OFF THE SHELF / An usher with gilt stirrups: Kenneth Baxter on George Cavendish's remarkable close-up life of Cardinal Wolsey

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The Independent Culture
GEORGE Cavendish's Life of Wolsey is almost our earliest 'eye-witness' biography, based on personal knowledge of its subject. Cavendish was the elder of two brothers, George and William. William helped the king to confiscate the wealth of the monasteries, while George became Wolsey's gentleman-usher. After Wolsey's death Cavendish retired to his modest estate in Suffolk, where he married a niece of More's and wrote his reminiscences.

The tale he had to tell is one of hubris and nemesis. Wolsey was upwardly mobile from the first. Beginning as tutor to a nobleman's sons, he was soon his employer's chaplain, thence chaplain to 'a grave and ancient knight' employed in the king's service at Calais. 'Blushing honours fell thick upon him.' He advanced to the see of Lincoln and, soon afterwards, to the vacant archdiocese of York. He coveted Canterbury, whose incumbent remained obstinately alive. Wolsey outflanked him by engineering a cardinal's hat for himself and was made papal legate. Cavendish says that a 'mere varlet' carried the hat to England, but Wolsey substituted a noble retinue and an ornate ceremony in Westminster Abbey.

No Englishman ever achieved so many honours so quickly as the butcher's son from Ipswich. His chamberlains, officers and servants, high and low, numbered above 500. In scarlet silk and sables, preceded by two massy silver crosses and smelling a scooped-out orange filled with spices 'against pestilent airs' - and pestilent suitors, he mounted his mule, 'trapped on crimson and velvet, with gilt stirrups', he processed, in his capacity as Chancellor of England, to Westminster Hall.

He worked day and night 'for the good of this realm' but neglected not the least of his religious duties. He also entertained lavishly, and when the king was his guest 'the banquets were set forth with masks and mummeries in gorgeous manner that it was heaven to behold them. There wanted not dames and damsels to dance with the maskers.'

Cavendish tells the fateful story (fateful for England too) in all its fascinating detail. If he says less than we might wish of the personal side of Wolsey's by no means blameless life, we must recall that biography as we know it, with its strengths and blemishes, had yet to develop.