Share This Article

Within the considerable torso of the swaggering, blustering English king beat the heart of a would-be warrior.

Six wives, Reformation, Dissolution and a corpulent, gout-ridden, malevolent, piggy-eyed monarch with a penchant for philandering and executions—such is the common summation of Henry VIII, who strode the stage as English king from 1509 until his death in 1547. Yet there was more to the most famous male in the Tudor line than simply his size, his scheming or his womanizing, for Henry also reveled in what he called his “war games.”

Born the second son of King Henry VII on June 28, 1491, young Henry was not expected to sit on England’s throne. His elder brother, Arthur, was the designated heir, but on the latter’s death at age 15 in 1502 Henry moved up in the line of succession. When his father died in April 1509, Henry ascended as the second monarch in the Tudor line.

Within weeks of becoming king, 17-year-old Henry married his elder brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon, thereby maintaining the dynastic link with Spain established by his father. While the elder Henry had cultivated a policy of nonintervention on the European continent, preferring to stash coinage in his treasury, his son was an ambitious youngster with full coffers and a determination to prove himself a worthy descendent of Henry V. In that goal he was both encouraged and aided by Thomas Wolsey, a Roman Catholic cardinal who became Henry’s adviser and, ultimately, lord chancellor of England.

At Wolsey’s urging, Henry VIII became deeply involved in continental affairs, basing his foreign policy largely on his father’s Spanish alliance. There were compelling reasons for such a stance. France—just across the English Channel—was England’s traditional enemy, and all English kings since Edward III had also styled themselves king of that nearby nation. By the time Henry ascended the throne, the sole vestige of England’s once extensive holdings in France was Calais, the port city and environs just 27 miles from Dover. Immediately after his accession Henry swore to wage war on the “old enemy” and its 46-year-old monarch, Louis XII, throwing down the gauntlet of his claim to the French throne.

Henry was not alone in his opposition to France. Since 1496 England had been a member of the Holy League, an alliance of Pope Alexander VI, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, Ferdinand II of Aragon, and the rulers of Venice and Milan as a response to French King Charles VIII’s 1494–95 invasion of Italy. In 1511 Pope Julius II reconstituted the league, with Swiss mercenaries joining the original members against Charles’ successor, Louis XII. In 1511 Henry further formalized his pro-Spanish leanings by signing a pledge of mutual aid with his father-in-law, 59-year-old Ferdinand II.

England’s young king was ready to go to war.

Unfortunately for Henry, his first military adventure as king did not go as planned.

In April 1512 the monarch joined Ferdinand in declaring war on Louis XII, an act soon followed by a joint attempt to capture the region of Aquitaine, on France’s southwest coast. Henry did not personally lead the English troops, which enabled him to skirt much of the blame for their dismal performance. Already weakened by widespread dysentery, the English force was further debilitated by widespread drunkenness and open mutiny. The campaign was not an auspicious start to Henry’s planned reconquest of France.

The English did better the following year. In May 1513 they began landing large numbers of troops at Calais.Henry followed in June, and he scored his first clear victory on August 16. The young king and Maximilian I were jointly besieging Thérouanne, east of Calais, when a French relief force of 8,000 arrived, unexpectedly encountering the much larger allied army near the village of Bomy. First pounded by artillery and then chased down by cavalry, the French panicked, their horsemen racing off in retreat. The victors dubbed the fight the Battle of the Spurs, as the escaping French had urged their mounts so frantically. It was a largely bloodless victory for Henry, who had wanted to lead his army into combat but was dissuaded from doing so by his advisers.

A week later the besiegers took Thérouanne, followed in a month by Tournai, some 60 miles farther east. Maximilian held on to Thérouanne, while Henry kept Tournai, envisioning it as a springboard to further conquest. As significant a victory as the Battle of the Spurs might have been, however, it was not Henry’s greatest military triumph of 1513. That battle occurred in England, not France, and the monarch wasn’t even present.

Before departing for Calais, Henry had appointed Catherine queen regent, governor and captain general in his absence, little knowing the redoubtable Catherine would oversee the defeat of an enemy of perhaps greater danger to the English throne than was France. The threat came from Scotland, whose King James IV felt more loyalty to the “Auld Alliance” with France than he did to England—despite the fact James’ wife, Queen Margaret, was Henry’s older sister. In an attempt to relieve English pressure on the French, James crossed the River Tweed into Northumberland on August 22 with some 35,000 men—the largest Scottish army ever to enter England.

James’ campaign initially went well, his troops capturing the major castles guarding the frontier. Catherine dispatched a 30,000-man army under Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, north to halt the Scots. The 70-year-old veteran of the Wars of the Roses was an able field commander, and on September 9—less than a month after the Battle of the Spurs—Surrey brought all his experience to bear against the invading Scots.

The Scots initially waited for the English at Flodden Edge, a few miles southeast of Branxton (in Britain the fight is also known as the Battle of Branxton). On the morning of the battle, threatened with being flanked, James moved his men and artillery closer to town. Supporting the Scots were several large and powerful cannons that had been hastily dragged into position by teams of men and oxen, but the artillery pieces were poorly emplaced. When the battle began, around 4 p.m., most of their rounds flew harmlessly over the English formations. Surrey’s guns, on the other hand, were better sited and far more deadly. As the armies closed on one another, descending gentle slopes toward a patch of level ground, English archers poured a rain of arrows on the Scots. When the forces merged, the battle devolved into vicious close combat, with men wielding clubs, axes, swords, pikes and hooked bills to terrible effect. The engagement seesawed for several hours, but in the end the English won the day, killing James—the last monarch to die in battle in what is now Great Britain—and some 10,000 of his men for the loss of 1,500 English troops.

Queen Regent Catherine immediately dispatched a letter to Henry at the English camp outside Tournai. “This battle hath been to your grace and all your realm the greatest honor that could be,” she wrote, “and more than if should you win all the crown of France.” Indeed, though he had been out of the country at the time of the battle, the victory over the Scots was his. His mood could only have been further bolstered when four days later a messenger arrived with a bloodied fragment of James’ plaid. Within days Tournai capitulated. The back-to-back victories helped establish the martial reputation Henry coveted.

While defeating the Scots and taking key cities in France whetted Henry’s appetite for further military adventures, the young monarch’s ambitions were constrained by his lack of funds. Supporting both Maximilian and Ferdinand had been expensive, and England’s victories had produced little in the way of working capital. Rather than risk bankrupting his realm so early in what he believed would be a long and glorious reign, Henry opted to make peace with France. As part of the treaty, Tournai was ceded to England (though the French would later buy it back), and Henry’s 18-year-old sister, Mary Tudor, was betrothed to 51-year-old Louis XII. The couple wed on Oct. 9, 1514. The May-December marriage didn’t last long, however, for the French king died less than three months later, on New Year’s Day 1515, and was succeeded by his 20-year-old cousin and son-in-law, Francis I.

Despite Henry’s thirst for battle, the eight years that followed Flodden marked the halcyon period of Cardinal Wolsey’s diplomacy. The self-declared “arbiter of the affairs of Christendom” sought to make England a positive force in European affairs, even as the old order on the continent was changing. Among the most significant of those changes was the death of Ferdinand II in January 1516. His passing brought another young man to a European throne, 16-year-old Charles I, whose ascension united Burgundy, Flanders and Spain under one ruler.

At this point England was active in several of Europe’s regional conflicts. Wolsey, unlike his bellicose sovereign, was intent on bringing about peace on the Continent, largely because he saw the growing power of Ottoman Turkey as a threat a united Europe would have to confront. In 1517 Wolsey ignored a demand by Pope Leo X that England join a proposed crusade to the Holy Land; the chancellor instead focused on putting together what was arguably his greatest diplomatic triumph, the 1518 Treaty of London.

The accord was meant to bind the major European powers in a pact that in two ways foreshadowed the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization four centuries later—the signatories pledged not to attack one another and to come to the assistance of any threatened member. To sweeten the deal for Francis I, England returned Tournai for the sum of 600,000 crowns. The treaty’s apparent success in bringing peace to a fractious Europe won Henry and his chancellor widespread praise and boosted their nation’s prestige, an outcome the two sought to reinforce by feting Francis at a lavish summit known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Held near Calais over a period of 17 days in June 1520, the event is remembered primarily for its prodigious extravagance. Accompanied by some 3,500 cavalrymen and foot soldiers, the English delegation included Henry and Catherine and their retinue; senior clergymen and their attendants; and assorted lords, ladies and gentlemen. Once on-site the English and French attendees enjoyed much feasting, drinking, jousting and general merriment, and the two kings and their closest advisers presumably also spent time discussing affairs of state. Whatever goodwill the summit may have generated was likely diminished, however, by Henry’s impromptu challenge that Francis wrestle with him. Much to the assertive English monarch’s dismay and humiliation, his younger French opponent won the ill-advised match by quickly and unceremoniously throwing Henry to the ground.

While this humbling experience may have contributed to the steady decline in Anglo-French relations following the meeting in Calais, the primary reason was likely Wolsey’s desire to cultivate a closer relationship with the other young monarch on the continent, Charles I. On the death of his paternal grandfather, Maximilian I, in January 1519, the Spanish king had become Holy Roman Emperor as Charles V. At Wolsey’s invitation, the emperor had visited the cardinal in England just days before the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Henry and Wolsey continued their wooing of Charles immediately after the festivities in Calais, hosting him at a four-day meeting at Gravelines, France, in July. That summit resulted in the Treaty of Calais, which included an agreement between Henry and Charles that each would ignore marriage treaties they had concluded with Francis—Henry having promised his toddler daughter Mary to the French king’s infant son and heir, and Charles having agreed to marry Francis’ toddler daughter, Charlotte. Instead, Henry suggested Mary would make the emperor an excellent wife.

But England’s lean toward Charles and away from Francis was soon to have more dire consequences than mere disrupted wedding plans, for war was again on the horizon.

Henry’s preference for Charles was to the benefit of England’s economic interests. England’s revenue and population was significantly smaller than those of France, and a rupture with Spain might destroy England’s wool export trade, long the basis of its wealth. Economic considerations won out.

In August 1521 Wolsey concluded the secret Treaty of Bruges with Charles against Francis, launching England into a war that served none of its interests. If France were conquered and partitioned, Charles could wed Mary, ensuring her peaceful accession. By 1523 England had shifted its foreign policy focus to Scotland. Henry offered the Scots a 16-year truce and marriage between the preteen James V and then 7-year-old Mary. When they refused, Henry sent an English army under the younger Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, to ravage the border.

Despite its ongoing issues with Scotland, England remained allied with Spain through 1525, when the struggle between Francis and Charles climaxed. The February 24 Battle of Pavia proved the decisive engagement of the four-year Italian war and brought Francis to the verge of ruin by his defeat and capture. The terms of the 1526 Treaty of Madrid forced the French king to relinquish his Italian, Flemish and Burgundian claims.

Henry had hoped for the fulfillment of “the whole monarchy of Christendom” under Charles, as Pavia opened the door to groups friendly to England. Henry’s hopes were shattered, however, when France was not partitioned and Charles opted to marry Isabella of Portugal rather than Mary.

Charles’ ascendancy represented such a threat to the balance of power in Europe that England opened negotiations with its traditional enemy France; indeed, relations between Henry and Charles soon became so strained that war seemed inevitable. Henry and Wolsey began preparing the nation and its military forces for the conflict, but their efforts were hampered by the simple fact England was now close to bankruptcy. Perhaps of equal importance, Henry’s attention was divided.

Between 1527 and 1535 England’s king was deeply preoccupied with what he called his “Great Matter”—elaborate efforts to divorce Catherine. The queen had been unable to produce the living male heir Henry craved, so he decided to rid himself of his Spanish consort and find a more “suitable” mate. The annulment of their marriage in 1533, less than three years before Catherine’s death, negated the benefits Henry might have realized from his relationship with Charles—the Spanish sovereign took the “throwing aside” of his aunt by England’s king as both a personal and political affront. Henry, for his part, had to govern without the advice and counsel of Cardinal Wolsey, who had fallen from the king’s favor in 1529 and died the following year. The monarch’s stormy three-year marriage to second wife Anne Boleyn—a union that ended with her execution at Henry’s order in 1536—also claimed much of his time and attention.

Then there were the resurgent Scots. On New Year’s Day 1537 James V married Francis’ frail daughter Madeleine, who died barely seven months later. Within a year, however, the Scottish king wed French noblewoman Mary of Guise, further strengthening his alliance with France. In sanctioning the marriage, Francis had rebuffed a proposal from Henry for Mary’s hand. From the English perspective the situation soured even further in 1538, for not only was there a reconciliation between Charles and Francis, but also Pope Paul III formally excommunicated Henry. The action had been pending for several years, prompted by Henry’s rejection of Catherine and cemented by the English king’s claim to be supreme head of the Church of England and his dissolution of Roman Catholic monasteries throughout the realm.

In February 1540 Henry sent an ambassador to Scotland and in August of the next year headed north himself for talks in York, but James snubbed him. Matters came to a head in October 1542 when English troops crossed the border and burned a score of villages before crossing back into England. Henry’s bullying stirred James to counterattack, and on November 24 nearly 20,000 Scots entered England near Gretna. They had advanced less than a mile when pinned against the River Esk by a small but mobile English army and defeated at the Battle of Solway Moss.

That fight salvaged a delicate situation for Henry. James V, who was ill and not present at the battle, died three weeks later, just six days after his Mary gave birth to their daughter Mary, the future queen of Scots. The victory at Solway Moss left Scotland at Henry’s mercy, but the English monarch desired containment rather than domination, and in early 1543 he again sought to link the countries through marriage, this time between his son, Prince Edward, and James’ infant daughter. When leading Scots voiced their preference for Francis, Henry negotiated a secret treaty with Charles V, the two agreeing on a major invasion of France within two years. In July, despite internal opposition, Scotland signed the Treaty of Greenwich, conditionally accepting the marriage of Edward and Mary, but in December the Scottish Parliament formally rejected the treaty and instead renewed its Auld Alliance with France. The next spring an irate Henry launched further incursions into Scotland, the opening clashes in a punitive war known as the Rough Wooing.

While Henry and Charles had agreed they would invade France by late June 1544, they differed on strategy—the Spaniard favored a pincer attack on Paris, while the Englishman was focused on taking Boulogne. Then, to the dismay of his counselors, Henry announced he would sail to Calais and personally lead the besieging army. To bolster his forces, the English sovereign enrolled foreign mercenaries, but this turned into a fiasco when he failed to pay them their expected month’s pay in advance and they defected to Charles, straining relations between the two monarchs. In the end the English did manage to advance from Calais, and between July and September an army under Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, lay siege to Boulogne. Though hampered by bad weather and a shortage of powder, the English ultimately prevailed, the city surrendering after six weeks of nearly continuous artillery bombardment.

The measured success of the English campaign prompted Francis to make peace overtures, but Henry wouldn’t break faith with Charles. The Spaniard had no such scruples, however, and made a separate peace with France. Indeed, on the day Henry entered Boulogne, Francis and Charles came to terms at Crépy—one facet of their agreement was that Francis’ youngest son, Charles, would marry Emperor Charles’ young daughter, Maria. Charles’ death the next year rendered the peace moot.

The English-French power struggle continued after the fall of Boulogne—in 1545, for example, the French managed token landings on the Isle of Wight and in Sussex
—but neither country had the strength or resources to engage in all-out war. French attempts to retake Boulogne failed, as did English attempts to gain more territory, and in 1546 Henry and Francis concluded a weary peace. The treaty marked the English king’s last significant act in the sphere of foreign policy, for on Jan. 28, 1547, Henry’s death at the age of 55 put an end to his “war games.” 

Steve Roberts [] is a U.K.-based freelance writer and author. For further reading he recommends Chambers Biographical Dictionary; A Dictionary of British History, edited by J.P. Kenyon; Henry VIII, by Francis Hackett; and Henry VIII, by Jasper Ridley.