Henry VIII, the Reign
CAVENDISH, GEORGE (1500-1562?), English writer, the biographer of Cardinal Wolsey, was the elder son of Thomas Cavendish, clerk of the pipe in the exchequer, and his wife, Alice Smith of Padbrook Hall. He was probably born at his father's manor of Cavendish, in Suffolk. Later the family resided in London, in the parish of St Alban's, Wood Street, where Thomas Cavendish died in 1524.
Shortly after this event George married Margery Kemp, of Spains Hall, an heiress, and the niece of Sir Thomas More. About 1527 he entered the service of Cardinal Wolsey as gentleman-usher, and for the next three years he was divided from his wife, children and estates, in the closest personal attendance on the great man. Cavendish was wholly devoted to Wolsey's interests, and also he saw in this appointment an opportunity to gratify his master-passion, a craving “to see and be acquainted with strangers, in especial with men in honour and authority.” He was faithful to his master in disgrace, and showed the courage of the “loyal servitor.” It is plain that he enjoyed Wolsey's closest confidence to the end, for after the cardinal's death George Cavendish was called before the privy council and closely examined as to Wolsey's latest acts and words.
He gave his evidence so clearly and with so much natural dignity, that he won the applause of the hostile council, and the praise of being “a just and diligent servant.” He was not allowed to suffer in pocket by his fidelity to his master, but retired, as it would seem, a wealthy man to his estate of Glemsford, in West Suffolk, in 1530.
He was only thirty years of age, but his appetite for being acquainted with strange acts and persons was apparently sated, for we do not hear of his engaging in any more adventures. It is not to be doubted that Cavendish had taken down notes of Wolsey's conversation and movements, for many years passed before his biography was composed. At length, in 1557, he wrote it out in its final form. It was not, however, possible to publish it in the author's lifetime, but it was widely circulated in MS.
Evidently one of these MSS. fell into Shakespeare's hands, for that poet made use of it in his King Henry VIII., although it is excessive to say, as Singer has done, that Shakespeare “merely put Cavendish's language into verse.” The book was first printed in 1641, in a garbled text, and under the title of The Negotiations of Thomas Wolsey.
The genuine text, from contemporary MSS., was given to the world in 1810, and more fully in 1815. Until that time it was believed that the book was the composition of George Cavendish's younger brother William, the founder of Chatsworth, who also was attached to Wolsey. Joseph Hunter proved this to be impossible, and definitely asserted the claim of George. The latter is believed to have died at Glemsford in or about 1562.
The intrinsic value of Cavendish's Life of Cardinal Wolsey has long been perceived, for it is the sole authentic record of a multitude of events highly important in a particularly interesting section of the history of England. Its importance as a product of biographical literature was first emphasized by Bishop Creighton, who insisted over and over again on the claim of Cavendish to be recognized as the earliest of the great English biographers and an individual writer of particular charm and originality.
He writes with simplicity and with a certain vivid picturesqueness, rarely yielding to the rhetorical impulses which governed the ordinary prose of his age.