Monday, September 02, 2013

Question from Mer - Wolsey's death and burial

I just read an interesting photo essay on Leicester Abbey that raises speculation over Wolsey taking his own life (I believe this was also the way The Tudors staged it). Is there convincing proof of suicide, or is this merely a dramatic invention? Also, any news on whether or not they're going to attempt to find Wolsey, given the success with uncovering Richard III?


Foose said...

Giustinian, the Venetian ambassador, reported to the Signory of Venice on December 14, 1530 (Wolsey died on November 29):

"The English ambassador [Sir Francis Bryan, appointed ambassador in 1528] has announced the death of Cardinal Wolsey; he meditated escape to Scotland, when the king sent his chamberlain [actually the Constable, Sir William Kingston] to arrest him ... The Cardinal requested a delay of two days, and taking from his pouch a phial containing a certain electuary ... he swallowed it, and died."

Other accounts suggest the Cardinal died of "a flux"; he is described as "dropsical" and in poor health. His doctor Agostino, an Italian (the 16th-century synonym for poisoner) is also fingered as supplying the Cardinal with a remedy for "the wind" that contained poison, which the Cardinal drank (knowingly or unknowingly).

It would be nice to know precisely what Sir Francis Bryan said, but there is nothing to compare Giustinian's words to, so it remains hearsay. Bryan was no friend of the Cardinal. If his statement to Giustinian is a deliberate falsehood, one wonders at the motive - to blacken Wolsey in the eyes of a Catholic Europe inclined to be critical of the king? To reassure the Signory that Wolsey died with his many diplomatic secrets unrevealed by interrogation? To exonerate Anne Boleyn of involvement? (In 1531 she was rumored to be have instigated the poisoning of the Bishop of Rochester.)

Apparently Wolsey's death seemed rather too convenient to many observers to be natural, although he certainly was failing physically by the time he was taken on the road to London. He was buried by the monks of the Abbey but without a stone; this could suggest that there was something unseemly about his death, but more probably fear of the king's anger and uncertainty about what was an appropriate interment for a man who had been arrested for treason.

The Spanish playwright Calderon wrote a play in the 17th century that had the villanous "Volseo" throwing himself off a cliff at the approach of the king's soldiers, and of course The Tudors featured a gory suicide by throat-cutting, with great splashings of blood.

If they could find and disinter his body, we might have some more information about the cause of his death.

Foose said...

A couple of other points have occurred to me overnight:

-I had assumed that Giustianian was in England when he made his report to the Signory, but his ambassadorial tenure had actually been years before. In 1530 he was back in Venice. I am not sure what capacity Giustianian was serving in at the time, but his experience with England might have made him the logical choice to meet with Bryan there and then report to the government.

-Hence, Bryan could have either received a report from England on Wolsey's death being a suicide that he genuinely believed was accurate, or he deliberately gave Giustinian a false account.

-Dr. Agostino, Wolsey's physician, was a Venetian and strongly suspected by many of poisoning Wolsey (having been bribed, or pressured, by unknown agents). By describing Wolsey as a suicide, perhaps Bryan wished to reassure the Venetians that the English authorities were not inclined to accuse them of complicity in murdering Wolsey.

-In Roman law, suicide by the accused is held to be a confession of guilt (in the words of Daniel Webster, "There is no escape from confession but suicide, and suicide is confession."). Wolsey was on his way to trial in London when he died; you might think a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion, but the Church would have been involved and Wolsey himself commanded a wealth of embarrassing secrets that might have upended the usual course of a state trial. By categorizing him as a suicide, Bryan might have been essentially telling the Venetians that Wolsey was guilty of the crimes imputed to him, and not a hapless victim of the king's wrath and Anne Boleyn's malice.