The son of a butcher, Wolsey was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford and then headed the college school before becoming a personal chaplain, first to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then to the governor of Calais where he met Henry VII. In due course he became Henry's personal chaplain before being appointed Dean of Lincoln.
When Henry VIII became king in 1509, Wolsey's affairs prospered. He became Canon of Windsor in 1511, the same year in which he became a member of the Privy Council. His political star was in the ascendant and he soon became the controlling figure in all matters of state. In 1514, he was made Bishop of Lincoln, and then Archbishop of York. Pope Leo X made him a cardinal in 1515. In 1523 he was made Prince-Bishop of Durham Wolsey loved display and wealth. He lived in royal splendour and revelled in his power; his long-term ambition was to become pope.
Cardinal Wolsey spent his great abilities as a statesman and administrator mainly in managing England's foreign affairs for Henry VIII. Despite the many enemies his greed and ambition earned him, he held Henry VIII's confidence until Henry decided to seek a church annulment (sometimes called a 'divorce' but it wasn't in the modern sense of the word) of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.
The reason for the annulment request was complex; his marriage to Catherine had produced no sons that survived childhood, leading to threats of a power-struggle after his death. His daughter, Mary, was at the time considered unable to hold the country together and continue the Tudor dynasty (England had not to then had a reigning queen). Henry VIII became convinced that their inability to have a male heir that survived childhood was due to his marrying Catherine, who was Arthur, Prince of Wales's widow, (Arthur was his older brother; Henry VIII considered the marriage contrary to biblical rules). Henry VIII further believed that the formal permission for his marriage to Catherine received originally from the Pope was invalid because it was based on the presumption that Catherine was still a virgin on her first husband's death (Henry claimed that was not the case and thus the papal permission and the ensuing marriage were invalid).
Catherine disputed the fact and insisted that she had been a virgin when she married King Henry; the fact that he had fallen in love with Anne Boleyn and believed a second marriage would provide a much desired male heir. However the fact that Queen Catherine was opposed to the annulment and a return to her previous status as Dowager Princess of Wales made the annulment request a matter caught up in international diplomacy, with Catherine's nephew, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V threatening the pope if his aunt's marriage to Henry was annulled. Wolsey, aware of the diplomatic complexities and the fact that, facing a physical threat to his own life should he grant the annulment, the Pope was reluctant to grant the annulment, himself was slow in arranging the request. This delay angered the king, and made Wolsey an enemy of Anne Boleyn and her friends at court.
Wolsey's fall was sudden and complete. He was stripped of his government office and property, including his magnificently expanded residence of York Place, which Henry chose to replace the Palace of Westminster as his own main London residence. However Wolsey was permitted to remain Archbishop of York. But shortly afterward, he was accused of treason and ordered to London. In great distress, he set out for the capital with his personal chaplain Edmund Bonner. Wolsey fell ill and died on the way, at Leicester. "If I had served God," the cardinal said remorsefully, "as diligently as I have done the king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs."
In keeping with his practice of erecting magnificent buildings, Wolsey had designed a grand tomb for himself, but he lost it, just as he had lost Hampton Court. Wolsey was buried in Leicester Abbey without any monument at all, and Henry VIII considered using the impressive black sarcophagus for himself, but Lord Nelson now lies in it, in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral.