How successful was Wolsey’s foreign policy in satisfying the ambitions of Henry VIII in the years to 1526? (24 marks)
The foreign policy of the 12 years following 1514 was Wolsey’s accounts have been written almost as if, during these years, Henry VIII only existed as a stamp and the decisions were made by Wolsey. It is apparent that Wolsey made most decisions on a day-to-day basis and occasionally took major initiatives without the King’s acknowledgement. Henry intervened decisively at times to redirect events at his pleasure.
Wolsey has to look like he was implementing the King’s policies even if he was pursuing his own ideas. Henry played a more significant role in the formation and conduct of Wolsey’s foreign policy than has traditionally been suggested.
It was argued that the aim was perused in order to preserve some influence for England in foreign affairs, by ensuring that no one attained such dominance that he could arrange matters without taking into account the interests of other states, such as England.
The claim was that Wolsey followed this policy by threatening to give his support to whichever side seemed likely to be worsted by the other. It was maintained that this policy was generally successful in ensuring that England’s international status remained high. This is the orthodox interpretation, where the main idea is that Wolsey wanted to maintain the balance of power.
However, J.J. Scarisbrick had serious doubt on the geniuses of Wolsey’s ambition to become Pope. He argued that Wolsey’s support of papal diplomatic initiatives was largely coincidental and happened because England and the Papacy shared common interests from time to time. Scarisbrick established a new ’revisionist’ interpretation based on the existence of a main aim and a preferred method. The aim was the established and maintenance of peace. The method was a variant of the old ’balance of power’ interpretation. He established this by claiming that Wolsey sought to achieve an ’unbalance of power’ that he tried always to join the stronger side, so that it would create a sufficient imbalance for the other side to realise that fighting was pointless. He claimed that this policy has not been more apparent to observers because Wolsey was not very good at implementing it and frequently made mistakes, which he attempted to justify by pretending that his aims and methods were other than they had been.
Henry had a very aggressive policy on France, until he eventually decided on trying to become the peacemaker of Europe. Henry wanted to regain the lost territory in northern France so he could be seen as a Great War lord with visions of honour and glory, but also to challenge Henry V’s title of the last great English warrior. The first sign of this aim being put into place is the first French war from 1512-1514. However the first expedition on June 1512 was a disastrous failure as Ferdinand of Aragon and Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian didn’t hold up to their end of the deal for an allied invasion. This shows Henrys naivety in foreign policy and the other European powers were using him to benefit themselves whilst sending him to his downfall. Wolsey gained his first experience of the duties and pitfalls involved in organising financing, transporting and feeding an army.
Wolsey was blamed by many for the shambles that developed after the army landed in France despite the fact that he was a junior member of the Royal Council. However, Henry did not blame Wolsey and the manner in which Wolsey had conducted himself in correspondence with Ferdinand of Aragon impressed Henry. Despite this Henry personally lead an army of 25,000 across the channel and took Thérouanne and Tournai in northern France and winning memorable battles such as the battle of the spurs. Wolsey was the Quarter-Master generally rather than the war minister. When a French force was defeated near Thérouanne, Wolsey’s reputation as a master organiser was enhanced.
The King’s growing trust in Wolsey enabled English diplomacy to shape, the guiding principle of which was to ensure that England, the least important of the three great western monarchies, was not left isolated against a Valois-Hapsburg alliance. Wolsey was the one who very effectively organised the second attempt on besieging France and made the peace agreements between the two nations in 1514, so it could be argued that the foreign policy towards the French at the time was policy’s that of Wolsey not Henry. Also in later years in the second French war 1522-25 Henry was yet again let down by his allies Charles V and Duke of Bourbon, which shows he didn’t learnt from previous experiences and is not very knowledgeable in foreign policy. Henry’s policy in France benefited him slightly by collecting a pension from the French, but is failure as it shows he can be manipulated by other powers and lost huge amounts of money on war.
On a financial level the wars with France did have some bonuses one being the pensions they would receive due to the peace treaties. During Henry’s reign he managed to accumulate £730,379 in funds from the French; however this was in no comparison to the amount spent on the wars which was £3,545,765, so the pension was more of a consolation. D. MacCulloch quotes “Henrys demand for his pension was much more constant” which means he made sure he collected his money which shows he’s a strong king.
Wolsey was unable to prevent the Emperor’s friends from persuading Henry VIII that England must take some military action against France. Francis chose to ignore the warnings he’d been given. An English army was sent to France at short notice in August 1523. In the sixteenth century, military action proved to be much less decisive than its authors had expected. Wolsey’s and Henry’s passing enthusiasm for armed intervention evaporated, and Wolsey was allowed to implement his original strategy of stalling Charles’ demands for action while he was attempted to negotiate a general peace with the French.
But on February 1525, Charles secured the decisive victory that Wolsey had estimated to be so unlikely. In a battle that took place outside the walls of Pavia, in northern Italy, the unthinkable happened. Not only was the French army totally destroyed as an effective fighting force, but Francis I and most of his leading supporters were captured. This placed Charles in an overwhelmingly dominant position and Henry VIII was not slow to seek advantage of the situation. He realised that here was a rare opportunity to fulfil his intermittently held dream of securing the French crown for himself; Francis was prepared to launch fresh attacks on Charles within a year of his release.
Henry had hopes of launching an attack on France while she was leaderless, but he was forced to abandon these when he was unable to raise the necessary finance. It shows that Wolsey was less enthusiastic about this, as shown by the lack of determination in making success of the ‘Amicable Grant’ which was supposed to fund for this.
However Wolsey was certainly not diligent in encouraging the formation of an anti-imperial alliance (the League of Cognac) in northern Italy in 1526, with which France could associate in her efforts to reserve the verdict of Pavia.
A further aim of Henry’s was to achieve everlasting honour and glory. He wanted to be remembered throughout the ages and to have a huge reputation in Europe and be among the great superpowers in Europe. He achieved historical remembrance quite easily from the many famous acts he passed; however he did bathe in a huge amount of glory and honour when the field of cloth of gold was held. This was a spectacular array of games held in Calais 1520 between Henry and Francis, it was meant to be a diplomatic meeting however no agreements were made, yet it did make Henry look good.
However he failed on a lot of attempted invasions to France, but he overall succeeded in acquiring a degree of honour and glory in Europe. It seems that Henry and Francis viewed the occasion as no more than an opportunity to impress others of their wealth and international standing. The field of Cloth of Gold did nothing to advance the cause of general peace. If anything it created problems for Wolsey in convincing the rest of Europe that England was not taking sides in the already developing struggle for supremacy between Francis I and Charles V. Henry was most grateful to Wolsey for making it appear to the World that he was the equal of the two ‘super power’ rulers of Europe.
Henry also managed to achieve success by maintaining links with the Netherlands. England depended on the Antwerp cloth market heavily as cloth was England biggest trading material at the time. Henry tried to maintain this link throughout, by allying with Charles V whenever he went to war, as Charles was in control of the Netherlands at the time.
As years passed, Henry began to portray the image of being the peacemaker of Europe. Under the guidance of Wolsey Henry began to use the treaty of London in his own favour to try and achieve a peaceful Europe. It could be argued that Henry only resorted to this as he couldn’t achieve honour through war. However he undertook this role to try and make the country look good, cement his place at the top of the leader board in Europe and make England look bigger and more powerful than what it really was. He also used the treaty of London so he had alliance requests from Charles V and Francis I before the Hapsburg-Valois war, so he could choose which side would benefit him the most.
In October 1518 the treaty was signed, with Wolsey being the organiser. England and France were the first signatories and within a few months, Spain and the Papacy also signed. It was a grandiose scheme’ intended to bind the 20 leading states of Europe to perpetual peace with one another. The plan was for all those states with an active foreign policy not only to commit themselves to non-aggression, but to promise to make war on any ruler who went against the treaty, thus making it impossible for any state to benefit from attacking another. Wolsey delivered an oration in praise of peace that was much acclaimed. This wasn’t actual topic that the Pope had organised it for, buy Wolsey changed it. This could be seen as Wolsey trying to get his own way and for his own gain, but it benefited himself, Henry and all of England.
Historians have generally viewed this initiative as yet another example of Wolsey’s cynical self-interest. The public perception was that Wolsey was working to implement the Pope’s wishes because he was using the fact that he was acting as the Pope’s representative because he was Legatus a Latere. Others have maintained that he was merely seeking to satisfy his sense of his own importance by being seen to be the peacemaker (arbiter) of Europe, and to be treated as such during the extensive public celebrations that accompanied the unveiling of the treaty. Many believe that he was guilty of sacrificing national interests for personal gain.
A Hapsburg-Valois conflict began when Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. This situation presented Henry VIII and Wolsey with both continuous opportunities and frequent challenges. Given the strategic position that England enjoyed, being able either to disrupt Charles’s communications between Spain and Netherlands or to open a new front in any attack on France, her favours were certain to be in great demand from the two major powers. Wolsey was called on to pay some of the price for his triumph of the Treaty of London. Francis I had been happy enough to receive his reward for agreeing to join the Cardinal’s ‘grand design’ but he had no intention of being constrained by its terms on conditions. Francis was determined to strengthen his position in Northern Italy by military action against Charles and his supporters.
Charles called upon England another to come to his assistance to halt the aggressor. In August 1521, Wolsey travelled to Bruges in Netherlands in order to meet with Charles on the action to be taken. The agreement made with Charles was that an English army would invade France unless Francis agreed to make peace. The mere threat of English action would be sufficient to persuade France to make terms. Wolsey had experience of Francis’ stubbornness that he must have realised that a threat was likely to be insufficient. He was more than satisfied with the honour that his meeting with Charles had brought him.
Henry however failed in securing his dynasty. He married his daughter Mary off to Charles V. However it failed because Mary and Charles did not have children. But, in 1514 Louis XII of France became a widower. Wolsey seized the opportunity to propose a Valois-Tudor alliance to be sealed by the offer in marriage of Mary, sister of Henry VII. With Henry’s willing consent, the marriage went ahead and the ensuring treaty gave Henry an annuity of 100,000 crowns and confirmed English possession of Tournai. The success of the negotiations had enabled Wolsey to cement his place as the King’s chief diplomat.
Scarisbrick’s interpretation has not been replaced by an alternative straightforward explanation. This is because it has become more and more apparent that no coherent pattern ever existed in Wolsey’s approach to diplomacy. It is now widely accepted that there was no single guiding principle that directed his actions throughout his 15 years in power. At differing times he was motivated by selfish considerations, especially a desire to obtain more extensive or longer-lasting delegated powers from the Pope.
The need to satisfy the expectations of Henry VIII to further what he considered to be national or papal interests and by an altruistic inclination to benefit mankind by creating an era of peace. It is impossible to detect if many or all of these motives were behind each decision he made. There is not enough evidence to judge the importance of these motives. So in conclusion, Wolsey’s foreign policy to a great extent, satisfied Henry’s ambitions because Wolsey did exactly what Henry wanted; even though he thought about himself a lot.