Military History

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Book Review of Henry VIII and Francis I: The Final Conflict, 1540-1547

Posted by William Young on January 18, 2012

David Potter. Henry VIII and Francis I: The Final Conflict, 1540-1547. History in Warfare series. Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2011. ISBN 978-90-04-20431-7. Maps. Illustrations. Notes. Appendices. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xxix, 562. $243.00.

Dr David Potter, a Reader in History at the University of Kent, addresses the final war between Henry VIII of England (ruled 1509-1547) and Francis I of France (ruled 1515-1547) during the 1540s. The conflict was part of the later stages of the Italian Wars (1494-1559) or Habsburg-Valois Wars between the rulers of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire and Spain against Valois France.

In the earlier conflicts, Henry VIII joined the Holy League alliance against Louis XII of France in 1511 in the War of the League of Cambrai (1508-1516). In 1513, Henry VIII personally led an invasion force into northeastern France in pursuit of glory and to expand English territory beyond the Pale of Calais. English and Imperial forces besieged Thérouanne, defeated a French relief force at the Battle of the Spurs (Guinegate), and then captured the town. The English king next besieged and took the city of Tournai in September 1513. England negotiated a separate peace with France in 1514, but kept Tournai for four more years. Then, in 1520, Henry VIII and Francis I met at the so-called Field of Cloth of Gold near Calais to increase their bond of friendship. This, however, did not last and French aggression led to England joining Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor (ruled 1519-1556) and King of Spain (1516-1556), against France in the Italian War of 1521-1526. English forces marched out of Calais and attacked the French in Picardy, burning and looting the countryside along the way, in 1522. In 1523, a massive English army under the Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, marched against France. Suffolk crossed the Somme River, but was unwilling to attack Paris, and therefore retired to Calais. England and France agreed to a peace settlement in 1526.

In the ensuing conflict, the War of the League of Cognac (1526-1530), Henry VIII allied with France, the Papacy, Venice, Milan, and Florence against Charles V in April 1527. But, in the following month, the Imperial army under the command of the Duke of Bourbon sacked the city of Rome. Henry VIII was now in no position to oppose Charles V. His foreign policy was tied to obtaining an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon (Charles V’s aunt) from the Imperial prisoner Pope Clement VII. Despite agreeing to a French alliance in 1532, the English monarch refused to provide aid to Francis I and sought to stay out of the short-lived Franco-Imperial War of 1536-1538. The conflict did not resolve the long-standing issues between the Habsburgs and Valois. But, the peace settlement left Henry VIII out in the cold, and he realized that England would have to take a side in the next conflict.

Potter calls the subject of his study, the final conflict, “the most serious and destructive war between England and France in the reigns of Henry VIII and Francis I (p.1).” In July 1542, Francis I, allied with Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, declared war (the Italian War of 1542-1546) on the Holy Roman Empire. Henry VIII had tried to keep some diplomatic leverage with both Charles V and Francis I in the late 1530s and early 1540s. He prepared for the eventuality of war, using the significant boost in finances provided by the dissolution and sale of monasteries in England, by embarking on a serious program of refortification and shipbuilding. By 1542 relations between England and France were collapsing over French aid to Scotland. Henry VIII and Charles V overcame diplomatic issues and created an alliance in February 1543, with England expected to fight the auld alliance of France and Scotland. England declared war against France four months later. In December, Henry VIII and Charles V agreed to lead their armies in person in an offensive against France.

Henry VIII assembled an army of about 40,000 men at Calais, and the English forces moved slowly into France in June 1544. The English army was divided into two parts. The first part, commanded by Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk, besieged Montreuil on the Canche River. Charles Brandon, the Duke of Suffolk, leading the other part of the English army began the siege of the port city of Boulogne. Charles V insisted that the English forget these sieges and march on Paris. Henry VIII refused to consider such operations until the fall of Montreuil and Boulogne. Then, in September 1544, the English, with Henry VIII in command, captured Boulogne. However, at this point, the Emperor, who was running short on finances and needing to deal with religious unrest in the Empire, signed a separate peace with France in the Treaty of Crépy. The war between England and France continued, but the English monarch left for England. Norfolk soon abandoned the siege of Montreuil and retreated to Boulogne as a large French army advanced into the region. Suffolk and Norfolk then withdrew the majority of English forces to Calais, leaving about 4,000 men to defend Boulogne against a French siege.

Peace negotiations began and quickly broke down. As a result, the French king opted for an invasion of England. Francis I assembled a large number of troops and ships in Normandy. In May 1545, a small expeditionary force sailed and landed in Scotland to aid the Scots in the Anglo-Scottish War of the Rough Wooing (1543-1550). Then, in July, the French fleet sailed and conducted small-scale raids on the Isle of Wight, and later at Seaford in Sussex. These operations failed to achieve success, so the French fleet redeployed and set up a blockade of Boulogne. By September 1545 the conflict was at a stalemate, both sides running low on men and money. Henry VIII and Francis I continued their peace talks, but the English monarch refused to give up Boulogne. The war finally ended with the Admirals’ Peace (Treaty of Ardres-Guînes) in June 1546. Boulogne would remain in English hands until the Treaty of Boulogne (1550). Both Henry VIII and Francis I would die in 1547, leaving new participants to fight with or against Charles V in the last of the Habsburg-Valois Wars, the Italian War of 1551-1559.

Potter has previously provided us important works in French politics and warfare including War and Government in the French Provinces: Picardy, 1470-1560 (1993), A History of France, 1460-1560: The Emergence of a Nation State (1995), and Renaissance France at War: Armies, Culture and Society, c.1480-1560 (2008). In the present study, the author discusses the international situation and diplomacy that resulted in a rapprochement and alliance between Henry VIII and Charles V in the late 1530s and early 1540s. He focuses on diplomacy and military operations throughout the conflict, providing a thorough discussion of Henry VIII’s military campaigns in northeastern France, the Anglo-French search for mercenaries, war at sea, the significant cost of the war, and peace negotiations. This outstanding study, based on archival research, is the first of three volumes that our author plans to write on Anglo-French conflicts from the last years of Henry VIII to the early reign of Elizabeth I. It is very expensive at $243, and hopefully the next two studies will not cost an arm and a leg.

Dr William Young
University of North Dakota

Siege of Boulogne by Henry VIII in 1544

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