251a Henry VIII Abroad by Zack Twambley

Zack returns! Yay! Zack, of the ‘When Diplomacy Fails’ Podcast,  survey’s Henry VIII’s foreign policy and weighs it up – is the word policy too complimentary? To find out more about Zack and his podcast, go to the ‘When Diplomacy Fails’ website.

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There’s a great scene in the Tudors, where Henry VIII, played by a captivating Jonathan Rhys Myers, argues with Cardinal Wolsey about the recent developments in English foreign policy. Because the Tudors is all about the drama, it is unlikely that the conversation itself actually happened in the way that it’s presented, and the timing itself is also slightly off, but still, the scene is an effective one. Entering a room where Wolsey is sitting, as the King’s foremost servant in foreign and domestic affairs busies himself with writing, Henry erupts that England had been making nice with France for the last several months, and had been neglecting the approaches of the King of Spain, Charles I. Now though, Henry fumes, not only is Charles I the King of Spain, he’s also the Holy Roman Emperor, crowned as Charles V, in 1520! To those unaware of the significance of what Henry is talking about, it may appear like nothing more than a tantrum of a moody and indecisive King. Yet, Henry’s fury and palpable shock makes sense when we consider who Charles V was and what he represented in history. In terms of great universal monarchs; those figures who ruled over peoples, continents and oceans stretching far and wide, no other individual in early modern Europe reached such heights as Charles V of the House of Habsburg. Born in Ghent in 1500, Charles was to further his position in the same manner as his parents and grandparents – not through military conquest, but through marriage. His maternal grandparents had united Spain, while his parents had bound together the Austrian House of Habsburg and the Spanish House of Trastamara, creating what would be the historically familiar joining of Austria and Spain under the Habsburg family banners. Charles V was the critical ingredient in this union, and he was critical because he guaranteed that this conjoining of two powerful European houses would produce fruit, and would continue to work side by side. Considering what would follow from Charles V, and the legacy he passed down over the subsequent centuries, it may be said without too much hyperbole that the marriage between Charles’ mother Joanna the Mad, and his father Philip the Fair, was one of the most important in world history. From that marriage, the two branches of the Habsburg family, one in Austria, one in Spain, would follow, and this legacy would continue until the FWW shattered the Austrian Habsburg Empire, and consigned that ruling royal house to the past. Still, considering the fact that we can trace the descendants of Charles V forwards over 400 years from 1500, that’s not a bad record to have. But Zack, I hear you say, hold on now, I thought you were doing an episode for the HOE, not the HO the Habsburgs. Well yes, dear listener of David’s, that is true, I certainly am, but I opened with this picture of Charles V to give you an idea of the kinds of characters that were running around during the reign of Henry VIII. As fascinating and vibrant a character as Henry obviously was, he reigned in an era of equally fascinating characters, and certainly of characters that were more powerful than he. If we’re going to judge Henry’s foreign policy during his reign, from the optimistic beginnings in 1509 until his death in 1547, then we must grapple even at this early stage with some themes that are impossible to ignore. Henry VIII was a minnow in comparison to his larger and more powerful rivals. We mentioned Charles V, who ruled over Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, the Netherlands and vast tracts of South and Central America in an unchallenged supremacy of resources and power, but we would be remiss if we didn’t mention the gravest and most fearsome threat to Charles V’s position. Hint – it did not come from France. Francis I, powerful and prestigious though he was, could not hold a candle in practical terms to the powers of Charles. This was demonstrated in the fact that, out of the four sets of Italian Wars which were fought during Henry’s reign, Francis comfortably lost three of them, and infamously found himself captured during one particular bad campaign in the 1520s. This was the begin of the vaunted Spanish military supremacy which would endure for another century, and it began with a vengeance under Charles V. Yet, it was what Francis did while he was at Charles’ mercy that brings us to the real bugbear in the Habsburg mind. Francis did not wallow hopelessly in despair; instead he went for something radical, and in late 1525 sent an embassy to the Ottoman Empire. Suleiman the Magnificent ruled as Sultan of the Ottoman Empire from 1520 till his death in 1566, and he was further proof of the idea that the 16th century was a time of intensely bright lights. Taking the lead from his great grandfather Mehmed II, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453, Suleiman aimed at nothing less than the conquest of the Balkans and the destruction of Hungary, while he also aimed at massively expanding Turkish powers over North Africa and into Persia. Suleiman was stunningly successful in his military policy, and is more responsible than any other for the removal of Hungary and its partition between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires for the next three hundred years. In 1526 the King of Hungary was defeated at the Battle of Mohacs and drowned while attempting to flee, leaving Hungary’s royal house up for grabs for the power there to claim it by right of conquest – the Ottomans, and the power there to claim it because they had married into Hungary’s royal House – you guessed it, the Habsburgs. In 1529, the Ottomans would lay siege to Vienna for the first time, initiating a trend which was to characterise Habsburg-Ottoman relations for the next 150 years, ending only in the last siege of Vienna in 1683. Say, wouldn’t it be great if someone did a podcast on that event? In other words, while Charles V had his eyes firmly set on Francis I of France, and on somehow balancing the heresy of Henry VIII with the need to keep some friends close, it was the machinations of the supreme Ottomans that truly kept him awake at night. There was therefore good reason to despair when it was learned that, in 1534, the French and the Ottomans had signed an official alliance, after nearly a decade of loosely coordinating their activities before that. The alliance linking France and the Ottoman Empire was significant for many reasons of course, but a really standout aspect of it was the fact that it represented such a break with the past. For so long the terrible Turk, the uncivilised Turk, the infidel Turk, had been shunted to the edge of European civilisation as something worse than barbarian, and equal to a plague upon mankind. The idea then that his most Christian majesty the King of France would ally himself with the Turk, especially in the name of something as cynical and unholy as his strategic interest, sent shockwaves throughout the continent, and was the talk of many royal courts.[1] The success of Francis I’s foreign policy in this regard, and his focus on Charles V – reciprocated by the Habsburg ruler’s constant wars with the King of France – remind us that Henry VIII was not the important potentate which we may be inclined to view him as. Henry’s resources as much as his realm were dwarfed by those of Francis and Charles, not to mention Suleiman. At one point during the Tudors, Henry makes a veiled reference to wanting to go on crusade against those same Turks, and indeed, this was a keen desire of the Pope’s – to see Christendom unite against the expanding forces of Islam in the east, and the unstoppable wave of conquest which accompanied it. But Christendom did not listen; on the contrary, to the disdain and despair of the Papacy, Christendom fractured internally in the midst of the Reformation rather than unite against a common oriental enemy. Under these circumstances, with religious conflict challenging accepted norms, with the French and Habsburgs at each other’s throats, and with the Ottomans looming in the East, it was only natural that Henry VIII adopt the foreign policy he is known for during this era – that of flip-flopping between Charles V one minute, and Francis of France the next. Like I said in the introduction though, something which I thought would be interesting to consider for this episode is the question of whether Henry had much of a foreign ‘policy’ at all. Think about it – Henry spent the vast majority of his reign reacting to the moves and policies of his rivals, and England’s interests were constantly in a state of flux, because her position depended on a what was going on in the Franco-Habsburg relationship, and what was going on in the FH relationship, more often than not, was war. The uneasy balance between F and the Hs was aided by the aforementioned Franco-Ottoman agreements, and by the traumatic Habsburg defeats at Ottoman hands in the late 1520s, but it was upset every time the French pushed for yet another Italian War and got their rear ends handed to them. With this uncertain state of affairs, Henry was forced to respond to his rival’s defeats or triumphs, rather than really take it upon himself to craft a consistent policy. And Henry was, it has to be said, anything but consistent in foreign policy. We mentioned his flip flopping, but as a brief rundown of how Henry conducted English foreign policy, consider this; Henry made war on France in the first years of his reign between 1509 to the late 1510s, made nice with France until Charles V ascended to the two thrones, then made war with France until 1526, then made war with Charles to wrest some more advantages out of position, then he made nice with France until the late 1530s, when it seemed like Charles and Francis were about to destroy him, and finally, he ended his reign at war with France. Perhaps it was too much to ask of Henry to expect him or his ministers to conduct a foreign policy of any kind, considering the seismic shifts underway in Europe at the time. Assumptions about the Catholic Church were shattered, as were the assumptions about diplomatic protocol and its dependence upon religion to guide it, as were the assumptions about the power of a good marriage. If it isn’t surprising that Henry resembled a weather vane, constantly blowing this way or that, then it is important to note that even when he did seek to wrest advantage from the situation, Henry was rarely successful in war. This is despite the fact that he desperately wanted to be successful in war, and to echo and supersede the exploits of Henry V in his devastation of the French. But France was too strong and united, for the moment at least, for Henry VIII to make much headway against her in the first half of the 16th century. Even the moments which were presented as triumphs, such as Francis’ defeat and capture at Pavia in 1525, did not engender much of a boost in English fortunes, largely because Charles reacted incredulously to the idea that England had played any role in the victory, and because Charles wished to make peace with the French so that he could focus his attention on the Ottomans. The HR Emperor wasn’t completely disarmed when it came to dealing with the Terrible Turk; in fact, like the French, Charles had sent his diplomatic feelers far to the east, before he landed on a power that the Ottomans knew very well indeed. Charles had in fact been maintaining his own controversial diplomatic line, this one begun in the first few years of his reign as King of Spain, with the Shah of Safavid Persia. Persia was the rich and powerful state to the far east of the Ottomans, and proved a genuine threat to Ottoman ambitions in the West on several occasions, because each time the Persians did attack the Turk, the Turks were forced to stop what they were doing in Europe and redirect their forces to the east. By forcing the Ottomans into a war on two fronts, with Persia in the east and his own empire in the west, Charles was attempting to inflict upon the Ottomans the same dilemma which Francis I was attempting to inflict upon his position. Because he was setting one Islamic power against another though, Charles’ diplomatic intrigues were honourable, whereas Francis’ were not. An Ottoman-Persian war began in 1532 and did not end for a generation, effectively neutering the threat of the Ottomans for the duration of that conflict, with some striking exceptions. In this way did Charles help ensure that Francis’ schemes with the Ottomans were outmanoeuvred; the Habsburg-Persian alliance seemed to have beaten the Franco-Ottoman alliance. But this far reaching diplomacy only served to further underline how great and influential these four powers were in the east and west were, and how comparatively weak and small Henry VIII’s realm was. Henry’s diplomatic machinations never reached the heights of the French and Habsburgs; instead, England was forced to react to changes in this power balance. From 1532, with their Eastern allies attacking one another, Charles and Francis might have been expected to search for Henry’s friendship, but this did not really come to pass. An improvement in Anglo-French relations had followed the end of the last war with France in 1526, but since Henry had gained precious little returns from a war with Charles in the late 1520s, the conclusion was seemingly reached that further conflict with the HR Emperor would be pointless and wasteful.[2] Might it therefore be useful for Henry to dangle friendship in front of Charles V? The idea that friendship with France was never going to be truly viable achieved further vindication when it was learned that Francis had arranged for the marriage of his son and heir to Mary Queen of Scots. In addition, Francis signally failed to do anything to halt the passage of the Excommunication Bill through the Papacy, a failure which was presented as the French failing to look out for their friends.[3] So Henry tried something different – a policy of declared neutrality, while behind the scenes he looked to make himself invaluable to either side. So yes, it was more of the same again really. Henry’s efforts to tempt Charles and Francis with an English alliance should have been made easier with the eruption of another war in Italy from late 1536. Surely now England would be a convenient counterweight to either side, and ambassadors armed with offers of alliance and subsidies would come knocking? Yet these ambassadors never came, and instead, Henry’s efforts to milk his neutrality backfired disastrously. In the Treaty of Nice which brought his latest war over Italy to an end in June 1538, Charles had found himself squeezed between a Franco-Ottoman fleet, and developed such an intense hatred for Francis of France that he refused to negotiate face to face with him during the peace talks, forcing a Papal legate to serve as go between, literally going between the two rooms where each ruler sat. The Ottoman card had been played masterfully by the French, and in his burning anger Charles turned to attack them at sea, but was turned back, and focused on husbanding his resources and preparing for another conflict with the French. It was under these circumstances that Charles possessed little in the way of time or patience for Henry’s dubious neutrality. Instead, Charles seemed to have swallowed his pride, and prepared for a war with the Turk, by way of improving relations with France to protect his western flank. After making his peace with the French, Charles proceeded with further negotiations, and settled on the Treaty of Toledo in January 1539, which agreed several points of difference between the Habsburgs and the French. Most ominously of all for Henry though, the treaty explicitly forbade either Charles or Francis to deal with Henry or to offer that pariah an alliance. Henry had pushed too far; now he had become known for his double dealing, and rather than incorporate this wildcard, both of Henry’s potential allies had determined that he wasn’t worth their trouble, and that a friendship between themselves was worth more. After being unable to sit in the same room as Francis, Charles sponsored what appeared a complete 180 in policy over the next few months, as 1539 progressed. Thanks to economic and military exhaustion on both sides, it seemed as though the stars were aligning, and that the French and Habsburgs were destined to solve all of their problems, and to reach amicable decisions on all of their historic animosities. There appeared no end to the friendship, and as Charles moved to greet his new best friend Francis in Paris, ambassadors finally arrived in London with news. They were not here to incorporate Henry in this developing agreement, but to let the King of England know that they had extended an offer of friendship to the King of Scotland. Henry was stunned and his courtiers were devastated – what the heck had gone wrong? Charles du Marillac, the French ambassador, recalled the reception given by Thomas Cromwell at the time when he noted that the English were: ‘greatly astonished, they never have seen two ambassadors, both from you, Sire, and from the Emperor go together by common agreement to this court’ while Marillac added that Cromwell’s response was a sign of ‘the jealousy, defiance, fear and trouble they are in.’[4] For a few frightful months in late 1539 and early 1540, it seemed that Europe and even the wretched Scots were lining up to destroy England. Whispers of the French and Habsburg ambassadors leaving England proved to be the final straw for Henry, who had already been made aware of a foreign policy development initiated by intrigue of one Thomas Cromwell. Anne of Cleves was the sister of Duke William of Cleves, the ruler of a strategically important and wealthy territory on the north bank of the Rhine. Duke William was of the Lutheran persuasion, but had not officially declared his conversion to the reformed faith, waiting, so it seemed, for a good reason to do so. Positioned as he was on something of a geographic crossroads, Duke William depended upon connections and careful negotiation to preserve his power and pursue his ambitions. As it stood in the late 1530s, the Duke was on the lookout for a way to reinforce his position and build a league against Charles V. Since the usual option of the French was temporarily unavailable, with Francis making kissy face with the Emperor, Duke William was open to the idea of marrying his sister, Anne of Cleves, to Europe’s other religiously out there King, Henry VIII. In the first month of 1540, while Francis and Charles were dining in Paris, Henry was welcoming Anne of Cleves to England.[5] In the meantime, a massive fortification program was underway along the southern coast of England – it seemed as though Henry expected a foreign invasion: was this to be the price of his unsuccessful foreign policy, and of inflaming the religious passions of Europe? In spite of the shrill urgings of the Pope though, the eternal friendship of Charles and Francis would not last long. Before long disagreements over terminology, protocol and money soured the once good mood, and Habsburg hostility towards the French alliance with the Turks, which had proved so damaging for Charles’ security, proved harder to bury than had been hoped. French tempers exploded when the Habsburgs allegedly killed a French diplomat on his way to negotiate with the Turks; Charles apologised for the mix-up, claiming that the French diplomat had been mistaken for a bandit, but Francis never forgave him, likely suspecting, and likely correctly, that this was Charles’ way of undermining French diplomacy with their Ottoman ally. Henry was thus saved by the irreconcilable passions of his rivals, rather than by his own skill or ingenuity. As we know, it did not take Henry long to abandon the Cleves idea, having decided that his new bride was too German and ugly for him to marry, and that she was married in any case, and was waiting on an annulment, which gave him a handy excuse to pack her off to a country house. Within a year then, and by the summer of 1540, Henry had abandoned the first truly independent policy he had been advised to pursue. By negotiating with German princes like the Duke of Cleves, and by positioning himself in an important position among the North German states who had chafed under Charles’ religious policy, Henry could have set in motion a flowering of new opportunities for the English interest, at long last free from the Habsburg or Valois houses. By so improving his position, Henry and the league he could create from the Duke of Cleves would be far more attractive to either Charles or Francis than England alone. Yet, this plan, an extension of Cromwell’s which was ultimately unsuccessful, suffered for three major reasons. The first and most obvious was that the marriage with Anne was never consummated and ended abruptly, terminating any chance to forge an alliance on the basis of that union. In the second place though, it must be said that Henry did not pursue an agreement with the Duke of Cleves with all that much enthusiasm, in large part because he was wary of tying himself down to a German prince who could be unpredictable, but mostly because he feared what Charles would do if he did act against him, and he didn’t want to burn his Habsburg bridges. Third, and in line with this, is the theme that Henry’s efforts to support an independent policy line failed because he was weak, and this weakness made him wary of challenging the old status quo of English foreign policy behaviour – that of flip flopping between the two powerful states, rather than ignoring both, and risking the wrath of both. Henry was not strong or confident enough in his position to risk the wrath of both Charles and Francis, and he was thus too weak to support any hypothetical league in Germany. Not for another century and a half would England master the art of supporting a war on the continent in her name, but for now, Henry simply did not have the resources or the patience to craft a brand new policy. We come again to the word policy, as though Henry’s behaviour followed some kind of logical, deliberate course. On the contrary, Henry’s foreign policy revolved around, not England’s interests, but on what the bigger boys were doing. To speak of an English foreign policy during this period is to give Henry and his ministers too much credit. Arguably in the case of Cardinal Wolsey, who had attempted to forge a peace treaty which would last, and who then signed the first of many treaties of alliance with the Habsburgs against the French in 1521, England was pursuing a policy backed by some measure of logic and at the very least, freshness. In 1521, it could be argued by Wolsey that England had taken the opportunity to attack France in league with the Habsburgs. Since this opportunism was a relatively new course, it was sufficient to point to that conflict with the French as a vital ingredient of a determined policy.[6] Yet, even while teaming with the Habsburgs might have been somewhat new, in the opening years of his reign Henry was clearly waging war against the French in pursuit of glory and distinction, just as his ancestors had done.[7] While the initial years of his rule were filled with enough goodwill to put a brave face on the continuation of the conflict with the French, this goodwill could not last forever. Twenty years later, this was no longer enough to serve as the basis for English foreign policy. What was the point in war if it did not really bring Henry anything except loss and crippling debt? For a brief period, the King of England appeared to have answered this question. War was good for absolutely nothing, so in the early 1540s, he would choose diplomacy instead. However, this momentary aversion to war, sensible as it was, had not been a deliberate policy development of Henry’s. Instead, this new opportunity for advantageous negotiations was created, of all things, by the execution of Henry’s minister Thomas Cromwell. For a time in the summer of 1540, after the execution of Cromwell on 29th July, the French seemed to believe that a major roadblock to Anglo-French negotiations had been removed. Indeed, as 1540 progressed, it started to seem as though Henry’s agents had mastered the art of duplicitous diplomacy. Where once England had reacted to French or Habsburg moves, the fear that their new friendship was about to disintegrate compelled both the French and Habsburgs to seek Henry’s favour. Reports of an English embassy to the Emperor amidst talk that border disputes were flaring up between the English and French at Calais made Francis’ court nervous that another Anglo-Habsburg league against them was on the cards. This time it was known that the Ottomans were too enmeshed in their war with Persia to help out, and so France would be forced to fight alone. It was at this stage in the game that Henry managed to blow it though. Between late 1540 to early 1541, Henry unintentionally did everything he could to paint a picture of his Kingdom as being in a state of constant tension; the execution of Cromwell, it seemed, was only the beginning, and the men in power shifted as ambassadors with a pro or anti-French bias were swapped around in the different European courts. Because of this swapping though, English policy was perceived as fundamentally unsure of itself, and above all, unstable. The opportunity to leverage his position slipped through his fingers as Henry allowed favourites to duke it out amongst themselves, and power plays to eliminate and replace skilled old diplomatic hands in court. In circumstances such as these, Francis’ advisors believed it would be better to reinforce the border with Calais, rather than risk the issue by relying on promises made by Henry’s flavour of the month, and in response the English ambassador in Paris asked for a guarantee that, as proof of the loudly declared Anglo-French friendship, the King of France would commit to not incite King James V of Scotland against England. The French gave the limp reply to the English ambassador that Francis would never compel the Scots to make war on England as long as England and France were friends, which wasn’t exactly what the English ambassador had asked. Along the Anglo-Scottish border increased fortifications were being set down, paid for by Henry’s extensive monetary gains after gutting the country’s monasteries. If Henry was tired of floating between the threats posed by Charles and Francis, then he could at least be sure of a rousing invasion of Scotland, for old time’s sake. In the meantime, Francis busied himself in early 1541 by attaching as many Protestant German rulers to France as possible, to undermine Charles’ power base and to provide France with a counterweight to the overwhelming Habsburg might. He even managed to snag Duke William of Cleves in this net, while it was rumoured that Duke William would marry Francis’ niece in return for an alliance. These rumblings and preparations continued, despite the fact we know how everyone felt deep down. Europe was tired; did there really need to be another war? There was no great enthusiasm for another struggle over Italy or Northern France, in 1541, in either Henry or Francis’ court, but as Ambassador Marillac noted, sometimes it was only necessary for distrust to flourish for war to then erupt: A courier from the court who, as is usual with such people, [was] speaking speculatively, has spread the rumour throughout this country that it is held for certain in France that war will be launched soon against the English. By such means, my lord, it can happen sometimes that, as a result of such reports, preparations are made by each side for their security and in the end for some trivial reason those who think they have the advantage attack roundly those over whom they think  they have the advantage.[8] Francis instructed his ambassador to tell Henry that France had no plans to incite the Scottish along the border, but the Scottish seemed to be incited in any case, and in April 1541 the French ambassador was given an earful by Henry, who insisted that the French stop threatening the English position at Calais. Francis then seemed to produce the answer – if Henry would make an alliance with him, then Francis would pledge his second son to Mary, Henry’s daughter by Catherin of Aragon. For a few months this was mulled over, but Henry was shortly called to the border with Scotland in late 1541, and around the same time, he learned from the Habsburg ambassador in London that Francis had made a similar marriage proposal for his second son to the daughter of the King of Portugal. The Habsburg ambassador Eustace Chapuys in fact had a spy in his French counterpart’s staff in London, who passed Chapuys and then Henry all of Francis’ most sensitive pieces of mail. Henry was shaken and deeply angered at this duplicity – since duplicity was only ok if he did it himself. From this point Henry soured on the idea of alliance with France, but remained cautiously optimistic that he would be able to acquire a good deal from Charles in return for a Habsburg alliance. Once more though, the King of England played second fiddle to the higher powers. Francis concluded alliances with Denmark, Sweden and Cleves by November 1541, and the focus was now trying to bringing Scotland into the alliance as well, an alliance which would be used against the Habsburgs, and also England if necessary. In this situation, with Scotland a militant French ally yet again, it was impossible to imagine the English staying friends with the French. Henry, as usual, had his choice picked out for him. War clouds increasingly threatened the peace from January 1542, and by this point anger at the French duplicity, increasing trust in the Habsburg ambassador and the deteriorating situation along the Scottish border all combined to make Henry drift towards hostility with France. It was a course he had adopted neither firmly nor quickly, but in this case at least, Henry was not alone in stumbling into a war he didn’t quite want. Indeed, this umpteenth Italian War broke out for reasons of distrust, mutual animosity and the palpable tensions and fears which the religious situation was creating in Germany. The three actors were feeling increasingly insecure, and thus felt increasingly pressured to act. The bout of Italian Wars which followed was somewhat anticlimactic in comparison to the feverish diplomacy which had preceded them. Charles and Francis actually agreed to a truce in 1544, and Francis pledged his second son to marry a relative of Charles’, but the death of Francis’ second son rendered this treaty moot, and the war lumbered onwards for another two years. After some extensive diplomatic efforts and offers to host peace talks failed, largely because none of the three figures trusted one another, peace was finally arranged in June 1546. Neither side had anything to show for it save a furthering of rivalries over Italy, a deepening of distrust between the Habsburg and Valois dynasties, and of course, an escalation of each country’s debt problems. Scotland had been thoroughly smashed, and Henry took great pride in that fact, but it had merely been a consolation prize. If this latest bout of Italian Wars had been meant to prove that Henry could tangle with the big boys, then he had failed in his task. Henry was still the third wheel, he was still poor and his exploits were still unimpressive in comparison to Francis or Charles. Henry VIII’s parting gift to his successor was to leave his country in a heap of debt, after his father had left England to him rich and stable. He died in January 1547, shortly before Francis of France. The removal of two factors in the triple equation of pointless war seemed to suggest that peace would finally be at hand, but it was not to be. The Italian Wars would resume in 1551. So how do we judge the foreign ‘policy’ of King Henry VIII, and is it accurate to speak of Henry adhering to any kind of policy at all, since it wasn’t what you could call consistent, and revolved around responding to the moves of his more powerful neighbours? I think it is fair to say that Henry VIII left England poorer than when he found it. The neutralisation of Scotland for the next generation was about the only positive foreign policy outcome of his reign, and that’s if you consider burning your way through a country successful, which Henry would have. We’re nearly out of time, but I want to return to that central thread of this episode, which I think bears repeating. Henry was a moderately powerful King, at a time when Europe contained immensely powerful Sultans, Emperors and Kings. Because of the focus on Henry VIII during this era in the more anglophile histories of the 16th century, we can sometimes be fooled into thinking that Henry was far more powerful than he actually was, and that, even if he didn’t have everything in hand, on a good day, he could match the power of his rivals. This of course, is complete baloney. Even on his best day, Henry couldn’t match the power of France, and had the Channel not been there, he would have been far less formidable or useful as a counterweight to either side. But that, of course, is the whole point; the Channel was there, and Henry was given several opportunities to influence proceedings, and take charge of England with a policy line that made sense. Did he do this? I think one could argue with a certain degree of confidence that he did not. Only for a few fleeting moments did Henry ever seem in a position to actually leverage the advantages England possessed, but he signally failed on several occasions to do much more than react to the shifting balance of power on the continent, and what opportunities he did come into, he squandered them with scant consideration. To put it another way, Francis I of France’s foreign policy revolved around protecting and expanding the French influence, and he did everything in pursuit of that end. Making nice with England, making nice with the Ottomans, and even making nice with the Habsburgs themselves, were all means towards the same end goal – protecting France from Charles V’s overwhelming powers and resources. When we look at Henry in comparison though, and establish that England’s safety was his aim, as it would be for any worthy sovereign, then Henry’s behaviour in bankrupting her, placing her in disadvantageous alliance blocks or intervening in thankless wars sort of flew in the face of it. In a sense, both Henry and Francis pursued the same policies, but Francis was more successful precisely because he recognised where the strengths of France lay. By contrast, Henry was not good at playing both sides, and more often than not acted hastily to make himself indispensable in a given war. His aims to restore the old English protectorate over France and acquire glory for himself do not represent policy, per se, and instead stand out as pipedreams, sort of like Francis’ pipedream to become Holy Roman Emperor one day. Henry’s neighbours were more skilled and successful in the exploitation of their advantages because they cut their cloth to suit their pocket, whereas Henry was profoundly insecure from an early stage. Just as surely as he cycled through favourites at home, he also cycled through allies abroad, which granted England no advantages in the end, and brought her precious few glories. He felt forced to make war to demonstrate how valuable he was as any ally, and while some towns were taken, and bells were rung in England, in the end nobody was impressed, while he left his realm penniless, devoid of true allies and dependent upon an unsustainable image of intervention in Europe in the name of the highest bidder. The truth, as Henry would never and could never admit, was that neither Charles V nor Francis I ever rated English prowess all that highly in the early 16th century. Henry struggled in vain to prove them wrong, only in the end to prove them right

[1] De Lamar Jensen, ‘The Ottoman Turks in Sixteenth Century French Diplomacy’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter, 1985), pp. 451-470.

[2] See S.J. Gunn, ‘Wolsey’s Foreign Policy and the Domestic Crisis of 1527-28’, in S.J. Gunn and R. Lindley (eds.), Cardinal Wolsey: Church, State and Art (Cambridge, 1991), pp. 149-177.

[3] David Potter, Henry VIII and France I: The Final Conflict 1540-47 (London, 2011), p. 34.

[4] Cited in Ibid, p. 36.

[5] Retha M. Warnicke, ‘Henry VIII’s Greeting of Anne of Cleves and Early Modern Court Protocol’, Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 28, No. 4(Winter, 1996), pp. 565-585.

[6] Peter Gwyn, ‘Wolsey’s Foreign Policy: The Conferences at Calais and Bruges Reconsidered’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 23, No. 4 (Dec., 1980), pp. 755-772.

[7] See C. S. L. Davies, ‘Tournai and the English Crown, 1513-1519’, The Historical Journal, Vol. 41, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 1-26.

[8] Cited in David Potter, Henry VIII and France I, p. 56.

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