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How Successful was English Foreign Policy in the Years 1509 1529?

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During these years Henry VIII was the monarch on the English throne, and his foreign policy reflected both his hunger for personal glory, and his desire to see England become a major power in Europe. During the later part of his reign, it seems his wish to control vast parts of Europe, and be an important player in politics, waned; but for the first twenty years of Henry’s reign, from 1509-1529, important decisions and actions of the Monarch were dominated by foreign policy, and it was during this time that Thomas Wolsey, Henry’s eventual right hand man, would rise to prominence. English policy enjoyed both successes and failures – but it is arguable as to what extent these successes reached.

In 1511 was Henry’s first opportunity to increase the reach of his control, and take part of France. King Louis XII, who the current ruler of France, had invaded Italy; leaving the Pope Julius II in a position where he was under threat. The Pope formed a Holy League agreement with Ferdinand, King of Spain, and as his son in-law, Henry offered his services. Henry joined the Holy League in the November of 1511, and in early 1512 he sent around 12,000 troops to invade southern France, led by the Marques of Dorset. However, Henry had not been aware that the Spanish had already defeated the French and made peace, and the soldiers that did not die of illness were sent home. This was a failure in that Henry felt humiliated in the eyes of the rest of the world, and felt let down by both the other members of the Holy League. However, an important lesson was learned about the workings of the European politics of the 16th century, and also about the capriciousness of its monarchs; working only in their own interests. What was learned from this early failure would shape Foreign Policy decisions in the years to come.

To fix what Henry considered a personal disgrace, in 1513 he started another campaign against France. It was Wolsey who masterminded this expedition, making sure that the troops were well equipped etc. But Henry personally led this invasion; emulating what he considered to be the ideal king; 10th century Richard Lionheart, or King Arthur and his knights. Henry rode and fought alongside his troops, and as a result of the battle, later named the Battle of the Spurs, the French town of Tournai came under English control. This was a success in that Henry, as well as gaining land and ‘pensions’ from the French, had made his mark as a King who was not afraid of using battles and war, as methods of foreign political interaction. This was markedly different to his father’s stance; Henry VII had been reluctant to fight wars because of the immense cost.

However, a problem arose from this apparent success; whilst Henry was away leading this campaign, the King of Scotland, James IV, saw an opportunity to launch an attack on England. James renewed an alliance Scotland had previously had with France, called the ‘Auld Alliance’, (despite the fact he was married to Henry’s sister Margaret to secure Anglo-Scot relations), and on the 9th of September, 1513, the Scots fought the English at the Battle of Flodden. The Earl of Surrey marched north, and defeated the Scots; as a result James IV, and many other Scottish leaders, were killed. This quick put down of the attack meant further success to Henry’s endeavour; England had just won a war on two fronts.

From this point onwards, Thomas Wolsey would play a major role in Henry’s stand on foreign policy; during the following 10 years there was a significant lull in war-minded aggression, and Wolsey was set on a drive towards peace. He used political manoeuvring to achieve foreign relations, for example the marriage in 1914 between Louis XII of France and Henry’s sister Mary (though this only lasted 11 weeks). This was necessary because war was expensive, and Henry had managed to nearly empty the English coffers with his foreign campaigns, and the courts expensive lifestyle.

Wolsey also had his own sights set on power, and saw his position as Henry’s right hand man as a means to achieving his own aims – becoming Pope. He also attempted to befriend anyone who could help him better his position and power; which was why it was beneficial for him to please Henry, as the King could grant him the power he desired.

After the death of Frances King Louis XII, the Anglo-French alliance was in danger of collapsing. And Wolsey knew he would have to come up with a solution to keep the Kings favour; in order to do that, he organised the ‘London Treaty’. This meant that on the 3rd of October, in 1518, a meeting was held in London attended by representatives of the European powers: the Pope, the new King of France, the King of Spain, the Holy Roman Emperor, and Henry VIII. This was like a modern day EU summit, and was a major diplomatic achievement for the time; a time of constant political upheaval where war had always been considered the answer. Henry was credited with this achievement, and it also brought the focus of the whole of Europe on London, and the English King, meaning Henry had, in his eyes, achieved one of his major desires as King – to make himself, and England, an important player in European politics. This was a great success for both Henry and Wolsey in regards to Foreign policy.

The new French King was Francis I, and at this summit it was decided that Francis and Henry would meet again in a few years – to cement the peace treaty made.

After the Treaty of London occurred, Henry began to make changes to his advisors; trying to shift from the chivalric young man he had been, to a more serious ‘kingly’ element.

On the 7th of June, 1520, was the summit between Henry and Francis; it took place in France and was named ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’. It was a lavish, over the top, display of wealth; with both Kings trying to outdo each other as a status symbol. However all the extravagance of the event came to nothing; as peace was already beginning to break down – Francis was considering waging war on the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, who Wolsey was conducting secret talks with, in the hope that he would be a help in Wolsey’s personal quest for the papacy. This shows the start of the downhill slide; whereby Foreign Policy began to fail and become ineffective. At this point we can see that was possibly in part the fault of Wolsey, for mixing his influence on Policy making, with his attempts for personal gain.

In 1520, and upon Wolsey’s instructions, Henry signed a treaty with Charles – against France, and Francis I. Then, in 1925 Charles defeated the French at the Battle of Pavia, and Henry saw this as an opportunity to launch his own attack on Paris – and claim the French throne as his own. It was at this point that the relations between Charles and Henry broke down; Henry saw the defeated France as his by right – as the preceding English kings had ruled there. Whilst Charles could not see why Henry should have any claim at all, when he had done so little to help in the defeat. Instead, Charles reinstated Francis as king, but with strict restrictions controlling his actions. This was not so much a failure in policy, as events slowly slipping out of Henry and Wolsey’s control.

In response to the incident however, English foreign policy was changed yet again – as Wolsey scrambled to salvage the situation. Charles abandoned England as an ally, and so in 1525, Wolsey began to negotiate with France. This resulted in the Treaty of the More; which Francis’ mother, the Regent of France, signed whilst her son was held captive under Charles.

Wolsey’s attempt to arrange an alliance between France, England and the Pope, against the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain – Charles, was a failure. Wolsey had attempted to gain the favour of Henry, and the Pope, rather than looking after the best interests of England.

Charles’ response was that in 1527 he marched into Rome and captured Pope Clement VII – because of this Wolsey’s alliance collapsed – and Charles was left pulling all the strings. Because of this, Wolsey was becoming increasingly unpopular – his policies had failed and had proved expensive; an expense that both Parliament and the people of England were no longer willing to accept.

At this point in time Henry was reviewing his marriage to his brother’s widow; Catherine. She had been unable to provide him with a son, and as a result he wanted a divorce. Unfortunately, the only one able to grant it was the Pope – who was being held prisoner by Charles V. There were two reasons that this left Henry stuck; the Pope would not disobey Charles and risk being killed, and Charles was the nephew of Catherine, and would not want Henry divorcing his aunt – if only to infuriate Henry, and not out of any affection for her.

In January 1528, Henry found himself in the situation where he was virtually at war with Charles V. It was never intended to be a proper full scale war, but was declared by ambassadors from England, reacting in support of the French, when Charles refused to accept the latest peace terms. This was definitely a failure, as the economic effect of the resultant trade embargo with the Netherlands was near catastrophic. England’s primary exports at the time were wool, and cloth. The trade of these was temporarily interrupted, although in response Wolsey was quick to negotiate a truce with the Netherlands.

The final blow came in 1529; at which point the French finally made peace with Charles. They also continued to honor the alliance created with Scotland, which meant England was once again distracted from Europe by the stirring up of hostility on the Anglo-Scot border. England at this point was isolated from the rest of Europe and European politics, and as well as failures of policy, Henry felt Wolsey had failed him personally.

Because France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles had made peace, no one was willing to help free the Pope – held captive since Charles sacked Rome in 1527. This meant that although Wolsey had made numerous attempts to utilize Foreign Policy in order to secure an annulment for Henry, by 1929 his attempts had remained fruitless.

This was the end of an era in regards to Foreign Policy – Wolsey had failed Henry’s expectations, and Henry had had enough. During the years 1509 up until 1529, there had been both successes and failures in England’s external affairs; he had not got off to a good start with Charles letting him down in France in 1511, but this was redeemed with Wolsey’s help in 1512. After that he enjoyed success at first, and had minor militaristic achievements in Scotland, although he never took it under English control. His pioneering peace conference was definitely a major success, although short lived, and after a while it appeared there was nothing Wolsey and Henry could come up with that would see England become a major power in Europe – which of course had been Henry’s ultimate aim. It seems that for each small success Henry enjoyed, he was let down by fickle allies.

In conclusion, during these years English foreign policy was flexible, occasionally to the point of being contradictory. However, it seems no matter which way they turned, achieving Henry’s goals, both personal and in Europe (though these were closely entwined, and often drove policy) was impossible, due to factors outside of Wolsey’s and Henry’s control. England just wasn’t important enough for any policies made to be effective without the support of other, politically larger, countries or nations.

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