Thomas Wolsey was the most powerful man in England apart from the king. He was the equivalent of a present-day Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer and literally ran the government for King Henry VIII. He was Archbishop of York, so he was Primate of England, but he often overstepped the Archbishop of Canterbury, acting as though he was the Primate of All England on many occasions. His greatest wish was to be Pope, but all his persuading and conniving could not quite bring it about in the political situation of Europe in the 16th century. (‘Wolsey’ A F Pollard)
So instead he made his mark in England wherever he could. He endowed a school in Ipswich, where he was born (an archway still proclaims the fact) and his palace at Hampton Court was top-notch and envied by the king. But he also wanted to create a college, and his eye fell on Oxford. His visit to St Frideswide’s monastery with Queen Katherine of Aragon in 1518, must have provided a solution to the site of his new college.
Oxford was full of monasteries that offered colleges and schools and William Dugdale in his Monasticon Anglicanum, tells us that St Fridewide’s was no exception. ‘The schools of St Frideswide’s priory were situated near to School St.’ (Today the avenue to the west of the Radcliffe Camera). But it was also the most ancient monastery in the city and even had a Saxon saint at its core. Wolsey could not resist, and the Augustinian Priory of St Frideswide was doomed, but its renown as college was to begin.
William Dugdale records in the Monasticon Anglorum (History of the Monasteries of England)
‘…that in 1523 Cardinal Wolsey sent John Longland Bishop of Lincoln (also Visitor of the University) as his orator to the university of Oxford announcing his intention to found a college for 200 students and seven lecturers. Not long after that the Bishop came and made preparations for the Cardinal’s buildings and caused the Canons of St Frideswide’s to leave their habitations.’
In the footnotes it adds: ‘The revenue of the monastery before its suppression was £224 4s 8d, and that prior Burton surrendered the monastery. On his resignation he obtained a salary of 20 marks per annum during life, and he retired to the neighbouring abbey of Oseney, where he became abbot in 1531. He died about seven years later and was interred at Oseney.’
He continues, ‘In short, the priory of St Frideswide was suppressed by virtue of a bull from Pope Clement VI, bearing the date 3rd Sept 1524, allowed of and confirmed on the 7th January following by Henry VIII, who by letters patent dated July 1st 1525, granted the site and lands to Cardinal Wolsey, who thereupon began the foundation of a noble college for a dean, sub-dean, a hundred canons, thirteen chaplains, professors in divinity, law, physic, and the liberal arts, and for other persons, to the number of one hundred and eighty-six, which was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, the Virgin Mary, St Frideswide and All Saints.’
Dugdale states, ‘Wolsey obtained leave to enrich his college by supressing certain priories and nunneries, the revenues of which were estimated at nearly two thousand pounds.’
The footnotes give us a list of 20 monasteries suppressed by Wolsey for this purpose.
Dugdale's record tells us: ‘The king’s patent, after a preface paying high compliments to the cardinal’s administration, enables him to build his college principally on the site of the priory of St Frideswide; and the name, originally intended to be ‘The College of Secular Priests’ was now changed to ‘Cardinal College’. The secular clergy in it were to be denominated the ‘Dean and Canons Secular of the Cardinal of York,’ and to be incorporated into one body, and subsist by perpetual succession. By other patents and grants to the dean and canons, various church-livings were bestowed upon them.’
The foundation stone of the college was in Latin, but when translated by Andrew Dunning it reads:
The Most Reverend Father in Christ and Lord Thomas Wolsey,
by divine mercy, with the titular church of Saint Cecilia,
Cardinal priest of the Holy Roman Church,
Archbishop of York, Primate of England, and
legate of the apostolic seat, Bishop of Durham, and
perpetual holder of the monastery of St Albans,
[which is] exempt [from episcopal jurisdiction],
Chancellor of England, and
a legate from the side of the said apostolic seat for life,
has placed this stone in honour of the holy and undivided Trinity,
of the most glorious Virgin Mary, of St Frideswide, and of all the Saints,
on the 20th day of March, AD 1525.
There are two accounts as to the constitution of the college, again recorded by William Dugdale:
The first is by Leonard Hutton Canon of Christ Church 1599, and for many years sub-Dean. Dugdale writes: ‘His manuscript, now in the possession of the college states that, according to Wolsey’s design, it was to be a perpetual foundation for the study of the sciences, divinity, canon and civil law, also the arts, physic and polite literature, and for the continual performance of divine service. The members were to be a dean, and sixty regular canons, but no canons of the second order.’
‘Wolsey’s statutes, which are still preserved in the college, state that the first design included 60 regular canons and forty of the second order. Of these Wolsey named the dean and eighteen of the canons. The dean was Dr John Hygden, president of Magdalen College, and the canons first nominated were all taken from the other colleges in Oxford and were men of acknowledged reputation in their day.’
‘The society as he planned it was to contain one hundred and sixty persons, but no mention could be made yet of the scholars who were to proceed from his school in Ipswich although, had he lived, these would undoubtedly have formed part of the society, as the school was established two years before his fall.’
‘This constitution continued from 1525 to 1529-30 when he was deprived of his power and property, and for two years after it appears to have been interrupted, if not dissolved. It is to his honour that in his last correspondence with secretary Cromwell and with the king, when all worldly prospects were about to close upon him, he pleaded with great earnestness, and for nothing so earnestly, as that his majesty would be pleased to suffer his college at Oxford to go on. What effect this had we know not, but the urgent entreaties of the members of the society, and of the university at large, were at length successful, while at the same time the king determined to deprive Wolsey of all merit in the establishment, and transfer the whole to himself.’
See more about the changes to the college in the page about Henry VIII under Background on this website.
These records give us a lot of detail about Wolsey’s plans for the members of his college and how it was to be run but it tells us nothing about how far Wolsey got in his architectural changes to the monastery and church.
However, Dugdale continues: ‘The foundation of Cardinal College took place March 20th, 1525. It was begun on ground which had been cleared by pulling down the west end of St Frideswide’s church to the extent of 50 ft, with the whole west side of the cloister and London college, which had originally been the synagogue of the Jews, being also removed.’ (The synagogue was under the north-west corner tower of the great court, known today as Tom Quad, roughly opposite G & D's coffee shop).
He would have also had to clear the tenements on the east side of St Aldate’s, then called Fish St, for the west wing of the quad. He also demolished houses, inns and student halls that were situated between Fish St and the Priory Church for the central space and east wing of the quad. Among these he obscured an ancient lane called St Frideswide's Lane that ran in a west / east direction from Fish St, approximately where Tom Tower is now, across the centre of the quad and along the raised bank on which sits the wall of the Dean's garden just north of the present cathedral building. Excavations reported in Oxoniensia 53 1988 p86 have revealed the surface of the ancient lane in the corner of the cathedral garden next to the outside, south wall of the Picture Gallery.
Dugdale continues, ‘At the time of Cardinal Wolsey’s fall, the Kitchen, the Hall, the east, south and most part of the Great Court called Wolsey’s Quadrangle, were completed. From the lines on the front of the walls it is supposed that the whole quadrangle was to have had a cloister in the inside, but it does not appear that any progress was made in constructing it.’
If you stand on St Aldate’s roughly outside St Aldate’s church and look at the outside of the western range of the Quad, to the left of Tom Tower, you can see the change in spacing of the windows on the upper floor on the north (left) after the first set of windows. This probably indicates the point where the quad ended under Wolsey. It is also visible when viewed from inside the quad.