Remembering Wolsey

A History of Commemorations and Representations

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J. Patrick Hornbeck II
  • New York, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , February
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In Remembering Wolsey: A History of Commemorations and Representations, J. Patrick Hornbeck II explores the ways in which Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1473–1530), aide to Henry VIII, has been remembered and commemorated by asking this question: “Why and how are representations of historical figures generated, why and how are they passed down and changed over the years, and what structures of discourse and power shape and resolve disputes about the representation of controversial lives?” (2). Hornbeck’s goal is to survey English examples of commemoration and representation of Wolsey from the time of Wolsey’s death up until the present day. The aim is both historical as well as theological in that Hornbeck intends to show how historians and theologians have used representations of Wolsey to dispute claims about the Reformation. Significantly, Hornbeck also wants to contribute something to the growing field of scholarship in representation and cultural memory (mnemohistory). He succeeds on all fronts, including one he may not have intended—that of producing the most thorough analysis of the historiography of Cardinal Wolsey to date.

Hornbeck deals with Wolsey’s memory chronologically, beginning in chapter 1 just after the cardinal’s death. In analyzing Tudor memory, Hornbeck creates three main prototypes of the cardinal that are not so much historical realities as they are tools for analysis and which reappear in some form throughout history. These are Wolsey the papist, Wolsey the architect of the schism, and Wolsey the repentant sinner. These categories are not mutually exclusive but tend to be the prototypes on which much of the memory of Wolsey rests. Hornbeck shows, for example, how John Foxe relied on Wolsey the papist in his Book of Martyrs and how, conversely, Catholic writers often viewed the cardinal as having partly caused the Reformation because of his personal moral failings, rather than the schism being the result of any decrepitude on the part of the church.

In all cases, Hornbeck shows that representations of the cardinal were attempts to make meaning out of memory in light of contemporary concerns. In the Tudor era, various representations of the cardinal were used in theological battles between Catholics and evangelicals. However, in chapter 2 Hornbeck deals with Wolsey’s memory in the Stuart era, which is distinguished by its use of Wolsey no longer as a discriminator between Catholics and evangelicals but as a weapon in internecine struggles within the emerging Anglican church, in particular conflicts surrounding Laudian reform.

Chapter 3 covers the enormous time span between the Restoration and Catholic emancipation in the 19th century. Here writers began to make a distinction between Wolsey as a statesman and Wolsey the cardinal, with an almost universal appreciation for his ability to govern in newly bureaucratic Tudor England. Later in the chapter, Hornbeck focuses on Catholic emancipation. Here he gives a good overview of the evangelical opinion that Catholics cannot be both good Catholics and good English subjects because they cannot serve two masters, with Wolsey used to illustrate the point. The most interesting part of this chapter is Hornbeck’s focus on Wolsey’s legacy as an architect. Hornbeck goes to Hampton Court Palace, newly opened to the public in the 1830s, to find traces of the cardinal that remain despite Henry VIII’s efforts to efface him in the fabric of the palace.

More fascinating still is Hornbeck’s analysis of how Wolsey’s story is told in conjunction with that of Hampton Court within the guidebooks of the time. Here Hornbeck begins to explore how historic tourism helps craft historical memory in a circular fashion. Stories and fictions of a historical person lead more visitors to places associated with that person, which in turn shapes how places craft their stories about that person.

This exploration leads seamlessly into chapter 5, which is an exploration of Wolsey’s memory as it intersected with the debates then current (1850–1960) with the professionalization of history as an academic subject. During this time more archival records relating to the Tudor era became available, and there was an emphasis on studying the facticity of the cardinal’s life. Whereas in the Tudor and Stuart eras writers had tended to be satisfied with writing their predecessors’ narratives into their own studies of Wolsey, there was now a growing positivist emphasis in historical study. This coincided with the rise of the historical novel, and Hornbeck defends his inclusion of historical novels in his analysis by saying, “The boundary between history and fiction has shifted over time, and, more often than not, has been fuzzy rather than well defined” (121).

Hornbeck engages skillfully in the debate between “real” history and historical fiction by pointing out that academic history has its own sets of biases and that, when one takes these into account, the boundary between it and fiction becomes more and more blurred. Furthermore, and for the purpose of his book, fiction has a profound influence on people’s perception of historical people and events.

Hornbeck explores this idea further in his final chapter, on television and historical novels of the 21st century, in particular the television miniseries The Tudors and Hilary Mantel’s prize-winning Wolf Hall series. Hornbeck says, “Just because a text (or, in this instance, a television series) is inaccurate does not mean that it cannot be successful in creating or disseminating forms of historical memory” (179), and this ultimately is where Hornbeck’s book shines. One of his stated aims is to contribute something to the discussion of representation and cultural memory which he has certainly done in the final chapters, in particular by exploring historical tourism.

If Hornbeck’s book has a fault, it is that in aiming both to study representations of the cardinal and to contribute to mnemohistory scholarship he has perhaps taken on too much in a small space. The study would have benefited from more analysis of how the cardinal’s memory intersected with developments in the heritage industry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Autumn Reinhardt-Simpson is a PhD candidate in religious studies at the University of Alberta.

Date of Review: 
March 5, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

J. Patrick Hornbeck II is chair and professor of theology at Fordham University.


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