Anglo-French Wars

The Anglo-French wars between 1544 and 1628 marked a shift in the relationship between England and France from dynastic to religious struggles and greatly impacted the political and cultural dynamic of early modern Europe.

Summary of Event

From the time of the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, duke of Normandy, in 1066, kings of England held a claim to the throne of France. In the Middle Ages, England held dominion over much of modern-day France, but after the conclusion of the Hundred Years’ War in 1453, those holdings had dwindled to the area surrounding the city of Calais. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, England and France each sought simply to conquer the other’s territory and to achieve martial glory at the other’s expense, but by the 1550’, their conflict had shifted from a territorial struggle to a religious one. After England became Protestant in the 1530’, the struggle between France and England became a struggle for dominance between the Catholic and Protestant faiths. Anglo-French Wars (1544-1628)[Anglo French Wars (1544-1628)]
Henry VIII
Henry II (1519-1559)
Edward VI
Somerset, First Duke of
Mary I
Elizabeth I
Henry IV (1553-1610)
Henry VIII (king of England)
Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor)
Henry II (king of France)
Somerset, first duke of
Edward VI (king of England)
Mary Tudor (queen of England)
Philip II (king of Spain)
Stafford, Thomas
Elizabeth I (queen of England)
Mary Tudor (queen of Scots)
Henry IV (king of France)

Henry VIII’s visit to France in 1520 secured an alliance with French king Francis I against Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but the alliance did not last. Henry and Francis were at war within twenty-four years.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Henry VIII, whose wars in France lasted throughout his reign, sought in 1513, 1523, and 1544 to emulate his ancestor Henry V as a conqueror of French lands. Henry maintained his right to the French throne and sought to have himself crowned king of France, even going so far as to gain a guarantee from Pope Leo X that he would be named “Most Christian King,” a traditional title of French kings. Later, in 1521, when Henry VIII’s daughter Mary was betrothed to Charles V (king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor) as part of an alliance between Henry and Charles to go to war against France, Henry stated that his grandson would become “lord and owner . . . of all Christendom.”

Henry’s military campaigns in France met with little success before 1544, except for the capture of Tournai, France, in 1513 (which was returned in 1518). The French wars had cost tremendous amounts of money, so that by 1525, Henry was unable to finance a third invasion. However, with the money he gained from his suppression of the Catholic monasteries and religious houses in the 1530’, Henry made another alliance with Charles V and declared war on France once more. At great cost, they captured the city of Boulogne in 1544. In 1549, King Henry II of France invaded Boulogne in an attempt to regain the territory and the honor he lost with it. England could not sustain the cost of defending Boulogne, especially given the added stress of a war with Scotland, which was aided by the French. Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset and protector of the young King Edward VI, sold the city back to France in 1550 and signed a peace treaty with France the next year.

After Edward VI’s death, Mary I became queen of England, returned England to the Catholic faith, and married Charles V’s son, King Philip II of Spain. Philip went to war with France over Italian territorial claims and asked for English help, but Mary and her council resisted the renewal of conflict with France. Henry II, however, harbored many English rebels in his country, including Thomas Stafford, a claimant to the English throne. When Stafford invaded England with some French support, Mary and her council were forced to act and declared war on France. Nevertheless, Mary never invoked her claim to the throne of France, nor (since both countries were Catholic at the time) were there any religious overtones to their battles. Protestantism;England

Initially, the war went well for England and Spain, and Henry II was soundly beaten at the Battle of Saint-Quentin (1557). St. Quentin, Battle of (1557)[Saint Quentin, Battle of (1557)] Henry, seeking an easy revenge against Mary, became aware that Calais’s defenses were weak. The French attacked and easily retook the city in January, 1558 Calais;French retaking of . Their largely symbolic victory heralded the end of English territory in France.

When Elizabeth I became queen in 1558, she attempted to reassert English control over Calais by allying herself with the Huguenots Huguenots (French Protestants) against the French crown. The so-called Newhaven Adventure Newhaven Adventure (1558) was an expensive failure, gaining virtually nothing for England, but it was to mark a shift in Anglo-French relations for the remainder of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Protestant Elizabeth’s alliance with Protestant forces within France against that nation’s Catholic monarch renewed and broadened the struggle between Protestant and Catholic Europe.

The Protestant Reformation Reformation was already sweeping through Europe, often violently. France fought against the Huguenots, leading to such massacres as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, while the Spanish fought against Protestant rebels in the Netherlands. Elizabeth I was in the precarious position of being caught between Protestant lords pleading for her military aid against Catholic powers and the fear of Catholic (especially French) invasion in support of Mary, Queen of Scots. Between 1560 and 1580, Elizabeth I tried to keep an uneasy peace between England, France, and Spain. She shunned large-scale military expeditions, instead supporting French Huguenots with loans and secret shipments of munitions, stopping short of outright military aid. She also promised to unite England and France by marrying a member of the French royalty.

By 1585, war had broken out between the Netherlands and Spain, and Elizabeth signed the Treaty of Nonsuch, Nonsuch, Treaty of (1585) promising an English army to assist the Dutch rebels against Spain and the Catholic League (an alliance of Catholic powers led by Spain). A few years later, a civil war broke out in France when the French king, Henry III, died leaving a Protestant heir to the throne: King Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV of France. A Protestant king was anathema to many French Catholics, however. Therefore, the Catholic duke of Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, with the support of the Spanish-led Catholic League Catholic League, War of the (1585-1598) , sought to usurp the throne to “protect” France from its new Protestant ruler. Protestantism;France England, having assisted the Huguenots in France, and already at war with the Catholic League in the Netherlands, was forced into war with the Catholic League on behalf of the Protestant cause in Europe. The war did not end until 1598, when Henry IV was officially crowned king of France and signed the Edict of Nantes, Nantes, Edict of (1598) promising toleration for both Catholics and Protestants within France. Thus, the Anglo-French wars ended with England being caught up in the civil wars sweeping Europe as a result of the Protestant Reformation.


The European religious conflicts continued well into the seventeenth century. In the 1620’, after the assassination of Henry IV, the Huguenots revolted against the French regency of Marie de Médici. Englishman George Villiers, the first duke of Buckingham, with the blessing of his king, Charles I, came to the Huguenots’ aid—a campaign that proved just as costly as all of the other wars with France. The English crown was left in desperate financial straits, which Charles had difficulty remedying, and which eventually led to civil war in England.

The Anglo-French wars were important for two reasons. First, these events were characteristic of the larger struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism taking place throughout Europe in the sixteenth century and had decisive effects upon sixteenth century culture and politics. Many historians have tried to portray England as a country far removed from the wars and intrigues of the Continent. Others have ignored France’s decisive impact on English foreign policy during this period. In reality, the Anglo-French wars serve as an example of the complex relationships common to all of Europe during this period. Between 1544 and 1558, both England and France were part of a system of alliances between royal houses that resulted in military conflict. After 1558, these alliances gave way to a more pressing concern with religion.

The wars also impacted the political history of Europe in several important ways. Because of the cost to England, finances became a pervasive problem throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the government had increasing problems maintaining a proactive policy on the Continent. From the continental side, the Protestant cause would have had difficulty surviving without English aid. England became an important Protestant power, whereas, had it remained Catholic, it might have remained a lesser power, eclipsed by France and Spain, and Protestantism in Germany and especially the Netherlands might have had a very different fate. In all, these wars serve as both an important reflection of early modern society and an important factor in the political and religious landscape of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Further Reading

  • Black, Jeremy. The Origins of War in Early Modern Europe. Edinburgh: John Donald, 1987. A seminal collection of essays by leading scholars in the period looking at not only the Anglo-French wars but also warfare in other parts of Europe.
  • Doran, Susan. England and Europe in the Sixteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999. An examination of England’s international relations, stressing continuity between the late Medieval and Tudor periods.
  • Grummit, David, ed. The English Experience in France c. 1450-1558: War, Diplomacy, and Cultural Exchange. Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2002. A survey of the medieval and early modern relationship between England and France focusing on both political and cultural aspects of it.
  • Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A useful survey focusing on the socioeconomic aspects of the French civil wars.
  • Sutherland, N. M. Henry IV of France and the Politics of Religion, 1572-1596. 2 vols. Bristol, Avon, England: Elm Bank, 2002. Extremely detailed account of the role of religion in France’s monarchy and political sphere during the late sixteenth century. Each chapter discusses a specific political event or issue from the point of view of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.

Aug. 29, 1475: Peace of Picquigny

Aug. 22, 1513-July 6, 1560: Anglo-Scottish Wars

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

Jan. 28, 1547-July 6, 1553: Reign of Edward VI

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Jan. 1-8, 1558: France Regains Calais from England

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion

Jan. 20, 1564: Peace of Troyes

Aug. 24-25, 1572: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

July 7, 1585-Dec. 23, 1588: War of the Three Henrys

Aug. 2, 1589: Henry IV Ascends the Throne of France

Apr. 13, 1598: Edict of Nantes