Henry VIII's Early Foreign Policy, 1509-29

Jez Ross takes issue with the traditional view that sees the early foreign policy of the second Tudor monarch as a costly failure.

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.

The Traditional View

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 south-western 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!

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