Thus far we have neglected a detailed look at Henry VIII's foreign policy on its own terms. While he was king, Henry went to war with France three separate times, fought Scotland with similar regularity, and fought his on-again, off- again friend the Emperor Charles V at the close of the 1520s.
At the beginning of his reign, Henry joined with Venice, Spain, and the Holy Roman Empire under Maximillian I in an allaince called the Holy League. At the time, Louis XII's France was preoccupied with wars in northern Italy, and the Holy League was formed expressly to defend the Papacy against French aggression. Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was an important factor in Henry's involvement with this conflict. Henry personally invaded France with an army of 30,000 in summer 1513, capturing the towns of Therouanne and Tournai, small but personally rewarding victories for the king, who, in the spirit of his medieval ancestors, still believed the English had a right to rule over the north and west of France. This same year saw a renewal of conflict with the Scots, who were allies of the French. The Duke of Norfolk won an impressive victory for Henry against the Scottish forces at the battle of Flodden in September. The Scottish king James IV fell at this battle and was succeeded by his very young son, James V.
Cardinal Wolsey helped conclude a treaty with the French in 1514. When Louis XII was succeeded by Francois I in France, Henry and Wolsey watched with annoyance as the French renewed their wars in northern Italy and stirred up more trouble in Scotland by supporting the false claims of the Duke of Albany to the Scottish throne. The picture of European power altered dramatically with the 1519 election of Charles V as Holy Roman emperor, and for the next several years, Henry and Wolsey positioned themselves between the Emperor and King Francois by courting the friendship of both powerful and mutually hostile rulers. 1521 brought the Treaty of Bruges between Henry and Charles, and a renewal of English hostility toward the French. This alliance with the Emperor was reversed during the years of Henry's divorce controversy. The Treaty of Cognac was signed with the French in May 1526, and within two years England was at war with Charles.
After Henry's break with Rome, European politics began to see some reallignments along religious lines, and by the close of the 1530s, Henry's new chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was urging Henry to ally himself with northern German Protestant territories which were hostile toward both the Papacy and the Habsburg emperor. This was the purpose behind Henry's 1540 marriage alliance with the duchy of Cleves, a strategically important German state on the north side of the Rhine. Within the next five years, however, Henry was fighting once again alongside the Emperor Charles, invading France in the summer of 1544. By this time Henry was aging and very fat, and could not lead his men into battle on horseback as he did as a young man. Instead, he was carried along the battle lines in a litter. His army captured the French city of Boulogne in September, but was left somewhat in the lurch by Charles, who concluded a separate peace with the French that same month. The English ended their hostilities with the French with the Peace at Ardres in June 1546.
Near the time of Henry's last war with the French, hostilities with the Scots also raged. In November 1542, 3000 English troops won a great victory over 18,000 Scots under James V at the battle of Solway Moss. James V died in December, and was succeeded by his six-day-old daughter, Mary Queen of Scots. To pacify relations between the two countries, Henry received a promise from the Scots that Mary would marry his son Edward, the surviving child of his third marriage with the late Jane Seymour. The Scots affronted Henry when Mary was subsequently betrothed to the dauphin of France, and the two nations were once again at eachother's throats. English armies devastated the Scottish borderlands in 1543, and they moved into the Scottish capital of Edinburgh in May 1544 and burned the city. These hostilities ended the following year.
Some historians have been harsh in their appraisal of Henry's military engagements and successes. Henry was doubtless hungry for sheer personal glory in the field, and the only moderate successes of his armies–capturing small towns such as Tournai and, later, Boulogne–would not seem to merit the blood spilt for them. In this regard, however, Henry was very much a man of his time: many kings fought wars for reasons of personal distinction; warfare was, for some, very much like a sport. Henry's eagerness to recapture the French lands once held by his Plantagenet ancestors made him very popular with his people, whose anti-French feeling was strong indeed.
There were genuine reasons of state behind most of these engagements, aside from Henry's personal glory and that which he wished to bestow on his countrymen through victory. The early wars with the French were conducted, in part, as an effort to keep the power of the French king at bay. Alongside Charles V's great, inherited empire, France was the major power in Europe, and its aggressive behavior toward the Italian states showed what an acquisitive appetite such power fostered. France's threats to the Papacy were also looked upon with great disquiet in Henry's England. Henry joined the Holy League and fought expressly in defense of the Holy See in Rome with singular zeal. He was urged along in this zeal by the tremendous influence of Cardinal Wolsey, who sought to please the Vatican and position himself, unrealistically, as a potential candidate for the papal tiara.
Henry's posture in foreign relations shifted dramatically after the break with Rome, and he had to balance new hostilities with the Emperor Charles, a staunch Roman Catholic and Catherine of Aragon's nephew, with the ever-present dangers posed by the French, England's traditional Enemy Number One. His switched alliances with the French and the Emperor throughout the decades of his reign demonstrate, as historian G.R. Elton puts it, "the treacherous diplomacy of the time which so largely consisted in switching allies at the right moment." Henry may have injured England's international position by fighting against the powerful Charles at the close of the 1520s. In the end, with a small victory over the French in the 1540s, Henry proved himself but a mediocre force on the international scene.
The Scottish wars were the most pressing of Henry's military concerns, and it was fortunate for him that his armies conducted these wars successfully. It was an unfortunate situation for a king such as Henry, looking for international prestige, that the northern lands of the main British island formed a hostile nation against England–allying itself with England's enemy the French–and would not be subdued. English kings had claimed lordship over the Scots for many centuries, and fought for unified government over the whole of the island. Henry's victories laid some groundwork for such a future unity.