Battle of the Oh No Not Again

If I told you that this is the anniversary of Henry VIII’s 1513 victory over the French at Guinegate, in the Battle of the Spurs, would it provoke yawns at another battle that seems deeply unmemorable? Puzzlement that Henry was fighting the French in France on behalf of the Pope in company with the Holy Roman Emperor? Or would you just wonder what battle in those days didn’t involve spurs?

Well, I can settle the last one easily. The name was a cruel jest about the speed with which the French cavalry departed the field, discarding lances, standards and even armour in their haste to escape. Ouch.

As for its consequences, they did include the ill-advised Scottish invasion of England on behalf of their “Auld alliance” French buddies that ended disastrously at Flodden Field. But we all know that the tale of “Henry VIII and his buddy the Pope” story didn’t turn out well in the end. And in fact this “War of the League of Cambrai” also ended badly, with a fairly decisive French victory in 1516, some 17 years before Henry chucked his first wife and the Roman Catholic church while, with absolutely characteristic chutzpah, keeping the title “Defender of the Faith” given him by Pope Leo X in 1521.

Why then am I droning on about it?

Well, for one thing, it’s an opportunity to heap more opprobrium on Henry VIII, who richly deserved it, for his vainglorious strategic overreach. But also to note how longstanding was the English concern not to face a united Europe. There were significant debates about whether to pursue the “blue water” policy generally favoured by the Tories, using the navy to contain whatever continental menace might arise, or the Whig strategy of timely interventions in European squabbles to keep said menace small.

On the whole this strategy worked, to the consternation particularly of the French who aspired for many centuries to be that menace, only to end up the butt of cruel English taunts. There is even a rumour that the peculiar British most rude hand gesture dates all the way back to archers at Agincourt, who were threatened with having their index and middle fingers cut off if captured; regrettably it appears to have no historical foundation. But the English did fight with remarkable skill, backed by remarkable statesmanship over the years, a tribute to the resilient dynamism of free societies.

Henry VIII was still an untrustworthy maniac, though.