In pursuing dreams of victory in France, Henry threw England into decades of war and the chaos of a Europe in conflict
Henry VIII was born dreaming of war. When he took the throne in April 1509, with his bride Catherine of Aragon at his side, Henry knew exactly what kind of king he wanted to be. His would be a glorious reign that would restore England to the magnificence it deserved. His father, Henry VII, had become unpopular by levying punishing taxes to restore the country’s finances, but the new king had no intention of focusing on matters as petty as the treasury. He would be a conqueror.
By the end of his life, Henry was a bloated and frustrated mockery of the athletic youth that he had once been. He had grown up jousting, riding and hunting, and would often participate in chivalry tournaments in disguise. He had grown up hearing the stories of the great Henry V — the hero of Agincourt — and had dreamed of the battles that years of peace had deprived him of. He was determined that he would repeat his ancestor’s triumphs in France and expand England’s territory beyond Calais — perhaps even as far as Paris. He wholly believed that France belonged to him and — fortunately for the English monarch — he did not have to wait long to stake his claim.
Henry had grown up in years of stultifying peace thanks to his father’s treaties with France and Aragon in Spain. Meanwhile, just across the Channel, the continent was in the throes of war. The powers of Europe clashed over the possession of Naples, essentially turning Italy into one big battleground. A quarrel over the region of Romagna had set Venice against the Vatican, and so Pope Julius II rallied France, the Holy Roman Empire and Spain (under Ferdinand II) in the final weeks of 1508, planning to split the Venetian territories among them.
Venice fell, but Julius feared French occupation of Italy. He mounted an impulsive attack on his allies which backfired as French forces stormed south in retaliation. A terrified Julius formed the Holy League, and Spain and the Holy Roman Empire sided with the papacy in 1511.
Henry VIII had now been on the throne for two years with his queen Catherine of Aragon (Ferdinand’s daughter) at his side. A strong royal family was vital to his dream of a glorious England and he announced that he would marry her shortly after his father died.
Catherine was fiercely loyal and determined to meet her king’s expectations. She became pregnant almost immediately but their child was stillborn. It was a matter of weeks until Catherine was with child again, and she gave birth to a son, Henry, on New Year’s Day, 1511. Sadly, Henry would survive for just seven weeks.
At this point, Henry was a young king just beginning his reign. He was the head of a proud royal family and he had shown his subjects that he was not the penny-pinching tyrant that his father was. The Holy League would enable him to serve his God and show France the power of England’s might. The full force of that might would be delivered by Henry’s expanding Royal Navy, which would boast the world’s largest and most advanced warships. It is important not to underestimate the importance of the pope’s blessing. He was still a devout Catholic and would go on to condemn the Protestant Martin Luther so harshly that the pope would give him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’. His religion also included the concept of Divine Right; France was his God-given property. The Holy League should have been undefeatable.
However, the first attack ended in disaster. An English force sailed to Gascony in June 1512, due to meet up with Ferdinand’s army and claim the region of Aquitaine for Henry. Unfortunately, Ferdinand decided that he was more interested in claiming Navarre for himself and directed his troops in that direction. Ill-equipped and ravaged by dysentery the English troops were forced to retreat. Henry was furious but resolute.
Less than a year later, a second invasion plan was underway, with much of the organisation left in the hands of the invaluable Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey was the perfect righthand man for a king like Henry, able to counterbalance the king’s violent rages with his own skilled diplomacy while sharing a similarly rabid ambition. Wolsey was a fixer; he made sure that whatever Henry wanted, Henry got. What Henry wanted was France, and so, in April 1513, an army was raised and an attack was made on Brest. This incursion proved even more disastrous than the attempt on Aquitaine, but Henry would not be dissuaded and personally accompanied the English landing at Calais in June.
With his feet on French soil and standing at the head of an English army, Henry was exhilarated. He made straight for the town of Therouanne and promptly laid siege to it. The Holy Roman Emperor and fellow Holy League leader, Maximilian, joined him soon afterwards, helping to assure Henry that he was on the side of the angels. Finally, Henry tasted glory on 16 August 1513 when the French attacked in the Battle of the Spurs. The light French cavalry were unable to withstand the combined forces of the invaders and fled. Henry claimed the day as a great victory, which was consolidated when Therouanne surrendered on 22 August. The subsequent capture of Tournai was just as important to Henry, and he kept that town as an English stronghold while giving Therouanne to Maximilian as a gesture of their allegiance.
What had Henry actually achieved? He’d taken two towns from the French, but Paris was a long way away. Nothing he’d done would tip the scales in either direction, but this was just the beginning. Henry was in his element. He was re-enacting the glories of Henry V and who knew how far he could go?
Even as Henry celebrated his victories in France, trouble at home soon threatened to bring everything to a halt. All too aware of the English forces currently on their soil, the French reached out to King James IV of Scotland and suggested that this might be the perfect opportunity to mount an attack of their own. James marched south to Flodden Ridge with his armies to await the English. While England may have seemed weak, Queen Catherine, acting as regent, had no intention of allowing such a challenge to go unanswered. An army was raised and met the Scots on 9 September. The English victory was brutally decisive and King James was killed. The gleeful queen sent the fallen monarch’s bloody cloak to her husband in France, with the message: «In this your Grace shall see how I keep my promise, sending you for your banners a king’s coat.» Henry was conquering his enemies abroad, while his queen was seeing off attackers at home.
Sadly for the warrior king, peace was just around the corner, whether Henry wanted it or not. He had been acting as a war chest to his allies and England’s coffers were so depleted that there was simply no way that he could carry on alone.
He would have to make peace. The next few years presented Henry with a new potential ally, and a new enemy. The ambitious Francis I took the French crown, while the Austrian King Charles V was elected Holy Roman Emperor (adding Spain and a huge portion of Italy to his kingdom). Wolsey, aware of the financial sinkhole that the wars had been, worked hard to keep the peace. He managed to put quills to paper I with the Treaty of London in 1518, while friendship would be forged at the Field of the Cloth of Gold on 7 June 1520. The plan was that Henry and Francis would spend a week enjoying the festivities and settling their differences, while Wolsey met with Charles V. It did not go according to plan.
For all Wolsey’s good intentions, this attempt at friendship was doomed from the start. Henry had never wanted peace to start with, and Francis had no intention of bowing down to his English counterpart. Ambitious, stubborn and proud, the two men were too similar for any attempts at friendship to work. After the first meeting was concluded, the two kings engaged in a week of oneupmanship and competition. It was a week dedicated to flaunting power and status; the cloth of gold referred to the ludicrously lavish tents. Henry was determined to prove his athleticism and joined the competitions, but Francis had a similar idea. Henry had to suffer the humiliation of losing to the French king in a wrestling match, and it is hardly surprising that the only result of the meeting was a greater sense of hatred. Instead, Henry turned his diplomatic attentions to Charles V.
Henry’s alliance with the Habsburgs had continued throughout the years of peace, despite one or two hiccups involving marriage arrangements. Crucially, Charles and Henry shared a mutual loathing of Martin Luther and King Francis. His hatred of the French king meant that war was inevitable and Henry eagerly awaited the perfect opportunity to mount another attack. When hostilities resumed in 1521, Henry declared that England was now allied with the Holy Roman Emperor and signed the Treaty of Windsor in 1522 to make ‘The Great Enterprise’ official. At this point, Henry could not afford a full-scale invasion and an attack on Picardy failed due to a lack of communication and, perhaps more importantly, trust.
Henry’s ambition to conquer France and claim the throne for himself was hamstrung by the fact that he couldn’t afford it. He had previously helped to bankroll Ferdinand and Maximilian and he had seen them make peace without him. Henry was scared that Charles might repeat his father’s trick and, for his part, Charles had no particular interest in seeing Henry on the French throne. Their mutual distrust would only grow.
Trust wasn’t the only problem. In an echo of 1513, Henry was distracted by the constant threat from the north. Whenever he began a campaign in France, the Scottish forces would threaten attack, forcing him to wage a war on two fronts. Henry was enraged and infuriated but he would not give up. He mounted another attack in 1523 to support the rebelling Duke of Bourbon, but Charles sent no help and the English troops were forced to retreat.
The line was finally crossed when Charles captured Francis at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 and showed no interest in sharing his spoils with the English king. Henry decided that the time had come for a full-scale invasion. With nowhere near enough money, Henry and Cardinal Wolsey tried to create the ‘Amicable Grant’ tax to pay for the attack, but opposition proved so fierce that Henry was forced to scrap his plans and publicly blame Wolsey. The humiliation of backpedalling helped Henry to realise that he was not going to get what he wanted. He signed the Treaty of the More with Francis’s mother, Louise of Savoy, and turned his attention towards his family.
Not surprisingly Charles’s rejection rankled Henry. The Holy Roman Emperor’s increased presence in Italy once again caused the panicking Pope Clement VII to create the League of Cognac, which united Venice, Florence and France against Charles. Henry was not a member, but offered to help bankroll the group. His treaty with
Francis in the Treaty of Westminster on 30 April 1527 was a sign that his mind was elsewhere.
Henry was desperate to be separated from Catherine and marry Anne Boleyn. He had no interest in a divorce and instead wanted to prove that it had been illegal to marry his brother’s widow. This would soothe the good Catholic in him, but it set him against Charles V, who was appalled by what the accusation said about his aunt, Catherine. However, circumstances were not in Henry’s favour; Charles had attacked Rome in retaliation for the League’s advances. Pope Clement VII was now his prisoner and Catherine’s nephew made his influence felt. Clement gained his freedom in December, but the emperor had no interest in peace talks with the League. Once again, Charles had frustrated Henry’s plans and he declared war with the Holy Roman Emperor in January. However, England lacked the finances to do any more than declare itself at war; it’s unlikely that this worried Charles too much.
The situation in Europe finally resolved itself in 1529 with the Treaty of Cambrai. However, Henry’s determination to end his marriage had made enemies out of his old allies. Francis offered to plead his case to the new Pope Clement, but he was more concerned with cementing his own alliance with the Holy See. Anne Boleyn’s pregnancy pushed Henry into taking decisive action and his marriage to Catherine was annulled by Thomas Cranmer in 1533. In the eyes of the English court, his secret marriage to Anne was now completely legal. Finally, Henry was recognised as Head of the Church and abolished the right of Appeal to Rome. England was no longer Catholic and the pope had no more influence over the king.
Although he was overjoyed at finally having the queen he lusted after, Henry realised that a Europe united against him was a dangerous prospect indeed. He tried to take advantage of the frequent arguments between Charles and Francis, but in 1538 the excommunication order for Henry was finally delivered and the pope declared that the Vatican would support anyone who deposed the English king; his death was something God would turn a blind eye to. Luckily for Henry, Charles was busy with the Ottoman Empire and, if Francis planned to attack England, he had no intention of doing so alone. Henry knew that the differences between Francis and Charles would prevent them from ever remaining allies for long. He just had to be patient. Finally, in 1542, they declared war and Henry could return to the battlefield.
By this point Henry was obese, sickly and prone to violent rages. The war gave him a sense of purpose and Charles was finally back on his side. For all their past differences, now there were no personal reasons why Henry and Charles could not resume their alliance. Catherine of Aragon had passed away and, by executing Anne Boleyn, Henry had removed the insult to Charles’s honour. Across the Channel, Francis wasn’t sitting idly by and he knew how to keep Henry distracted.
Scotland had proved to be a continual thorn in Henry’s paw during his attempts to invade France, attacking every time his attention was focused across the Channel. Having hoped that James V would be a more amenable ally than his predecessor, Henry was livid when Scotland refused to follow him in separating from Rome. When James did not appear at the diplomatic talks at York in 1541, outright conflict followed. Following a minor Scottish victory at the Battle of Haddon Rig in 1542, the two armies met at Solway Moss. In a brutal echo of Flodden Field, the Scottish army suffered a humiliating defeat. James V died of fever about two weeks later and Henry, buoyed by such a decisive victory, turned his attention to France.
Henry was taking no half measures and invaded France on two fronts. Stretching his finances as far as they would go, he sent troops to Montreuil under the Duke of Norfolk, while another force attacked Boulogne under the Duke of Suffolk. While Norfolk failed, Suffolk succeeded. Henry himself arrived to take charge of the siege which lasted from July until September when the city fell. He basked in the glory of a French city claimed, but his elation was short-lived. Henry was forced to turn his attention back to Scotland, where a rebellion had sprung up. His retaliation was so brutal that it became known as the ‘Rough Wooing’.
The invasion of France fell apart when Charles signed another continental peace treaty that excluded England. Francis had no intention of making peace with Henry and mounted an invasion in the summer of 1545. It was a very real threat but, fortunately for Henry, the attack was a dismal failure and Francis was forced to retreat. The Treaty of Camp brought an end to the years of war in Henry’s reign, as England, France, Scotland and the Holy Roman Empire agreed to peace in 1546.
He died a year later, sickly, angry and defeated.
What does Henry VIII’s history as a military commander show us? It shows him to be a man unable or unwilling to grow out of the romantic, heroic dreams of his youth. He was constantly fighting for the glory that he saw for himself and for England. In his mind, France was English property that no one before him had been able to claim. He saw himself as the king who would bring it under English rule, and it was a childhood dream that became an adult delusion. By joining with allies who had no interest in his dream, and reacting rashly to insults, real and imagined, Henry spent many years at war with little to show for it.
Debacle at Gascony
Henry’s only concern prior to the expedition to Gascony was that he couldn’t be there. It was the first attack on France during his reign and it should have been the first step in a glorious campaign. Henry was all too eager to ally himself with his father-in-law, Ferdinand II, who had similar ambitions to claim French territory. Both kings had joined the Holy League, which had been created in response to France’s military activity in Italy. The League had decided that Ferdinand and Henry should attack together and it should have been an impressive display of force.
The Marquis of Dorset was given control of the English forces and the invaders were due to march with Ferdinand on Aquitaine. However, once the Marquis set foot on dry land he discovered that the Spanish king had not kept his word. Instead, Ferdinand was occupied with his own attack on Navarre, which better served the Spanish king’s own interests. The
Marquis’s troops quarrelled with the few Spanish forces that they had been given and many of his men succumbed to dysentery. As a result of all this, he had no choice but to retreat.
Although Henry can’t be blamed for the failure of this attack, it shows the Holy League for what it really was. The kings were fighting with the pope’s blessing and the glory of God, but they were all out for themselves. Once the fighting started, each monarch was really only interested in what land they could claim — their allies only functioned as a bank and backup.
The forced retreat enraged Henry, pushing him towards leading his own attack, and also sowed the seeds of distrust that would come to the fore throughout his further campaigns.
Victory at Flodden Field
With the king’s attention focused on France, the timing was ripe for an attack from the north. King Louis XII reached out to his ally in Scotland and James IV was very agreeable. Fie wrote to Flenry instructing him to abandon his war on the French — an instruction that Flenry roundly ignored. The Scottish troops rallied and marched south to the border, sending word that they intended to invade. Flaving appeased their sense of honour, they waited for the English troops at Flodden.
Catherine of Aragon was acting as regent while her husband was at war in France. Catherine was a woman who believed fiercely in duty, honour and loyalty, and the prospect of losing a battle in her husband’s absence was too awful to even consider.
Together with the Earl of Surrey, Catherine raised an army from the Midlands to meet the Scottish invaders. Surrey met the Scottish army at Flodden Field and subjected them to a crushing defeat. The number of Scottish dead numbered in the thousands, and King James IV himself was among the fatalities.
While Flenry’s refusal to leave France may have been the final straw that prompted the attack, he had very little to do with the result of the battle — it was the Earl of Surrey who won the day. The Scottish king fell on the battlefield, and his cloak was sent to France as a trophy for Flenry. A decisive victory, but not one which can be attributed to any military excellence on Flenry’s part.
While the victory would assure Flenry of England’s military might, it was the start of a long and costly struggle with the Scots that would distract him from his goals in France.
Father of The Royal Navy
Henry might be known as the founder of the Royal Navy but its creation had begun during the reign of Henry VII. Five royal warships had been built by the time Henry VIII took the throne, but the young king wanted more.
In addition to his plans to sail for France, Henry knew that Scotland had invested in their own navy and that he was potentially facing a two-pronged attack by sea. Henry ordered the construction of two great warships: the infamous Mary Rose (which embarrassingly and mysteriously sank while leading the defence against the French at the Solent) and the Peter Pomegranate. Henry’s ambition knew no limits and the English Navy would be the biggest, the most advanced and the most fearsome. He equipped his ships with the latest guns and the heaviest cannons, while employing new innovations like hinged gun ports. By the end of Henry’s reign, his fleet numbered 58.
Enormous gunships aside, perhaps the most important innovations Henry made to the navy were on land. He created the first naval dock in Portsmouth, he gave the Grant of the Royal Charter to Trinity House (which developed beacons, buoys and lighthouses), and he created the Navy Board and the Office of Admiralty. Henry is known as the father of the Royal Navy because he didn’t just bulk up its muscle, he created its backbone.
Battle of the Spurs
Henry and his English forces had been laying siege to the town of Therouanne since July 1513. Following the embarrassment at Gascony, he had finally arrived in France to lead his army to great conquest. He camped close, but not too close to the city, and laid siege. A stalemate ensued until French action on 16 August tipped the scales.
The French forces had seen Maximilian’s Holy Roman Army join Henry’s and decided that the time had come to attempt a counterattack. On the morning of 16 August French light cavalry, a few thousand strong, attacked the invaders’ positions. However, word had reached the Holy League’s camp of the planned attack and a trap had been prepared, leading to a brutal skirmish. It was an attack that was doomed to failure, with Henry and Maximilian’s combined forces coming to roughly 30,000 men. The speed with which the surviving French rode away led to the name of the battle.
It was not a significant military victory in other terms than morale. Henry had been looking for a victory to claim in France, and this encounter was the first real battle of his campaign. He celebrated it but the actual gains from the Battle of the Spurs and the subsequent fall of Therouanne would impress nothing but his ego. At great financial expense, Henry’s dreams of Agincourt came a little closer.
The victory at the Battle of the Spurs did more for Henry’s ego than it did for the outcome of his campaign.
The Siege of Boulogne
The Siege of Boulogne would be the closest thing to an unqualified victory that Henry would get in all his years of war with France. However, the conquest of a single city at tremendous expense tells us that unqualified is not really the most accurate adjective to use. Henry had been waiting for an excuse to resume hostilities with France and he eagerly joined his old ally (and old enemy) Charles V when war broke out in 1544. He raised a huge invasion force to set sail across the Channel.
The English force was split into two; attacking Montreuil and Boulogne,
Henry himself joining the latter. While the attack on Montreuil failed, the Siege of Boulogne, though lengthy, would result in success. The siege began on 19 July and the English forces quickly took the lower part of the city. However, they were unable to breach the castle walls and the siege stretched from weeks into months. Henry wrote to his wife (number six, Catherine Parr) praising the strength of his opponents, but it was only a matter of time before the French were forced to surrender, which they did after Henry’s forces tunnelled beneath the walls.
However, Henry’s triumph would be short-lived. He learned that Charles, fearful of the Ottoman threat and caring little about Henry’s personal ambition, had made his own peace treaty with France without England. Henry returned home to attend to Scotland, leaving Boulogne occupied, and Francis began preparations for a counterattack.
Henry may have taken the city, but the financial cost was enormous. Although Charles’s treaty led to threats of a French invasion, Francis’s attempts ultimately failed.
The Rough Wooding
The Rough Wooing was the result of Henry’s failed attempt to subdue Scotland while he turned his attention to France. Although he might have won a huge victory at the Battle of Solway Moss, Henry’s hopes that the Scottish would be amenable to peace proved to be ill-founded. He had given them his terms, but Henry may as well have given them a blank piece of paper, as Scotland declared its renewed allegiance to France.
At the time, Henry was planning his invasion with Charles V and could not afford to be distracted by yet another full-blown conflict with his neighbours in the north. Deciding against open battle, Henry commanded that a force should sail north and show the Scots how furious he was. It was led by Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, who was told to «Burn Edinburgh town, so razed and defaced when you have sacked and gotten what you can of it, as there may remain forever a perpetual memory of the vengeance of God.»
Towns and villages were to be burned down and the king’s instructions as to what to do with anyone who opposed Hertford were clear, he was commanded to continue «putting man, woman and child to fire and sword, without exception, where any resistance shall be made against you.» Hertford obeyed his liege’s orders with relish, sending frequent reports of his conquests back to his king, and capturing Edinburgh and the nearby port at Leith. However, France did not sit idly by and sent forces to help Scottish counterattacks. Aggression between England and Scotland would only be (temporarily) halted by the Treaty of Camp in 1546.
Although it had the immediate effect that Henry wanted, which was to give a show of force and wrath, the Rough Wooing only served to deeper entrench hatred and distrust of the English.