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550-day Project celebrating Thomas Wolsey

A major project to celebrate Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Ipswich’s most famous son.

Wolsey was born and educated in Ipswich. Initially dismissed by his critics as the mere son of a butcher, he enjoyed a meteoric rise, against the odds, which took him to the most powerful position within the King’s Court as Cardinal and Lord Chancellor and the Pope’s representative in England.

His journey, together with his new-found papal influence, led him back to Ipswich where, between 1526 and 1528, he founded the Cardinal’s College of the Blessed Virgin Mary, situated around the site of a former Augustinian priory. He intended it to operate it as a feeder into Cardinal College in Oxford where he, himself, was educated at the age of 15.

Wolsey fell from power and died before his college established itself and it was largely dismantled. However, his extraordinary story still resonates across the centuries and will now be used to inspire future generations.

Thomas Wolsey 550 begins in March 2023, the most likely date of the 550th anniversary of his birth. The 550 days from then will see events, performances and other wide-ranging activities to celebrate the life and achievements of Wolsey, particularly focusing on his relevance to today’s society. The widest possible cross-section of communities in and around Ipswich will be able to take part.

Click to download the project programme.

Beyond that, the Wolsey 550 project will work to create a major visitor attraction in the area which includes Wolsey’s Gate, the chapel of his college (St. Peter’s church), the historic port and other ancient buildings.

Terry Hunt, Ipswich Central Board member and the new Chair of the Wolsey 550 Project Board said: “Wolsey’s story has so much importance, not just for Ipswich but to the country as a whole and the world beyond. This project will unearth his story which is about ambition, aspiration, the importance of education and the ability of anyone to succeed if they are given the right opportunities. An important aspect is that Wolsey was proud of his roots in Ipswich and this initiative can do a great deal for restoring civic pride.”

The Project Board includes representatives from business, arts, history, culture, maritime, broadcasting, and education as well as from the public sector. Its members are:

Mr Hunt explained that during the period of celebration, taking in the summer of 2023, there are ambitions to link with other locations in England and beyond which played a role in the Wolsey story.

The Project Board has also identified a Heritage Investment Zone stretching from St Nicholas Street to the Waterfront and, within which are situated important but currently understated assets that could become a major visitor attraction. These include the gate (Wolsey’s Gate) and chapel (St Peter’s Church) to his college, and the area of his birthplace in the Saints, which also includes his statue.

Mr Hunt explained: “Our town centre includes an important heritage area. Not only is it the birthplace of Wolsey, but the Stoke Bridge area is the oldest part of the longest continually inhabited settlement in England. The combination of Wolsey and our maritime heritage gives us a unique opportunity to bring our history, both physically and digitally, to the fore and to use it as a catalyst to attract national and international visitors to Ipswich.”

The Project Board has identified several on-going projects which can be combined to create a visitor area. These include the area around the Paul’s silo building which might be recreated as a Tudor Garden and improvements to Stoke Bridge including new, digital technology. A key part will be to improve links between the Saints quarter and the waterfront, a key north-south route within the Connected Town strategy.

The Project Board, with the support of Ipswich Borough Council, will be making an expression of interest to the Heritage Lottery Fund to support the initial 550-day period which is likely to include opportunities for the community to engage in a wide-ranging programme of events and educational outputs.

James Fairclough, Director at Ipswich Borough Council said: We are pleased to be working with our partners to mark the 550th anniversary of Cardinal Wolsey’s birth. We hope to help secure lottery funding to enable a series of events and activities to be held in 2023 and 2024 that will help boost awareness of Ipswich’s central role in English history, provide activities for local people and visitors andbring economic benefit to the town.”

Mr Hunt concluded: “I truly believe that this is a once in a generation opportunity to celebrate an important anniversary of our most famous son, Thomas Wolsey. We can use his story to regenerate an important national heritage site while inspiring our young people today to want to succeed and to feel proud of their hometown’s rich history. Ipswich has a proud tradition of producing high achievers, from Wolsey 500 years ago, and coming right up to date with our very own Oscar winner, Aneil Karia. We want Wolsey 550 to Inspire future generations to aspire to similar successes.”

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