Leicester Abbey and the missing remains of Cardinal Wolsey righthand man to Henry VIII
The discovery of Richard III and the subsequent research into his remains has helped to acquaint members of the public with the nation’s history – and now some have set their sights on the search for another lost historical figure in Leicester.
Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s right-hand man and Archbishop of York, died in Leicester in the winter of 1530, and was buried in Leicester Abbey in the modern-day Abbey Park. His fate has remained a mystery for centuries, and, despite numerous digs having taken place at Abbey Park, his remains have never been located.From 2000-2005 Dr Richard Buckley, co-director of University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), spent 10 seasons at the abbey site with undergraduates honing their fieldwork skills. He compiled their findings in a book Leicester Abbey: Medieval History, Archaeology and Manuscript Studies, to mark the 150th anniversary of Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, published in 2006.
Professor Jo Story from the School of History co-edited the book with Dr Buckley and Dr Jill Bourne. According to Professor Story, the recent work on the Abbey outlined in the book have located a surprising large amount of the abbey's breathtaking library, as well as charters about the abbey’s buildings, lands and rentals.
Despite enjoying favour with Henry VIII as one of his leading political advisers, Wolsey’s position became precarious when he was charged with treason for failing to get the Pope at the time, Clement VII, to annul the king's marriage to Katherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Wolsey was arrested in 1529 and was stripped of his government office and property - and died shortly after, on November 19, 1530, at Leicester Abbey.
Leicester has made several concerted efforts in the past to locate Wolsey, including after the tomb of Tutankhamun was discovered in 1922, but so far the lost Cardinal has escaped the gaze of eager archaeologists.
Even if his remains were found, it may prove difficult to identify him, as it is unlikely that DNA matches with living descendants would be located – but who knows? Maybe one day the remains of another big man of history will be found in Leicester.