Henry VIII

Henry VIII was only 17 years old when he acceded to the throne of England. Handsome, talented, reckless and flamboyant, he formed a complete contrast to his dull, cautious, stingy father.

Unlike Henry VII, he took little interest in administration and for many years after his accession, he left the details of government under the control of his chief adviser, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.


I. Britain in 1509

At Henry VIII's accession, England contained one duke - Edward Stafford, Duke of Buckingham - and one marquess - Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset. There were also ten earls and twenty-nine barons. All these nobles were loyal to the king and none nursed any ambition to gain the throne.

By inheriting land from both Yorkists and Lancastrians, Henry acquired control over territory that had previously been semi-independent of the crown.

Wales was no longer rebellious as it had been early fifteenth century; moreover the Tudors were Welsh. Nevertheless, Wales was still not fully incorporated into English system of government and English law was not used there. The Welsh border was still disorderly.

The same was true of the Scottish border, violent raids were common on both sides. Scotland was ruled by James IV who married Henry's sister Margaret Tudor - whom Henry had always disliked.

Scotland and England  were at peace in 1509, but had a long tradition of warfare, especially when England was at war with France. France was England's oldest enemy, and Scotland's oldest friend. (This friendship was known as 'the auld alliance'). 

England's last remaining possession on the continent of Europe was Calais, nearest French town to England; by 1509 its defenses were badly in need of repair. 

In Ireland English rule existed only in the immediate vicinity of Dublin (an area know as 'the Pale') and in the towns of Cork and Waterford. Elsewhere, rulers were either native Irish tribal chieftains or Anglo-Irish magnates (that is, descendants of English nobles who had invaded and carved out territory for themselves in the Middle Ages). Most important of these magnates were the two Fitzgeralds, the Earls of Kildare and Desmond; also important was Butler, Earl of Ormond.

Anglo Norman Ormonde Castle home of "Black Tom" Butler, first built c. 1300 A.D.


(2) The Early years: war with France.

French artillery

Henry VIII was inspired by chivalric ideas of gaining glory in battle. He married Katherine of Aragon, who had been kept in England since the death of Prince Arthur. She was seven years older than him. She bore him four children who died immediately, and one daughter (Mary Tudor) but no sons.
Katherine was the daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella this marriage brought Henry into alliance with Spain - the rival of France, England's nearest neighbor and its traditional enemy.
Early in 1512, Henry sent 10,000 troops to fight for Spain on the border with France. The expedition was a disaster. Those who didn't die from illness, returned home with nothing accomplished.


To wipe out the disgrace, Henry decided to invade France in person in 1513. Wolsey ensured that this expedition was well equipped, and it won the Battle of Spurs and captured the French town of Tournai.

The English fought the French at Guinegate: the French panicked and ran, goading their horses into flight - hence the Battle of Spurs.


More important than successes in France was the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Flodden - 9th September 1513. The Scots took advantage of Henry's absence in France to invade with over 20,000 men. The English were outnumbered, but better equipped and led. The Scots were completely defeated, suffering about ten thousand casualties - the dead included twelve earls and two bishops, and, above all, James IV himself.
The English commander, the Earl of Surrey was rewarded with the restoration of his father's title - Duke of Norfolk.
The French war brought England no permanent benefits. Henry's allies made peace with France in 1514, and he had to follow suit. In 1518, the English agreed to hand back Tournai . One provision of the peace was the marriage of Henry's eighteen-year old sister, Mary, to the fifty-two year old Louis XII. (Louis was dead within a year).

Henry's foray into France cost a great deal of money; after 1514, he left foreign policy in the hands of Cardinal Wolsey.


(3) The rise of Wolsey

Thomas Wolsey was the son of Ipswich butcher. Like many men of humble origins in this period, he chose the church at the best route to personal advancement. He graduated from Oxford, became a royal chaplain and caught the eye of Henry VII.

In 1509, Wolsey became a member of King's Council; his talent and industry led to rapid promotion. A cheerful, friendly womaniser, he liked to show off his wealth and built Hampton Court, the finest Tudor palace.

Hampton Court Palace


A self-made man, Wolsey was contemptuous of those who weren't and vindictive if crossed; he was much resented by nobles.

Wolsey ran the day-to-day administration of government, while Henry whiled away his time hunting and dancing. But Henry could always intervene on major policy issues. From the mid-1520s, Henry got involved more often.


(4) Wolsey's domestic policy:

One of his main domestic policies was self-aggrandizement: many of Wolsey's actions were intended to increase his own wealth and power.

Wolsey's main policy interest was law;  he 
(i) increased the power of Chancery
(ii) expanded the activities of Star Chamber
(iii) used the Royal Council to try civil cases resulting from complaints of the poor - became Court of Requests.

Wolsey was not a successful financial manager and (particularly after Hunne's case) got on badly with the Parliaments who could have supplemented Henry VIII's resources by direct taxation.

Parliament met in 1523. It was called to supply money for war, but did not grant enough taxation. Wolsey and Henry VIII tried to extort money from the wealthy in the Amicable Grant of 1525, but were forced to back down when rioting ensued.

Wolsey ruled the English church despotically, and in his own life embodied many of the vices (simony, nepotism and pluralism) to which both Christian humanists and Protestant reformers objected. Unsurprisingly, anti-papal sentiments grew in England.


(5) Wolsey's foreign policy:

Wolsey directed his foreign policy at preserving peace and trying to make England into a mediator between other countries. His crowning achievement came in 1518 at the Treaty of London, where representatives from all the major powers and many lesser ones agreed to perpetual peace.

Charles V

Peace, however, was far from perpetual. Egged on by Charles V, Henry VIII (against Wolsey's advice) invaded France in 1523. The English invaders were soon forced to withdraw, and Francis I of France was confident enough to invade Italy in 1525. Charles V defeated Francis at the battle of Pavia, 1525.


Henry wanted to take advantage of France's weakness and invade again, but lacked the resources because of the failure of the Amicable Grant.

Francis renewed his attack on Charles V in 1526, and this time Henry allied himself with France. Charles seized much of Italy (including the Pope, Clement VII) and once again England gained nothing. England went ignored in the Treaty of Cambrai, 1529.


The Peace of Cambrai, 3 August 1529, was known as Paix des dames (the Ladies' peace) because negotiated by two women - Charles V's aunt, Margaret, and Francis' mother, Louise of Savoy.


(6) Wolsey's fall:

In 1529, Henry dismissed Wolsey, and in 1530 trumped up charges of treason against him. Wolsey died on the way to London to answer these.

The failure of Wolsey's foreign policy was one reason why Henry turned on his adviser, but a more important one was Wolsey's inability to obtain a divorce for Henry from Katherine of Aragon.

Wolsey's power always stemmed from the favor of Henry VIII - in 1529 that favor was withdrawn.


"Had I but served God as diligently as I have served the King,
 He would not have given me over in my grey hairs


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