Memorable battles from Henry’s reign
Armed for battle
Armed as he was for battle, the ambitious Henry VIII didn’t shy away from conflict. Here’s a quick overview of warfare in Europe during his reign.
The Europe of the early 1500s was a confused conglomeration of disputes and dynastic claims, with few settled borders.
The most important players were the French Valois dynasty and their main continental rivals, the Habsburgs, who controlled a huge swathe of central Europe.
Henry, galvanised by tales of English hero-kings, was eager to grab a piece of the action. He wanted to build an empire of his own, and military victories meant more cards to play at the next round of negotiations, when new alliances were agreed, lands were exchanged and marriages arranged.
A débâcle in Gascony, 1512
This was a pitiful early attempt by Henry to make his mark in Europe, by picking a fight against the French. His Spanish allies, provided by his father-in-law Ferdinand of Aragon, failed to show up. Henry’s troops either died of disease or mutinied and struggled home.
French sack Ravenna, 1512
While Henry was failing in Gascony, the French sacked Ravenna and scored a notable victory against their big rivals for Italian domination, the Imperial Habsburgs. Italy was the main theatre of war in the early 1500s. England was a minor player, causing trouble on Europe’s margins, hoping for a share of the bigger spoils.
Battle of the Spurs, 1513
Henry famously led a cavalry charge against the French, who ran away so quickly that all that could be seen were their spurs, glinting in the sun. In the famous painting of the battle, Henry is shown in the centre of the action on a white horse. Except Henry was behind the front line, not in the heart of the battle, as the King’s Council refused to let him take part. Henry went on to take the towns of Therouare and Tournai.
Francis I and Marignano, 1515
Francis I, the King of France, was young and ambitious and cut from the same cloth as Henry VIII. He took his own quest for European supremacy deep into Italy, capturing Milan after this bloody battle.
French defeat at Pavia, 1525
The French were decisively defeated by the Habsburgs at this catastrophic engagement. Most of the French aristocracy were killed on the battlefield. Francis I was himself captured and was forced to sign a humiliating treaty. Henry was reported to have jumped for joy at the news.
Sack of Rome, 1527
The Habsburgs went on to win the big game of European domination, or at least this round, in the endless and repeating cycle of continental turmoil. They captured Rome, and with it the Pope. This had terrible repercussions for Henry VIII who had hoped to persuade the Pope to grant him a divorce from his first wife, Katherine of Aragon.
Henry’s final push, 1544
Later in his reign, Henry decided to have a last attempt at emulating his medieval English heroes. He did manage to capture Boulogne from Francis I, but then faced a French counter-attack the following year. During the French raid, the Mary Rose sunk to the bottom of the Solent. An inconclusive series of engagements eventually led to peace in 1546.
Pinkie cleugh, 1547
Henry VIII’s reign is book-ended with short, but particularly vicious Anglo-Scottish wars. England in the 1500s was only really equipped to take on the Scots in any sort of lengthy and potentially productive military campaign. The first ended with Flodden; the second, shortly after Henry VIII's death, with another English victory near Musselburgh. This was the last battle fought between the royal armies of England and Scotland.
Wider world wars, 1509-47
Some important military engagements also took place outside Europe while Henry VIII was on the throne. After the Battle of Panipat in 1526, Prince Babur established the Moghul Empire’s 200-year rule over the Indian subcontinent. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic in 1532, a group of conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro defeated the Incas, and claimed the vast territory of Peru for Spain.