When you walk through Westminster and admire the impressive white stone that comprises the Palace of Whitehall, there’s a good chance part of what you’re looking at was supposed to be a Tudor college in Ipswich.
Cardinal Wolsey was a powerful man in the 1520s – in fact, to be perfectly honest, he was probably the most influential man in England, aside from the king. Henry VIII had delegated much of state business to Wolsey, to the point where he administered both home and foreign affairs. This was all rather incredible considering Wolsey’s origins which, while not being destitute, were still relatively humble.
Born the son of a successful business man in Ipswich, Thomas Wolsey very probably studied at a local grammar school, before he enrolled at Magdalen College, Oxford. Wolsey’s glittering career began when he was ordained in 1498 and then became a parish priest in Somerset. Following this initial post he became Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, then Chaplain to Henry VII, and eventually served as Lord Chancellor to Henry VIII.
To put Wolsey’s importance into some kind of context it’s worth noting that he was responsible for organising the ‘Field of the cloth of Gold’ in 1520. This was a meeting of the powers of Europe, seeking to prevent future wars between Christian countries, rather like some kind of 16th century version of a United Nations meeting.
Wolsey was definitely one for building; during his years of power he spent much of his wealth on the construction of impressive buildings such as York Palace in Whitehall and Hampton Court. He also established Cardinal College, Oxford (now Christ Church College). To this institution he wished to add some fifteen feeder colleges in diocese around England, the main one was to be in Ipswich, his hometown.
The college in Ipswich was to be built upon the site of the Priory of SS Peter and Paul and to this end the priory was duly dissolved; providing both space and funds toward the building of Wolsey’s proposed school. Building of the college began including the now cherished ‘Wolsey’s Gate’ that was only ever supposed to be a small entrance for people arriving by water (Malster, Robert, Ipswich an A to Z of Local History, Wharncliffe Books, 2005).
In the meantime, before the building work was finished, pupils had started their study at the institution. A letter from the master of the school attached to the college survives, expressing the thanks of the school and the people of Ipswich, including examples of some of the handwriting of the boys in attendance.
Things were not destined to stay so rosy for Wolsey; the rise of Anne Boleyn saw his downfall. Anne took serious offence when Cardinal Wolsey failed to secure a quick annulment of Henry’s first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Anne persuaded the king that Wolsey was deliberately putting a halt on the process. As a result, Wolsey was stripped of his office and the impressive buildings he had erected.
The downfall of Wolsey spelled the end for his grand plans for the name of his Cardinal College in Oxford, and the building itself of his main feeder college in Ipswich.
Now all that remains is Wolsey’s Gate; the last small fragment of Wolsey’s aspirations for his home town. In 1532, all the ‘timber, lead, wainscot and white stone of divers kind’ that remained in Ipswich, waiting to be used for the construction of the college, were packed up and taken by sea from Ipswich to the Galley Key by London Tower, ‘to be used for the king’s buildings at Westminster’ (Redstone, Lilian J., Ipswich Through the Ages, East Anglian Magazine Ltd, 1948). In a cruel turn of fortune, the very construction materials from Wolsey’s buildings in Ipswich were (now repossessed by Henry VIII) used to expand another of Wolsey’s projects in London – York Palace in Whitehall – that now belonged to the king.
As for Wolsey, he was granted a last minute reprieve from Henry and allowed to remain Archbishop of York. However, he was later accused of treason and summoned back to London to answer the charge. On the journey to the capital Wolsey fell ill at Leicester and subsequently died on 29th November, 1530.
An interesting footnote: Just as Wolsey had erected impressive buildings as residencies during his life, he had similar plans for his remains; he had planned a magnificent tomb in Windsor complete with a carved black sarcophagus. In the event of his unforeseen death in Leicester, he was buried in the Abbey of St. Mary of the Meadows. His grave is now unmarked and unknown. The black sarcophagus had to wait a further 275 years to be used. It now lies in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral and contains the remains of another great Briton, Horatio Nelson.