A WAR OF WORDS – LETTERS FROM HENRY VIII’s WAR IN FLANDERS
In the summer of 1513 Henry VIII found himself besieging the small, but heavily fortified, town of Thérouanne in Northern France. In the early years of his reign, Henry’s overriding ambition was to add the crown of France to the crown of England won by his father (at the Battle of Bosworth) and he based his claim on the fact that his great-grandmother had been the French princess Catherine of Valois (daughter of the French king defeated at Agincourt and widow of the victorious Henry V).
To strengthen this highly dubious link to the French monarchy, Henry joined Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian and Spanish King Ferdinand in their alliance against the French King Louis XII, something facilitated by Henry’s marriage to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon in 1509. On June 30th 1513 Henry arrived in Calais, all that was left of Medieval England’s once vast empire in France, at the head of 30,000 men and at the request of Emperor Maximilian he laid siege to Thérouanne.
Henry had left his queen to rule England in his absence and Catherine’s letters suggest that she had a genuine affection for her husband. Writing to the imperial court on August 1st 1513, Catherine asks Margaret of Savoy (the emperor’s daughter and governor of Flanders in her own father’s absence) to send her best physician to tend Henry. She also writes to Henry’s almoner Thomas Wolsey (the future cardinal and Lord Chancellor) urging him to keep the king safe.
Catherine to Wolsey:
“We are glad to hear the King passes so well [in] his dangerous passage, and trusts he will always have the best of his enemies [but we are] troubled to hear the King was so near the siege of Terouenne [sic]…”
Wolsey to Catherine:
“Be assured of the good heed he takes to avoid all manner dangers. With his health and life nothing can come amiss to him…”
Catherine is greatly relieved to hear this, especially as she has troubles of her own. The French king Louis XII has invoked the ‘Auld Alliance’ with Scotland and paid the Scottish King James IV 50,000 florins to open a ‘second front’ by invading England from the north. On August 13th Catherine writes:
“…we are all very glad to be busy with the Scots… my heart is very good to it, and I am horribly busy with making standards, banners, and badges. Pray send word whether ye received the letters that I sent unto you [to deliver] to the King [of Spain] my father, and what answer he gave you to it."
With Catherine keeping the Scottish situation under control, Henry began to enjoy life on campaign. The contemporary chronicler Edward Hall records that Henry “…had for himself a house of timber with a chimney of iron…” and on August 13th he met with his ally Maximilian. The two men spent several days feasting but whilst the old emperor urged caution the hot headed English king (who was just 22 years old) was eager for battle. A letter written by the imperial emissary Paul Armestorff, again to Margaret of Savoy, declares:
“Though the Emperor, experienced in war, makes many difficulties about assaulting Thérouanne, the King of England desires to head the attack, promising to make sufficient breaches in three days. It is hard to keep them back…”
Indeed the siege was reaching a critical phase and the imminent arrival of a French relief force, which included the Yorkist pretender Richard de la Pole at the head of 6,000 battle-hardened landsknecht mercenaries, threatened to break Henry’s stranglehold on the town. On the eve of battle, the French commander felt so confident he sent letters to the Doge of Venice, France’s ally, promising a swift and decisive victory:
“The English are about to retire and there is no doubt that the King [of France]will have the victory because Therouenne [sic] holds out and is well victualled… The King of Scotland is to invade England today. He has sent 24 ships to help France and will invade with 60,000 men…”
On August 16th, in preparation for the final assault, the French planned to resupply the beleaguered town by sending a party of 800 stradiots (Albanian light cavalry), with sides of bacon and bags of corn tied to their saddles, through the English lines whilst the French infantry and heavy cavalry created a diversion. However a party of English ‘prickers’ (English light cavalry from the rugged Anglo-Scottish border country) discovered the French army drawn up in battle formation. We know what happened next because a letter written by Henry to Margaret of Savoy has survived:
“Yesterday morning… news came that all the French horse were moving, some toward Gynegate, the others to the place where Lord Talbot was stationed before Terouenne to cut off supplies. A skirmish took place and there were taken on his side 44 men and 22 wounded. The French, thinking that the English were still beyond the [River] Lys, considered they would not be in time to prevent them re-victualling the town. The English horse however confronted the French, who were three times their number. Several encounters took place and men were wounded on both sides. After this, in the Emperor's company, advanced straight against the French, causing the artillery to be fired at them, whereupon they [the French] immediately began to retire, and were pursued for 10 leagues without great loss to the English. Nine or ten standards were taken and many prisoners… “
Henry R - at the camp at Gynegate, before Terouenne, August 17th 1513
Ten leagues is about 30 miles and chroniclers on both sides immediately dubbed this skirmish The Battle of the Spurs because of the speed of the French retreat! Though the fighting barely merited the title ‘battle’ the French rout at Thérouanne, combined with the Scottish defeat at Flodden a few weeks later, did mark a turning point in the war. Louis sued for peace and a condition of the truce was that the French king withdraw his support for Richard de la Pole’s planned invasion of England. The Yorkist rebel was banished to Metz (then a free city in the Holy Roman Empire) but his exile did nothing to curb the ambitions of the last White Rose. Richard was soon plotting to overthrow the hated Tudors...a plot that forms the basis of The Devil's Band. To order click here