What were the attitudes of Henry viii’s court towards foreign policy?



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What is the best description for Henry VIII’s early foreign policy – a success or a waste of resources?
What were the attitudes of Henry VIII’s court towards foreign policy?


  • On his accession, Henry VIII yearned to go to war with France. It was a popular idea with many of his younger courtiers as many had grown bored of the diplomatic route that Henry VII foreign policy had followed.

  • Also, war with France fitted in with the Renaissance idea of pursuit of honour and glory through war.

  • However, Henry VIII had inherited his father’s key ministers – Archbishop Warham and Bishop Fox. Both were keen to continue Henry VII’s diplomatic style of foreign policy and keeping neutral in European matters, while aiming to make alliances with as many countries as possible. Both Warham and Fox were not reticent in expressing their views. It was clear they did not approve of their new hot-headed master.

  • During 1509-11, Fox and Warham were able to frustrate Henry’s imperial ambitions by the simple tactic of inaction and delay.

  • Henry saw that he needed a man of business and action who would be loyal to him rather than to his ministers. The war with France would see this man emerge in the form of Thomas Wolsey.


How were foreign allies so unreliable in the early 16th century?


  • Alongside his troublesome minister, Henry would find dealings with his European allies equally frustrating. In particular, his father in law, Ferdinand of Spain, who quickly showed his capacity for breaking any kind of agreement or arrangement.

  • Maximilian, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire was equally intransigent. Henry’s attempts to bring a triple alliance against France in 1509-10 were sabotaged by both Maximilian and Ferdinand being brought off by France while in negotiations with Henry.

  • Henry quickly turned to the papacy, Julius II, in 1511 wanted to resurrect the Holy League with the aim of counterbalancing the French threat to papal territories from the north.

  • With Spain and Venice, Henry decided to join the Holy League. He felt that by joining this he would be able to present a war with France as a papal war in defence of the liberties of the Church.


Why was Henry VIII initial campaign in France unsuccessful?


  • Using the papal argument, Henry managed to win Parliament over in 1512 and they granted the money to wage war in April.

  • Encouraged by Ferdinand, Henry declared war and launched a joint attack with Spain on Aquitaine in southwestern France. However, Ferdinand had no intention of launching such an attack. While Henry’s troops were waiting to launch the attack in northwest Spain, Ferdinand used these troops as a distraction and invaded and captured the Navarre region.

  • To make matters worse, the bored English troops were blighted by drunkenness and dysentery. Also the English navy suffered defeat at the Battle of Brest who lost their admiral, Sir Edward Howard.

  • Henry soon recalled his forces, who had achieved absolutely nothing at great expense.


Why did Henry VIII to pursue his French campaign in 1513?


  • Despite the nature of the heavy nature of the English defeat in 1512, Henry wanted to pursue his imperial ambitions in France.

  • From his 1512 experiences, Henry learnt that he must be able to act independently from any allies if his aims were to be met.

  • With this in met, Henry decided to personally lead a force in France. He chose to attack northern France this time as it would be in easy reach of the English territory of the Calais Pale. This would allow for any let downs from unreliable allies as a tactical withdrawal would be relatively straightforward.


Why are the preparations for the war with France in 1513 significant?


  • Under Henry VIII direct leadership, an army of 30,000 men was assembled and deployed to Calais. The army in terms of size and equipment would be a match for any army in Europe.

  • The significance of the preparations for this army was that its organisation was credited to Thomas Wolsey.

  • This was the first time that Wolsey was brought to the attention of Henry. Wolsey showed outstanding administration and organisational skills in assembling, equipping and co-ordinating the crossing of the Channel.

  • This, in effect, made Wolsey’s name and began a rapid series of promotions leading him becoming the second most powerful man in England.


Was the Battle of the Spurs such a great victory for the English?


  • The French were clever enough to realise that the invading English army was very dangerous but only in face to face combat. If they avoided significant confrontation with the English army, then the damage it could inflict would be very limited.

  • Also, because of its cumbersome nature, the English army would not reach any targets that were significant.

  • In effect, the English wandered around the north east corner of France without a French army to fight. The campaign saw the English seize the minor town of Therouanne – this was handed over the Emperor Maximilian, as it was a staging post for any French attacks on the Netherlands [HRE held territory] – as well as the capture of Tournai – a well-known French town; whose capture gave Henry limited prestige.

  • In terms of French resistance, there was very limited combat. The most significant clash came at Therouanne, where the French sent a cavalry force to relieve the fortress. However, the French were easily routed and this was known as the Battle of the Spurs due to the speed of the French retreat.

  • This minor skirmish gave Henry the glory he craved as this was trumpeted as a great victory by English propagandists. However, historians tend to dismiss this early success as very minor when one measures the actual gains England made in this campaign compared to the costs incurred, as Henry spent practically his father’s entire legacy.


Why wasn’t Henry able to capitalise on the successes of 1513?


  • Henry VIII returned to England in the autumn of 1513 convinced he would be crowned King of France in 1514. However, his illusions were soon shattered as his allies, Ferdinand and Maximilian, were soon brought off by France persuading them to renounce any agreements they had made with Henry.

  • Coupled with this, the new Pope, Leo X, favoured peace over war and any kind of papal support was, therefore, ruled out.

  • Henry realised that he could not go it alone as his finances were low and he was forced to seek peace terms with the King of France, Louis XII.

  • Considering Henry’s weak position, he was able to secure a generous peace with France in 1514. This was mainly due to the negotiating skills of Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s new minister. The key terms were -




  • Louis XII agreed to pay the arrears of the French pension promised during the 1490’s.

  • England was allowed to continue to their possession of Tournai.

  • Henry VIII agreed that his youngest sister, Mary, would marry Louis XII, much to her disgust.


To what extent was the Scottish invasion of England in 1513 a serious threat?


  • The Scottish King, James IV, Henry’s brother in law, was in alliance with France in 1512. He decided to capitalise in Henry’s absence in 1513 and invade England. This was partly an opportunistic move but also one that showed his commitment to his alliance with France.

  • It was the largest raiding party Scotland had deployed on England in over a century.

  • In Henry’s absence, Queen Catherine and the King’s ministers acted swiftly to stop this threat by mustering a force under the leadership of the Earl of Surrey.

  • The Earl of Surrey’s force stopped the Scottish invasion at Flodden Field in September 1513. Despite being vastly outnumbered and holding the inferior position on the battlefield, Surrey managed a huge victory vanquishing James’ forces.

  • In the battle, James IV was killed leaving his infant son, James, as King of Scotland. Alongside, James many of the Scottish nobility were wiped out.

  • With Henry’s sister as regent for the infant James, Scotland was effectively neutralised as a threat to England until the early 1540’s.


How far was Henry VIII’s foreign policy a success?


  • On the plus side of Henry’s early foreign policy –




  • Henry had made his mark on European affairs and fulfilled his role as a Renaissance prince of waging war in the pursuit of glory and honour.

  • His war with France brought a level of prestige and showed his seriousness in pursuing his claim to the French Crown.

  • Henry’s early foreign policy brought to his attention Thomas Wolsey as a potential First Minister.

  • Scotland was knocked out as an effective rival and threat.




  • However, on the debit side –




  • Henry found that his potential allies could not be trusted.

  • His achievements of capturing Therouanne and Tournai were not significant. Both were soft targets with little strategic value.

  • The Battle of the Spurs was little more than a skirmish rather than the full-scale battle Henry would like it to be portrayed.

  • The costs of Henry’s campaigns were high. In total they cost nearly a million pounds. With his income set at £110,000 per annum, Henry stretched his resources to the limit.


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