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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

David Potter

Henry VIII and Francis I: The Final Conflict, 1540-47

History of Warfare 66. Leiden, Brill, 2011. xxix+562pp. $243.00/€177.00 ISBN 978-9004204317.

The war between England and France that lasted from 1543 to 1546 has left little mark in the collective memory—and would have left even less had the wreck of the English warship “Mary Rose” which sank in Portsmouth Sound during the conflict not been the subject of a notable piece of twentieth-century maritime archaeology. The war was not marked by any great battles and the main land operations were the English sieges of Montreuil (ultimately abortive) and Boulogne (successful). English and French fleets skirmished indecisively in the Channel in a campaign notable for the loss of both sides’ flagships under strange circumstances (the “Mary Rose” capsizing during manoeuvres to counter French galleys, the French “Philippe” set on fire by a kitchen accident during a fleet review). English and French forces also clashed in Scotland, but the outcome was a peace of mutual exhaustion that left Boulogne and an ill-defined hinterland in English hands and virtually guaranteed that the conflict would resume in the near future. In the longer perspective, it was the opening phase of a series of conflicts that resulted in the final liquidation of England’s gains from the Hundred Years War with the fall of Calais in 1558. On a more personal level, it proved to be the last hurrah for two of the three men whose conflicts and reconciliations had profoundly marked the history of Western Europe from the late 1510s. Old and sick, Henry VIII of England and François I of France nevertheless put their armour on for one last time and took the field, the last time a ruling English monarch would lead an army in continental Europe for almost a century and a half.

David Potter’s substantial work focuses on this half-forgotten conflict. In painstaking detail he examines the diplomacy leading up to the outbreak of formal hostilities, the campaigns on land and sea, the ongoing back channel negotiations which continued almost throughout the war, the competition between England and France to sign up German mercenary forces and finally, the efforts to make peace (brokered initially by German Protestant princes and ultimately mediated by a Venetian noble). He also casts an eye over the organisation of the English armies (as a counterpart to his Renaissance France at War [Boydell, 2008] http://www.deremilitari.org/REVIEWS/Potter_RenFranceatWar.htm that covered the French side of the equation) and the naval administration in both countries.

This is overall a very comprehensive study, though some areas are treated in a relatively summary way because Potter feels others have covered them in detail. The conflict in Scotland, for instance, is given rather compressed treatment that skips lightly over the complexities of Scottish domestic politics.

Potter argues the roots of the war lay in the short-lived reconciliation between the Emperor Charles V and François I in 1539 which raised the spectre that the two might unite against England if they were not at each other’s throats. This, he suggests, made Henry VIII and his councillors determined to participate in the next round of Valois/Habsburg warfare on somebody’s side. The only question was which side to join. A more sceptical view might be that Henry VIII was an old man spoiling for a fight and desperate to get back into the top league of European politics after a decade of English introversion due to the king’s matrimonial problems and the religious upheavals. The problem for Henry was that his Habsburg ally was less than committed to this particular war and suddenly made peace in mid-campaign, leaving England in the lurch. It was fortunate that the French (prodded hard by the German Protestant princes) were prepared to make an unsatisfactory peace in 1546 in preparation for the next confrontation with the Empire.

Potter’s examination of how the English armies were raised and administered suggests that the forces Henry deployed in France were distinctly old fashioned in equipment and structure. English attempt to recruit Landsknechts in Germany came to little. Troops recruited from England were a mix of men raised personally by royal office holders and select county levies. Bows and bills were more prominent than pike and shot. The output of the nascent iron gun founding industry in Kent went primarily for the navy rather than the king’s siege train at this time. English naval administration, however, appears to have been more effective than that of the land forces and somewhat ahead of its French counterpart. The English admiral John Dudley (1504-53), 1st Duke of Northumberland and Viscount Lisle (later Earl of Warwick) was able to make operational dispositions unburdened with quarrelsome allies like the galley-owning Strozzi brothers who plagued his French opponent Annebault (the impressed Hanseatic vessels which bulked large in the English fleet roster did not cause similar problems).

The key constraint was finance. France was already operating at the edge of its means and three years of war devastated English finances, despite moneymaking schemes like an attempt to corner the European lead market using material stripped from the roofs of dissolved monasteries. Indeed the need for cash may have pushed religious policy in more radical directions than the personally conservative Henry would have liked, as with the dissolution of the chantries in 1545. Above all, the war was fought in atrocious conditions. There was a run of wet summers, while plague devastated armies and fleets alike: Potter mentions a French galley drifting ashore in Normandy, its crew all dead of disease.

This haunting image is a rare testimony to the human cost of the conflict. After a fascinating introductory chapter that looks at the wider picture, the book becomes very detailed and at times narrow in its focus. This can make for rather dry reading. It is not always easy to relate events covered in different chapters to each other. For instance, the account of the siege of Montreuil barely mentions that Boulogne was also under siege at the same time. In other places, naval actions can end up separated from land operations that they were supporting. As so often with Brill publications, the text is littered with misprints and missing words- and given that the immediate vicinity of Boulogne was central both to the operational story of the war and the problems with the peace it is surprising that this is not covered in an otherwise full set of maps.

Brian G. H. Ditcham

Independent Scholar <jasminjo2@aol.com>

Page Added: January 2012