Two Weeks in March 1513

Whatever it was that brought Henry VIII to Charing in March 1513 it’s unlikely to have been the weather. Delightful as Charing can be in early spring, there must have been good reason for the king to have lingered two whole weeks at Archbishop Wareham’s palace here between 5th and 19th March.

Clearly, Henry felt comfortable at Charing; he’d stayed here twice on three-day visits in 1511, and may well have visited with his father on any of Henry VII’s seven recorded stays, but for a king to stay two weeks at any one place away from his London palaces was unusual to say the least.

The answer probably lies in the fact that Henry was preparing for his war with France.
The 21-year-old Henry VIII of March 1513 was a very different man to the youth who had assumed the English throne in April 1509.

Then, the Spanish ambassador, Luis Caroz De Villaragut writing to Henry’s father-in-law Ferdinand II, reported: “He [Henry] does not like to occupy himself much with business … nor care to occupy himself with anything but the pleasures of his age. All other affairs he neglects”.

Now, as a result of events in Italy, Henry was set upon establishing himself as a true Renaissance Prince and was embarked on grand plans to restore lost French territories in Aquitaine, Normandy and Picardy to the English crown.

It is no accident that Niccoló Machiavelli was writing his political treatise ‘The Prince’ in 1513. Italian politics at the beginning of the 16th century was in turmoil.

The Italian States had been fighting one another for almost 20 years in a kaleidoscope of alliances and rivalries that drew in the great continental European powers of the age – France, Spain and the Holy Roman Empire – each ambitious to make their own territorial gains or act in defence of the Pope and his northern Italian Papal States.

In 1512 England became drawn into this conflict when ‘the warrior Pope’ Julius II, concerned at France’s Italian ambitions, excommunicated its King Louis XII and offered the French crown to Henry, if he would join in with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire in Julius’ Holy League, formed to enact ‘God’s will’ and drive France out of Italy.

Julius was intent on assaulting France from all sides: Ferdinand from the south, the Emperor Maximilian from the north, his own Swiss mercenaries from the east and Henry from the west.

Henry was, at that time, a strong adherent to the Church of Rome – a support that was later to win him the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from Julius’ successor – and keen to take his place on the European stage, was quick to take up the challenge.

By March 1513, Henry, was in pursuit of glory and heavily involved in preparations for campaigns in Aquitaine, Normandy and Picardy, and in cementing his alliances with Ferdinand and Maximilian and in keeping his uneasy peace with Scotland.

With the archbishop’s palace as his base Henry’s envoys were within three days travel to the court of Margaret of Savoy, at Mechelen in Flanders, at a time when he was in the process of finalising the terms of involvement in the planned invasion with the Emperor. Margaret was the Emperor Maximilian’s daughter and his proxy in concluding the treaty.

Rather than honour, joint purpose, or just cause, what appears to have been driving the conclusion of Henry’s treaties with Maximilian – as, indeed, with his father-in-law Ferdinand – was money. War was costly and war was business.

Both Maximilian and Ferdinand wanted Henry to pay for their participation in the coming invasions – Maximilian to the tune of 125,000 crowns for his support in Picardy in the north and Ferdinand 100,000 crowns for Aquitaine in the southwest. Henry’s ambassador to Spain was to report his view that for Ferdinand, at least, “the whole expense and danger of the war should fall on England”.

Whether through his own ambition, youthful pride or naivety, Henry was undeterred. Correspondence with his ambassadors at Margaret’s court, written and received when Henry was at Charing bore fruit, and terms with Maximilian (although of no improved advantage to Henry) were agreed, with the treaty being concluded on 5th April.

As well as being close to Flanders, Charing was centrally located for Henry to direct preparations for his war in northern France.

There is a quantity of correspondence concerned with the provisioning and arming of his army and navy and bolstering the defence of England’s last possession on French soil, Calais.

Whilst at Charing, on 16 March, Henry appointed Lord Edward Howard Grand Admiral, “to be captain and commander of the army raised at the request of the Pope and Ferdinand, for defence of the Roman See”.

On 19th March, on leaving Charing, Henry signalled his intention to establish a commission to reform and restructure the navy – sowing the seeds of Britain’s maritime dominance in the coming centuries.

On the day he left Charing his proximity to the coast enabled Henry to visit Lord Howard and review his fleet anchored at the Downs, the sheltered waters between the Goodwin Sands and the Kentish shore.

Earlier, whist at Charing on 9th March, Henry learned from his ambassador to Margaret’s court of the death of the instigator of his ambition, Pope Julius II and of the appointment of his successor Leo X.

The death of the pope was not to lead to an immediate change in the course of events. Henry at the head of an army of 40,000 set sail from Dover on 30th June and together with Maximilian defeated Louis XII’s forces at the ‘Battle of the Spurs’ on 16 August 1513. Further territorial victories followed in a campaign that lasted into the autumn.

Meanwhile, back in England, his queen and regent Catherine of Aragon was defending English soil. On 9th September her army heavily defeated the largest Scots army ever to enter England at the battle of Flodden, killing James V and much of the Scots’ nobility, who had invaded in Henry’s absence in support of the Scots’ ‘auld alliance’ with France.

England’s victories at home and in France were not to the liking of Ferdinand, who became jealous that Henry would take the greater share of the spoils. He convinced Maximilian of the same and the two forged a separate peace with France.

Deserted by his allies and with the new pope inclined to less war-like ways, Henry had no choice but to reach his own peace with Louis. He sought to cement the new relationship and England’s position in France by brokering a marriage between his younger sister, Mary, and the French king.

Whatever Henry’s long-term ambitions, they were not to come about by war or marriage as Louis died three months later. Henry’s territorial gains were not to last but, by way of scant and what was to prove ironic consolation, he was later to be granted the title ‘defender of the faith’ by Leo X in 1521, in recognition of his support of the Church and the Papacy.


[Insight into the concerns that may have brought Henry to Charing can be found found in J.S Brewer’s Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, of the Reign of Henry VIII, Volume 1.]

Main image: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017