I have long been interested in the three French wars of Henry VIII. I believe this fascination is related to his continual attempts to obtain success in war, but yet this success always alluded him. This was despite the vast expenditure and effort, and so in the end his dream of sitting at the head of a vast empire was never realised.


The First French War (1512-1514)

The first of Henry’s continental wars began in the early years of his reign, back when he was a young man attempting to show the rest of Europe that he meant business. Previous to this, the French policy of his father’s (Henry VII) was one of peace; despite one brief eruption (the Breton Crisis, surveyed earlier in this series), Henry VII kept the French on-side and avoided war. However, Henry VIII was a much different man to his father: only war could quench his thirst.

The war takes place within the wider European conflict known as the War of the League of Cambrai (or the War of the Holy League), which – like the other wars during Henry VIII’s reign – was chiefly a contest between the French and the Habsburgs. This war had already been waging for years and by 1511 the French had captured Italian territory, with the various states there in disarray. In response, Pope Julius proclaimed a Holy League against France, with the alliance containing Spain, the Holy Roman Empire, as well as England. Henry used the connection with Spain (his wife, Catherine of Aragon, was the daughter of the Spanish king Ferdinand), to jump into the war.

The main theatre of war was northern Italy, however, there was opportunity for England to invade the north of France in 1513. Therouanne was besieged and Tournai was captured, whilst Henry hailed the Battle of the Spurs as a great victory; all of this gave Henry a taste for war. However, despite rallying again for the campaign of 1514, ultimately Henry was unable to continue the war: the finances had run dry.

battle of the spurs 1513
Battle of the Spurs (1513)

Peace was agreed between England and France, with Henry’s sister Mary marrying the French king Louis XII to seal the deal. The match was entirely to Mary’s taste: she was 18 and her new husband was 52, although the marriage itself only lasted a handful of months. By 1515 he was dead, with many commenting that his passing was brought on due to his exertions in bed. In Louis XII’s successor – Francis I – we can find the seeds for future antagonism with France.

The Second French War (1522-1526)

The map of Europe changed significantly after 1515 with new, young, dynamic monarchs taking control of the power-house states. Unfortunately for Henry, they were younger, more dynamic, and more powerful than anything he could muster in England. France was controlled by Francis I, whilst the Holy Roman Empire and Spain was ruled by Charles V. England was second-rate by comparison, but yet Henry wanted military glory to show Europe that he was not a forgotten man.

The years after the first French war were characterised by attempts to place Henry as a diplomatic enlightened monarch: in 1518 there was the Treaty of London, which (rather optimistically) outlawed war, and in 1520 the expensive Anglo-French conference of the Field of Cloth of Gold was held in Calais. No doubt this change of tact from war to diplomacy was aided by the influence of Thomas Wolsey (the man who controlled the strings in England), as well as in a lack of funds to realistically wage war.

field of cloth of gold
Field of the Cloth of Gold (1520)

However, such set-piece events were never likely to quench Henry VIII’s thirst. In 1521 the European states came to blows once more in what would become known as the Italian War of 1521-1526: France going against the Holy Roman Empire once more. England signed an alliance with the Pope and the Emperor in 1522, leading to an invasion of France in which the countryside of northern France was pillaged.

England’s most notable accomplishment of the war was the large army put under the command of the Duke of Suffolk (one of Henry’s most trusted friends, and the second-husband of Princess Mary). Suffolk advanced from the English base of Calais and provoked havoc in northern France with the ultimate plan of meeting up with an imperial army to take Paris. Such a capture would have been the stuff of Henry’s wildest dreams, however, the promised support did not materialise. Rather than plough on alone, Suffolk returned to Calais by December of 1523. Henry would never get as close to the French capital ever again.

The wider European war reached a climatic point in 1525 at the Battle of Pavia: Francis was captured and Charles was able to reign supreme. Charles had bigger plans of European domination and neglected his English ally, which in turn led to a rapprochement between the English and French: in 1526 they signed the Treaty of Hampton Court, which eventually led to a military alliance by 1527 in which Henry became involved in a wider alliance against Emperor Charles.

battle of pavia 1525
Battle of Pavia (1525)

The Third French War (1543-1546)

After the foreign policy gambles and defeats of the 1520s, Henry turned away from Europe to focus on domestic issues: this mostly concerned a divorce from his first wife Catherine or Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn. This eventually snowballed into the creation of his very own Church of England, leading to massive religious change and upheaval in the 1530s.

By the 1540s, with the religious situation seemingly at bay, money in the coffers, and now onto wife No.5, Henry returned to his long held desire of victory in France. Once again the spark proved to be political fragmentation within the Italian states which led to the involvement of France and the Holy Roman Empire. The key players remained the same, Henry of England, Francis of France, and Charles of the Holy Roman Empire: all older, if not exactly any wiser.

France allied with the growing Ottoman Empire to attempt to nullify the threat of Charles vast European possessions. Having attempted an unsuccessful alliance with France in the late 1520s, Henry fell back on the traditional match with the Holy Roman Empire. Henry and Charles agreed a joint invasion of France during the course of 1544 with each providing tens of thousands of men; the English force was commanded by the Duke of Norfolk and the Duke of Suffolk (back in the same position he occupied twenty years earlier). However, this army became distracted through the easier aim of taking Boulogne rather than march on Paris.

sinking of mary rose
The Mary Rose

The war descended into the usual pattern of Henry’s other wars: Charles obtained a separate peace with France, betraying the original plan, and leaving Henry isolated. However, the English king decided to fight on alone, resulting in several setbacks during 1545: the French landed in Scotland to beef up the Auld Alliance, whilst in July a French invasion force landed on the Isle of Wight (furthermore, the esteemed Mary Rose was lost).

Luckily for Henry, this attempted invasion came to nothing and despite attempts at breaking the gridlock the war ended a stalemate. In 1546 the Treaty of Ardres was signed between the English and French with it agreed that Henry would hold onto Boulogne, although it was ultimately lost in the subsequent war during the reign of his son Edward VI.

This final French war was Henry’s last attempt to claim the glory of a warrior king, akin to the exploits of Henry V a hundred years before. However, despite a vast outlay in terms of expenses all he had to show was a small, rather insignificant French town. The impact of this expenditure was to plunge the crown into debt, with the legacy destabilising England throughout the reigns of his son Edward and daughter Mary (the so-called Mid Tudor Crisis).

henry viii again
Henry VIII: Warrior King or Failure?

In summary, each of the three French wars did not live up to the dreams of conquest, with no real gains to show for each conflict over the course of four decades. This is not to say that Henry was a complete failure: each war was (mostly) waged on French soil, with Henry taking the initiative. Therefore, none can be deemed a defeat in a military perspective. But yet for all the scheming and plotting there was little to show that could rank Henry on the same level of kings of the past such as Henry V or even on the same level as his contemporaries Charles and Francis. Henry came, he saw, and ultimately, he underwhelmed.