Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, lord chancellor of England from 1515 to 1529, has played no small
part in the many literary, historical and dramatic retellings of the reign of King Henry VIII.
This article presents the first extended analysis of the way in which Wolsey has been represented
by playwrights and, later, film and television writers during the years from his death in 1530
through the present. The article demonstrates that by the middle of the 16th century, two
competing narratives about Wolsey had become entrenched historiographically, and nearly all
subsequent accounts borrow substantially from the narratives of either Edward Hall (1550) or
George Cavendish (1554–1558). How successive playwrights and screenwriters balanced the
cardinal’s two archetypal personae has often depended, in no small part, on the concerns of
their own day. In the 21st century, readings of the cardinal as crafty rather than callous, unlucky
rather than unprincipled, have become more common, and with them have come more
sympathetic portrayals of a traditional Tudor villain.
Prof. Dr Hornbeck is
participating in the research
project, ‘Theology and
Nature’, directed by
Prof. Dr Johan Buitendag,
Department of Dogmatics
and Christian Ethics, Faculty
of Theology, University of
Pretoria and Dean of the
Faculty of Theology.
This essay is part of an ongoing research project on Thomas Wolsey, entitled Remembering Wolsey: The Cardinal in Literature,
Historical Writing, and Drama.