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Cavendish, George (1499–c. 1562) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

wolsey life thomas wolsey’s

George Cavendish was born in Suffolk around 1499. An official of the Exchequer under both Henry VII and Henry VIII, his father, Thomas, acquired substantial land holdings. Little is known of George’s early years, but it is certain that he attended Cambridge in 1510, although he seems to have left before taking a degree. Although he appears to have married sometime shortly after the death of his mother, Alice, in 1515, there is no record of his first wife’s name nor of the date of their marriage. She appears to have died young. Between 1520 and 1525 he married Margery Kemp, with whom he had two children. Margery was the daughter of William Kemp and Mary Colt of Spains Hall, Essex, and the niece of Thomas More* through his first wife, Jane Colt. Once George entered Wolsey’s service, by 1522, glimpses of his life are more plentiful insofar as they are recorded in his Life of Wolsey . Cavendish served Wolsey for at least seven years as a gentleman usher, and when Wolsey died in the winter of 1530, he retired to his native Suffolk, abandoning a career of royal service that lay open before him. He remained at his estate of Cavendish Overhall, while his brother William (1505?–57) busily prosecuted a career with Thomas Cromwell* that led to a “sizable fortune” (Sylvester, xxii) built on the proceeds of confiscated monastic land. Between 1530 and his death in c. 1562, George played the part of a country gentleman, serving in minor capacities and on various commissions. At some point during Mary’s reign he moved to Spains Hall in Essex, where he finished his Life of Wolsey as well as his Metrical Visions . The date of his death is not known, but it is almost certain that he died sometime in late 1561 or 1562.


Cavendish’s Life of Wolsey has naturally drawn the attention of scholars more interested in its subject than its literary merits. In 1641 it received its first (but bowdlerized) printing when a Puritan faction tried to tar Archbishop Laud with Wolsey’s brush. In 1810 it received a more or less complete printing in Words-worth’s Ecclesiastical Biography , but the true merits of the work awaited publication of Pollard’s Wolsey (1929). Pollard has limited use for its allegedly verbatim speeches and often inaccurate detail but frequently employs its colorful idiom, while noting carefully its partisan spirit. The widespread acclaim that surrounded Pollard’s study sparked a new appreciation for the literary merits of the Life as an example of the several notable Tudor attempts in biography. Sylvester notes that many of Cavendish’s supposed errors are related to the genre in which he was writing—the depiction of Wolsey’s growing insight into the nature and limits of “policy” and his awareness that by serving his king absolutely, he has necessarily neglected God (Sylvester, 58–61). Wolsey’s most recent biographer has a considerably deeper appreciation for the generic concerns and the rhetorical complexities of the Life than did Pollard—Gwyn ( The King’s Cardinal , 1990) uses Cavendish’s testimony with all its factual inaccuracies to rewrite the relationship between Henry and Wolsey and calls his description of Wolsey’s last days “one of the great passages of English prose” (Gwyn, 599).

Several literary studies of Cavendish’s Life are notable: Wiley’s dated but reliable tracking of the Life in the works of English Renaissance writers, Sylvester’s analysis of its structure and language (1960), and Anderson’s excellent investigation of Cavendish’s concept of biographical truth and the generic constraints of contemporaneous biography (1984). Crewe’s (1988) curious critique lamentably pays more attention to Anderson than to Cavendish as it attempts to construct a paradigm shift on which Cavendish wove his biography. Yet the Tudor years pioneered several notable biographies in English—several on Sir Thomas More, one of Wolsey, More’s own darkly ironic attempt in Richard III , Foxe’s sketches of Thomas Cranmer* and others, and John Bale’s polemical descriptions of Anne Askew* and Sir John Oldcastle (to say nothing of his self-congratulatory autobiography). Each attempts to set right the record, but only Anderson has firmly linked Cavendish with a few of his literary colleagues.

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