The Battle of the Spurs
- 16th August 1513 -
This particular foray of Henry VIII’s was one in a long line of adventures on the Continent. At a time when we are talking Brexit, Henry seemed very keen on Europe. This was four years into his Kingship and he was quick to establish alliances and look to spread his influence across the English Channel.
The background to the battle, which may be more accurately summed up as a skirmish, was more complicated and was part of a long on-going conflict known as the Italian Wars. These were a set of interconnected conflicts that started back in 1494 and involved the city states in Italy, the Papal States, the Republic of Venice, Holy Roman Empire and the Ottoman Empire.
It originally kicked off with a dispute over the Duchy of Milan and the territories of the above combatants and involved a series of alliances and counter-alliances. The 1st Italian War (1494-1498) saw the French, under Charles VIII, with support from Milan, who wanted French protection from the Papal States, sweep through much of Italy capturing Genoa, Florence and Naples. The latter of these states was offered to Charles in 1489 by Pope Innocent VIII and he was claiming ‘his right’ to it after the King of Naples had died. Naples fell without a battle, the Medicis were kicked out of Florence and Alfonso II of Naples was forced to abdicate. This war also saw the first use of artillery in Genoa and proved its devastating capabilities.
With the French now seemingly becoming too powerful an Anti-French League was set up – one of the first unified groupings set up against a single enemy. It included the Papal States, Milan, Venice, Naples, Spain, The Holy Roman Empire and later, England. The threat of this visible enemy forced Charles VIII back home and nearly all his gains were lost.
The second Italian War (1499 – 1504) saw Charles’ son, Louis XII capture Milan. The Spanish came in with the French to avoid the French attacking them and together they captured Naples. After a disagreement over how to run Naples the Spanish gained precedence and kept it to themselves. In 1508, after there was a failed attempt by the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian, with the Pope’s blessing, to invade the Venetian empire to curb its growing power over the other states. A new league was set up known as the Holy League, or the League of Cambrai. This included Louis XIII of France, Ferdinand II of Aragon, Maximilian, Milan and the Papal States. Initially this was successful. The Battle of Agnadello between the Venetians and the French though proved a watershed. The Venetians lost many men and withdrew back to its own borders to protect its core cities.
In 1510 this alliance collapsed after rows between Julius II, the ‘Warrior Pope’, and Louis. Francis I replaced Louis after the latter’s death and attempted to regain the land in Italy that had been lost. Thus another Holy League was set up against the French this time involving Henry VIII, the Spanish, the Holy Roman Empire and Venice. All very complicated.
As part of this alliance Henry saw his chance. His army under George Talbot, the Earl of Shrewsbury crossed the channel with many men under Admiral Edward Howard and joined with the ageing Maximilian as well as his father-in-law Ferdinand of Spain. With as many as 50,000 men in the English territory in Northern France around Calais they besieged the town of Therouanne in July 1513. Henry now decided to join them personally on the Continent and left England under the stewardship of Catherine of Aragon.
Although Maximilian did not have a great army he did have good cavalry and put himself under the leadership of Henry as one of the generals. Cunningly this meant that Henry needed to pay him 100 ducats a day for his army. The French general, the Duc de Longueville, marched to relieve the French town and provide the starving garrison with food. This was not a set-piece battle that you might have found in the 100 Years War but a spontaneous skirmish. The Earl of Northumberland appeared in front of the startled French with his horsemen. On their flanks the French found themselves hemmed in by English archers and a detachment of Artillery from Maximilian. The French retreated as fast as they could, leaving whatever they had behind them. The English cavalry pursued them across a series of fields known as Guinegates, to the east of Therouanne. The French officers tried to order their men to fight in their retreat but only very few heeded the message. These men were enough however to enable the rest of the force to reach safety. Six French standards were captured along with many notable soldiers including the Duc de Longvueville himself. The name of the battle comes largely from the expression that the French put their spurs to their horses in order to escape at maximum speed.
Although Henry claimed to have been part of the pursuit it is highly unlikely. However, the capture of Therouanne on August 22nd and the further capture of Tournai soon afterwards started to give Henry VIII both the kudos that he so craved on the European stage but also the confidence in his own ability that was to prove a metaphorical double-edged sword later on. He wrote to Margaret of Savoy the following day, 17th August:
“Yesterday morning, after he and the Emperor had crossed the Lys, which passes before Terouenne, towards Guinegate, news came that all the French horse at Blangy were moving, some toward Guinegate, 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 Lys, considered they would not be in time to prevent them revictualling the town. The English horse however passed by Guinegate and 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 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, among whom are the Duke of Longueville, Marquis of Rothelin, Count de Dunois, Messire René de Clermont, Viceadmiral of France, and others whose names are enclosed. It is said that Lord Fiennes is killed, for his horse is in the English camp. The standard bearer of the “grand escuyer de France,” Count Galeace de St. Severin, is also taken. De La Palice is said to be either wounded or killed. The Emperor has been as kind to him as if he were his real father. At the camp at Gynegate before Terouenne, 17 Aug. 1513.”
Importantly this campaign also the saw the rise of Thomas Wolsey, whom Henry made Bishop of Tournai. Wolsey had been prominent in the campaign, organizing and supplying the army. Also, whilst Henry was in France, the Scots under James IV, attacked England. Catherine of Aragon gave orders to Thomas Lovell, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to raise an army. This he did and under the leadership of the Earl of Surrey, the Scots were defeated and James died in the Battle of Flodden – the last British monarch to die in a conflict. In terms of numbers this battle was the largest between the two nations.
After returning home Henry soon found that the shifting sands of European alliances, that seem to cause an endless number of wars and disputes, forced him into a treaty and a peace with the French and a marriage between his younger sister, Mary Tudor and Louis XII, although he was to die a year later.
French land was to remain in English hands until 1558 when Calais was lost under Mary I. Henry’s adventures in France were not entirely successful and it was his daughter, Elizabeth I, who turned her attentions west, to America, to gain an empire. Perhaps she knew more than most at the time about what was to follow!