Puissance and Poverty: Henry VIII and the Conquest of France

John Matusiak pricks the imperial pretension of the monarch who came to the throne 500 years ago

When, in November 1511, Henry VIII plunged headlong into war against France on behalf of the Holy League, his realm remained a small and comparatively insignificant island on the damp and misty fringe of Europe. Apart from Wales and the Channel Islands, the only meagre traces of English ‘empery’ were, in fact, a boggy foothold in Ireland, along with a narrow strip of territory, centring on Calais and the castle of Guisnes, which stretched some 20 miles along the French coast. And though, for its size, England may well have been one of the wealthier kingdoms in Europe, Henry’s little realm of around 2.5 million souls, bordered by an independent Scotland and as such only ‘half an island’, could still scarcely compete with 16 million Frenchmen. Nor, in the long term, could it ever realistically hope to manipulate some 8 million Spaniards for its own purposes, let alone the 20 million Dutch, Flemish and Germans who owed taxes to the Holy Roman Emperor. 

Yet by the time he had been unleashed as King of England in April 1509, just nine weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, Henry VIII’s desire to secure his own glorious niche in history was already set in stone. And this could mean only one thing: the re-conquest of his ancestral lands in France, regardless of the political damage or financial cost involved. Ultimately, this gnawing obsession to gain honour and glory abroad would become the overriding priority of his reign and carry him across the Channel as a would-be warrior on two separate occasions – first as a hearty and headstrong young prince and finally as a gross, decrepit and deluded old man. 

What, then, were the roots of Henry’s craving for conquest, and, equally importantly, what were its consequences for the realm he ruled? 


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