Henry VIII’s Foreign Policy

So many of the events surrounding Henry VIII’s reign relate to his foreign policy and many of his domestic concerns, such as his divorce or search for an heir, affected the decisions he made. For this reason I felt a section dedicated to telling the story of Henry’s foreign affairs was important.

Before the Tudors came to power England wasn’t really seen as a major power player in Europe. For many years there had been a dynastic crises which had developed into the Wars of the Roses so English politics had mainly been focused on domestic affairs.

Henry VII’s reign had allowed England to recover and prosper. Henry had acted as his own foreign minister and been a successful diplomat in Europe, so much so that by the end of his reign the great European powers of Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire knew they had to negotiate with England on equal terms. Above all Henry VII had wanted peace and stability. To help achieve this he’d formed an alliance with Spain which was cemented by the marriage of his son, Arthur, to Catherine of Aragon.

Henry VIII’s Early Foreign Policy

A Young Henry VIII c1509

A Young Henry VIII c1509

When Henry VIII succeeded to the throne in 1509 he had more ambitious plans for Europe than his cautious father. He was young and viral, found war glamorous and wanted to be a great soldier King. Foreign policy at the start of his reign concentrated largely on re-conquering the French lands lost during the previous century so he could emulate his heroes, Edward III and Henry V. He also wanted England to be at the heart of European political affairs and be an equal to the other European powers. One of the first things he did on securing the throne was to continue with the arrangement of marrying Ferdinand’s daughter Catherine to secure the alliance with Spain.

Europe during Henrys Reign

The three main powers in Europe during the Tudor period were Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. At the beginning of Henry’s reign France was ruled by Louis XII (from the Valois family), the Holy Roman Empire was ruled by Maximilian I (from the Habsburg family) and Spain was ruled by Ferdinand of Aragon. Spain and the Holy Roman Empire eventually united under one ruler, the Habsburg Charles V, who also ruled Burgundy and the Netherlands. France would later be ruled by Francis I.

Maximilian I and his family including his grandsons Ferdinand I and Charles V (bottom row)

Maximilian I and his family including his grandsons Ferdinand I and Charles V (bottom row)

These powers were often in conflict over control of Italy, especially Naples and Milan, and there was a long period of unrest known as The Italian Wars. These wars devastated Italy and came to dominate affairs in Europe, often influencing Henry VIII’s foreign policy. As these wars were largely fought by Spain and France they’re also known as the Habsburg-Valois wars.

Henry’s ambitions for conquest mainly lay in France who were allied with England’s other traditional enemy, Scotland. The French often encouraged the Scots to invade England as a diversion when they were in conflict with them so when England invaded France this would often be accompanied by fighting in Scotland.


The League of Cambrai 1508

The Pope was also very powerful in Europe and controlled vast areas of Italy known as the Papal States. Julius II, who became Pope in 1503, was keen to increase his power and assert Papal authority in Italy. He particularly wanted to curb the power of Venice who controlled cities in his territories. He knew Venice were too powerful for him to do this alone and in 1508, a few months before Henry VII died, he formed the League of Cambrai with Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire. They all agreed to divide Venice up between them and Julius declared he was going to “reduce Venice to its original condition of a fishing village”

Louis XII of France c1514

Louis XII of France c1514

Then on the 15th April 1509 Louis XII and his troops moved into the Venetian territory before any of the other powers in the League could act. The Venetian resistance collapsed and eventually all the powers of the league had control of their shares of Venice. The Venetians were forced to come to terms and finally made peace with Julius on 24th February 1510.

When Henry ascended to the throne on the 21st April 1509 he immediately wanted to conquer France but the situation in Italy made this difficult. In order to launch an invasion he needed allies but the main ones, Spain and the Empire, were already allied with France through the League. Ferdinand was his most likely ally but he advised Henry to restrain himself for the time being, until a more appropriate time for an attack.

The Holy League and the First French War 1511 – 1512

Henry, however, kept up his anti-French stance and by 1511 Julius was so worried about the growing French presence in Italy that he allied with his old enemy Venice and formed another Holy League, this time against France. This was signed in October 1511 by England as well as Spain and the Empire. Henry saw all of this as an opportunity to reclaim his French lands and also signed the Treaty of Westminster with Ferdinand where both parties agreed to come to the aid of the other against France. In November the League agreed to send a joint Anglo-Spanish army to invade Aquitaine and conquer it for Henry.

Ferdinand II of Aragon. Katherine of Aragon's Father

Ferdinand II of Aragon. Katherine of Aragon’s Father

In June 1512 English troops, led by the Marquis of Dorset, invaded France but Ferdinand didn’t send the troops he promised. He was more concerned with conquering Navarre, which was an important trade route, and was using Henry’s invasion as a diversion. Many of Dorset’s troops got dysentery and they were forced to retreat. Ferdinand, having successfully captured Navarre, went on to make a separate peace with France who had by this time lost their territories in Italy to the Holy League. This put a great strain on the Anglo-Spanish alliance because Henry now knew he couldn’t trust his allies.

War with France Continues 1513

Around this time we see the emergence of someone who was to play a pivotal role in Henry’s early foreign policy, Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey had risen from a middle class background and been the Deputy Governor in Calais before being promoted into the Council by Richard Fox, Bishop of Winchester, in 1509. Wolsey was a diplomat and didn’t like war, unlike Henry. He also wasn’t hostile to France which traditionally the other nobles were. However, what really helped Wolsey’s rise to power was his willingness to advance Henry’s will whatever that may be. If Henry wanted war then Wolsey would do everything in his power make that war a success.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey c1526

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey c1526

As per Henry’s wishes Wolsey planned a new invasion of France for the spring of 1513. On 25th April the English fleet, under the command of Admiral Edward Howard, attacked Brest. The attack failed and Howard was killed so the English withdrew. His brother Thomas was then given the command but due to a lack of supplies and damaged ships the English army couldn’t leave for France again until June.

At the end of June the army, which included Henry, Wolsey and Bishop Fox, landed in Calais and on the 1st August they besieged the French town of Therouanne. The Emperor Maximilian I joined Henry a little later and his Imperial troops helped the English to defeat the French at the Battle of the Spurs on the 16th August. It was so called because the French knights, taken by surprise and seeing they were outnumbered, fled on horseback, their spurs glistening in the sunlight! Therouanne finally surrendered on the 22nd August and a month later the English troops also captured the town of Tournai. Neither of these towns were of much use to England but Henry still rejoiced at his victory. He actually gave Therouanne to his sparing partner Maximilian as it threatened his Burgundian territories but the Imperial troops quickly razed it to the ground. Henry kept Tournai which was prosperous and easy to defend.

The Battle of Flodden 1513

A young Catherine of Aragon c1502

A young Catherine of Aragon c1502

Whilst Henry was away fighting in France the Scots, led by King James IV of Scotland (Henry’s brother in law) and with the support of most of the nobles, entered the war as France’s ally. On 22nd August they attacked England’s northern border and waited for the English army on Flodden Ridge.

Catherine of Aragon had been appointed regent in Henry’s absence and was being aided by the Earl of Surrey. Together they mustered the English troops to attack and on 9th September 1513 the English army, led by Surrey, defeated the Scots at the Battle of Flodden. James IV was killed and Catherine famously sent his bloodied cloak to Henry in France, writing to say she was “sending you for your banners a King’s coat”. The victory had broken Scotland’s military power. The crown went to Henry’s 18 month old nephew James V and his sister Margaret was appointed regent so Scotland no longer posed an immediate threat.

Peace with France 1514

The events of 1513 had restored England’s military reputation in Europe and the successes at Therouanne, Tournai and Flodden showed Europe that all England needed was good leadership to be successful in battle. It was agreed that England, Spain and the Empire would continue the war with France and to cement the alliance Henry’s sister, Mary, was betrothed to Ferdinand and Maximilian’s grandson Charles, the future Charles V.

However, in June 1514 Ferdinand and Maximilian made peace with the French. Henry, who had been financially supporting them both, was furious and was forced to make his own peace with France. Wolsey had always wanted a French alliance and was instrumental in these negotiations. By concluding this treaty Henry was also going against the traditional anti-French nobles at his court such as Surrey.

The terms of the French peace treaty were to last for at least a year after either ruler’s death. Henry kept Tournai and received a pension for himself and his leading courtiers. It was also agreed that his sister Mary would marry Louis XII.

At this point Henry still had his alliance with the Habsburg’s. In addition he had one sister as regent of Scotland and the other as Queen of France so his status in Europe seemed secure. But in 1514 his sister Margaret was forced to give up the regency in Scotland after marrying the Earl of Angus. Then, on 1st January 1515, Louis XII died and was succeeded by his ambitious young cousin Francis I.

France Resumes the War in Italy 1515

Francis I of France

Francis I of France

Like Henry Francis sought military glory and was eager to continue the wars in Italy and reclaim lands that were lost when France made peace in 1512. He’d laid his claim to the Duchy of Milan at his coronation and was now allied with the Venetians who had switched sides from the Pope. Francis crossed the Alps in September 1515, beat the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano and finally captured Milan on 4th October 1515.

The Pope, now Louis X, along with England, Spain and the Empire agreed they needed to keep Francis’ power in check. Wolsey took advantage of the situation by securing a promotion to Cardinal in return for English support of the Papacy. Henry also signed a new Anglo-Spanish treaty with Ferdinand that brought an end to the slightly uneasy alliance they’d had for the last 18 months.

Peace in Europe 1516 – 1520

Then on the 23rd January 1516 Ferdinand died and was succeeded by his grandson Charles, who became King of Spain, the first of the Habsburg line. He had also ruled the Netherlands and Burgundy since 1506. His advisors had Flemish interests and so were keen on a French alliance. On 13th August 1516 the Treaty of Noyon was signed between Charles and Francis that recognised French claims to Milan and Spanish claims to Naples and removed Spain from the war. Maximilian made his own peace with France in the Treaty of Brussels in December 1516 which accepted the French occupation of Milan and accepted Venetian claims in Lombardy. These treaties ended the wars of the League of Cambrai that had been fought in Italy since 1508 and there followed four years of peace in Italy.

In 1517 Pope Leo X called on Europe to unite against the Ottoman Empire who he saw as the latest threat to Christendom. In 1518 Wolsey, having just been made Papal Legate in England and using his diplomatic skills, helped to draw up the Treaty of London, which was a treaty of universal peace between all the great nations as well as some lesser powers. The Pope, the Empire, Spain, France, England, Scotland, Venice, Florence, the Swiss, Burgundy and the Netherlands all agreed not to attack each other and to come to the aid of the other nations if they were attacked.

An Anglo-French peace treaty was signed soon afterwards. Henry’s daughter the princess Mary was betrothed to the Dauphin and England agreed to give back Tournai in exchange for 60,000 crowns and a promise that the French wouldn’t interfere in Scottish affairs again.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V

Charles V

Wolsey’s work on the Treaty of London helped put England at the forefront of European diplomacy and made them a power to be reckoned with. Wolsey was very proud of his achievement and a Venetian Ambassador commented that “nothing pleases him more than to be called the arbiter of the affairs of Christendom”. Henry and Wolsey also knew the country couldn’t afford any more costly wars. By making himself the peacemaker of Europe Wolsey was able to increase England’s influence in Europe through diplomacy instead of war which was a much cheaper option. Henry was more than happy to share in Wolsey’s diplomatic success because it all reflected well on him and the English court.

At the start of 1519 Maximilian died and his grandson Charles V was elected Holy Roman Emperor. As he was also ruler of Spain, Burgundy and the Netherlands his territories covered a vast area and encircled France. Francis had also hoped to be elected and the failure reignited his interest in Italy, especially Milan. All this caused relations between him and Charles to break down. Henry, in his quest to be the peace maker of Europe, tried to act as an arbiter between them both. In reality he was playing them off against each other but they were also doing the same to him.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold 1520

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

In 1520 Francis requested a meeting with Henry so Wolsey started preparing a lavish spectacle. At the same time he also arranged a meeting with Charles so as to keep both of them on side. Charles arrived in England at the end of May and stayed for three days. The meeting with Francis was held at Balinghem, near Calais, between the 7th and 24th June and was known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a magnificent affair where each King tried to outdo the other. A huge wooden palace and tiltyards were built, there were tents covered in cloth of gold, feasting, jousting and music. Henry famously challenged Francis to a wrestling match and lost. In diplomatic terms the Field of the Cloth of Gold wasn’t a great success, no great Anglo-French alliance was formed and no real friendship developed. In fact a Venetian Ambassador remarked “These Kings are not at peace …they detest each other cordially”

Wolsey met with Charles again in Bruges not long after the Field of the Cloth of Gold and continued to play him and Francis off against each other. He knew a conflict between them over Milan was inevitable and was weighing up which way to go, whether to form a peace alliance or take advantage of any war they had by invading France.

War with France and Scotland 1521 – 1524

Henry VIII 1520

Henry VIII c1520

In 1521 Luther published his 95 theses, which attacked corruption in the Catholic Church, and pinned them to a church door in Wittenburg. This was to spark off a period of religious upheaval and change that would become known as the Reformation. In response to the 95 theses Henry VIII wrote The Defence of the Seven Sacraments and was made Defender of the Faith by the Pope. Charles V, as Holy Roman Emperor, was also a fierce defender of the Catholic faith so the situation started to lean towards an Anglo-Imperial alliance

In 1521 Francis attacked Navarre and the Low countries and then proceeded to attack Lombardy in Italy which reignited the Italian wars with Charles. Charles allied with Henry VIII and Pope Leo, who he was naturally allied to anyway over their fight against Luther. On 16th June 1522 Henry and Charles signed the Treaty of Windsor. As part of the terms Henry agreed to help Charles in his war with Francis but an invasion was postponed until 1524 when both monarchs could afford it. Charles and Henry both wanted to see the downfall of France which they called the “The Great Enterprise”, but neither of them trusted the other after past events.

Despite the terms of the treaty England ended up getting dragged into war. In July 1522 the Earl of Surrey led an expedition to Picardy in France where the troops burned and looted villages. Charles failed to provide practical help to Henry and both blamed the other for the eventual failure.

Meanwhile in Scotland the Duke of Albany was laying claim to the English throne. He was being supported by France who often did this as a diversionary tactic when they were in conflict with England. Albany had been acting as regent since 1515, following Margaret’s marriage to the Earl of Angus. Albany was opposed to Angus, who headed the English supporting faction of the Scottish nobility, and had been boasting he could take England if France gave him 100,000 men.

Albany planned an unsuccessful invasion in 1522 and again in 1523 only this time Wolsey sent the Earl of Surrey to Scotland to deal with him. Surrey threatened an invasion and caused Albany to withdraw. He ended up retiring to France permanently in 1524. Margaret, who had previously sided with Albany after an argument with Angus, was once again on England’s side and became eager for her 12 year old son James to be recognised as King.

Then in the summer of 1523 the Duke of Bourbon rebelled against Francis. Henry took the opportunity to (once again) lay his claim to the French throne and sent an invasion force under the Duke of Suffolk to France. Charles didn’t send the troops from the Netherlands that he’d promised because he was too pre-occupied with Navarre and the Italian War and the Duke of Bourbon was no help so England was left to fight alone. Suffolk headed for Paris but bad weather forced him to retreat.

By 1524 both England and the Empire wanted the war with France to end. Wolsey disliked the policy against France and had always wanted peace, now Henry was also coming round to this idea. War was expensive and they both knew Charles would expect them to provide troops for his war in Italy. A previous petition for funds in 1523 had only reluctantly been agreed and the tax collections had aroused anger. It would be dangerous to ask for more money especially when they had little to show for their previous war efforts.

There was also a growing loss of confidence in Charles. For a start Charles and Henry both thought the other would make a separate peace with France based on their past behaviour. There was also the matter of the Papacy. Wolsey had wanted the Pope’s job when it came up in 1522 and again in 1523. Both times Charles promised his support but was secretly supporting another candidate, Cardinal de Medici, who was eventually elected as Pope Clement VII.

The Battle of Pavia 1525

By the beginning of 1525 Wolsey was making secret plans with France but then, on the 14th February, Charles captured Francis at the Battle of Pavia. Henry saw this as his ideal time to invade France, re-claim what he saw as his rightful inheritance and finally move forward with the “Great Enterprise”. Henry remarked to a diplomat from the Low Countries that “now is the time for the Emperor and myself to devise the means of getting full satisfaction from France”.

Henry sent an envoy to Spain to convey his grand plans to Charles. He would help Charles recover his rights to Italy and in exchange Charles would help him to secure the French throne. He also offered a marriage alliance with his daughter Mary. Unfortunately Charles snubbed Henry’s plans. He had no money and wanted peace. He also had no interest in partitioning France or giving Henry more power. He even snubbed Henry’s marriage plans for Mary and married Isabella of Portugal instead so he could raise money for his war from her dowry.

Peace with France 1525

This wrecked the “Great Enterprise” and led Wolsey to demand an “Amicable Grant” to raise taxes for a French Invasion. This was a non-Parliamentary form of taxation that worked out to be about a sixth of a man’s property. It caused uproar amongst the people and was eventually withdrawn by Henry. Wolsey took full blame for the fiasco whilst Henry took the credit for stopping it. It was the first time Wolsey had been unable to fulfil Henry’s wishes and to stay in favour he gave him Hampton Court Palace as a gift.

In the summer of 1525 Henry gave his permission for Wolsey to resume peace talks with France. By this time he felt let down and humiliated by Charles who owed him money, had snubbed his marriage plans and hadn’t shared in the spoils of his victory at Pavia. Wolsey had been having secret talks with France anyway because Louise of Savoy, who was acting as regent in her son Francis’ absence, was an old friend and confidante.

On 30th August 1525, after 3 years of war, England and France signed the Treaty of the More. As Francis was still Charles’ prisoner his mother, Louise of Savoy, signed on his behalf. France agreed to pay England 2 million crowns and gave assurances they would stay out of Scottish affairs. However, Henry had not yet completely abandoned his ambitions in France and still hoped Charles would agree to an invasion.

The League of Cognac 1526

In January 1526 Charles also made his own peace with Francis by signing the Treaty of Madrid. Francis was released and forced to give up his claims to Italy and Flanders and surrender Burgundy to Charles. He also had to leave his two sons as hostages until the terms of the treaty had been adhered to. Francis was released and returned to France but on the 22nd March he declared the treaty invalid because it had been signed under duress.

Wolsey saw all of this as his opportunity to once again step into the role of arbiter of Europe. He had long since lost confidence in Charles and had been having secret talks with France for months before the Treaty of Madrid was signed. He wanted to curb Charles’ power and had already been encouraging an anti-Imperial stance at Court.

Since the summer of 1525 Wolsey had been using his diplomacy to help forge an alliance between the Italian states. In 1526, Pope Clement VII formed the League of Cognac which had been organised by Wolsey. This was an alliance between the Pope, Venice, Florence, some smaller Italian states and France with the aim of curbing Charles’ powers in Italy. England wanted to use the league to force Charles in to offering more reasonable terms to Francis, which it hoped would restore peace in Europe. They refused to be a participant but offered both financial aid and to act as peace broker in talks between Charles and Francis.

The Treaty of Westminster 1527

Then in the spring of 1527 Henry VIII told Wolsey he wanted his marriage to Catherine annulled on the grounds that the papal dispensation allowing them to marry was invalid. Knowing they could no longer be allied to Charles anymore, as he was Catherine’s aunt, Wolsey began working on a new French alliance.

On 30th April, Henry and Francis signed a new treaty for eternal peace, the Treaty of Westminster, which was celebrated in Greenwich with feasts and jousting. The terms stated that if Charles agreed to peace the princess Mary would marry The Duke of Orleans (the future Henry II) and Francis would marry Charles’ sister. If, however, Charles wanted war then Mary would marry Francis.

The Sacking of Rome 1527

The hopes for peace were very short lived. On the 6th May 1527, Charles’ troops, under the Duke of Bourbon, subdued Florence and then invaded Rome. They sacked, pillaged and desecrated the city and terrorised the Pope who fled to the Castel San Angelo. He was now Charles’ prisoner.

Henry needed the Pope as he was the only one who could overturn the previous papal dispensation and grant him his divorce. When Wolsey heard about Rome he quickly realised the significance it would have on both European peace and the divorce and planned his strategy around them both. He knew there had to be peace for the Pope to be released so he planned to get Francis and the League to lower their demands to Charles. If that failed he planned to go to Avignon and head up a caretaker Church government in the Pope’s absence. That way he could try to broker peace whilst also controlling church affairs and ensuring that favourable judges would hear Henry’s divorce case.

Unfortunately, news had already reached Charles of Henry’s intentions regarding Catherine. When Henry had told her he wanted their marriage annulled she’d sent word to Charles who promised his support, begged Henry to stop and asked the Pope to recall the case to Rome.

Wolsey’s great plans failed. The Pope was concerned about his plans for power and ordered the Cardinals not to go to Avignon for his caretaker government and Charles and Francis were not as amenable to negotiations as Wolsey thought they’d be. Wolsey was also separated from Henry hundreds of miles away in France and had received word that Henry’s secretary, William Knight, was going to appeal directly to the Pope and deliver a bull concerning the annulment. Wolsey returned to England but found he had lost Henry’s confidence and was falling out of favour.

Charles released Clement in early December but still refused to come to terms with the League and Henry declared war on him in January 1528. Due to the importance of the Netherlands on England’s cloth and wool trade Henry was reluctant to actually take up arms against Charles and offered money to the Pope instead. He also signed a commercial truce with Margaret of the Netherlands to protect the lucrative wool trade.

In March 1528 it looked like peace was in sight and Wolsey drew-up plans with France for a truce but Charles refused to agree. The Pope, who was back in Rome, was keen to make his own peace with Charles because he feared an alliance between Charles and Henry. However, by this point Henry was becoming more and more preoccupied with his “Great Matter”, the divorce.

The Peace of Cambrai 1529

Charles continued his success over France in the Italian war and on 21st June 1529 he defeated the French at the Battle of Landriano. This forced Francis to make peace with Charles and on 3rd August the Peace of Cambrai was signed. It was called the “Ladies Peace” because Francis’ mother Louise of Savoy and Charles’ aunt Margaret of Austria actually negotiated and signed the treaty. Wolsey was kept out of the peace negotiations because Henry wanted him at home overseeing the legatine court for his divorce.

The treaty removed Francis from the war and left Charles with control of Italy but Henry was virtually ignored leaving him isolated in Europe. The diplomatic situation also made it unlikely that the Pope would grant Henry his divorce, something Wolsey had led him to believe would happen. Wolsey had to go and in September 1529 he handed over his great seal of office. Thomas More, who had been close to Henry for many years, was eventually chosen to replace Wolsey as Chancellor.

Henry’s “Great Matter” and Foreign Policy 1532 – 1536

After Wolsey’s fall Henry began looking abroad for support with his divorce and met Francis at Calais on 20th October 1532. Francis was looking for an alliance with the Pope, who was now Clement IV, but there was mistrust on both sides. The meeting ended on 30th October with Francis agreeing to send two Cardinals to Rome to press Henry’s case for divorce.

Then in January 1533 it was discovered that Anne was pregnant. Desperate for his child to be legitimate Henry married Anne on the 25th January. On 25th May Thomas Cramner formally declared Henry’s marriage to Catherine to be null and void, going against Rome. In Henry’s mind there was no greater authority in England than himself and he felt justified in these actions. However, in July Pope Clement refused Henry’s divorce. He formally condemned the separation and Henry’s marriage to Anne and urged him to return to Catherine by September or risk excommunication.

Francis met the Pope in Marseilles in October 1533 where he agreed a marriage alliance between his son and the Pope’s niece and swore reverence. However, Henry’s earlier actions in going against Rome and marrying Anne Boleyn put him outside of Papal support. Henry was furious and felt utterly betrayed by Francis, although he had managed to delay Henry’s excommunication by 2 months.

Anne had given birth to Henry’s daughter Elizabeth in September and in order to legitimise her Parliament validated Henry’s marriage to Anne with the Act of Succession. Thomas Cromwell, who had been Henry’s chief minister since 1532, brought about a number of acts which recognised Royal Supremacy over the Church in England, one of which abolished the right to appeal to Rome. The final break came in November 1534 when the Act of Succession declared Henry the Supreme Head of the Church in England.

Henry’s split from Rome helped the Reformation to develop in England so he was seen by many as an enemy of the Catholic Church. He was concerned that the Catholic powers in Europe would crusade against him under the Pope’s lead and developed his Navy and coastal defences using money he’d acquired from the dissolution of the monasteries.

Pope Clement VII had died in 1534 and was succeeded by Paul III. At first it seemed the new Pope would be more sympathetic to Henry’s situation but when he heard Henry had executed Bishop Fisher and Thomas More for not accepting the Act of Succession he drew up another bull of excommunication on 30th August 1535. This was never fully carried because the Pope was unable to get support from Charles and Francis. Charles was too pre-occupied with the Ottoman Turks in Tunisia and both he and Francis would soon be engaged in another round of Italian wars.

Then in 1536 Catherine, Charles’ aunt, died and so did Charles’ personal interest in Henry’s domestic affairs. Not long after, despite the upheaval Henry caused by marrying her, Anne Boleyn was executed. Charles had seen her as the great enemy, a threat to the Catholic Church who he was bound to fight out of dynastic loyalty. Now she was gone he was confident he could make peace with Henry. The Pope too seemed ready to reconcile and urged Henry to take this opportunity to make peace. All Henry wanted, however, was the lifting of the excommunication and to sabotage the Council of Trent that Paul III had summoned for the following year so these peace talks came to nothing.

Charles and Francis resumed their war over the Duchy of Milan in 1536. France by this time had also made a new alliance with Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire which was to cause a scandal in Christendom. Henry once again hoped to be the peacemaker between Charles and Francis. This renewal of the Italian wars carried on until the Treaty of Nice in 1538

Plans for a Foreign Marriage Alliance 1537-1538

Following Anne’s execution Henry married Jane Seymour but she died after giving birth to Henry’s son Edward in October 1537. Thoughts soon turned to arranging a fourth marriage for Henry.

Thomas Cromwell was keen on a foreign alliance rather than Henry marrying a girl from an English noble family who could rise to power and conspire against him, as had happened with Wolsey. Also, if Charles and Francis agreed to make peace in Italy it would leave Henry isolated and could allow the Pope to turn Catholic Europe against him.

Henry toyed with a few French princesses but by January 1538 he had become enthusiastic about Christina II of Milan. She was a niece of Charles V and the widow of the Duke of Milan, so there were hopes she would bring the Duchy with her. Henry courted both Charles and Francis with his marriage alliances, wanting to stir up trouble and prevent them making peace. The issue of Christina’s Duchy was at the forefront of this because Charles and Francis’ both had an interest in Milan.

The Treaty of Nice and Excommunication 1538

Henry failed to prevent the peace between Charles and Francis and they signed the Treaty of Nice on 18th June 1538, agreeing a 10 year truce. Then on the 17th December the Pope excommunicated Henry, renewing the execution of the earlier bull of the 30th August that had been suspended. He also sent Cardinal Reginald Pole to rally the European Catholic powers against him.

On 12th January 1539 Francis and Charles made a pact not to make a separate peace with England, which usually happened before military action was about to take place. There was also talk of Imperial ambassadors leaving London. It looked like a military crusade against England was beginning and the country was scared.

However, Charles was too worried about the threat of the Ottoman Turks and the rise of Lutheranism in Germany to want to attack Henry. Francis seemed keen at first for an “Enterprise” against England but wrote to Henry in March 1539 assuring him that his war preparations were for Charles. By August 1539 the Pope had almost abandoned his project and made Pole come back to Rome. The war preparations in England had already been called off in the July but Henry was still worried the Pope and Charles would turn Francis against him.

Marriage to Anne of Cleves 1539-1540

Meanwhile Cromwell had been busy working on a Protestant alliance. A marriage with the House of Cleves had first been proposed in June 1538 and was favoured by Cromwell as he hoped it would further establish the German reformation in England. In January 1539 he also began talks with the League of Schmalkalden in the hope of forming a defensive alliance. The League was a group of Protestant princes who had come together in response to Charles’ threat to stamp out Lutheranism in his German states.

William, the Duke of Cleves, had recently taken over the duchy from his deceased father. Neither of them were Lutherans but they did stand somewhere between that and Catholicism and were influenced by Erasmus, like Henry. The Duke was also in conflict with Charles over lands in Gelderland that he’d inherited so Henry was an attractive ally.

The marriage alliance was concluded on 6th October 1539 and Henry married Anne on 6th January 1540 but it was a complete failure. Henry, who was very vocal in his distaste for Anne, had the marriage annulled on the 9th July 1540 on the grounds that Anne had been pre-contracted to the Duke of Lorraine and the marriage wasn’t consummated. The annulment also put an end to plans for an alliance with the League.

Henry’s Foreign Policy at the end of his Reign

Cromwell was eventually executed for treason in June 1540. No-one replaced him as chief minister and Henry took control of his own foreign policy which in the last years of his reign mainly centred on France and Scotland. It has been argued that Henry’s interest in Scotland was part of a large scale plan to unify Britain but historians now believe his main aim was to fulfil his lifelong ambition of re-conquering France. Scotland only became involved because Henry was worried about a back door attack from them in support of their French allies. Henry had success in Scotland early on and with it came a real opportunity to unite the thrones so it’s possible he ended up getting more involved in Scottish affairs than he previously intended. Elsewhere on the domestic front Wales was on it’s way to being unified with England by the Laws in Wales Acts 1535 and 1542. These acts replaced the laws of Wales with the English laws and came into effect properly in 1536 and 1543, annexing Wales to England. In 1541 Henry was also given the title King of Ireland by the Irish Parliament which brought Ireland into a personal union with England as well.

War with Scotland 1542 -1544

A lot of the 1530’s had been spent on domestic affairs but Henry still had his military ambitions and wanted to re-assert his claim to France. Before doing that he knew he first had to subdue the Scots who were both anti-English and anti-Protestant. The head of the Scottish Church, Cardinal David Beaton, was the influential leader of the Pro-French faction. He was also vehemently anti-English especially since Henry’s split with Rome. The continued allegiance between France and Scotland was evident by the fact James V had married two French princesses. His latest wife was Mary of Guise who was one of the French princesses Henry was toying with in his earlier marriage negotiations.

Henry had decided to resume his military career in April 1541 by announcing a progress to the north of England for the autumn. On 18th September he arrived in York expecting to meet James V of Scotland for diplomatic talks but he didn’t show up, claiming later that it was too much of a risk. After Henry left York the raids and arson on the northern borders increased and Henry and James each warned the other of the consequences if it continued. In August 1542 Henry sent troops to the borders under the Duke of Norfolk and instructed ambassadors from England and Scotland to be sent to York to try to make peace.

The Ambassadors met in September and England presented Scotland with a list of heavy demands. The Scots appeared compliant but Henry was distrustful and sent Norfolk to intimidate them. All this did was stir up James who appealed to Rome and other princes for aid. James prepared an attack but was defeated at the Battle of Solway Moss on 23rd November and many of his troops were taken prisoner. Three weeks later he died of an unrelated illness, leaving the throne to his young daughter, Mary Queen of Scots.

Henry’s initial intention had been to contain the Scots because he was worried they would invade England in support of their ally France. However, with the Scots defeated and James V dead he saw an opportunity to unite the English and Scottish crowns by taking control of James’ daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. His plan was to free the Solway Moss prisoners on licence, get them to build up support for him in Scotland and bring Mary to England so she could be betrothed to his son Edward.

However, on 3rd January 1543, the Earl of Arran, who was heir apparent, was appointed governor of Scotland. At first Arran seemed to cooperate with Henry and arrested Cardinal Beaton before signing a three month truce in Mary’s name on 20th February. This was a pre-curser to the Treaty of Greenwich that was eventually signed on 1st July 1543. This treaty contained two agreements the first being to establish peace and the second agreeing the marriage between Mary Queen of Scots and Henry’s son, Edward. The Scots still hadn’t renounced their “Auld Alliance” with France but Henry was confident they’d submitted and thought he could now plan his invasion of France with Charles.

War with France 1544 – 1545

Charles and Francis had resumed their fighting in the Italian Wars on 10th July 1542 and Henry sought to take advantage of the situation. He started making secret plans with Charles for an invasion of France and ended up joining the Italian war on his side. They planned an invasion for 1543 but this was delayed because of the problems in Scotland. Charles was also uneasy about an alliance with Henry after his split from Rome and had trouble coming to terms with Henry’s title of Supreme Head of the Church being used in treaties and documents. An Anglo-Imperial alliance was eventually agreed against Francis and a treaty was signed on 11th February 1544 but kept secret until the end of May. It officially brought Henry into Charles and Francis’s Italian war.

The basic strategy agreed by Charles and Henry was that they would each lead their armies into Paris, although poor health eventually forced Henry to send lieutenants whilst he carried out a local campaign in Calais. By the middle of June 1544 an army led by Norfolk and Suffolk had moved eastwards into France but had no clear objective. Henry wrote to Charles urging him to reconsider the attack on Paris but Charles refused. Henry then decided that Norfolk’s troops should capture Montreuil and on 19th July a siege of Boulogne also began. The walls of the town were breached in August and on 14th September the English delivered their terms. Henry entered the town on the 18th September, supervising the fortification until leaving at the end of the month.

All in all the campaign was not a great success. England had won Boulogne but it had come at a great cost and the alliance with Charles was falling apart. The French had been trying to make peace and had offered separate terms to both Charles and Henry. Charles army was doing badly in the war and he was worried about the increasing threat of the Turks moving eastwards into Europe which threatened his territories. He was also annoyed at Henry’s hesitation over Paris so he made his own peace with Francis at Crepy on 21st September, behind Henry’s back.

Henry was left to deal with the full weight of the French army on his own and eventually ordered Norfolk to retreat. Henry once again resumed peace negotiations with France and sent envoys to Calais but they couldn’t agree terms and in early November 1544 the French ambassadors left the talks. The war was still raging on because Henry refused to give up Boulogne so Charles was appointed to act as a mediator between England and France. This caused great tension as they both felt let down by the other over France. By July 1545 Anglo-Imperial relations were at breaking point, Henry had lost his ally and was in serious trouble.

On 19th July Francis invaded England, his fleet entered the Solent and a battle ensued followed by a few skirmishes with the English fleet over the next few days. These came to nothing and the French soon left. By early September it seemed that the French threat had passed but Henry was still isolated and couldn’t afford to continue with the war.

The “Rough Wooing” 1544 – 1546

Not long after the treaty of Greenwich had been signed with Scotland reports started reaching Henry through his diplomat Ralph Sadler that Arran had defected to Cardinal Beaton’s side. In response Henry formed an alliance with the Earl of Angus who led the English supporting faction in Scotland. He also tried to form alliances with some of the Protestant princes when he heard France were sending troops to Scotland.

Henry demanded the Scots implement their side of the Greenwich peace treaties and end the alliance with France. The Scots were already unhappy about the betrothal of Mary to Edward and refused to repudiate the “Auld Alliance”. Parliament officially rejected the treaties on 11th December 1543.

In March 1544 Henry agreed to work with the Earl of Angus and the Earl of Lennox to gain control of Scotland. Lennox had recently changed sides and was next to Arran in the line of succession so was a powerful ally. If they agreed to support him, name him protector and secure Mary’s safe delivery to England for marriage Henry agreed to send an army to Scotland to install a puppet government with Lennox as governor.

However, Lennox didn’t keep to his side of the bargain and Henry was furious. He gave Edward Seymour, the Earl of Hertford, instructions to attack Scotland in what would become known as the “Rough Wooing”:

“Put all to fire and sword! Steal everything you can from Edinburgh, then burn it and knock it down. This will always remind the Scots of their punishment for being disloyal…..”

Hostilities began on 3rd May 1544 when Hertford landed in Edinburgh. He first occupied and burnt Leith and some other southern Scottish towns although his suggestion to set up an English garrison in Leith was rejected by the Privy Council. On 7th May he attacked Edinburgh and succeeded in looting and burning the city, although he failed to besiege the castle which was well defended.

Henry’s attack prompted Scotland to appoint Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, as regent in Arran’s place but Henry was no closer to gaining control and far from helping him with his French campaign all it was doing was draining England’s resources. He was also in danger of alienating his ally Charles who was worried the Pope would lead a Franco-Scottish invasion against England or send Pole on another mission asking him to turn against Henry.

The “Rough Wooing” continued for a couple of years until Scotland were included in the Treaty of Camp in May 1546 which brought about peace between Scotland and England for 18 months.

The Final Months 1545 – 1547

The Council wanted to reach a peace with France but Henry refused despite the war reaching a bit of a stalemate. Henry tried once again to get Charles on side and was eventually able to send Stephen Gardiner to meet with him in Bruges. He offered up a list of demands including marriages for his children, breaking with France and joining the English against them but Charles resisted. Shortly after, the French Admiral also arrived and Charles hoped he could broker a peace between England and France through him and Gardiner. Charles’ main concern was stamping out German Protestantism but he hoped that by broking a peace between England and France he could draw them into his own anti-Lutheran League.

The Protestant princes were also hoping to get England and France on side against Charles who was on a campaign for their destruction. In September 1545 they sent envoys from Saxony, Hesse and Wittenberg to England to act as independent mediators. They left England for France in October, supposedly with Henry’s blessing, and were then able to also get Francis on side. On 21st November representatives from England and France met at Guines to begin discussions, presided over by the German Protestants. At the same time Gardiner was in Bruges discussing an Anglo-French peace, this time with Charles acting as mediator.

The peace talks came to nothing and in January 1546 Henry was making plans with Hertford to launch another attack on France in the spring. Seymour landed in Calais on 23rd March but within a few weeks Henry had suddenly changed his mind. Both sides were running low on funds and peace talks were started up again in May.

On the 7th June England and France signed the Treaty of Camp (also known as the Treaty of Ardes). Boulogne was to be returned in eight years on payment of 2 million crowns and both sides agreed not to declare war on the other unless they broke the terms of the treaty. It is also ended the Italian war that had begun in 1542. During the negotiations two Protestant mediators had declared that England’s war with Scotland was a stumbling block to peace. This caused an article to be added which included Scotland in the treaty and Henry agreed not to attack them again without a good cause.

Henry died on 28th January 1547 having ruled England for 37 years. The country was more or less at peace when he died and whilst he may not have achieved his ultimate aim of conquering France he had increased England’s status and prestige in Europe throughout the course of his reign. Probably his greatest and most enduring achievement in relation to foreign policy is the development of the Navy and he’s often referred to as the ‘Father of the English Navy’. During the course of Henry’s reign the Navy fleet grew from just 5 ships to around 60 ships and he built up vast coastal defences. His daughter Elizabeth I built upon these foundations and strengthened the Navy even further, so much so that in 1588 they were able take on and defeat the might of the Spanish Armada!


Sources: Henry VIII – JJ Scarisbrick, A Brief History of Henry VIII – Derek Wilson, The Reign of Henry VIII, Personalites and Politics – David Starkey