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English International Relations During The Tudors History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

One was the Hanseatic League of North German ports, whos privileged and controversial trading position in England had been established by the treaty of Utrecht with Edward IV in 1474. The other was the Netherlands. Anglo-Netherlands relations hinged on the trading monopoly over English cloth exports granted by Henry VII to the Merchant Adventurers

Company and the subsequent commercial treaty, the Magnus Intercursus (Great Intercourse), of 1496. Henry VII’s attempted revision of the treaty in England’s favour in 1506, nicknamed the ‘malus intercursus’ in the Netherlands, created a running dispute over the terms of trade. Despite a series of major negotiations on the subject throughout the century, no final settlement was reached.

In 1543 mutual hostility to France brought about a brief and self-interested reconciliation between Henry VIII and Charles V. The Emperor made peace with France in the following year, compensating Henry with a treaty for mutual defence (the declaration of Utrecht) in

1546. This was a price Charles was willing to pay to isolate the Schmalkaldic League.

Thanks to Henry’s death and the decision of Edward VI’s government to revive ‘the rough wooing’ with Scotland, Charles was able to defeat the League decisively in 1547. Despite the declaration of Utrecht, he remained studiously neutral during the ensuing Anglo-French confrontation over Scotland, limiting his involvement in England to the protection of Princess

Mary. Edward’s government, seriously damaged by the failure of the Scottish war, was too cautious to support the Lutheran revolt of 1551-1552 and then became obsessed by the possibility of a Habsburg break-up following the Emperor’s physical collapse at the beginning of 1553.

Nevertheless, despite the defeat of the Armada, she continued to wage war with Spain defensively with some form of restoration of the status quo ante being the assumed outcome. She did not seek a decisive victory over Spain – for which she was regularly criticised – nor attempt to seize Spanish colonies. Her immediate strategic aim was the destruction of the Spanish fleet so it could pose no threat to her. In 1598 there was a revision of the treaty with the United Provinces, under which they took over the paying of the English troops there, but at the price of reduced English political influence.

The war was widely seen as a personal struggle between Elizabeth and Philip and as a result both sides assumed that peace would not be made until one or the other died. Philip’s death in

1598 was followed by an attempt at a settlement in 1600, but neither side was willing to compromise and the Spaniards decided to wait until Elizabeth died, a policy that bore fruit in 1604. For all the criticisms of Elizabeth’s conduct of foreign policy, she had at least ensured that Habsburg control of the Netherlands was limited to the defence of the southern provinces. In retrospect, the relationship between the Tudors and the Habsburgs during the course of the century had always hinged on the Netherlands, the main point of contact.

Whatever the wider dynastic, religious or strategic aspects of the relationship, the importance of amity between England and the Netherlands to their mutual prosperity meant that both dynasties had either to maintain a wider peace or try to dominate the other, either diplomatically or by force. Concern about the Netherlands caused Charles V to hesitate over going to war with Henry VIII and then seize the opportunity for dynastic union. The Dutch Revolt paralysed Philip its relations with England and provided Elizabeth with the opportunity for a new relationship with the Netherlands that, whatever her caution, she could not reject.

The relation with Spain

When Elizabeth became Queen in 1558 on the death of her half-sister Mary, England had a decent relationship with Spain. Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain obviously helped to cement this even if the marriage itself was not a success. There were those in the Privy Council and Parliament who believed that Elizabeth would marry Philip herself to ensure that both nations stayed close. However, this was not to be and during the first ten years of Elizabeth’s reign a drift occurred between England and Spain. Historians do not believe that this was a deliberate policy by either nation – it simply happened. Religion was not the cause of this as Philip made it clear that he wanted Elizabeth on the throne of England as opposed to Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) who would have been pro-France, the result of her marriage to Francis II, king of France. Even though Francis died young and Mary returned to her native Scotland, she was still held in high regard in Paris and she, herself, was pro-France. The last thing that Philip wanted was a pro-French English monarch. On two occasions he used his influence to pressurise the Pope into excommunicating Mary. While Elizabeth was a heretic in the eyes of Spain, a good relationship with England ensured that the French felt sufficiently surrounded by two enemies – enough to put her off of any expansionist policy.


Regardless of this, a separation between Spain and England did occur. It may have been the result of Elizabeth’s failure to marry Philip. Philip may have got the idea that Elizabeth would marry him as a matter of course. When this did not occur, Philip may have let his personal feelings influence his policy decisions. However, there is no proof of this.


Two areas of major contention between both states were the Netherlands and the activities of English sea dogs in Spanish waters.


The Revolt in the Netherlands did a great deal to undermine the relations London had with Madrid. On the accession of Elizabeth in 1558, many Protestants who had fled England returned, primarily to London and East Anglia. These men were radicalised as a result of having to flee Mary’s attack on Protestants and their initial impact on regional society on their return was marked. Therefore there was a great deal of sympathy for the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. The success of the Duke of Alva against the rebels effectively forced Elizabeth into supporting the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. When this occurred, it could only have the result of driving more of a wedge between Madrid and London.

The relation with France

The sixteenth century was an unusual chapter in the long history of England’s complex

relations with France. At the beginning of the century only Calais remained of the English Crown’s once-extensive possessions on the other side of the Channel. If Henry VIII harboured ambitions of regaining the lost territories, capturing Boulogne in 1544, the English occupation of Boulogne lasted only until 1550 and Calais fell in 1558. Throughout the century there was also a diplomatic (and occasionally military) struggle for influence over Scotland. The early 1560s saw a real novelty as England gained ideological allies in France, the Huguenots (the French Protestants). The reign of Elizabeth was characterised by a quadrilateral relationship between England, the French Crown, the Huguenots and Scotland.

The personal relationship between Henry VIII and Francis I of France was an idiosyncratic compound of brotherhood, rivalry and mutual distrust. Under the treaty of London (4 October1518), they agreed as a gesture of good will to post one of their chamber gentlemen as ambassador resident at the other’s court. This was the first English resident embassy established by treaty and the only permanent English embassy of the century. The French embassy in London ranked with those in Rome and Madrid.3 Diplomatic contact was broken briefly by war (in the mid-1520s, 1544-1546 and 1557-1559), but restored immediately afterwards. A further clause in the treaty was no less significant: an agreement to meet as soon as convenient. This was the origin of the best-known royal meeting of the century, the Field of the Cloth of Gold on the border of the Calais Pale in June 1520. Henry VIII and Francis I met again less formally in late 1532 on the eve of Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. It was said that Henry’s death in January 1547 hastened Francis’s own two months later. The Reformation played a much more ambiguous role in England’s relations with the French Crown than with Emperor Charles V or his son, Philip II of Spain. Initially this was because Francis It’s priority was his rivalry with Charles V and the spread of Protestantism threatened to deprive France of a number of allies. As a result the French Crown tended to conduct its foreign policy as if the Reformation had never happened, a policy well established by the seventeenth century, when Cardinal Richelieu defended it as raison d’état.11 Yet religion could not be ignored entirely, especially in Scotland, where by the 1540s England was associated with the Protestant interest and France with the Catholic.

The relation with Rome

A clear understanding of Henry VIII’s relationship with his ministers is fundamental to any analysis of Tudor politics and policy-making. The topic has been debated intensively, if inconclusively, over the last thirty years, but a consensus is emerging. Henry VIII, it is generally agreed, was less consistently the author of his own policy than Edward IV or Henry VII, but it is wrong to cast him either as an ‘absentee landlord’, who delegated the affairs of state to others, or as a ‘mental defective’, who needed his ministers to manage him. Henry VIII, like Elizabeth I, was uninterested in routine administration, but always wielded a decisive influence over key issues of policy: those related to war and foreign policy, to his marriages and the succession (and notably the tactics of his first divorce campaign), and to religion, especially the royal supremacy and the theology of the nascent church of England. To a greater extent than Elizabeth’s, Henry’s mind could be swayed by favoured councillors and intimates, but it is a mistake to see him as merely a tool of faction. John Foxe’s near-contemporary account, itself the origin of the factional interpretation of the politics of the reign of Henry VIII, contains an element of truth, but is tainted by exaggeration and blatant Protestant bias:

While good counsel was about him, and could be heard, the king did much good. So again, when sinister and wicked counsel, under subtle and crafty pretences, had gotten once the foot in, thrusting truth and verity out of the prince’s ears, how much religion and all good things went prosperously forward before, so much, on the contrary side, all revolted backward again.

The significance of this statement has been mistaken. When it was written, Foxe was under pressure to acclaim the role of Henry VIII as a ‘godly’ (i.e. reformed) prince, and thus to explain away the inconsistencies of Henrician religious policy and, in particular, the reversion to Catholic theology following the Act of Six Articles and Cromwell’s fall. He accomplished this by arguing that Henry merely followed his councillors’ advice, but this interpretation underestimates the impact of the king’s interventions.

For over a decade Henry and Wolsey governed as a partnership. The king required a minister to accomplish his ‘will and pleasure’, and Wolsey triumphantly succeeded. It follows from this interpretation that Wolsey was far more the loyal servant of the Crown than the traditional historiography has suggested. That does not imply that Henry VIII knew or approved of everything Wolsey did, nor did it oblige Henry to stand by his minister when things went wrong. By the middle of 1525 Wolsey was beginning to overreach him self in foreign policy, finance, and relations with the localities. Two years later came the beginning of the end: the burgeoning of the king’s ‘great matter’. And when Wolsey failed to resolve this in his legatine court at Blackfriars in the summer of 1529, he was disgraced. The partnership between king and minister was dissolved, and Henry sought new counsels. 

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