Total war in Tudor England

When Henry VIII led England into war, the entire nation felt the consequences. From soaring taxes and rising gun ownership to a surge of women in the workplace, Steven Gunn describes the impact of the king's foreign campaigns on the home front

Henry VIII “regarded his wars as the worthy successors of the great martial victories of England’s past”, says Steven Gunn. (Photo by PHAS/UIG via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine

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One day in the early 1520s John Byrcham, Robert Saumon, Bartholomew Storme and Robert Wyndell, all of Whitby, went out fishing. As they headed back to port with their catch they were intercepted by a French warship and taken prisoner.

The captured fishermen negotiated a ransom of 22 pounds, 6 shillings and 8 pence to free themselves, their ship and their fish. Byrcham hurried into Whitby and on to Bridlington to drum up the money from the ship’s owners: a widow called Elizabeth Dodys and William Browneflete, head of the town’s rich Augustinian priory. Byrcham then raced back and paid off the French, who let the ship go.

Unfortunately, the crew had precious little time to celebrate their release from their French captors, for they were seized once more – this time by Scottish raiders – before they could get back to harbour.

The four Whitby fishermen were probably cursing their bad luck for months after this ill-starred expedition. But they would hardly have been the only Englishmen to suffer at the hands of foreigners during the reign of Henry VIII. For around half of the king’s 38 years on the throne, England was embroiled in war (when Byrcham and co set out on their eventful fishing trip, Henry was fighting his second major war against the French and their Scottish allies in forlorn pursuit of the French throne). And with the Gaelic lords of Ireland and England’s traditional allies in the Low Countries also taking up arms against Henry, the impact of conflict would have been felt in every nook and cranny of Tudor society. Whether it was soldiers fighting on the continent, tax payers pouring funds into the war economy, or fishermen assailed by French and Scottish seamen, conflict was a regular fact of life for thousands of English men and women.

The English hordes

Part of the reason that Henry’s belligerence had such a powerful impact on Tudor England was that his armies and navies were so huge. Around 45,000 Englishmen fought in battle in 1513 – either in France or against the Scots. That’s four times the number that Henry V had needed to conquer Normandy a century before. Then in 1545, faced with a French invasion, more than 110,000 men stood ready for action, perhaps one in six adult males, or one in three of those fit to fight. Henry built more – and bigger – ships than any previous king. Then he loaded them – or, in the case of the doomed Mary Rose, overloaded them – with fighting men and guns.

To assemble such vast armies, Henry used the recruitment structures developed in the Wars of the Roses. He called on noblemen and gentlemen to bring their estate tenants and household servants to serve him, and for towns to send their respectable citizens. This had worked well enough for short civil war campaigns, or when attempting to repel invasions, but Henry’s over-use of the system broke it. Arduous marches through France or the long sieges that came with ever more powerful firearms – and the fortifications built to resist them – could prove deeply unpopular.

Elis Gruffudd, a Welsh veteran whose reminiscences provide a wonderful window on life inside Henry’s armies, complained about the “many wealthy farmers” from Essex and Suffolk, who spent their time “thinking of their wives and children and husbandry”, and mutinied when it looked as though the campaign of 1523 would keep them in France into the biting winter.

In London the guilds or livery companies largely gave up drafting their craftsmen for overseas service and found substitutes instead, men who all too often ran away with the clothes and weapons issued to them and sometimes had to be lodged in prison overnight before they marched off to war.

Peers and gentlemen found their tenants ever more likely to refuse service. At the end of his reign, Henry began to replace their retinues with drafts of militiamen raised by county muster commissioners.

Henry’s attempts to fund his wars met with equally mixed results. He managed to raise highly effective subsidies assessed on individual wealth or income. But some of his taxes provoked opposition in parliament – even revolts – and, by the end of his reign, taxpayers were reacting to repeated levies by under-assessing one another.

Henry was acutely aware that to prosecute protracted and expensive wars, he needed the population onside, and so bombarded his subjects with all kinds of propaganda. Astrological almanacs and widely repeated prophecies attributed to sages like Merlin predicted glorious victories. Manuscript newsletters and printed pamphlets kept people abreast of the latest developments on the battlefields. Public festivities with bonfires, bell-ringing and barrels of beer greeted such successes as the burning of Edinburgh and capture of Boulogne, both in 1544.

We know that people talked about Henry’s wars because sometimes they said the wrong thing. In January 1546, William Rye and Anthony Sprowston, riding across Norfolk, discussed how peace would make life easier for the hungry poor. Rye thought things must be even worse in France and Scotland, “which the kyng’s most noble grace has moste vyctoriously and noblely… overcome”. But Sprowston told Rye he was not impressed by the great English victory at Edinburgh. According to him, Henry’s troops merely plundered the town after a traitor let them in while most of the inhabitants were out at church or still in bed – an opinion that saw him hauled in for questioning before the magistrates of Norwich.

War also reached deep into the towns and villages of Henry’s England through the king’s demands that communities stockpile military equipment for their men. Parishes were required to accumulate “township arms”, and churchwardens’ accounts and surveys of church goods show that, by the 1540s, many parishes were doing so. Often they sold off plate or vestments to fund their acquisitions, just as the king himself had done after sacking England’s monasteries.

Henry wanted his armies kitted out in the same modern style as those of his continental rivals, so parishes and boroughs were told to replace the assortments of hand-me-downs in their armouries with pikes and arquebuses, and basic but effective handguns.

Once they had them, it was a struggle to keep them. York ordered its men returning from Scotland in 1542 to hand their armour in to their parish constable or pay compensation. In 1547, Foulsham in Norfolk grumbled that it had sent out armour for 20 men and got none back, “so that we remayne att thys tyme destytute not only for the maynteynyng off hys gracys warrs, but also for the defence off oure owne persons”.

Invasion scares touched the smallest of communities, as they contributed to coastal bulwarks or maintained warning beacons that could be fired in the event of a landing. At vulnerable ports like Harwich or Rye, women and children joined in forced labour to build earthwork fortifications. Across the nation, Henry’s wars, like his Reformation, made local authorities organise themselves more systematically and take more power over the populace.

Individuals as well as communities were meant to own arms. Muster returns, wills and household inventories show that the ownership of weapons correlated closely with wealth, that men kept weapons all over their houses, even in the cheese store or the children’s bedroom, and that they bequeathed them lovingly to friends and family.

Compulsory archery practice could be fun, as men competed with their neighbours and bet on their skill. Once guns began to spread, they became a desirable purchase too, useful for pest control and defence against burglary.

The spoils of war

In some ways, the stakes in war were highest for the upper classes. They had the strongest sense of an inherited duty of military service. One Buckinghamshire knight, Sir Edward Don, noted in his household book in 1533 his determination “no longer to lyve then to serve my naturel soveryne lorde in defendyng hym and hys realme in batayle as a man”. But the nobility’s motivations for going to war weren’t entirely selfless. Successful campaigning could win honour, power and wealth. Edward Seymour and John Dudley – the men who went on to dominate the government of Henry’s son, Edward VI – were the rising generals of Henry’s last wars.

Plenty of people further down the social ladder also profited from the king’s seemingly endless altercations with his neighbours. Captains and owners of privateering ships did well, as did the borderers who, on raids into Scotland, gathered thousands of sheep and cattle and hundreds of prisoners for ransom. Armourers got steady trade from keeping weapons fit for service, while cannon-founders, shipbuilders and horse-dealers all enjoyed a surge in business in wartime.

And while war took from some industries with one hand, it often gave back with the other. Cloth exports went down, but towns, parishes and landlords purchased cloth to dress their troops. Grain, cheese and meat were all bought up to supply armies and navies. Church construction nosedived in the wake of Henry’s Reformation, but builders got work putting up huge fortifications. As in later wars, women were drawn further into the workforce by the absence of men, crewing fishing boats when sailors were called away to man the king’s fleets.

Murderous gunfire

Conflict may have created new opportunities and challenges for tradesmen, but it was the front-line soldiers who put their lives on the line. To be drafted, however, was not a death sentence. Hand-to-hand combat or concentrated gunfire could be murderous, but English casualties, even in great battles such as Flodden (fought against the Scots in 1513), were not devastating. Diseases, mainly typhus, dysentery or plague, killed far more soldiers and sailors than combat. And cities could lose a quarter of their population to an epidemic, just as camps did.

Many of Henry’s soldiers made it home in one piece – and, when they did, the majority seem to have fitted seamlessly back into their old lives. Commentators were impressed by the English ability to mobilise large forces of part-timers who then “returned to cultivating the land and to their usual activities without tumult or the thought of it”.

War helped shape the king’s relationship with his subjects. Henry was insistent that his enemies were the enemies of his people, that his wars aimed to defend his subjects, that, as one circular letter put it, he daily endured “manifolde paines and labore of body” and “travell and care of mynde” to ensure “the defence and preservacion of them theire wiefes and children”.

The king regarded his wars as the worthy successors of the great martial victories of England’s past, triumphs that were celebrated in the cheap printed history books coming onto the market by the end of his reign. The magnificence of Henry’s campaigns – with their splendid royal banners and majestic ships – proclaimed the king’s greatness.

Conflict led the English to celebrate their differences from the foreigners in their midst, as French and Scottish residents were arrested and their goods confiscated. But it also allowed a celebration of diversity: the Welsh celebrated their heroics in native verse and the residents of Norwich teased a Lancashire priest by reminding him how the Duke of Norfolk’s men saved the north at Flodden.

Henry’s subjects were not always fighting wars, or even thinking about war. Work and play, love and children, heaven and hell loomed larger much of the time. But if we are to understand Tudor England, we need to remind ourselves how many lives were touched by Henry and his wars.

The king of conflict: Henry VIII’s wars

1511

English auxiliaries help the Dutch against the neighbouring Duke of Guelders

1512–14

In Henry’s first war with France, a failed attack on Gascony is followed by a campaign that results in the capture of Thérouanne and Tournai

1513

James IV of Scots, invading England in support of his French allies, is killed at Flodden (as shown in an 1882 painting)

1520

A small army sent to expand English control in Ireland achieves little

1522–25

A second war with France sees more naval raids and land campaigns, including one in 1523 that crosses the Somme to threaten Paris

1527–29

An ineffectual war against the Low Countries fails to make its Habsburg rulers accept Henry’s divorce

1532–34

An inconclusive war of border raids is fought against the Scots

1534

The largest English army sent to Ireland since the 1390s suppresses the Kildare rebellion, leading to 70 years of campaigning against the Gaelic lordships

1539–40

Invasion threats from Catholic Europe prompt a campaign of coastal fortification and large musters

1542–47

When the Scots renege on a treaty to marry Mary, Queen of Scots to Henry’s son, Edward, the king tries to force their compliance by brutal warfare

1543–46

In Henry’s last war with France, he captures Boulogne in 1544 and hangs onto it at vast cost

Steven Gunn is professor of early modern history, Merton College Oxford and author of The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII (OUP, January 2018).

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You can read more about Henry VIII in our collector’s edition magazine, The Story of The Tudors.