The Development of the Abbey
For some 150 years the Abbey grew steadily, expanding its buildings and adding to its holdings, thereby increasing its wealth.
After Abbot Clowne’s death in 1378, however, the Abbey entered a difficult period. On more than one occasion the community was divided by doctrinal disputes. The numbers of canons declined and so it appears did the Abbey’s income, as extravagance and bad management forced the Abbey to sell some of its holding and rent out others. By 1440 the number of canons had fallen to fourteen.
The Abbey’s fortunes must have revived considerably by the end of the fifteenth century, as is apparent from the extension to the precinct at this time. It is clear that all was not well. More than once, abbots were accused of not being open with the Abbey's finances, of not attending services and keeping too many servants, and there are various accounts that the canons live undisciplined lives and that the boys in the almonry were not receiving a proper education.
The most famous incident in the Abbey’s long history was the death, in 1530, of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey’s death was part of a sequence of events that was to lead to the Dissolution of the Abbey.
Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509 and not long afterwards Wolsey manoeuvred himself into the position as Henry’s first minister. Henry was a staunch Catholic and was not interested in the detailed administration of the country, so the appointment of the bright and ambitious clergyman suited both parties.
The Death of Cardinal Wolsey
Wolsey served as first minister for 14 years, amassing immense wealth and power to himself. He was brought down by a rift between Henry and the Pope; a schism that was also to spell disaster for Leicester Abbey.
The rift came about when Henry began to despair of his wife, Catherine of Aragon, producing the male heir he desired to secure the Tudor dynasty. Wolsey, by then a cardinal, was given the task of negotiating with Pope Clement VII to have the marriage annulled. This proved impossible, largely because Clement was in the power of Catherine’s nephew, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Matters began to come to a head in 1529. By this time negotiations had dragged on for some time and Henry had become infatuated with Ann Boleyn. Wolsey’s enemies started to persuade Henry that the only way around the problem was to renounce Papal authority and place the English church under the Crown. He could then annul the marriage himself and marry Ann. The cardinal was seen as an obstacle to this, so he was stripped of all his offices, save for that of Archbishop of York, and had all his property seized. Wolsey retired to Yorkshire a broken man.
That was not the end of Wolsey’s fall, for in the autumn of 1530 a warrant for treason was issued against him and he was ordered to return to London. Wolsey only got as far as Leicester Abbey, where he fell ill and died on 29th November. He was buried in the Abbey graveyard and the site of his grave is now lost.