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Saturday, 24 September 2011

Thomas Wolsey, Catlover. Oh, and he was Lord Chancellor too.

In a period when cats and cat lovers could, by a papal ordinance of 1484 be burned, Thomas Wolsey was a notable cat lover. 

The name Wolsey comes from Wulfsig, or ‘Wolf victory’; wolves are canines, but on the other hand they have the same capacity for independence that cats do; a cat will stay because it wants to.
Some cats are attached to places, others to people; but there are those people with whom cats will happily stay, regardless of their movements.  Wolsey was apparently one of those people as he travelled about in the king’s train and on the king’s business generally taking at least two of his cats with him.  One indeed was said to attend mass with him and sit quietly and with all apparent piety throughout.

Tom Wolsey was born in Ipswich, the son of a small land owner who owned and raised cattle of various kinds.  He was educated at Felawe’s school, now the Ipswich School and still going strong, and at Oxford University.  He was almoner first and very briefly to Henry VII and then to Henry VIII, and had a running rivalry with Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort [perhaps she was an ailurophobe; she was certainly dictatorial and there is not a single dictator I know of who liked cats].
In the period of my Robin and Felicia books Wolsey has not yet risen to cardinal, let alone Lord Chancellor.  I give him a number of fictional cats which are whimsically named as, by my reading of his character through looking at as many accounts of him as I can, I fancy he might have done. 
I have Felicia describe him in many ways as essentially feline; neat and economical of movement, sleek, and with the eye of a mouser. Her first impressions are not favourable:

      “He seemed most affable.”  I said.  “Indeed, he seemeth like the very fireside cat that hath but late licked the cream off his whiskers; distaining overmuch the work of hunting rats but rather dispatching the common cats to do the same.  Yet withal, I fancy, it sometimes taketh his whimsy to pursue a choice mouse, playing with it before deciding whether to bite it in the neck or let it go.  Be wary, my master, lest you become the churchman’s mouse to scurry hither and thither at the wave of his velvet gloved paws.”
From 'The Mary Rose Mystery'
Felicia acquires a more positive view of Tom Wolsey as she gets to know him, but she continues to refer to him as 'Tom Mouser' especially when his position of Royal Spymaster [an invention of mine in the biography of Thomas Wolsey but not, I think, unreasonable] involves her and Robin in dangerous adventures.

Wolsey rose in the church, becoming Bishop of Lincoln in 1512, Archbishop of York in 1514, Cardinal in 1515 and rose in a secular fashion too, to become  Lord Chancellor in 1515. 

Ipswich has this year honoured her famous son with a statue near the house reputed to be the one where he was born, and David Annand of Fife was commissioned to cast it in bronze.  He has included a cat, which is very appropriate.  Thank you David Annand!

For an excellent history see The King’s Cardinal by Peter Gwyn

By the way I have a cat blog too now at

1 comment:

  1. This is fascinating...and wonderful to see how Sarah combines historical fact and fiction to make Felicia such a winning heroine!!

    And Wolsey isn't really a bad character in the books..but he does come across as a bit Machiavellian, yes?? Which he definitely was, even if Thomas Cromwell was no better..these are, unfortunately, the sort of men whom Henry VIII surrounded himself with; it's an interesting contrast to the kinds of advisors his daughter, Elizabeth would ultimately choose..Burleigh, for example, who was a judicious elder statesman, or Sir Francis Walsingham....

    By the way, I am very grateful to this blog for the wealth of information--I learn something new every time I read it!!! I didn't know that you could be burned for feline admiration acording to late-fifteenth century Papal decree!! What was the rationale?? I'm speculating/wondering, since the period of the Papal Ordinance is about the same time as "Malleus Malificiorum," is dated to--is this connected to late fifteenth-century Inquisitorial connections between heresy and Witchcraft??

    Thanks for these wonderful posts!!!