Henry VIII’s Late Foreign Policy: A Masterclass in Failure, Humiliation, and Defeat.

The Cowdray Engraving, depicting the Battle of the Solent

Henry VIII was an ambitious man. As a young King, aged only 17, Henry’s main aim was clear: wage war. The English monarch, ever since the Hundred Years’ War, had a claim to the French throne. Henry wanted to push this claim as far as he could, whilst simultaneously boosting his international prestige. Why then, by Henry’s death in 1547, was England left bankrupt, nearly defenceless, and as isolated as ever? The answer comes in a series of failed wars, international embarrassment, and a French crown which never came close to sitting on Henry’s head.

It would hardly be fair to say that Henry was entirely unsuccessful in war. Although his later years were much less successful than those prior — where the Treaty of London (1518) and the Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520) saw England take centre-stage in international politics and battles such as the Battle of the Spurs (1513) allowed Henry to flex his military muscles — they were not entirely fruitless. Negotiations with Scotland were initially positive and the Treaty of Greenwich (1543) offered an extensive and long-lasting dynastic union between England and Scotland through the marriage of Henry VIII’s son, Prince Edward, to James V’s daughter, Mary. Negotiations, however, fell through in December that year, when the Scottish parliament rejected the treaty. Worse yet was that in 1542 the English army, under the command of Thomas Warton, had demolished the Scottish forces at Solway Moss where the Scottish lost decisively, despite massively outnumbering the British. A military success? Yes — so much so that Scotland seemed within Henry’s grasp. Yet he, somewhat inexplicably, decided not to press matters further and opted for the more diplomatic route. The problem was that with both the Treaty of Greenwich and hundreds of Scottish soldiers dead with no apparent union — militarily or politically — in sight, Anglo-Scottish tensions shot up and no resolution was in sight. Yes, the Scottish threat was diminished in the short-term, but the Auld Alliance between France and Scotland (the former being a genuine military threat to England) held as firm as ever.

He also saw some success in France. Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk and a close friend — as well as Brother-in-Law (through his second wife, Mary) — of Henry was successful in taking Boulogne and in the latter part of the siege, Henry VIII actually took command which helped boost his image as a warlord. This was a clear move away from Thomas Cromwell’s foreign policy (or lack thereof) of isolation and irrelevance, which had seen England make no notable territorial gains. However, when we take a look at the overall picture, it’s clear that Henry’s late foreign policy (specifically from 1540 — Cromwell’s death — to 1547 — Henry’s death) was far from successful.

In fact, it was quite the opposite. England’s foreign policy from 1540–47 was a disastrous exhibition of disorganisation, military error, and a lack of efficient communication between Henry VIII and his foreign allies. These failures caused England to become financially bankrupt, militarily insignificant, and overly isolated. Henry couldn’t even properly manage his handling with Scotland properly which was truly a problem for any English king. Indeed, Henry’s war with Scotland from 1542 was rushed, chaotic and ultimately fruitless. Despite the aforementioned victory at Solway Moss in 1542, Henry was both unable to invade Scotland — ignoring the pleas of his advisors — and thereby forcefully assimilating it and unable to unite the two powers diplomatically through the Treaty of Greenwich the next year. Thus, Henry’s successful battle had ultimately done little but fuel the flames of Anglo-Scottish tensions, which were only exacerbated by the Scots’ brutal defeat at Solway Moss. After all, the eight years of ‘Rough Wooing’ that followed would end in Scotland’s favour, not England’s.

Henry’s military aims in France failed even more spectacularly. Before Henry VIII could even properly begin, Charles V (Holy Roman Emporer and Henry’s key ally) changed his plans and proved unwilling to stay true to his promises. This led to squabbling between the two rulers and a severely disorganised and under-funded English force in France which saw defeat at battles such as the Siege of Montreuil (1544), where troops under the now 71-year-old Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, were unsuccessful due to a severe lack of supplies. Even where Henry VIII did see success, namely at Boulogne in 1544, it was limited and costly. Boulogne proved incredibly expensive to upkeep, was fairly useless militarily (in relation to its cost), and would return to French hands in 1550. The war overall had cost around £2 million, which was ten years of royal income, and had bankrupted England. The worst part? It was not failure in France which saw the peak in England’s military woes.

In 1545, the Mary Rose, England’s most prominent warship sank. Two things are important here. Firstly, the sinking was in and of itself a loss for the English. It was a fine example of English naval supremacy — gone. On board, a collection of talented and valiant soldiers of varying nationality, including an Archer Royal and Vice-Admiral George Carew. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, is the symbolism behind the sinking. It had a great personal effect on Henry, marking the de facto end of his claim to the French throne and was yet another example of incompetence. It’s important to avoid any confusion: the French did not (beyond any reasonable doubt) sink the Mary Rose. If they had, it would merely be a sign of England’s military weakness. No, what likely happened is far more telling and symbolic of late-Henrican English failings. It was most likely sunk as a result of circumstance. At the time, it was thought that the reason was that the ship had fired all of its guns at the same time on one side, turned, and caught a strong gust of wind. Lord High Admiral John Russel was more upfront, blaming the incompetence of the crew, and it is alleged that Carew’s last words were a cry to his uncle, Gawn Carew — on board a passing ship — in which he proclaimed that “I have the sort of knaves I cannot rule”. Regardless of the real cause, that such a magnificent ship should be sunk not in the glory of war but due to the incompetence of its crew and the natural elements was devastating for Henry. In the same year, a French army landed on the Isle of Wight and tried to invade and although they were repelled by an English militia led by Robert Fyssher, it was the closest French had come to invading English homeland territory in over 100 years.

And there Henry VIII’s dreams of the French crown ended. England had been internationally embarrassed, shown itself to be incompetent and weak without the support of stronger allies, and — far from the ambitious dreams of the young King in 1509 — was a country on its last legs, teetering on the edge of a terrible precipice which could have seen the Tudor dynasty cut short by over 50 years.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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