Thomas Wriothesley Becomes Chancellor

There are some historical figures that the more one reads about them, the more one loathes them. For me, one of those figures is Thomas Wriothesley, who was born on 21 December 1505  to upper-middle-class family in London but would claw his way up to becoming Lord Chancellor for King Henry VIII by having the morals and ethics of a rabid, narcissistic, hyena.


There was no back that Wriothesley would stab, and no hand which fed him that he would not bite. 

The first person in King Henry’s circle to notice the young lawyer and help him rise was Thomas Cromwell.  For years Wriothesley kissed up to Cromwell and was always at Cromwell’s elbow, and in turn Cromwell rewarded him with various plum positions at court. In spite of Cromwell’s  patronage, when Cromwell fell afoul of the king’s paranoid rage, Wriothesley didn’t even TRY to help his former master. Since this was the exact same kind of gratitude that Cromwell had shown Anne Boleyn for her kindness to him, I am not entirely sorry for Cromwell.  Nevertheless, it was still a wretched thing to do and speaks volumes about Wriothesley’s lack of character.

Moreover, Wriothesley sole religious belief was apparently “thou shall do what is best for thyself.” He allied himself with the Catholic faction at court, benefiting from the patronage of his uber-Catholic boss, Bishop Stephen Gardiner, but made deals with the Reformers behind Gardiner’s back without compunction. He also happily persecuted Catholics and made a hot fortune from the Dissolution of the Monasteries but was ‘devoutly’ Catholic enough to personally torture Anne Askew, turning the wheels of the rack with his own hands, in an effort to please Bishop Gardiner by getting Askew to implicate the king’s final wife, Queen Kateryn Parr, in Protestant heresy. 

This backfired on Wriothesley, since the king was NOT happy to hear his Lord Chancellor had tortured a woman. The king also made up with Queen Kateryn, so when  Wriothesley  came to arrest her, King Henry called him an “Arrant knave!” and sent the Chancellor away with a flea in his ear. It’s very satisfying to picture Wriothesley’s humiliation, to be honest.

While Bishop Gardiner was powerful and could promote Wriothesley, then Wriothesley “supported Gardiner’s crackdown against Lutheran opinions, threatening the lives of reformers Miles Coverdale and Hugh Latimer … [and] even intimidated Archbishop Cranmer, who was protected by the King himself.” However, when Gardiner fell from the king’s favour Wriothesley had no problems allying himself to the reformers … at least behind closed doors.

In exchange for Wriothesley’s complicity when Henry VIII died and Edward VI came to the throne, the new monarch’s maternal uncle, Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, ‘discovered’ that Henry’s will allowed him to make Wriothesley the Earl of Southampton and a member of the Regency Council. However, Wriothesley and Seymour hated each other, and when Wriothesley tried to block the Duke of Somerset’s rise as Lord Protector and de facto king, Wriothesley “found himself abruptly dismissed from the chancellorship on charges of selling off some of his offices to delegates … [and] lost his seat on the Privy Council” in March 1547.

Although he was able to get back on Edward VI’s Privy Council, he never recovered his position entirely. On behalf of Anne Askew, I hope that really bothered him.

Like many evil people, Wriothesley died peacefully in his bed on 30 July 1550. His five year old son, Henry Wriothesley, became the 2nd Earl of Southampton.  Wriothesley’s grandson, Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, is thought to have been the lover, or at the very least the beloved, of William Shakespeare, and “is generally identified as the Fair Youth of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.”

4 thoughts on “Thomas Wriothesley Becomes Chancellor

  1. “Call me Risley” originally worked for Stephen Gardiner, and he played both sides of the fence between Gardiner and Cromwell for years. Cromwell never completely trusted him, and with good reason. Though a dog of man, I wouldn’t fault Wriothesley too heavily regarding the fall of Cromwell, as the only people to come to his defense were Thomas Cranmer (who wrote a remarkable letter to Henry, which in part survives) and Ralph Sadler (in Sadler’s case a necessity for self-preservation, but still bold and effective). By the time Sadler was able to show the truth of the matter, Cromwell was already dead. Great post! Thank you.

  2. “the morals and ethics of a rabid, narcissistic, hyena”

    The fur trimming he’s wearing on his collar has spots, so although it probably isn’t, I’m going to imagine it’s hyena fur.

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