Henry VII – ruler of England from 1485 to 1509 – is an intriguing historical character. He was, almost, a forgotten noble who was set to live out his days in relative obscurity in Brittany until the events of 1483 propelled him as the number one Lancastrian contender to Richard III’s crown. I developed these points in a Game of Thrones influenced post recently (read here); Henry’s rise to fame is a captivating story, however, his subsequent reign pales in comparison. There is a reason as to why historians regularly turn to his son (Henry VIII): simply put, more happened. And this goes the same for wars during Henry VII’s reign compared to that of Henry VIII.


In the classroom I outline how Henry appeared to have a handful of key aims when it came to foreign policy:

  • Defend the country from invasion
  • Establish the Tudor name
  • Promote trade and prosperity

Clearly the first one is the number one aim of all governments the world over: ensure that you avoid invasions, which ultimately will see the ruin of your rule. However, Henry VII had to be especially careful regarding this due to his status as a usurper after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. He had many enemies, including Yorkist supporters (such as Richard’s sister, Margaret of Burgundy, and Richard’s nephews, the De La Pole boys). These threats surfaced in the form of plots, attempted invasions, and pretenders such as Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck. No wonder Henry VII is often portrayed as a paranoid king.

The second aim was focussed on Henry wanting to establish the Tudors are a valid, legitimate and strong royal house. Furthermore, by establishing this, he would undoubtedly help achieve the first aim, as foreign rulers would be less likely to support pretenders and instead come to agreement with him. Henry achieved this by marrying off a son (Arthur) to the daughter of the King and Queen of Spain, as well as in marrying off a daughter (Margaret) to James IV of Scotland. Success in this field would, then, naturally lead to success in the final aim: increasing trade and promoting prosperity in the realm. Happy, content foreign leaders would more likely to sign fruitful peace treaties, thereby helping increase profit in the English kingdom. The other major stereotype of Henry is his love (or is that lust?) of money.

So, there we have the – rather – reactive aims of Henry VII. Much of this would mean that he managed to avoid war with major powers and instead enjoyed years of relative peace. However, when he needed to defend his dynasty and throne he would utilise war (or the threat of it) as a weapon. The following is an overview of one of the “wars” of Henry VII.

The Breton Crisis: 1489-1492

The Breton Crisis came about due to antagonism between the French Kingdom and the Duchy of Brittany. During this period Brittany existed in a state of semi-independence, which provided them with wide ranging autonomy to act as a sovereign state. However, from their low-point of English occupation early in the 1400s, France grew as a centralising power; various duchies and rival states were absorbed into its spreading web, and Brittany was next on the list.

The two states ended up going to battle with one another, all of which put Henry in the middle. He was in debt to both: Brittany had helped to shelter him during his years of exile in the 1470s-80s, while France had provided him with ships and money to launch his invasion of England in 1485. Henry attempted to mediate between both sides, however, events escalated: the Bretons were defeated at the Battle of St Aubin du Cormier, and Duke Francis signed a treaty which effectively acknowledged his inferior status to the King of France. A few weeks later Francis died, leaving behind a 12 year old daughter (Anne) as the ruler of Brittany. The French licked their lips at this favourable situation: the plan was to take custody of Anne and to take full control of the region.

Henry 3
Henry and uncle Jasper in TV show The White Queen

All of this left Henry in a sticky situation: he would now need to invade France to help liberate Brittany, or instead allow Brittany to be fully consumed. As noted above, Henry is usually portrayed as a reactive, however, in this instance he gambled and decided on an aggressive move: an army landing in the north of France. The gamble, however, was based on sound wisdom: back in 1475 Edward IV did the same thing and ended up with a favourable peace from the French who sought to buy him off. Henry, then, proudly proclaimed that he was asserting his right to claim the French crown (a claim that stretched back to earlier in the century during the height of the Hundred Years War), and in October 1491 he summoned Parliament to provide him the money to go to war. A year later – by October 1492 – an English force of 26,000 sailed across the Channel and laid siege to Boulogne.

All of this had the desired effect: King Charles wanted the English out of his territory and was ready to cut a deal. The resulting Treaty of Etaples (signed in November 1492) after a mere nine days of the English invasion outlined key terms: the French would keep Brittany, but in return they would end any support for Perkin Warbeck (a pretender to the English throne) and pay up a huge sum to Henry (providing him with a juicy French pension of £5,000 a year – about 5% of the king’s annual income).

The signing of the marriage treaty of Anne to King Charles

In many ways, we could call this a defeat: for Henry did not obtain his stated objective of claiming the French throne or of liberating Brittany. However, many historians believe that was a clear success: Henry had achieved many of his key aims (such as recognition and greater prosperity) and had not had to do much in return. Furthermore, the more cynical of us (myself included) believe that Henry never had any intention at all of waging a long-term war to obtain the French throne: he invaded very late in the campaigning season (October) thereby ensuring that this would be a short war. Clearly his objective was on annoying the French, rather than wholly waging a devastating and expensive war. To continue on this point, perhaps Henry did not care entirely about Breton independence, but rather he used it as a bargaining chip in order to obtain greater concessions from the French.

Ultimately, Henry was in a stronger position after the Breton crisis had concluded, even if the French had also grew in size. However, the enlargement of France was – in many ways – inevitable. Perhaps Henry knew this, and therefore he looked to seize the initiative by utilising the unfavourable situation to his advantage. He ended 1492 safer on the English throne and with more money in his pocket. Furthermore, the French were never an issue or problem again during his reign. All in all, a good bit of business for the young king.