Read BOOK II : CHAPTER II of A History of England Principally in the Seventeenth Century‚ Volume I, free online book, by Leopold von Ranke, on


For the history of the world the decisive event of the epoch was the rapid rise of the French monarchy, which after it had freed itself from the English invasions, became master of all the hitherto separate territories of the great vassals, and lastly even of Brittany, and rapidly began to make its preponderance felt on all sides.

Considered in itself no one would have been more called on to oppose this than the King of England, who even still bore the title of King of France. In fact Henry did once revive his claim on the French crown, on Normandy and Guyenne, and took part in a coalition, which was to have forced Charles viii to give up Brittany; he crossed to Calais and threatened Boulogne. But he was not in earnest with these comprehensive views in his military enterprise, any more than Edward iv had once been in a similar one. Henry vii was contented when a considerable money payment year by year was secured to him, as it had been to Edward. The English called it a tribute, the French a pension. It was acceptable to the King, and advantageous for his home affairs, just at that moment 1492 to have a sum of money at his free disposal.

And no one could have advised him to attach himself unconditionally to the house of Burgundy. Duke Charles’ widow was still alive, who found it unendurable that the house of York, from which she sprang, should be dethroned from its ’triumphant majesty, which shone over the seven nations of the world’ for so she expressed herself. With her the fugitive partisans of the house of York found refuge and protection: by herself and her son-in-law Maximilian of Austria the pretenders were fitted out who contested the crown with Henry vii. Henry could not really wish Brittany to pass to his sworn foe, so that he might be threatened from this quarter also at every moment. For how could he delude himself with the hope that a transitory alliance would prevail over a dynastic antipathy?

At this crisis Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain offered him an alliance and connexion by marriage.

That which induced this sovereign to do so was above all Charles VIII’s invasion of Italy, and his conquest of Naples, to which the crown of Aragon had just claims. His plan was to oppose to the mighty consolidated power of France a family alliance with the Austro-Burgundian House, with Portugal, above all with England: he hoped that this would react on Italy, always wont to adhere to the most powerful party. Ferdinand offered the King of England a marriage between his youngest daughter Catharine and the Prince of Wales. In the English Privy Council many objections were made to this; they did not wish to draw the enmity of France on themselves and would have rather seen the prince united to a princess of the house of Bourbon, as was then proposed. It was on Henry VII’s own responsibility that the offer was accepted. In September 1496 an agreement was come to about the conditions: on 15th August 1497 the ceremony of betrothal took place in the palace at Woodstock.

The motive which impelled Henry to his decision is sufficiently clear; it was his relation to Scotland, on which the Spaniards already exercised influence.

There the second pretender, Perkin Warbeck, had found a warm reception from the young and chivalrous James iv: he there married a lady of one of the chief houses: accompanied in person by this sovereign he made an attempt to invade England, which only failed owing to the unfavourable time of the year. The Spanish ambassador Pedro de Ayala then out of regard to Henry secured Perkin’s withdrawal from Scotland. But in 1497 the danger revived in a yet greater degree. Warbeck landed in Cornwall where all the inhabitants rallied round him, and a revolt already once suppressed broke out again; at this moment James iv, urged on by the nobles of the land, crossed the border with a splendid army: the co-operation of the two movements might have placed the King in a serious difficulty. Again it was the Spanish ambassador who made James iv determine not to let himself be urged on further; but rather to give him the commission, to adjust his differences with England. Henry vii was set free to suppress the revolt in Cornwall; Perkin Warbeck was taken in his flight.

As the object of the Spaniards was to sever Scotland from her old alliance with France, and that too by means of a family alliance, it was an essential point in their mediation that Henry vii, as he betrothed his son Arthur to a Spanish Infanta, should similarly betroth his daughter Margaret to James iv. The understanding with Spain and that with Scotland went hand in hand.

And on another side too the alliance with Spain was very useful to the King of England. Ferdinand had married his elder daughter Juana to Maximilian’s son the Archduke Philip: Philip could not possibly uphold the Yorkist interests so zealously as his father or his grandmother. It was an event of importance that at Whitsuntide 1500 a meeting took place between the English and the Austro-Burgundian Court in the neighbourhood of Calais. Henry applied himself to win over those whom he knew to be his enemies: but at the same time he wished it to be remarked that the Archduke showed him the honour which belongs to a lawful King. If there were still Yorkist partisans in England, who placed their hopes in the house of Burgundy, they would find that they had nothing more to hope from that quarter.

So the Spanish alliance served the prudent and circumspect politician, to secure him from any hostile action on the side of Scotland and the Netherlands. When Catharine in 1501 came to England for her marriage, she was received with additional joy because it was felt that her near connexion with the Burgundian house promised good relations with the Netherlands.

But never was a more eventful marriage concluded.

We do not know whether the Prince of Wales had really consummated it when he died before he was yet sixteen. But the two fathers were so well satisfied with an alliance which increased the security of the one and gained the other great consideration in the world, that they could not bring themselves to give up the family connexion, by which it was so much strengthened. The thought occurred to Ferdinand a very unusual one in the rest of the European world, though not indeed in Spain of marrying the Infanta to Henry, brother of the deceased prince, who was now recognised as Prince of Wales. With his condolence for the loss he united a proposal for the new marriage. In England from the beginning men did not hide from themselves that as regarded the future succession, which ought not to be contested from any side, the matter had its delicate points. The solution which Henry found shows clearly enough the natural tactics of the old politician. He obtained from the Roman Court a dispensation for the new marriage, which expressly included the case of the first marriage having been consummated. But it almost appears as though he did not fully trust this authorisation. High as the prestige of the supreme Pontiff still stood in the world, there were yet cases in which canonists and theologians doubted as to his dispensing power; men could not possibly have forgotten that, when Richard iii wished to marry his niece Elizabeth, a number of doctors disapproved of such a marriage, even if the Pope should sanction it. At any rate Henry vii instigated, or at least did not oppose, his son’s solemnly entering a protest, after the marriage ceremony between him and Catharine was performed, against its validity (on the ground of his being too young), the evening before he entered his fifteenth year, in the presence of the Bishop of Winchester, his father’s chief Secretary of State. Hence all remained undecided. Catharine lived on in England: her dowry did not need to be given up; the general influence of the political union was saved; it could however be dissolved at any moment, and there was therefore no quarrel on this account with France, whence from time to time proposals proceeded for a marriage in the opposite interest. The prince kept himself quite free, to make use of the dispensation or not.

For the King himself too, whose wife died in 1503, many négociations were entered into on both sides. The French offered him a lady of the house of Angoulême; he preferred Maximilian’s daughter, Margaret of Austria, not indeed for her personal qualities, however praiseworthy they might be; he stipulated after his usual fashion for the surrender of the fugitive Edmund de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who was regarded as the chief representative of the house of York, and (as once previously in France) had at that time found a refuge in the Netherlands. Philip, who after the death of his mother-in-law wished to take possession of his wife’s kingdoms in Spain, was on his voyage from Flanders driven by a storm on the English coasts: he was Henry’s guest at Windsor, Richmond, and London. Here then the King’s marriage with Philip’s sister was concerted, and with it the surrender of Suffolk. Philip strove long against this: when he yielded, he at least got a promise that Henry vii would spare the life of the earl, whom he accused of treason. He kept his word: the prisoner was not executed till after his death.

Margaret had no inclination to wed herself with the harsh and self-seeking King, who was growing old: he himself, when Philip shortly after his arrival in Castile was snatched away by an early death, formed the idea of marrying his widow Juana, though she was no longer in her right mind. He opened a négociation about it, which he pursued with zeal and apparent earnestness. The Spaniards ascribe to him the project of marrying himself to Ferdinand’s elder daughter, and his son to the younger, and making the latter marriage, which he was purposely always putting off, the price of his own. One should hardly ascribe such a folly to the prudent and wise sovereign at his years and with his failing strength. That he made the proposals admits of no doubt: but we must suppose that he wished purposely to oppose to the pressure of the Spaniards for the marriage of his son with the Infanta a demand which they could never grant. For how could they let the King of England share in Juana’s immense claims of inheritance? Henry wished neither to break off nor to complete his son’s marriage; for the one course would have made Spain hostile, while the second might have produced a quarrel with France. Between these two powers he maintained an independent position, without however mixing in earnest with their affairs, and only with the view of warding off their enmity and linking their interests with his own. His political relations were, as he said, to draw a brazen wall round England, within which he had gradually become complete lord and master. The crown he had won on the battlefield, and maintained as his own in the extremest dangers, he bequeathed to his son as an undoubted possession. The son succeeded the father without opposition, without a rival a thing that had not happened for centuries. He had only to ascend the throne, in order to take the reins of government into his hand.

Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey in their earlier years.

But that the political situation should continue as it was could not be expected. What has not seldom in the history of great kingdoms and states formed a decisive turning point now came to pass: to the father who had founded and maintained his power with foresight and by painful and continuous labour, succeeded a son full of life and energy, who wished to enjoy its possession, and feeling firm ground under his feet determined to live in a way more after his own mind. Henry viii too felt the need of being popular, like most princes on their accession: he sacrificed the two chiefs of the fiscal commission, Empson and Dudley, to the universal hate. In general his father’s point of view seemed to him too narrow-hearted, his proceedings too cautious.

The first great question which was laid before him concerned his marriage: he decided for it without further delay. No doubt that in this political reasons came chiefly into account. France had been ever growing mightier, it had just then struck down the republic of Venice by a great victory; men thought it would one day or another come into collision with England, and held it prudent to unite themselves beforehand with those who could then be useful as allies. At that time this applied to the Spaniards above all others. Yet, unless everything deceives us, political considerations only coincided with the prince’s inclinations. The Infanta was in the full bloom of her age; the prince, was even younger than herself and against his will had been kept apart from any association with her, might well be impressed by her: besides she had known how to conduct herself with tact and dignity in her difficult position; with a blameless earnest mien she combined gentleness and loveable qualities. The marriage was carried out without delay; in the ceremonies of her husband’s coronation Catharine could actually take part as Queen. How fully did these festivities again breathe the ancient character of chivalrous splendour. Men saw the King’s champion, with his own herald in front, in full armour, ride into the hall on his war-steed which carried the armorial bearings of England and France; he challenged to single combat any one who would dare to say that Henry viii was not the true heir of this realm; then he asked the King for a draught of wine, who had it given him in a golden cup: the cup was then his own.

Henry viii had a double reason for confidence on his throne, the blood of the house of York also flowed in his veins. In European affairs he was no longer content with keeping off foreign influences, he wished to take part in them like his ancestors with the whole power of England. After the dangers which had been overcome had passed out of the memory of those living, the old delight in war awoke again.

When France now began to encounter resistance in her career of victory, first through Pope Julius ii, then through King Ferdinand, Henry did not hesitate to make common cause with them. It marks his disposition in these first years, that he took arms especially because men ought not to allow the supreme Priest of Christendom to be oppressed. When King Louis and the Emperor Maximilian tried to oppose a Council to the Pope, Henry viii dissuaded the latter from it with a zeal full of unction. He drew him over in fact to his side: they undertook a combined campaign against France in which they won a battle in the open field, and conquered a great city, Tournay. Aided by the English army Ferdinand the Catholic then possessed himself of Navarre, which was given up to him by the Pope as being taken when it was in league with an enemy of the Church. Louis’s other ally, the Scottish King James iv, succumbed to the military strength of North England at Flodden, and Henry might have raised a claim to Scotland, like that of Ferdinand to Navarre: but he preferred, as his sister Margaret became regent there, to strengthen the indirect influence of England over Scotland. On the whole the advantages of his warlike enterprises were for England small, but not unimportant for the general relations of Europe. The predominance of France was broken: a freer position restored to the Papacy. Henry viii felt himself fortunate in the full weight of the influence which England had won over European affairs.

It was no contradiction of the fundamental ideas of English policy, when Henry viii again formed a connexion with Louis xii, who was now no longer formidable. He even gave him his younger sister to wife, and concluded a treaty with him, by which he secured himself a money payment, as his predecessors had so often done before. Yet he did not for this break at all with Ferdinand the Catholic, though he had reason to complain of him: rather he concluded a new alliance with him, only in a less close and binding manner. He would not have endured that the successor of Louis xii (who died immediately after his marriage), the youthful and warlike Francis I, after he had possessed himself of Milan, should have also advanced to Naples. For a moment, in consequence of these apprehensions, their relations became less close: but when the alarm proved to be unfounded, the alliance was renewed, and even Tournay restored for a compensation in money. Many personal motives may have contributed to this, but on the whole there was sense and system in such a policy. The reconquest of Milan did not make the King of France so strong that he would become dangerous, particularly as on the other side the monarchy which had been prepared by the Spanish-Netherlands’ connexions now came into existence, and the grandson of Ferdinand and Maximilian united the Spanish kingdoms with Naples and the lordship over the Netherlands.

To this position between the two powers it would have lent new weight and great splendour if the German princes could have been induced to transfer to the King of England the peaceful dignity of a Roman-German Emperor. He bestirred himself about this for a moment, but did not feel it much when it was refused him.

But now since the empire too was added to the possessions in Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands, and hence redoubled jealousy awakened in King Francis I, which held out an immediate prospect of war, the old question came up again before King Henry, which side England was to take between them, and that in a more pressing form than ever. A special complication arose from the fact that yet another person with separate points of view now took part in the politics of the age.

In another point Henry viii departed from his father’s tactics and habits; he no longer sat so regularly with his Privy Council and deliberated with them. He had been persuaded that he would best secure himself against prejudicial results from the discords that reigned among them, by taking affairs more into his own hand. A young ecclesiastic, his Almoner Thomas Wolsey, had then gained the greatest influence over him; he had been introduced alike into business and into intimacy with the King by Fox, Bishop of Winchester, who wished to oppose a more youthful ability to his rivals in the Privy Council. In both relations Wolsey was completely successful. It stood him in good stead that another favourite, Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who had married Henry’s sister (Louis XII’s widow), and was the King’s comrade in knightly exercises and the external show of court-life, for a long time remained in intimate friendship with him. Wolsey was conversant with the scholastic philosophy, with Saint Thomas Aquinas; but that did not hinder him from cooperating also in the revival of classical studies, which were just coming into notice at Oxford: he had a feeling for the efforts of Art which was then attaining a higher estimation, and an inborn talent for architecture, to which we owe some wonderful works. The King too loved building; the present of a skilfully cut jewel could delight him; and he sought honour in defending the scholastic dogmas against Luther’s views; in all this Wolsey seconded and supported him, he combined state-business with conversation. He freed the King from the consultations of the Privy Council, in which the intrinsic importance of the matter always weighs more than one’s own will; Henry viii first felt himself to be really King when business was managed by a favourite thoroughly dependent on him, trusted by him, and in fact very capable. Wolsey showed the most many-sided activity and an indefatigable power of work. He presided in court though he was not strong in law; he mastered the department of finance; the King named him Archbishop of York, the Pope Cardinal-Legate, so that the whole control of ecclesiastical matters fell into his hands; foreign affairs were peculiarly his own department. We have a considerable number of his political writings and instructions remaining, which give us an idea of the characteristics of his mind. Very circumstantially and almost wearisomely do they advance not exactly in a straight line weighing manifold possibilities, multiplied reasons: they are scholastic in form, in contents sometimes fantastic even to excess, intricate yet acute, flattering to the person to whom they are addressed, but withal filled with a surprising self-consciousness of power and talent. Wolsey is celebrated by Erasmus for his affability, and to a great scholar he may have been accessible, but to others he was not so. When he went to walk in the park of Hampton Court, no one would have dared to come within a long distance of him. When questions were asked him he reserved to himself the option of answering or not. He had a way of giving his opinion so that every man yielded to him; especially as the possession of the King’s favour, which he enjoyed, made it impossible to oppose him. If the government was spoken of, he was wont to say, ‘the King and I,’ or ‘we,’ or at last ‘I.’ Just because he was of humble origin, he wished to shine by splendid appearance, costly and rare furniture, unwonted expenditure. Early one morning his appointment as Cardinal arrived, that same morning at mass he displayed the insignia of his new dignity. He required outward tokens of reverence, and insisted on being served on bended knee. He had many other passions, of which the chief was ecclesiastical ambition pervaded by personal vanity.

It gave him high satisfaction that both the great powers emulously courted the favour and friendship of his King, of which he seemed to have the disposal.

In June 1520 took place within the English possessions on French soil the meeting between Henry viii and Francis I, which is well designated as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. It was properly a great tournament, proclaimed in both nations, to which the chief lords yet once more gathered in all their splendour. With the festivities were mingled négociations in which the Cardinal of York played the chief part.

Immediately before this in England, and just afterwards on the continent, Henry viii met Charles V also, with less show but greater intimacy; the négociations here took the opposite direction.

In 1521, when war had already broken out between the two great powers, the cardinal in his King’s name undertook the part of mediator. There in Calais he sat to a certain degree in judgment on the European powers. The plenipotentiaries of both sovereigns laid their cases before him: with apparent zeal and much bustle he tried at least to conclude a truce: he complained once of the Emperor, that he disregarded his good advice though weighty and to the point: on which the latter did come a step nearer him. It was a magnificent position if he understood and maintained it. The more powerful both princes became, the more dangerous to the world their enmity should be, the more need there was of a mediating authority between them. But the purity of intention which is required to carry out such a task is seldom given to men, and did not exist in Wolsey. His ambition suggested plans to him which reached far beyond a peace arbitration.

When he promoted that first interview with Francis I against the will of the great men and of the Queen of England, the Emperor’s ambassadors, who were thrown into consternation by it, remarked that the French King must have promised him the Papacy, which however, they add, is rather in the Imperial than in the royal gift. It does not appear that the Emperor went quite so far at once, he only warned the cardinal against the untrustworthy promises of the French, and sought to bring him to the conviction while making him the most advantageous offers that he could expect everything from him. Clear details he reserved till they met in person; and then he in fact drew him over completely to his side. Under Wolsey’s influence King Henry, immediately on the outbreak of the war, gave out his intention of making common cause with the Emperor. For he had not, he said, so little understanding as not to see that the opportunity was thus offered him of carrying out his predecessors’ claims and his own, and he wished to use it. Only he preferred not to commence war at once, since he was not yet armed, and since a broader alliance should be first formed. The cardinal hoped to be able to draw the Pope, the Swiss, and the Duke of Savoy, as well as the Kings of Portugal, Denmark, and Hungary, into it. What an impression then it must have made on him, when Pope Leo X, without being pressed, at once allied himself with the Emperor! Wolsey’s attempt at mediation no room for doubt about it is left by the documents that lie before us was only meant as a means of gaining time. At Calais Wolsey had already given the imperial ambassadors, in the presence of the Papal Nuncio, the most definite assurances as to the resolution of his King to take part in the war against France. Before he returned to England to call the Parliament together, which was to vote the necessary ways and means, he visited the Emperor at Bruges. At the last négociations, being at times doubtful about his trustworthiness, Charles V held it doubly necessary to bind him by every tie to himself. He then spoke to him of the Papacy, and gave him his word that he would advance him to that dignity.

The opportunity for this came almost too soon. When Leo X died, just at this moment, Wolsey’s hopes rose in stormy impatience. When the Emperor renewed his assurance to him, he demanded of him in plain terms to advance his then victorious troops to Rome, and put down by main force any resistance to the choice proposed. Before anything could be done, before the ambassador whom Henry viii despatched at once to Italy reached it, the cardinals had already elected, and elected moreover the Emperor’s former tutor, Hadrian. But was not this a proof of his irresistible authority? Hadrian’s advanced age made it clear that there would be an early vacancy: and to this Wolsey now directed his hopes. He gave assurance that he would administer the Papacy for the sole advantage of the King and the Emperor: he thought then to overpower the French, and after completing this work he already saw himself in spirit directing his weapons to the East, to put an end to the Turkish rule. At his second visit to England the Emperor renewed his promise at Windsor castle; he spoke of it in his conferences with the King. Altogether the closest alliance was concluded. The Emperor promised to marry Henry’s daughter Mary, assuming that the Pope would grant him the necessary dispensation. Their claims to French territories they would carry out by a combined war. Should a difficulty occur between them, Cardinal Wolsey was fixed on as umpire.

So did the alliance between the houses of Burgundy and Tudor come to pass, the basis of which was to be the annihilation of the power of the Valois, and into which the English minister threw his world-wide ambition. From England also a declaration of war now reached Francis I. Whilst the war in Italy and on the Spanish frontiers made the most successful progress, the English, in 1522 under Howard Earl of Surrey, in 1523 under Brandon Earl of Suffolk, both times in combination with Imperial troops, invaded France on the side of the Netherlands, invasions which, to say the least, very much hampered the French. Movements also manifested themselves within France itself, which awoke hopes in the King that he might make himself master of the French crown as easily as his father had once done of the English. Leo X had already been persuaded to absolve the subjects of Francis I from their oaths to him. It was in connexion with this that the second man in France, the Constable of Bourbon, slighted in his station, and endangered in his possessions, resolved to help himself by revolting from Francis I. He wished then to recognise no other King in France but Henry viii: at a solemn moment, after receiving the sacrament, he communicated to the English ambassador, who was with him, his resolution to set the French crown on King Henry’s head: he reckoned on a numerous party declaring for him. And in the autumn of 1523 it looked as if this project would be accomplished. Suffolk and Egmont pressed on to Montdidier without meeting with any resistance: it was thought that the Netherland and English forces would soon occupy the capital, and give a new form to the realm. Pope Hadrian was just dead at Rome; would not the united efforts of the Emperor and the King of England succeed, by their influence on the conclave, especially now that they were victorious, in really raising Wolsey to the tiara?

This however did not happen. In Rome not Wolsey but Julius Medici was elected Pope; the combined Netherland and English troops retreated from Montdidier; Bourbon saw himself discovered and had to fly, no one declared for him. This last is doubtless to be ascribed to the vigilance and good conduct of King Francis, but in the retreat of the troops and in the election of the Pope other causes were at work. In the conclave Charles V certainly did not act with as much energy for Wolsey as the latter expected: Wolsey never forgave him. But he too has been accused of having basely abused the confidence of the two sovereigns: he had kept up friendly connexions all along with Francis I and his mother, and they likewise had given him pensions and presents: he had purposely supported the Earl of Suffolk so ill that he was forced to retreat. Of all the complaints raised against him, not so much before the world as among those who were behind the scenes, this was exactly the most hateful and perhaps the most effectual.

In 1524 the English took no active part in the war. Not till February 1525, when the German and Spanish troops had won the great victory of Pavia and King Francis had fallen captive into the Emperor’s hands, did their ambitious projects and thoughts of war reawaken.

Henry viii reminded the Emperor of his previous promises, and invited him to make a joint attack on France itself from both sides: they would join hands in Paris; Henry viii should then be crowned King of France, but resign to the Emperor not merely Burgundy but also Provence and Languedoc, and cede to the Duke of Bourbon his old possessions and Dauphiné. The motive he alleges is very extraordinary: the Emperor would marry his daughter and heiress, and would at some future time inherit England and France also and then be monarch of the world. Henry declares himself ready to press on with the utmost zeal, provided he can do it with some security, and himself undertake the conduct of the war in the Netherlands and the support of Bourbon. The letter is from Wolsey, full of copious and pressing conclusions; but should not the far-reaching nature of its contents have been a proof even to him that it could never be taken in earnest?

Charles V could not possibly enter into the plan. He had lent it a hearing as long as it lay far away, but when it came actually close to view, it was very startling for him. The union of the crowns of France and England on the head of Henry viii would in itself have deranged all European relations, above all it would have raised that untrustworthy man, who was still all powerful in his Council, to a most inconvenient height of power. The Spanish kingdoms too were pressing for the settlement of their succession. He was in the full maturity of manly youth: he could not wait for Mary of England who had barely completed her tenth year: he resolved to break off this connexion, and give his hand to a Portuguese princess, who was nearly of his own age.

It could not be otherwise but that to the closest union, which was broken at the moment when it might well have been able to attain its object, the bitterest discord should succeed.