Henry VIII's early foreign policy, 1509-29: Jez Ross takes issue with the traditional view which sees the early foreign policy of the second Tudor monarch as a costly failure

by Jez Ross

The common view of Henry VIII's and Cardinal Wolsey's foreign policy is that it was a failure. What are the main components of this view? Firstly, that Henry VIII failed to achieve his primary goal, which was to recover the French empire which had been conquered by Henry V. Secondly, that this aim was unrealistic: Henry's high hopes were naive, given that his resources were tiny compared with those of France. Thirdly, that his foreign policy was often incoherent, thus allowing more wily operators, such as King Ferdinand of Aragon and the Emperor Maximilian, to manipulate him. In short, foreign policy under Henry and Wolsey was unaccomplished, anachronistic, naive and aimless.

Yet foreign policy at this time was not just concerned with the prosecution of war or the associated acquisition of territories. It was in fact altogether more complex, both in its operation and objectives. Fundamentally, what Henry and Wolsey both sought was the protection of English interests, which in essence meant ensuring that treaties between foreign powers which were prejudicial or hostile to England's security, her broader political concerns or her commercial interests were prevented. This entailed on-going diplomatic and frequent military efforts to ensure that English interests were at least recognised and at best accommodated. This effectively is what England's foreign policy was all about: it was less a number of isolated and discrete wars and events, and more a series of continuous, albeit often reactive, measures. Foreign policy required an active effort, then, and this often, but not exclusively, meant war. Given the limitations of England's resources, Wolsey was often obliged to defer to the interests of his more powerful allies as the price of winning influential friends. In short, the foreign policy of the period 1509 to 1526 endeavoured to maintain England's interests through a series of mostly appropriate policies. Insofar as absolute gains were limited -- and this is especially true of the period between 1526 and 1529 when Wolsey encountered significant failure -- this was often because of wider circumstances, and not because Henry's foreign policy was vainglorious. Indeed, in the context of the constraints under which Wolsey was obliged to operate, his achievements were relatively successful.


Henry VIII's campaigns achieved few concrete gains and often seem to have been conducted for this allies' benefit rather than his own. His campaign in Aquitaine in southwestern France in 1512 collapsed because his army contracted dysentery, got drunk and mutinied. He only succeeded in capturing the towns of Therouanne and Tournai in northern France in 1513, and these were soft targets. Neither of these campaigns directly served English interests. Ferdinand of Aragon persuaded Henry to campaign in Aquitaine so that he could recapture Navarre from the French (which he did, in spite of the dismal performance of English troops). Therouanne was a French fortress which threatened Maximilian's Burgundian territories, whilst Tournai was a French enclave in Burgundy. Further, Ferdinand and Maximilian signalled their gratitude to Henry by signing separate treaties with France, which left England to carry the fight against France by herself!

This pattern was repeated later in the 1523-25 campaign which saw Henry VIII allied with the Emperor Charles V against Francis I. Charles V proved that he was the successor to Ferdinand and Maximilian in more ways than their thrones: he was just as manipulative, self-interested and unreliable as they had been. For example, rather than capture Boulogne, which had always been the most realistic and useful target of English foreign policy as it would have strengthened England's hold on the Calais Pale, Henry decided to conduct his campaign against Paris, which served Charles V's interests. In fact, Henry's army came within reach of Paris and yet was forced to turn back because of Charles's failures elsewhere. Charles V was unhelpful in other ways too: he would not release his troops to help Henry, he rejected Henry's plans to dismember France following Charles's great victory over Francis I at Pavia in 1525, and he also refused to honour his treaty promise to marry Henry's daughter Mary (on which Henry was pinning his hopes for a solution to his concerns over the succession). It seems that Henry was a manipulable monarch -- and a spendthrift.

The costs of Henry VIII's wars were extremely high. Henry spent 960,000 [pounds sterling] in 1511-13 and 430,000 [pounds sterling] in 1523-5 on warfare. In other words, he spent 1.4 million [pounds sterling] fighting wars between 1511 and 1525 -- while his ordinary income was about 110,000 [pounds sterling] a year -- and with little to show for it. It seems that he was trying to match the ambitions of wealthier monarchs such as Francis I and Charles V, whose annual incomes totalled 350,000 [pounds sterling] and 560,000 [pounds sterling] respectively. The relative expense of these wars becomes clearer still when one realises that Henry wasted the wealth which his father, Henry VII, had painstakingly saved. The campaigns of 1511-14 were, according to Richard Hoyle, largely funded from the wealth which Henry VII bequeathed to his son.

Of course, warfare amounted to extraordinary expenditure and was normally mostly financed from extraordinary revenue, in other words by taxes voted by parliament and by loans (which would have to be paid back out of ordinary revenue). Wolsey aimed to meet the entire costs of war from the lay and clerical purse, for which reason he had improved the system of assessing individuals for taxation purposes with the Tudor subsidy (introduced in 1513). This was a radical departure from previous practices and explains many of the difficulties which Wolsey's financial policies created, not the least because the impact of these was relatively high: England's tax base was small because its population was small (2.5 million compared with France's 14 million). Thus the heavy parliamentary taxation in 1523-4 and the forced loans of 1522 and 1523 amounted to an unprecedented assault upon the domestic, private purse and were extremely unpopular with parliament and taxpayers alike. When Wolsey tried in 1525 to raise even more money, this time through the Amicable Grant (which was effectively a non-parliamentary tax), public patience snapped. In Kent and Norfolk reactions ranged from reluctance to outright refusal, and a full-scale revolt erupted in Suffolk when 10,000 men converged on Lavenham. The results of this were far-reaching: the Amicable Grant was dropped in a humiliating stand-down, Wolsey's attempts to bypass parliament further ruined his relations with this key body, Henry's wish to attack France had to be shelved (the Treaty of the More, 1525) and his confidence in Wolsey was shaken.

So, the costs of Henry's wars were indeed considerable: they drained his private resources and those of his subjects, and in the case of the latter, at significant political costs. For all Wolsey's efforts, it should have been clear that England could not compete with France, even with the support of Charles V.

Yet although there can be little doubt that English foreign policy in the period 1509-29 was expensive, that it failed to achieve significant territorial goals and seems to have been fought more with the objectives of his allies in mind rather than Henry's, the traditional perception of it being a costly failure is somewhat skewed. For a start, it was not entirely without achievements and, although war was important to Henry, it was not the only means by which foreign policy objectives were achieved. Thanks to Wolsey, English interests were often pursued through diplomacy in addition to war. Also, there were some significant diplomatic achievements which advanced Henry's reputation, whilst advancing England's interests. The Peace of London in 1518, the Field of the Cloth of Gold and the Calais Conference in 1520 are but the more significant aspects of an ongoing and active diplomatic initiative.


Henry VIII was indeed, unlike his father, a warlike monarch, seeking gloire and prestige and pursuing his dynastic rights, just like any other Renaissance prince. However, it would be wrong to argue that Henry was obsessed with warfare for its own sake, even though the cult of chivalry continued to make war appealing to contemporary monarchs. For example, as important as Henry VIII's claim to France was in justifying his cherished objective of occupying French territory, it also served a more practical purpose as a lever to extract concessions from the French. As Steven Gunn has pointed out, Henry was very flexible regarding his claim to the French throne and, in this period at least, tended to use it as a negotiating device. In 1527, for instance, he agreed to forego further warfare in return for French help in securing the annulment of his marriage. Similarly, the capture of Therouanne and Tournai was anything but a reflection of Henry's vainglorious and naive military ambitions, as these were regarded as bargaining tools and not permanent.

The traditional view also fails to take account of the flexibility of Wolsey's policies. He pursed England's interests through war but also through peace. A good example of this is furnished by the Peace of London of 1518, Wolsey's most significant single achievement in foreign policy. This was not merely a means by which to win prestige for Henry and himself; it was also an attempt to avoid the threat of diplomatic isolation which resulted from the series of treaties which the victorious Francis I signed with Europe's powers after his momentous victory over the `invincible' Swiss at Marignano in 1515. In order to avoid isolation, with its attendant dangers, Wolsey found a new route into Europe by hijacking Pope Leo X's plans for a universal peace. This, combined with the restoration of one of England's bargaining counters, Tournai, led to Anglo-French amity. However, Wolsey's diplomatic genius saw even greater opportunities and he was able to persuade the Emperor Maximilian, as well as Spain, Scotland, Venice and a host of others, including Leo X himself, to agree to a non-aggression pact under the aegis of Henry VIII. For a brief while, Henry VIII was the arbiter of Europe and London was its foremost capital.

The outcome of the imperial elections in 1519 further demonstrated just how precarious and subject to change the maintenance of English interests was. With his election, Charles V combined his power as Holy Roman Emperor with his rulership of Spain and Burgundy. His dynastic rivalry with Francis I was naturally enhanced, as they were now the only two key players on the continent. What this meant was that Wolsey's diplomatic opportunities were severely constrained by a choice between Charles V or Francis I.

Of course, in some ways the election of Charles of Habsburg strengthened England's bargaining position as it created a situation where both rivals wanted England as an ally (and this view has formed the basis of much of the historiography of Wolsey's foreign policy). This seems to be the explanation for the double-game Wolsey was playing with Francis I and Charles V in 1520-2, following the breakdown of the Peace of London. Wolsey hoped to use the enmity between Charles V and Francis I to secure the best diplomatic deal for England from one or other of them in return for English support. Hence, it has generally been argued, Wolsey used the meeting between Francis I and Henry VIII and the nobility of France and England at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 and the Calais Conference, whilst also negotiating with Charles V at Bruges for this purpose.

Yet, in reality, Wolsey's scope for action was far more limited than circumstances suggest because English interests were closely tied to those of Charles V. This was partly, because Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon but principally because England's economy was so reliant upon the Flanders cloth market. Where Henry VII had been able to resort to economic warfare against Burgundy, this avenue was closed to Henry VIII, due to the fact that the profitability of English cloth was dependent on the rising economic strength of Flanders. In other words, as much as Wolsey might have tried to play off Francis I and Charles V in his search for the best deal for Henry VIII, he probably never intended before 1527, the year in which Charles V's unpaid army sacked Rome, to ally with France. Instead Wolsey's objective at the Calais Conference and at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was to put pressure on Charles V, in order that he would provide England with a better deal in a treaty to which Wolsey was already necessarily committed (this was signed in 1521 following negotiations in Bruges, negotiations which were kept secret from the French). So, Wolsey was playing a double game, but only ever with the intention of putting pressure on Charles V.

That England's economic interests constrained Henry VIII's and Wolsey's freedom of action is clear throughout this early period but particularly after 1525. These and England's broader interests are the main reason why Henry VIII and Wolsey look as if they are being manipulated by unscrupulous rulers such as Maximilian, Ferdinand of Aragon and Charles V. Nowhere does this seem to be more true than in the case of Boulogne, which was an obvious target of English military operations because it would have strengthened the Calais Pale, England's precarious foothold in France. Yet it was not until the 1544 campaign that any attempt to capture it was made and it fell relatively easily into English hands in September of that year. However, the suggestion that Henry and Wolsey were hoodwinked by more powerful allies is wrong. In fact Henry had wanted to make Boulogne the main target of England's military activities in 1512-14 and 1522-3, but Wolsey counselled him against it and persuaded him of the importance of co-operating with his allies. Wolsey, more than Henry, was aware of the need for powerful allies if English interests were to be accommodated.


One reason why 1525 is such a significant date, marking the start of a major renversement des alliances, was that Charles V failed to fulfil his part of the bargain by being a useful ally -- in this instance, by supporting Henry's search for an annulment from Pope Clement VII to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Without this annulment Henry could not remarry, and therefore could not have a son by whom to secure the succession. Henry's frustration over Charles V's utter obduracy in this matter led him to turn his back on the Habsburg alliance. Instead, after 1526, Wolsey hoped to use French ambitions to destroy Habsburg power in Italy and either break Charles V's power over the pope or, at the very least, to cajole the Emperor into negotiations. This is partly why Henry VIII became sponsor of the anti-Hapsburg League of Cognac after 1526, becoming nominal Head of the League though without committing resources to its operations -- resources which Henry could ill afford at this time. Perhaps also, though, England remained aloof from military actions because Wolsey was still trying to keep his options open, thereby to secure the best bargaining position for England.

Yet if Wolsey wanted to avoid a definite anti-Habsburg stance, he clearly failed. For a start, relations with France became more binding after the sack of Rome in 1527 by a mutinous Imperialist army which obliged Pope Clement VII `to live and die a Habsburg'. Since this made a papal solution to Henry VIII's succession problems even less likely, Wolsey was obliged to commit England to an alliance to avoid the sort of isolation which might lead Charles V and Francis I to settle their differences at the expense of England. In January 1528 a reluctant Henry found himself at war with Charles V with the only accessible Habsburg target being England's trading partner, Burgundy. Since Wolsey wanted to avoid military action he determined on a trade embargo as the means to force Charles into negotiations, following the example of Henry VII who had used the same methods to win concessions from Maximilian and Philip the Fair. However, by the 1520s, England was much more dependent upon the Flanders cloth markets than it had been in the late fifteenth and very early sixteenth centuries. The combination of the third worst harvest of the sixteenth century in 1527, with widespread unemployment resulting from the cessation of the cloth trade, led to widespread trouble in the south-west, the south-east and East Anglia between March and May. The embargo was ended and Wolsey and Henry were forced into another humiliating climb-down. However, the upheaval proved what Wolsey had appreciated all along: that England could not afford to turn her back on the Habsburgs.

In addition, the exceptional circumstances which were created by Henry VIII's determination to secure an annulment did not just narrow Wolsey's options but completely closed them down. Where, previously, the broad and necessarily flexible objectives of English foreign policy had at least given Wolsey some scope for manoeuvre, as the events of 1518-22 suggest, Henry's direct intervention into foreign policy and the specific nature of his brief to Wolsey confounded the subtle diplomacy which had enabled the Cardinal to maintain English interests and had won England respect. Not surprisingly, where his attempts at mediation in 1518-22 had been very successful, his attempts to control the negotiations which began between Charles V and Francis I in 1529 failed because he was too tied to Henry's narrow policy. Hence his credibility as an `honest broker' had been destroyed. In fact, the subsequent Ladies' Peace of Cambrai was achieved thanks to the diplomacy of Margaret of Austria, Regent of the Netherlands, and Louise of Savoy, Francis I's mother. Wolsey and English interests were out in the cold and a time when he could least afford to be isolated if he was to serve his master, Henry VIII. Wolsey's rapid loss of the king's confidence helped form the context in which he fell from power in 1528.


English foreign policy from 1509 to 1529 was not short-sighted, anachronistic or narrowly focused on war. Admittedly it was expensive and placed very serious strain upon limited resources, but this was an age of wars and wars were expensive. Moreover no contemporary monarch weighed up military gains against an artificial measure of financial expenditure, as the dismal legacy of incipient financial crises which Francis I, Henry II, Charles V and Philip II variously bequeathed underlines. Given the enmity between Charles V and Francis I, which the former's victory in the imperial elections compounded, it would, anyway, have been difficult to have formulated the kind of defensive neutrality policy which Henry VII had conducted, the success of which has tended to provide an unhelpful context for the study of foreign policy in this period because his successor had not the same scope for manoeuvre. Indeed, in spite of, or perhaps because of, the limitations imposed during 1509-29, far from being a costly failure, English foreign policy during this period developed as a flexible response to a changing European context and achieved relative success.


1509 April Henry VIII succeeds Henry VII
1511 Nov England joins Holy League against Louis XII of France
1512 April Henry VIII declares war on France
1513 June English army, numbering 30,000, is despatched to France
Aug Battle of the Spurs at Therouanne and the capture of
Sept Scots defeated at the battle of Flodden Field
Tournai surrenders to Henry VIII
1514 Aug Treaty of St Germain-en-Laye between England and
France; Wolsey becomes Bishop of Tournai
1515 Jan Francis I succeeds Louis XII
Sept. French victory at the battle of Marignano
1518 May Wolsey made a Papal Legate
Oct Peace of London and Anglo-French treaty (with Tournai
returned by Henry in return for a French pension)
1519 June Charles, King of Spain and Duke of Burgundy, is elected
Holy Roman Emperor
1520 June Meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I at the `Field of
the Cloth of Gold'
1521 Aug Secret Treaty of Bruges signed between Henry and
Charles V
1522 Jan Wolsey fails in attempt to be elected Pope
March Wolsey's Military Survey seeks to discover England's
military and taxable resources, leading to raising of
forced loans in 1522 and 1523
May Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey, raids northern France
1523 July Parliament grants half of subsidy demanded by Wolsey
Dec Suffolk's march on Paris ends in defeat after Charles V
failed to support England
1525 Feb Charles V defeats and captures Francis I at battle of
March Wolsey attempts to collect Amicable Grant
May Amicable Grant withdrawn after taxpayers' revolt
Aug Henry signs Treaty of More with France
1526 May Henry sponsors League of Cognac
1527 April Treaty of Westminster between England and France,
against Charles V
June Henry decides to seek papal annulment to
1528 Jan Wolsey imposes trade embargo on
Low Countries
March Serious disturbances in cloth-making
areas of East Anglia
and South East
1529 Aug Ladies' Peace of Cambrai
between Francis I and Charles V
Oct Wolsey is charged with
praemunire and surrenders the
Great Seal
1530 Nov Wolsey arrested on charge of
treason, dies in Leicester en
route from York to the Tower
FURTHER READING G.R. Elton, Reform and Reformation (London, 1977)

Steven Gunn, `The French Wars of Henry VIII' (in J. Black ed, The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe, Edinburgh, 1987)

Steven Gunn. `Wolsey's Foreign Policy and the Domestic Crisis of 1527-8' (in S.J. Gunn, and R.G. Lindley eds, Cardinal Wolsey -- Church, State and Art, Cambridge, 1991)

John Guy, Tudor England (Oxford, 1990)

Peter Gwyn, The King's Cardinal (London, 1990)

David Potter, `Foreign Policy' (in D. MacCulloch ed, The Reign of Henry VIII, London 1995 -- see also the valuable articles by John Guy on Wolsey and Richard Hoyle on the impact of war on the royal finances)

Jez Ross, who read history at Cambridge and trained as a teacher in Leicester, teaches history at the Royal Grammar School in Guildford.