Cardinal Wolsey’s angels rediscovered


This extraordinary story caught my eye in the Telegraph this morning. Four three-foot-high angels, sculpted by Benedetto da Rovezzano in 1524 and intended for the grand tomb that Cardinal Wolsey was planning for himself, have been rediscovered, or re-recognised, and are now on loan to the V and A. They had previously been used as finials for the gateposts at Harrowden Hall in Northamptonshire, which is now Wellingborough Golf Club. Two were stolen in 1988, but instead of being melted down for scrap they reappeared at Sotheby’s in 1994 as ‘Italian Renaissance style’ and now belong to a French antique dealer. The other two have remained safely on the gates of the golf club.

I would love to credit the art historian and expert of Benedetto da Rovezzano who recognised the angels – truly the discovery of a lifetime (or it would be if I did it) – but none of there sources seem to name him. I will keep my eye out for him.

As this reconstruction shows, the angels were to be mounted on nine-foot high columns surrounding the tomb, which may have been planned for Wolsey’s See at York Minster. According to the contract, Wolsey’s tomb must be ‘inferior in cost or magnificence’ to the tomb that Pietro da Torrigiano [the sculptor who broke Michelangelo’s nose in a fight] had designed for King Henry VIII’s parents King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York at Westminster Abbey.


(c) Laurence Shafe

Wolsey fell before the tomb could be completed. Some elements, including the angels, were reused for King Henry VIII’s tomb, which was itself destroyed in the Seventeenth Century. Four candlesticks from the tomb survive in St Bavo’s Cathedral in Ghent. The huge sarcophagus itself still survives in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, where it was used for the burial of Lord Nelson.


(c) Tales of Curiosity

The story of Cardinal Wolsey’s tomb is, as Hilary Mantel says in the Telegraph, the story of his relationship with the King, who obliterated Wolsey’s greatest projects after his fall, or claimed them for himself. “Thanks to the discovery of Wolsey’s angels, a great Englishman we have forgotten may have his monument at last,” Mantel said.

The photograph at the top shows the actor Paul Jesson looking up at the angels in the sculpture gallery of the V and A. He plays Wolsey, in Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies the stage adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s novels. Mantel’s work does a good job of re-establishing Wolsey in the popular consciousness as one of the greatest statesmen this country, or Europe has ever known. It’s also brilliant. We’re seeing the second play later this month, after being blown away by the first one in May. The humour, wisdom and natural goodness that Paul Jesson bring to Wolsey made me want to cry as the Fates ganged up against him. La roue tourne, Eminence as King Francis II says to him in The Tudors.

I do like Wolsey. Christ Church, my college was founded by him in 1524 as Cardinal College, the same year that Benedetto da Rovezzano sculpted Wolsey’s angels. The college was suppressed along with the monasteries in 1531 and refounded the following year as King Henry VIII’s College, before being refunded again as Christ Church in 1546, but by the mid-seventeenth century the college was using Cardinal Wolsey’s arms alongside King Henry VIII’s, a rather touching loyalty to the Founder, and though both flags are flown on different occasions, the College arms are still Cardinal Wolsey’s, where he is never forgotten.


(c) Christ Church, Oxford

Cardinal Wolsey’s angels are the subject of a £5,000,000 appeal at the V and A. Half the money has been raised already, and I hope the rest will be found soon, to bring back one of his last, forgotten projects of this extraordinary man. You can donate via the ArtFund here.

Meanwhile, according to the Daily Mail, Leicester University, flushed with their success in finding King Richard III, has started to look for Wolsey’s grave. The article illustrates this imposing portrait of Wolsey from the Christ Church Hall, painted by Sampson Strong in the seventeenth century, and showing Wolsey’s college behind him.


(c) Christ Church, Oxford

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