The Tudor Society

December Expert – Gareth Russell – Henry VIII as a military leader

In this month's expert talk, Gareth Russell (author of "A History of the English Monarchy" and editor of Tudor Life magazine) discusses the successes and failures of Henry VIII as a military leader, leading to some interesting and damning conclusions.

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  1. A

    Excellent analysis, Gareth! I hadn’t really thought all that much of Henry’s military prowess, but the fact of the matter is that he was surprisingly unsuccessful in most of his campaigns. I wonder if he would have been so obstinate in his quest for an heir if he had not have been so inept on the battlefield. Perhaps his words to Chapuys, “Am I not a man like other men?” came from insecurity in his masculinity not just in the pursuit of an heir, but also in his quest to dominate militarily. Had he been more successful, he may not have felt the need to destroy everyone else in his path to get that Prince of Wales.

  2. R

    Henry had many disadvantages as well, no foothold on the coast save Calais, so no vast regional area like Gascony or Normondy to fall back to for the winter. In 1523\4 Suffolk had the best chance to do something in France, being forced to stop just short of Paris due to two things, a freezing cold French winter that makes our winter look like Spring, plus the Regent Mary of Hungry could not resupply him as her lines had been cut off. Wolsey had interfered with his original plan and Suffolk set of much later in the year, the so called allies broke down and left and Suffolk was left exposed. Even if he attacked and took Paris he could not hold it and as the winter dug in his men got frost bite and died. 100 men were dying every week and promised reinforcements were not coming in time. He did what any decent commander does and put what was left of his army first, sending them home. Henry had a strop on and refused to listen. Then when he does come back a real soldier, Suffolk met Henry in the lists and proves his prowess. Unfortunately, Henry is so busy waving to everyone that he does not lower his viser and taken by surprise, Suffolk’s lance shattered under his helm almost killing the King. Henry gets up and fights six more courses, but he was a better jouster than a warrior. It is not that he did not achieve anything, he did not achieve what he could or keep what he won. It was and still is difficult to campaign in France, even Henry v found it so, so billing him as a full success is also nonsense. Henry v was also responsible for several atrocities to civilians, plus by the time he won a rather lucky victory at Agincourt he had a starving mob of an army left. The French riding into arrows over mud and rain helped, plus Henry v was a good general as well as a skilled and lucky one. Henry v also had territory to get more supplies from. Henry viii did not. It was expensive to hold the towns won in 1513 and he sold them back. In 1544 Suffolk again won the King Bolougne but as you say, dysentery took over and then the winter and they had to return home. Norfolk failed to take another town as Henry did not give him the support he needed. Again we had to sell it back. Henry could not resupply the towns, he did not have the resources. Mary I did not want to go to war with France, but after resisting for three years she gave in and reinforced Phillips army. Yes, she lost Calais as a result but so what, it was too expensive to keep hold of anyway. The English crown lost its inheritance rights to parts of France long before the Tudors. We had no right to attempt to get them back and it was not a bad thing that we lost them. It was arrogant stupidity to waste so much energy on French wars that at the end of the day were costly in terms of men and money. It may have been somewhat expected to be a warrior, but people also demanded more from their kings by now and I am certain Henry could have done more beneficial things and still been a great King. Don’t forget a lot of his fortune was also taken up by another fruitless task, his divorce.

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December Expert – Gareth Russell – Henry VIII as a military leader