Henry VIII: the pursuit of glory

Henry VIII meets the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I in 1513. The top of the painting shows the battle of the Spurs, in which Henry and Maximilian’s combined forces routed their French foes.

To the young Henry VIII, the pursuit of glory on the battlefield was the key to his achievement of `true majesty’. In a document dated 20 March 1512, Pope Julius II had stripped Louis XII of his title, `Most Christian king of France and of his kingdom’ and offered it to Henry in return for the prosecution of a successful campaign against the French king. This was a rare `carrot’ indeed for a king so eager to emulate the deeds of his illustrious ancestor and namesake, Henry V. Throughout 1512 the royal propagandists sought to present the French king as a usurper of Henry’s rightful claim to the crown of France and the lands of Anjou, Maine, Gascony, Guyenne and Normandy. Early in the year “it was concluded, by the body of the Realme in the high Courte of Parliament assembled, that warre should be made on the Frenche Kyng and his dominions.” The formal declaration of war was delivered in April and, by the end of the month, the English fleet, under the command of Edward Howard, had embarked to raid the French coast.

Lord Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset was appointed to lead the main English army. Dorset was to join up with Ferdinand’s forces and invade Guyenne. It was agreed prior to departure that Ferdinand would supply the English with ordnance, cavalry and carriage for supplies. However, Ferdinand, who had now changed his mind and wanted to attack Navarre before turning to Guyenne, made no such preparations. Dorset’s proposal to attack Bayonne as a base from which to assault Aquitaine was refused. It soon became apparent that Ferdinand simply wished to use the English force to act as a cover for his seizure of the Kingdom of Navarre, which he quickly defeated and annexed. Ferdinand’s failure to follow the agreement laid down before the departure of Henry’s army effectively destroyed any hope of Dorset achieving anything meaningful. In the context of the military history of Henry’s reign, the campaign was relatively insignificant, so much so that Vergil insisted that, “nothing worth recording was done in these parts.” However, considerable sums of money were expunged on the campaign, in a series of payments executed by William Sandes in his role as treasurer of the army. Guyot Heull, Captain of the Almayns was paid for six weeks wages, cloth for coats and “houses,” and total payments for the wages, victuall and other costs incurred in the execution of this minor campaign totaled 80,857li. 17s. 4d.

More symbolic of developments in the rest of Henry’s reign was his manipulation at the hands of an ally with a hidden agenda. Ferdinand’s failure to provide the ordnance and equipment determined in the negotiations before the campaign, and his alteration of the campaign objective, destroyed any hope of success – not simply the quality of the English troops.

The ignominious failure of this campaign did not discourage the young king. By 5 April 1513 he had again committed himself to war “on the part of England, with the Pope, Margaret of Savoy (on behalf of the Emperor) and Ferdinand of Aragon, against Louis XII King of France.” In signing this `Holy League’ Henry committed himself to an invasion of “Aquitaine, Picardy, and Normandy… within two months,” and even Ferdinand’s withdrawal from this great coalition could not discourage Henry from leading his army personally. It was his opinion that “his English subjects were of such high spirits that they tended to fight less willingly and less successfully under any commander other than their king.” Moreover he maintained that:

it behoved him to enter upon his first military experience in so important and difficult a war in order that he might, by a signal start to his martial knowledge, create such fine opinion about his valour among all men that they would clearly understand that his ambition was not merely to equal but indeed to exceed the glorious deeds of his ancestors.

Whether Henry was indeed determined to exceed the deeds of his ancestors, and the extent to which he did so, remain beyond the remit of this thesis. It does however seem clear that the pursuit of glory, through military adventure and more importantly victory, weighed heavily in the mind of Henry VIII. Although Henry fought for tangible gains, diplomatic and territorial, “he also fought in the shadow of his ancestors. for an honourable place in the history of his country.” Indeed, his reign was to end with England at war with Scotland and France: the 1540s saw domestic concerns firmly subordinated to Henry’s pursuit of military renown.

These concerns aside, in 1513, Henry agreed to “cross the sea with 30,000 men,” and offered to negotiate with the Venetians and urge them to peace with the Emperor, so that the Spanish in Italy could turn to attack southern France. The Emperor would attend in person and retain an army of 3,000 horses, 6,000 Swiss and 2,000 Landsknechts, to be paid for by Henry. This represented Henry’s first personal venture onto the battlefields of Europe. In the company of such an auspicious ally, the king was determined that the campaign should be a successful one, so extensive preparations were made. Polydore Vergil claimed that “there had almost never been seen in England so redoubtable an army, whether in the toughness of the soldiers or the excellence of their equipment.” This statement is almost certainly guilty of the same hyperbole that characterises much of Vergil’s chronicle; however, the `Army Royal’ of 1513 was excellently equipped and well organised.  

The forward crossed to Calais in mid-May, followed at the end of the month by Lord Herbert with the rearward. Henry himself arrived with the middle-ward as late as 30 June, by which time both the forward and rearward had departed Calais and encamped at Therouanne. Henry set out from Calais with the `middleward’ on 21 July and “notwithstandyng that the forward and the rerewarde of the kyngs great army were before Tirwyn, the King of his awne battayle made 3 battailles after the fasshion of the warre.”

Whilst in France, the army besieged and destroyed the town of Therouanne and seized Tournai (granted to the English in the peace of 1514 and garrisoned until 1519). They were also victorious in the grandly christened ‘Battle of the Spurs’.

‘Battle of the Spurs’

Occurring on 16 August 1513, during Henry VIII’s first French campaign, the Battle of the Spurs was a running engagement between French and English cavalry before the walls of the besieged French town of Thérouanne. The name derives from the nature of the encounter, which was not a planned, set-piece battle, but a spontaneous pursuit by the English of French cavalry surprised in an attempt to resupply the town’s garrison.

Also known as the Battle of Bomy for the French village nearest the action, the Battle of the Spurs began when French cavalry made a dash for Thérouanne intending to throw sides of bacon to waiting members of the hungry garrison. All went awry when the middle ward of the English army suddenly appeared directly in the path of the Frenchmen. The English deployment appears to have been entirely fortuitous, and not the result of any advance intelligence concerning French intentions. Besides the English cavalry to their front, the French also found themselves assailed on their flanks by a detachment of English archers and a battery of light artillery deployed by Henry’s Imperial ally, Emperor Maximilian I. In danger of being outflanked and encircled, and coming under a galling fire from the archers, the French cavalrymen put spur to horse and fled, discarding weapons and horse armor to facilitate their escape.

Joined by their Burgundian allies, the English cavalry pursued the fleeing enemy across the flat fields of Guingates east of Thérouanne. Desperate French officers tried to turn their men and make a fighting retreat, but only a few Frenchmen under the Chevalier Bayard were able to make a stand before a narrow bridge. Their action did not stem the rout, but it did buy time for the main force to reach safety. Nonetheless, the pursuing allies captured six French standards and a distinguished group of prisoners, including such nobles as the duc de Longueville and the vice admiral of France. Although not much of a battle in military terms, the encounter near Bomy was a glorious triumph for English honor and a marvelous enhancement to the military reputation of the English king. Although later reports said that Henry shared in the glory of pursuing the fleeing foe, he was well to the rear when the skirmish began and is unlikely to have had much of a personal role in it. This fact did not prevent Henry from taking credit for a great victory, which he was shortly thereafter to describe in glowing terms to Archduchess Margaret of Savoy. The surrender of Thérouanne on 22 August added further luster to the Battle of the Spurs, although the encounter soon paled in significance next to the victory over James IV of Scotland won a few weeks later at Flodden Field by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey.

However, the “strategic value of Henry’s gains was negligible,” and the campaign has come in for extensive historical criticism. The Emperor, not Henry, enjoyed “tangible,” strategic advantages “when Therouanne was put out of action and Tournai was occupied by a friendly power.” Henry’s manipulation at the hands of his allies was completed when Ferdinand and Maximilian abandoned plans for a second invasion of France and made a separate peace with Louis XII. By August 1514 Henry had also concluded a peace, which, although outwardly beneficial (allowing him the retention of Tournai, the reinstatement of his French pension and assuring the marriage of his sister, Mary, to Louis), in reality left him with little more than empty coffers and an expensive, isolated outpost.

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