Puissance & Poverty: Henry VIII and the Conquest of France: John Matusiak Pricks the Imperial Pretension of the Monarch Who Came to the Throne 500 Years Ago

By Matusiak, John | History Review, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Puissance & Poverty: Henry VIII and the Conquest of France: John Matusiak Pricks the Imperial Pretension of the Monarch Who Came to the Throne 500 Years Ago


Matusiak, John, History Review


When, in November 1511, Henry VIII plunged headlong into war against France on behalf of the Holy League, his realm remained a small and comparatively insignificant island on the damp and misty fringe of Europe. Apart from Wales and the Channel Islands, the only meagre traces of English 'empery' were, in fact, a boggy foothold in Ireland, along with a narrow strip of territory, centring on Calais and the castle of Guisnes, which stretched some 20 miles along the French coast. And though, for its size, England may well have been one of the wealthier kingdoms in Europe, Henry's little realm of around 2.5 million souls, bordered by an independent Scotland and as such only 'half an island', could still scarcely compete with 16 million Frenchmen. Nor, in the long term, could it ever realistically hope to manipulate some 8 million Spaniards for its own purposes, let alone the 20 million Dutch, Flemish and Germans who owed taxes to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Yet by the time he had been unleashed as King of England in April 1509, just nine weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, Henry VIII's desire to secure his own glorious niche in history was already set in stone. And this could mean only one thing: the re-conquest of his ancestral lands in France, regardless of the political damage or financial cost involved. Ultimately, this gnawing obsession to gain honour and glory abroad would become the overriding priority of his reign and carry him across the Channel as a would-be warrior on two separate occasions--first as a hearty and headstrong young prince and finally as a gross, decrepit and deluded old man.

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What, then, were the roots of Henry's craving for conquest, and, equally importantly, what were its consequences for the realm he ruled?

Puissance

There is no doubt, in fact, that the king's fixation with power, influence and military might--or what contemporaries termed 'puissance'--can be traced to his earliest years. Erasmus, for instance, who saw him a number of times during this period, was in no doubt that the prince's 'dream as a child had been the recovery of the French provinces'. And the influences which fanned this boyish fantasy blew, it seems, from every direction.

On the one hand, Henry was thoroughly immersed as a boy in a particularly potent, if largely mythical, set of conventions derived from the medieval code of chivalry. In the year of his birth, more than a score of books extolling knightly virtues and heroic deeds were in circulation from William Caxton's presses alone, and the high points of English valour during the Hundred Years' War, such as Edward III's siege of Tournai in 1340 and the capture of Therouanne six years later, were all indelibly etched on his mind by tutors, such as the poet John Skelton. Having been duly reared, too, on romantic tales of the Holy Grail and Round Table, Henry's later reading of Malory and Froissart was also of English kings waging triumphant war on French soil.

This chivalric culture was by no means confined to literature and the classroom, however. From the time of his initiation as Prince of Wales in 1502, Henry had been encouraged to keep the company of other boys and youths, known as 'henchmen', who would prove instrumental in shaping his mental world. Varying considerably in age, their number included Edward Neville, Henry Courtenay, Nicholas Carew and, most famously of all, the glamorous and extrovert Charles Brandon. Together these individuals were enlisted to participate in Henry's exhaustive military training and, in due course, they would come to constitute a throbbing circle of 'boon companions', which thrived on mock combat and endless tales of 'bold bawdry and open manslaughter'.

At the same time, Henry's intense chauvinism was being steadily reinforced by his own family. It was widely known, for instance, that the boy's hugely influential grandmother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, harboured her own smouldering sense of grievance against the French, as a result of their persistent failure to repay a ransom fee advanced by her mother on behalf of the Duke of Orleans after his capture at the battle of Agincourt. …

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