Glory and Gore: Henry VIII and the Battle of the Spurs

On 13 October 1511, three years into his reign and twenty-years old, Henry VIII joined the Holy League, also known as the League of Cambrai, allying himself with Venice, Spain and the Papacy against France and its allies. Eager to emulate the military glories of Henry V, and fueled by the desire to tip the delicate balance between Spain and France, Henry entered the alliance with gusto: vowing to have 10,000 English soldiers ready in the Basque Country by summer.

Young, determined, and lusty, behind this outwardly magnanimous offering lay a veiled opportunity for Henry. Not only would he be able to undercut the French on the world stage, but he would do so in a holy war. The taste of victory promised to be even sweeter if carried out in service to God.

This was to be one of Henry VIII’s first military campaigns as sovereign. With the English treasury still bursting with his father’s riches, he could afford to go to war with the French. Moreover, he wanted to go to war with France, continuing the tradition of successful English monarchs. So, as tensions mounted across the Italian states, Henry found himself lured by his father-in-law, Ferdinand of Aragon, to provide support to the Catholic league.

Ferdinand of Aragon, one half of the Catholic Monarchs of Spain; his daughter, Katherine of Aragon; his son-in-law, Henry VIII of England

Although Ferdinand’s desire for conflict was primarily centered on claiming Navarre for himself, it did not hurt his cause that Henry was himself eager to reconquer chunks of the once vast Plantagenet empire, of which only Calais remained, ceded to France during the Hundreds’ Years War. The conditions were ripe to wage war against the French.

But Henry was not the only one with an appetite for fortune and glory. His wife, Katherine of Aragon, herself the daughter of the great Catholic Monarchs, thirsted for conquest. But where Henry’s youth equipped him with an exuberant, irrepressible energy, Katherine, six years his senior, was more cautious than her husband. As plans were taking shape to declare war on France, Katherine began to ask the Venetian ambassador in England, Andre Badeor, questions about the monthly cost of Venetian warships.

Badeor duly reported that, though the Council was ‘adverse’ to war, the King was ‘bent’ on it, and Queen Katherine ‘[willed] it’.

The ambassador concluded that war was imminent. Indeed, across the country, the nobility, gentry, even the clergy were being recruited for the sake of war. Horses were gathered, supplies were procured, provisions were readied and sent to Calais; ships were organized for their transportation. Although the edict was short-lived, Henry commanded the court to put away their finery, dress ‘soberly’, and spend their money on weaponry for the country’s crusade against France. Throughout 1511 and 1512, war loomed on the horizon like a glaring, blood-red sunrise, rising blindingly over the country.

Woodcut of the meeting of Henry VIII and Emperor Maximilian at the siege of Thérouanne

By early 1513, the King and his allies stood poised for battle. After settling his affairs – without a male heir, certain preparations had to be made in the event that the soaring of arrows or the clash of steel chose not to spare a King – Henry and his entourage departed from Greenwich to Dover, his confidence fortified by Pope Julius’s decision to revoke Louis XII’s title of the Most Christian King and bestow the Kingdom of France upon Henry. This, of course, suited Henry’s ambitions nicely.

Accompanied by the Queen, installed as Regent in the King’s absence, Henry was surrounded by a great, richly-armoured entourage as he rode to Dover. His retinue included the powerful Duke of Buckingham, Bishop Foxe and Wolsey, twenty nobles, a shimmering knot of heralds, musicians, trumpeters, the choir of the Chapel Royal, yeomen liveried in fresh Tudor green-and-white, and another three hundred household servants.

Included in the King’s supplies were a bed of estate, several sets of armour, vibrant tents and pavilions woven in shimmering shades of bright blue, yellow, and white for his encampment. These pavilions were intricately embroidered with the King’s heraldic creatures: the Lion, Dragon, Greyhound, Antelope, and Dun Cow.

He led a contingent of around 11,000 soldiers, including the cavalry, artillery, infantry, longbowmen, and a complement of eight hundred German mercenaries. Among the assembly were notable figures like Charles Brandon, then Viscount Lisle, referred to by an Imperial agent as the ‘Grand Esquire,’ and the King’s own rising star, almoner Thomas Wolsey.

Henry VIII of England, circa 1519, by an unknown artist of the Anglo-Flemish School

Little over a month after setting sail for France, Henry and his ally, Emperor Maximilian I, laid siege to Thérouanne. The French responded by sending Louis I d’Orléans, duc de Longueville, to provide aid and reinforcements to the besieged town. However, before the duc could successfully relieve Thérouanne, a contingent of the English cavalry, recruited from the Scottish borders, spotted movement from the French cavalry under the command of Jacques de la Palice at Guinegate. 

Led by the Earl of Northumberland, Henry and Maximilian’s Imperial army positioned itself directly in front of la Police’s front lines, catching the French troops by surprise. English archers dismounted from their horses and unleashed a relentless barrage of arrows onto the French, while a detachment of artillery from Maximilian’s forces maneuvered to hem in the unprepared and outnumbered French, managing to successfully outflank Louis XII’s army. 

Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor

The French swiftly succumbed to panic, their retreat turning into a chaotic rout. Despite La Palice’s attempts to rally his troops, the urgency to escape at maximum speed led French soldiers to abandon their lances and standards, some even shedding their heavy horse armor. hTe English cavalry chased them across a stretch of fields known as Guinegates, to the east of Thérouanne, and maintained this relentless pursuit for several miles until the French eventually regrouped with their infantry at Blangy to the south. Meanwhile, a smaller French contingent had been forced to retreat, at which point Sir Rhys ap Thomas managed to capture four of their standards.

This disorderly skirmish earned the name ‘Battle of the Spurs’ due to the swift retreat of the French forces, their spurs glinting in the sunlight as they fled at full throttle to safety.

Although the King was absent from the scene, the conflict managed to bolster his much-desired reputation for martial glory and prestige that Henry VIII so desired on the European stage.

Battle of the Spurs, c. 1513

1 Comment

  1. Fabulous article! I shared it on my FB page and my Twitter page.

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