Who was Thomas Audley?
Thomas Audley began his career as a lawyer at the Inner Temple in London, and a minor official in Essex. He was elected to parliament as MP for Colchester in 1523 and quickly came to the attention of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. A number of appointments and offices followed and, by the end of 1527, he was a member of Wolsey’s household and a groom of the King’s chamber. Audley was elected to the House of Commons again in 1529 and was appointed Speaker of the Commons. During the following parliament (1529-36), he played a key role in ensuring that the legislation was passed to enable Henry VIII’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon. He was appointed Keeper of the Great Seal in May 1532 and, on 26 January 1533, he was appointed Lord Chancellor.
As one of Henry VIII’s newly promoted men who had risen through administrative skill rather than birth or military prowess, Audley was loyal to Henry and the protection of royal interests. However, he was also keen to uphold the authority of parliament and the letter of the law, at times bringing him into conflict with other men. He never rose to the dizzy heights of men such as Thomas Cromwell but his administrative and legal skills were valued. He was called upon by the privy council for his legal expertise (especially in matters of treason), was a point of contact for foreign ambassadors in London, and his house was sometimes used as a jail – Agnes, dowager duchess of Norfolk, was held there in December 1541 before being transferred to the tower of London. He presided over the trial of Anne Boleyn’s alleged lovers and acted as a legal advisor at her trial; he also interrogated Katherine Howard and others about her alleged infidelity. He kept his personal religious beliefs close to his chest but, as he worked closely with Cromwell, helped bring about the break with the Catholic church, and benefitted from the dissolution of the monasteries he is often seen as an evangelical. In reality, it seems more likely that he was driven by his desire to serve the King than by religious fervour.
His loyalty and hard work were rewarded in November 1538 when he was made Baron Audley of Walden and in May 1540 when he was elected to the Order of the Garter. He amassed a large fortune from humble beginnings and one of his daughters would go on to marry Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk. Unlike men like Wolsey and Cromwell, Audley never fell from royal favour and retired from public life only as a result of ill health.
Where was he buried?
Thomas Audley died in London on 30 April 1544. His was body was taken to Essex to be buried in the church of St Mary the Virgin in Saffron Walden, near to his home at Walden Abbey.
St Mary’s church is large medieval building with soaring nave arcades and clerestory. The oldest parts of the building date to the late-13th century but the nave and tower were rebuilt c. 1485-1515 by royal master masons Simon Clerk and John Wastell. Wastell and Clerk had been working at nearby King’s College, Cambridge and there are similarities between the church in Saffron Walden and their work in Cambridge.
Audley’s tomb is located against the east wall of the south aisle in what would have been a side chapel. It is unlikely that it is in its original context as it protrudes above the window sill -either the tomb has been moved or the window has been enlarged (sylistically we can tell that the window was replaced in the 19th century).
What’s with the filing cabinets and cupboards?
Whilst Thomas Audley’s tomb was originally in a side chapel, the space has subsequently been converted into a vestry. As a result, his tomb is now surrounded by more mundane items of modern church life, such as music books, robes, and filing cabinets. Although it has the appearance of a private space, members of the public can go in and there is information about the Audley laid out on the tomb.
What is his tomb like?
At first glance, his tomb is rather austere. A rectangular chest with a tall, carved panel standing on the top at the east end; it made of black stone with relief carving and no paint or gilt decoration. The sides of the tomb are also badly worn, particularly on the south side, which means that a lot of the decorative detail has been lost. There is no effigy or evidence of a figurative brass having been inlaid in the top of the chest.
However, on closer inspection, it was clearly an elaborately carved Renaissance memorial. The border of the vertical panel and the corners of the chest are modelled after classical columns with decorative detailing. The tomb was clearly designed to emphasise his heraldry rather than family members or religious beliefs. There are no figures representing his wives or daughters, and no evidence of figures of saints or bedesmen (understandable given his involvement with the break from Rome and dissolution of the monasteries). Rather, we can just make out that the sides of the tomb chest were originally all covered with coats of arms. Meanwhile, the vertical panel at the east end is dominated by his arms in the Garter with helm, crest, supporters and mantling. Beneath is a carved inscription that records that he was a Knight of the Order of the Garter and Lord Chancellor. Clearly, Audley and his family wanted him to be remembered for his career, and for the noble status that he had achieved from humble origins.
Ford, L., ” Audley, Thomas, Baron Audley of Walden (1487/8–1544), lord chancellor”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.