The Success of English Foreign Policy Between 1509-1529


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When Henry VIII succeeded his father Henry VII in 1509, he sought to establish himself as new reformed monarch. This popular eighteen year old known for his passion for hunting and dancing was the polar opposite of his pragmatic father. Most importantly however, Henry’s greed for personal glory and hunger to establish England as a great power across the European Continent shaped England’s foreign policy as we know it. Those first 20 years of Henry’s reign were dominated with the focus on Foreign Policy and his actions reflected that. He bestowed power on those he trusted; to manage the domestic policy of England, notably Thomas Wolsey allowing them to rise to prominence. Fundamentally, the success of England’s Foreign Policy between the periods of 1509-1529 was limited if not insignificant, yet it established Henry’s Kingdom of England as a power to be reckoned with and helped Henry VIII’s ascension to become a great European Monarch both politically and militarily.

Henry marked his intentions early on, famously stating in his coronation oath to renew the Dual Monarchy claim. Thus his first years were plagued with war, causing much financial stress for those on the Home Island, notably being Thomas Wolsey who had powers devolved to him to act in accordance to the King’s wishes. Yet Henry’s campaigns achieved very few concrete gains and lead many to assume he was being used as a pawn for his allies’ gains’. Leading to their benefit rather than his own. In 1512, England launched its campaign into Aquitaine, South-West France. Yet this collapsed under its own weight primarily due to mutiny and catastrophic spread of dysentery. One could argue that albeit the Campaign had its problems it did succeed, as we can see through the capturing of the French towns of Tournai and Therouanne in 1513. However, realistically they held very little significance to England and Henry VIII, and would be more beneficial to the HRE Emperor, Maximilian. Nevertheless Henry had defeated the French in battle and made significant propaganda out of it, which benefited the domestic situation as he grew in popularity with the nobility and people.While also forcing the French King, Louis XII t marry his sister Mary Tudor in 1514 and providing a generous pension. From an analytical point of view these towns were merely soft targets and these campaigns served no English Interests. Thus Henry’s early wars were not successful as the financial bore that England took upon far outweighed the gains made. It is worth noting the betrayal of Henry’s allies, which shaped his later foreign policy being which the fact that HRE Maximilian and Ferdinand, King of Spain reflected their gratitude for Henry’s effort in the war against France signing separate treaties, leaving England isolated. This chain of events is ironically repeated in Henry’s later campaign of 1523-1525, in which England was allied to the Holy Roman Empire again France, led by Francis I. Charles V proved to be a successor of Ferdinand and Maximilian, and followed suit with self-interested aims and manipulative tactics. For example England could have attacked Boulogne which would have strengthened the English hold on the Pale of Calais, instead Henry launched his campaign against the French capital of Paris, which purely benefitted Charles’ interests. Once again Henry had proved he was a manipulable Monarch and this can be reflected upon the success of his Foreign Policy to his disadvantage proving his Foreign Policy wasn’t successful, in fact more of a failure. This combined with Henry’s passion to dispense large sums of money he didn’t have, meant that for the little he took, much of it was at his personal expense. In Henry’s 1511-1513 wars he spent £960,000, which compared to his ordinary income of £110,000 a year is almost 9 fold. Having spent an estimated total of £1.4 million between 1511 and 1525. It appears that Henry sought to match the ambitions of the much wealthier monarchs such as Charles V and Francis whos annual incomes totalled £560,000 and £350,000. Yet all these expenses mostly came directly from Henry’s personal wealth proving his lust for glory and reputation, squandering much of the wealth pragmatically saved by his father. Nevertheless England’s’ foreign policy in the early years had few successes and those alone had limited value. Yet they did provide Henry with experience and laid the foundations for his wars and policies to develop and continue.

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Henry VIII sought out glory, prestige and pursued his dynastic rights, just as many other Monarchs sought to in the day and age. After Henry’s failed attempts of securing a strong foothold in France, and claiming the dual monarchy, he sought to change the approach. A rapprochement with France. Henry chose to be flexible with his claim and often using it merely as a negotiating device. This can be seen in 1527, where Henry agreed to halt further warfare and military ambitions in return for French aid in the annulment of his marriage. The capture of Tournai and Therouanne, was a reflection of Henry’s warlike ambitions, but realistically were bargaining tools. It marked a significant change that shaped England’s Foreign Policy arguably to its success. England’s later Foreign Policy’s success can be dedicated to Thomas Wolsey, who modified the traditional view of power through war, and developed this into pursuing England’s interests through peace and diplomacy. Wolsey’s most significant and single most important achievement in Foreign Policy was the Treaty of London 1518 or the Peace of London. Not only did this win Henry VIII & Wolsey prestige; it also avoided England’s isolationism from continental Europe, due to the French victory led by Francis I after defeating the Swiss Cantons at Marignano in 1515, from which a series of treaties was signed with all European Powers. With this Treaty Wolsey exploited Pope Leo X’s plans for universal peace. This meant that England could restore its bargaining power with Tournai and Therouanne. Which eventually led to the French paying a sum of 700,000 crowns for the restoration of the towns back into the French Empire. Arguably a success as repeating previous point where the towns held very little significance and importance to England, Henry and Wolsey. Thus the return of the towns led to Anglo-French amity. Wolsey however, sought to further develop England’s relations with the great powers, persuading Spain, Scotland, Venice, the HRE and the Papacy to sign a non-aggression pact under the supervision of Henry VIII. This presented Henry to Europe as the Arbiter, and London was the diplomatic centre of Europe. Clearly with this change in approachment of Foreign Policy, success through peace came swiftly. Furthermore when the Imperial Elections of 1519 came it forever changed Henry VIII’s view to Europe, with Charles V after his election becoming the Holy Roman Emperor combined with the fact that he had overlordship over the Kingdom of Spain and Burgundy, meant that Francis I; the previous power player of Europe hd a natural dynastic rivalry, thus allowing Henry to capitalise. This rivarly could be argued to have strengthened and developed England’s position in the European Continent as both rivals sought after an alliance, thus increasing the bargaining power of Henry and Wolsey. Yet it also limited Foreign Policy because Wolsey and Henry were constrained if they picked a side as then a large part of continental Europe was invalid. Wolseys pragmatism can be seen when you breakdown the Treaty of London, where Wolsey spoke and appealed to both sides hoping to secure the best possible diplomatic deal for England whether it be land, money or resources in return for England’s support if a great war breaks out. Fundamentally however despite this the Foreign Policy success was limited, partly due to the fact that Henry VIII was married to Catherine of Aragon and sought after a divorce. This created a dilemma as Catherine’s nephew was indeed Charles V, potentially being a flashpoint or souring relations between the Monarchs. This proved to be a dilemma due to England’s reliance on Burgundy and the Netherlands (Low Countries) for exports of English cloth which was vital for the economy. Therefore Wolsey had to constantly switch back and forth between Francis I and Charles V in search for the best and most prosperous deal for England and Henry. Wolsey wanted to put pressure on Charles V, in order to get a better deal with Charles V. Thus at the Calais Conference and at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, arguably one of the key successes of England’s Foreign Policy, Henry and Wolsey developed relations with Francis I of France. Thus pressurising Charles V to be favourable towards England. This provided England with a better deal signed in 1521, the Treaty of Bruges (secret treaty unaware to the French). Wolsey had played a double game and taken both sides yet realistically he was clever, flexible and innovative and that managed to allow England to succeed in its later Foreign Policy.

1525 marked a significant date in European politics, it marked the start of a changing of alliances, betrayals and ambition. Charles V had failed to be a useful ally to England, such as not supporting Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon with the annulment from pope Clement VII, albeit Charles V had good reason to not support it, being Catherine was his Aunt. Thus Henry couldn’t marry and his Foreign Policy aim of securing his Tudor Dynasty and Bloodline like meak. He had no son by whom he could secure a succession with. So England reversed the Habsburg alliance. And sought further approachment on France whos relations with England were cautious due to switching sides but still open. Wolsey hoped to aid the French ambitions to remove Habsburg Power in Italy which had been secured earlier. Thus by doing so Henry and Wolsey could break the chains Charles V had over the Pope, which would significantly benefit England’s Foreign Policy and the power balance over Continental Europe. By doing so Wolsey could negotiate with the Emperor. Thus another success of England’s Foreign Policy arose, the League of Cognac which was essentially an anti-Habsburg League sponsored by Henry and Francis. In 1526, henry became the Head of the League ironically without committing resources and money to the League partially because Henry could simply not afford it. Wolsey remained determined to keep military options at a minimum and keep his diplomatic options open. Due to the fact that the previous costs of war still bore its effects some 10 years later. Fundamentally though England wanted to avoid an Anti-Habsburg stance yet it had failed here, ever since Charles V had sacked Rome with his unpaid army ,1527; relations with France had been on the rise, adding to a success as this broke the traditional rivalry between the two nations. If Henry could gain the Pope’s favour then England could be the the ‘Most Christian Country’ and this offered prosperity and power. Much appealing to Henry. Therefore Wolsey commited England to an alliance with France, which could be argued as a mistake or a success as it was a change from traditional relations dating back to the 100 Years War. Yet analytically this meant England could be dragged into a war with Charles V at his expense due to quarrels with Francis and Charles. Risky but fundamentally worth the risk. And so January 1528, England found itself in a state of war against the HRE and it’s dominions, a costly issue. Yet the only accessible military target for England was Burgundy, and as mentioned there was much reluctancy due to England’s heavy reliance on trade. England’s Foreign Policy appeared to become a massive failure short term. All that had been achieved over the last 20 years began to break down threatening all Henry and Wolsey had sought to do. As a result of this Wolsey (still reluctant for military action) began a trade embargo go force the HRE into negotiations. The predominant reason behind this was henry VII had use the same tactics upon Maximilian and Philip the Fair to win concessions. Yet problematically England was much more reliant upon the Flanders cloth markets now than it had been under Henry VII’s rule. England’s Foreign Policy’s problems were exemplified by the third worst harvest to hit England in the sixteenth century in 1527. Domestically unemployment rose rapidly and the cloth trade broke down leading to domestic problems Henry couldn’t ignore. England’s Foreign Policy had collapsed, Henry and Wolsey were forced into the removal of the trade embargo and were humiliated – this was one of Wolsey’s last and most significant mistakes that cost him Henry’s favour. From Wolsey’s point of view it could be argued a success as it had avoided an all out war, adn instead shifted towards diplomacy yet it proved that England simply wasn’t powerful enough or self sufficient to ignore the Habsburgs, they simply held too much power and Charles V was a strong, manipulative and cunning leader. Thus England’s Foreign Policy in 1529 closed on a rough time for all ultimately leaving many historians calling it a failure but with good intentions.

Overall England’s Foreign Policy between 1509-1529 sought to rise England out of its state of Isolationism under Henry VII to a new Great European Power. Initially it was a disaster but gave Henry VIII valuable experience and shaped his Foreign Policy. After the Anglo-French wars England redrew its approach and it benefited them. Henry was seen as a powerful Monarch and he had achieved glory through peace. Yet for a warlike Monarch, his ambitions couldn’t be suppressed and his constant desire for more and more played against him. He had lost the draw and his cards couldn’t be played. Charles V had monopolised Europe under the HRE, Kingdom of Spain and Burgundy and it couldn’t be matched, with the flashpoints of Italy and rivalry between the three experienced Kings. Conflict was inevitable. Referring back to my introduction England’s Foreign Policy success was minimal and insignificant, but it shaped how England saw Europe and how Europe saw England.          

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