Under the Soles of His Feet

Stephen Alford

  • The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII by Steven Gunn
    Oxford, 297 pp, £35.00, January 2018, ISBN 978 0 19 880286 0

In the First Book of Kings (5:1-5) Hiram, King of Tyre, sends servants to Solomon, ‘for he had heard, that they had anointed him king in the room of his father,’ David:

For Hiram was ever a lover of David. And Solomon sent to Hiram, saying: thou knowest how that David my father could not build an house unto the name of the Lord his God, for the wars which were about him on every side, until the Lord put them under the soles of his feet. But now the Lord my God hath given me rest on every side, so that there is neither adversary nor any evil plague. And behold, I am determined to build an house unto the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord spake unto David my father.

This passage is very close indeed to the translation in the Matthew Bible of 1537 (by William Tyndale) and there are just two differences from the King James Bible of 1611 (‘evil occurrent’ in place of ‘any evil plague’; ‘purpose’ for ‘am determined’). But this version is from the Great Bible of 1539-40, ‘the Bible appointed to the use of the churches’, famous for its title-page showing Henry VIII enthroned handing the word of God to his subjects, who are set out below, dutiful and obedient. Unencumbered by priests or pope, the king is the recipient of divine favour. Resolute in his duty to lead his people in the true religion, he is no different from any Old Testament monarch.

The two greatest kings of Israel were models for Henry’s own imperial kingship. David fought bloody wars: ‘Saul hath slain his thousand, and David his ten thousands’ (1 Samuel 18:7). Solomon built the Temple. Henry did both. God put Henry’s enemies under the soles of his feet and Providence led him to recover the true Church of England, freeing his kingdom and subjects from the popish yoke. Or so Henry believed, always the superlative consumer of his own propaganda.

Whether Henry’s subjects shared his affection for war is, as Steven Gunn’s book shows, less certain. War was, however, central to the English experience, both in the practical sense that armies were sent frequently into battle, but also in the more amorphous sense that national identity was shaped by the memory of the Hundred Years War. Henry was highly conscious of the military achievements of his ancestors, especially Henry V, in France. He itched to fight, even in obese middle age: he had a huge suit of armour made for himself in the year the Great Bible was published, engineered to contain a royal waistline of 54 inches.

The costs of war were immense. The French campaign of 1513-14 consumed a million pounds, equivalent to ten years’ worth of ordinary revenue. (It’s impossible to calculate modern equivalents for sums like these with any precision, but a rough rule is to multiply by a thousand.) Military costs between 1539 and 1552 came to £3.5 million, a million of which was spent on campaigns in Scotland, £1.3 million ‘on getting and keeping Boulogne’. Henry felt deeply the importance of holding on to his possessions in France, but he was also the master of war on multiple fronts, as he had to be thanks to the dizzying succession of treaties of offence and defence between Europe’s powers. Henry’s first effort to flex his muscles in France, in 1513, saw him lead an army of something like 28,000 men joined in France by around seven thousand German and Dutch mercenaries. At the same time a force of more than 26,000 marched north at speed to meet King James IV’s army in Northumberland for the slaughter of Flodden. There was campaigning on a similar scale in 1522, 1544 and 1545. Even the huge windfall delivered by the dissolution of the monasteries wasn’t enough to cover all the bills. His subjects frequently bore the burden in the form of higher taxation.

Gunn describes the ways England was primed for war. Parishes and towns kept stores of armour and weapons and raised troops. Coastal works – bulwarks, beacons and bastions – provided a line of defence against invasion. Strategically important towns like Southampton possessed considerable firepower: ‘Thomas with the Beard’, a gun of somewhere between six hundred and one thousand pounds, had been in the town’s arsenal since at least 1468. The government kept an eye on the number of horses suitable for military service that were available throughout the kingdom. Men, landowners in particular, were expected to hold weapons and to have them ready. The king had no standing army, and his permanent military establishment was tiny. Every able-bodied man was to fight if needed.

Early Tudor Englishmen liked military kit, even if they weren’t so keen on actually using it. Increasingly sophisticated guns became popular, as did armour, from the inexpensive almain rivet (plate armour manufactured in southern Germany) to the handsome gilded Greenwich armour favoured by the elite. As well as status and masculinity the habiliments of war reflected regional identity. When mustered, the men of West Cornwall turned up with slings, those of North Wales with clubs and those of South Wales with long spears. Turning out on parade, taking part in civic watches, or, later in the century, drilling with trained bands, was as much as many, particularly those of a higher class, were willing to do. In a society where the obligations and prestige of military service still mattered, the grubby business of killing and dying was increasingly left to the lower classes.

Mass killing did not come naturally. Violence in early Tudor society was purposive and proportionate. Talk could be robust, action in response less so: in an everyday argument the threat to stab an opponent was more likely to result in a shove, a trip or a beard-pull. It took serious effort to persuade men that it was right to kill perfect strangers. Soldiers were called to battle by preachers and generals who spoke in the name of God and the king. The murder of his majesty’s enemies was sanctioned by his authority.

For all the evidence we have of atrocities – the English were known to be fond of burning great swathes of enemy countryside, and some men served as mercenaries and adventurers in the hope of plunder – farm labourers and yeomen, unused to the realities of war, could easily panic under fire, and desertion and mutiny were common. In 1523 one body of troops in an English army chanted ‘Home, Home’ while another chanted in response: ‘Hang, Hang’.

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In Henry V (1599) Shakespeare gently satirises the military specialists of his day, gentlemen who bear the title of captain and lead troops in Ireland, the Low Countries and France. Captain Macmorris of Ireland has, in the opinion of Captain Fluellen of Wales, ‘no more directions in the true disciplines of the wars’ than a puppy. Captain Jamey of Scotland he holds in higher regard: ‘a marvellous falorous gentleman … and of great expedition and knowledge in th’anciant wars … in the disciplines of the pristine wars of the Romans’. The English weren’t great theoreticians of war, though translations of Caesar and Machiavelli were printed in Elizabeth I’s reign. Arthur Golding, the translator of Gallic War (1565), made a robust statement of the English crown’s rightful claim to the kingdom of France, the central assumption underlying Henry’s campaigns; while Peter Whitehorne offered The Art of War (1560) ‘for the universall delight of all studious gentlemen’. Noblemen, by tradition leaders in war, were often made gifts of classic texts by their scholarly translators and editors: Vegetius for the Earl of Bedford, Sallust and Onosander for two Dukes of Norfolk, a life of Scipio Africanus for the Earl of Pembroke.

War was still the business of the landed elite, who were expected to raise and supply the troops the king needed to go on campaign. But times were changing, and Gunn plots Henry’s reign on a trajectory of military development that was probably fairly obvious even to contemporaries. Gone, pretty much, were the medieval noble retinues. Commissions of array, whereby contingents of men were levied by county, came to replace the old feudal levy. Conscription, however, led to rumblings of dissatisfaction, especially when men tied by tradition to their localities and by necessity to their fields were sent abroad to fight. Military leadership and direction was increasingly subcontracted to professionals.

With this came social change, slight but noticeable in a society highly sensitive to even tiny movements in social rank. Coats of arms, whose origins are reflected in the name, began to have less to do with military service and distinction and more to do with claims to gentility. The English social elite was changing, its boundaries more fluid than before. Younger sons of landed families were taking up arms as a means of making a living, while advancement might follow on military distinction: there were substantial increases (in 1514 and 1544-47 especially) in the numbers of knighthoods granted during the king’s campaigns. Honour, military service and social standing were still linked, but not in the same ways they once were.

Even the greatest noblemen felt – and knew they should feel – the discomforts of campaigning. One royal commissioner, William Body, who complained about his lodgings was put very firmly in his place by Lord Leonard Grey: ‘I saide,’ Grey reported, ‘I was sure he sholde never be so good, as the Dukes of Norfoke, and Suffolke, and my lorde my brother [the Marquess of Dorset], whom I had seen lodged wors.’ Those in command exhibited many qualities. Grey was praised as ‘a stirrer abroode, and no sleaper in the morning’. Lord Clinton led from the front, ‘greatly beloved among all ranks’, playing ‘his part like a brave and noble captain by risking his life among his soldiers … courteously thanking and rewarding generously those soldiers who did any brave deeds … while courteously rebuking those who were to blame’. (One wonders what a courteous rebuke in the middle of a battle sounded like.) Other commanders beat and bullied their soldiers into action.

The number of soldiers who died in combat was, so far as the evidence can tell us, surprisingly low. Sieges were risky and so was service in Ireland, at Boulogne in the 1540s, and against rebels. Disease was the biggest killer, either in the form of epidemics of plague and sickness, or as the result of wounds or accidents; here the reader benefits from Gunn’s cheerfully unrivalled knowledge of the causes of accidental death in Tudor England (the subject of his next book). Most soldiers made it home, but they were often returning to a life of poverty and vagrancy. For the elite, however, there was room for the celebration of military heroism. Wounds were for some a permanent mark of honour. Those suffered by Sir William Godolphin, injured at Boulogne, were ‘no less to the beautifying of his fame, than the disfiguring of his face’. Successful captains gave their names to bulwarks and defences; victories and honours were celebrated in tomb inscriptions, maps and paintings, even in gardens. Sir Richard Bulkeley seems to have had the ash trees on his estate on Anglesey planted in the formation taken by the English army at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, near Edinburgh, in 1547.

Gunn shows us that war in the age of Henry VIII forced change. The levels of mobilisation required by the king’s campaigns, especially the huge armies he gathered for France in 1544 and 1545, meant that the creaking system of military infrastructure, insofar as one existed, had to adapt. But the king’s need for martial glory outweighed everything else. There were bonfires, bells and prayers to ‘the gret God of batells’. Everyone knew they were meant to ‘cry God for Harry, England and St George’. Unfortunately there was also a nagging feeling that wars were destructive of the common good and prosperity. ‘The world is dead and [it is] hard to come by money as ever it was in any man’s days alive,’ one estate official, Peter Collys, wrote in 1513: ‘This busy world of war that setteth men’s hearts away clean so that it maketh the world as dead as ever it was for selling of anything.’ By 1552 the exchequer of Edward VI, Henry’s son and successor, was empty. Edward’s secretary was told that they had ‘spent out all our riches, and destroyed a great number of subjects’, leaving the kingdom’s wealth on the battlefields of Western Europe, ‘to the utter destruction of our realm’. Henry’s successors hadn’t the means – or in the case of Elizabeth, the inclination – to fight abroad for glory. This was not what Solomon inherited from David.

Henry always had a competitive eye on Francis I of France and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, against whom he measured the potency of his kingship. In peace Henry trained for war in tournaments and combats. Even celebrations of peace, as at the Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520, when Henry met Francis, were simply war and dynastic competition by other means – a pause for breath, a moment to make sense of the enemy. In the following decades enemies changed, as did the reasons for engaging them. The defence of international Protestantism became a more significant strategic focus than any attempt to relive the glories of the Hundred Years War. Later wars were fought reluctantly, out of perceived necessity.

The legacy of Henry’s wars was a peculiarly mixed one. Probably it was as well to make a virtue out of the unavoidable. Peter Whitehorne, introducing Machiavelli, put it neatly: ‘No one thing [is held] to be more profitable, necessary, or more honourable, than the knowledge of service in war, and deeds of arms: because considering the ambition of the world, it is impossible for any realm or dominion, long to continue free in quietness and safeguard, where the defence of the sword is not always in a readiness.’