The highest political position Wolsey attained was Lord Chancellor, the King's chief adviser (formally, as his successor and disciple Thomas Cromwell was not). In that position, he enjoyed great freedom and was often depicted as an alter rex (other king). After failing to negotiate an annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Wolsey fell out of favour and was stripped of his government titles. He retreated to York to fulfill his ecclesiastical duties as Archbishop of York, a position he nominally held, but had neglected during his years in government. He was recalled to London to answer to charges of treason—a common charge used by Henry against ministers who fell out of favour—but died on the way from natural causes.
Thomas Wolsey was born about 1473, the son of Robert Wolsey of Ipswich and his wife Joan Daundy. Widespread traditions identify his father as a butcher. Wolsey attended Ipswich School and Magdalen College School before studying theology at Magdalen College, Oxford. On 10 March 1498 he was ordained as a priest in Marlborough, Wiltshire and remained in Oxford, first as the Master of Magdalen College School, before quickly being appointed the dean of divinity. Between 1500 and 1509 he held a living as rector of St Mary's church, Limington, in Somerset. In 1502, he became a chaplain to Henry Deane, archbishop of Canterbury, who died the following year. He was then taken into the household of Sir Richard Nanfan, who made Wolsey executor of his estate. After Nanfan's death in 1507, Wolsey entered the service of King Henry VII.
Wolsey benefitted from Henry VII's introduction of measures to curb the power of the nobility – the king was willing to favour those from more humble backgrounds. Henry VII appointed Wolsey royal chaplain. In this position Wolsey served as secretary to Richard Foxe, who recognized Wolsey's innate ability and dedication and appreciated his industry and willingness to take on tedious tasks. Thomas Wolsey's remarkable rise to power from humble origins testifies to his intelligence, administrative ability, industriousness, ambition for power, and rapport with the King. In April 1508, Wolsey was sent to Scotland to discuss with King James IV rumours of the renewal of the Auld Alliance.
Wolsey's rise coincided with the accession in April 1509 of Henry VIII, whose character, policies and attitude to diplomacy differed significantly from those of his father. In 1509 Henry appointed Wolsey to the post of Almoner, a position that gave him a seat on the Privy Council and gave him an opportunity for greater prominence and for establishing a personal rapport with the King. A factor in Wolsey's rise was the young Henry VIII's relative lack of interest in the details of government during his early years.
The primary counsellors whom Henry VIII inherited from his father were Richard Foxe (c. 1448–1528, Bishop of Winchester 1501–1528) and William Warham (c. 1450–1532, Archbishop of Canterbury 1503–1532). These were cautious and conservative, advising the King to act as a careful administrator like his father. Henry soon appointed to his Privy Council individuals more sympathetic to his own views and inclinations. Until 1511, Wolsey was adamantly anti-war. However, when the King expressed his enthusiasm for an invasion of France, Wolsey adapted his views to those of the King and gave persuasive speeches to the Privy Council in favour of war. Warham and Foxe, who failed to share the King's enthusiasm for the French war which started in 1512, fell from power (1515/1516) and Wolsey took over as the King's most trusted advisor and administrator. In 1515, Warham resigned as Lord Chancellor, probably under pressure from the King and from Wolsey, and Henry appointed Wolsey in his place.