own personal, professional view, it would be difficult to justify it.”

Sir Peter Soulsby is happy to take a call about something other than the impending election. The Mayor of Leicester, a person who’s done more to unite the city with its impressive history than many, is keen on a game of Where’s Wolsey?

“Lots of people, myself included, were very skeptical when they said let’s look for Richard III,” he says. “I think if they were to go looking for Wolsey I would certainly be right behind them. You never know what they might find.

“Wolsey was a very important figure, even if he was to be found, it couldn’t light a match to finding the last English king to die in battle.

“People have been looking for him in the ruins of the abbey for years and that’s very different for the search for Richard, nobody believed it was possible.

“It’s difficult to know where in the very extensive grounds of the abbey he could have been buried. It was in its day a very big and powerful abbey and one much larger,” he cautions, “than a small priory church.”

Most recently, the soil in Abbey Park has been disturbed by undergraduates at the University of Leicester, honing their archaeological skills. They were put to work during 10 seasons of excavation at the abbey site from 2000 to 2005 under the direction of Richard Buckley.

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Joanna Story is Professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester. Along with Richard Buckley and Jill Bourne, Jo wrote a book on Leicester Abbey to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Leicestershire Archaelogical and Historical Society, published in 2006.

Recent excavations, she says, located the abbey’s huge library that once housed their charters which related to its buildings, lands and rentals. The catalogue was penned by Leicester canon William Charyte who became prior in 1463.

“The book records 95 charters relating to the abbey,” says Jo, “before we thought there was five or six,” she laughs at the severe underestimate.

The charters cover the abbey from its foundation to 1250.

“Another thing with the records of the abbey, we’ve got a surviving catalogue of their late medieval collection, of which there was more than a thousand books. That catalogue tells you the scale of the operation at Leicester Abbey.

“Wolsey, who died there by accident, controlled an awful lot of the country’s religious houses but he didn’t really control Leicester.”

Richard Buckley is co-director of the University of Leicester’s Archaeological Services. You may know his name already – he found Richard III in a city car park.

In his extensive research on the abbey, Richard notes that Arthur Barfoot, the Countess of Devonshire’s gardener, was the abbey’s first excavator. John Nichols, that exemplary Leicestershire historian, spoke with a contact who had interviewed John Hasloe, grandson of Arthur. John said his grandfather had dug the site of the abbey church, searching for relics, and found several stone coffins.

“The cavities of which did not lie uppermost but were inverted over the bodies.” Arthur also found bones, which he believed were Wolsey’s. The countess, hearing this, refused to allow the cardinal’s body to be disturbed and he was again recloaked in earth.

In 1845, James Thompson, editor of the Leicester Chronicle, and the founder of the Leicester Mercury in 1874, was a founding member of Leicestershire Architectural and Archaeological Society. He undertook excavations in the abbey grounds in 1844 to 1845 hoping to find the abbey church. Thompson dug a trench in the centre of the gardens. He found decayed wood, human and animal bones, a drain, lead pipe and the jaw of a horse and tusk of a boar. He also found encaustic tiles in an area known as The Laundry. The tiles, he believed, were the nave floor of the abbey church.

However, on August 30, 1858, Thompson exhibited a papal bulla seal of Innocent III, 1193 to 1216, found in the grounds and shown to him by a Mr Warner, possibly the owner of Warner’s Nursery, once on site.

Today the remnants of Leicester Abbey include the precinct walls attributed to Abbot John Penny at the turn of 1500 and fragments of monastic barns.

 In 1922, the discovery of the tomb of boy king Tutankhamun reignited the search for Leicester’s sleeping cardinal. On Monday, February 26, 1923, the Mercury ran the headline Quest for Wolsey’s Tomb.

“During the civil war,” says the article, “King Charles stayed at the abbey mansion. After his departure the Royalist soldiers set the building afire, and it was reduced to its present state. A few years ago Lord Dysart presented the abbey grounds to the City of Leicester.

“Two capitals, said to be the sole architectural remains of the monastic building, were found buried beneath debris on the surface serveral years ago by Mr Paul Dare. These relics are now in the Leicester Museum.”

In April 1929, a dig by WK Bedingfield uncovered two stone coffins. One of the burials, discovered in the eastern cloister, was wrapped in a vestment of rich embroidery.

Over the years there have been other discoveries, including the hinged lid of a 13th century Limoges enamel incense boat, found within the abbey’s sacristy in 1930.

Perhaps, suggests Joanna Story, our gaze should not rest solely upon the search for Thomas Wolsey, and instead it should linger on the abbey itself.

“It’s a bit of the city that needs attention,” she says, “we could do an awful lot more with it. If things go well with the city, with Richard III, then Leiceter Abbey is ripe for development as a heritage attraction. And, for which, Wolsey could be the hook.

“And it would certainly be true and fair to say there is a lot more history in Leicester than Leicester often realises. And I think that Richard Buckley, in particular, would be very interested in far more being done on the abbey site. That builds on the historic reputation of Leicester and the abbey has an important role to play in that.

“Now we’re able to tell the story of Richard III, that should be utilised so through Wolsey we can tell the story of what came 45 years later. 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,” she adds, “so be it.”

Published in the Mercury shortly after the reburial of King Richard III in March 2015.

Artist’s impression of life at Leicester Abbey, picture by John Finney.

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