How Successful was English foreign policy 1509-1521?


In order to assess the success of English foreign policy we must first look at what Henry VIII was trying to achieve. Henry’s foreign policy up until 1521 can be split into three main areas; 1509-1514, 1514-1517 and 1517-1521. During the first period Henry seemed to have no other aim than to make war on France. During the second he wanted to limit France’s power by allying himself with other major European powers. Finally, between 1517-1521 he wanted to be ‘peacemaker’. All of these periods collectively point to one ‘master aim’ for Henry, that was glory. If he looked good by making war, that is what he did. If he looked good be being ‘Henry the peacemaker’, then he was.


The first period, if we accept that Henry’s aim was to make war with France and that being the attacker rather than the defender in an Anglo-French war was more important than winning, seems, on the surface, to have been a success. In 1509 he secured an alliance with Spain by marrying the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, his brother’s widow, Catherine of Aragon. in 1511, despite having renewed a peace treaty with France the year before he joined the ‘Holy League’, an anti-French alliance which included the papacy, Spain, the Empire and England herself. In 1512 the English army set sail to attack France in a joint attack with Ferdinand of Spain. The attack failed, primarily because Ferdinand failed to keep his side of the plan, instead of helping the English army in Gascony he used their invasion of France to invade Navarre, but also because the English army had inadequate supplies, it was raining and sickness struck. Henry blamed the attack on the Marquis of Dorset and other leaders and immediately began to plan a new attack on France.


In 1513 he left Catherine in charge as regent of England while he crossed over to France. While he was away the Scots did what they nearly always did when England invaded France, they invaded England. The result of this invasion was the battle of Flodden field, a disaster for the Scots as much of their nobility was killed, including their king, James IV.


Henry managed to capture the French towns of Therounne and Tournai after the ‘Battle of the Spurs’, so called because when the French army saw the English they ran away instead of fighting. This was hailed as a great success despite the fact that the French towns were of little importance to Henry and the invasion had cost an extraordinary amount. Henry’s annual income was about £120,000, between 1509 and June 1513 his Privy chamber paid out over £1,000,000. Out of this figure about 2/3 was on the war and nearly half was spent in just one week, between 5-12 June 1513.


If Henry’s main aim during this period was, as identified at the beginning, to make war on France and be the aggressor in his quest for glory, he was successful. He did make war and he was the aggressor. The failure of the 1512 invasion and the massive cost of the subsequent 1513 invasion rather dampens this idea however. It is true that he did gain the ‘prestige’ of ‘winning’ the ‘Battle of the Spurs’ and he also managed to capture two French towns, but the financial cost outweighs the gains by a long way. Superficially, during the later part of this ‘period’ Henry looked successful but in financial terms he had very definitely lost.


In 1514 Mary Tudor, Henry’s sister, married Louis XII of France. It was this act of alliance with France that marked the beginning of the second stage of Henry’s foreign policy. For a while, their marriage meant England had a truce with France, but with the death of Louis on the last day of 1914 the brief entente finished. The period 1514-1516 saw a number of countries sign peace treaties with


France, including the Treaty of Noyon in 1516 signed by the Archduke Charles of Burgundy, whilst they abandoned their treaties with England. In 1517 the Emperor Maximilian concluded the Peace of Cambrai and, in the words of Susan Doran, ‘Wolsey’s diplomacy was in shreds’. England was isolated in the field of European politics, not only were her