The Battle of the Spurs is also known as the Battle of Guinegate. It took place on August 16 in 1513.
Essentially Henry VIII had a full treasury and wanted to be a traditional monarch which meant going to war in Europe, preferably against the French. He was encouraged in this by the young men of his court who wanted fortune and glory. Polydore Vergil noted that the king was aware of his responsibility to seek military fame – and what better way to do it that to retrieve the Empire. All that remained of Henry V’s campaign victories and the early empire of the medieval kings was Calais and its Pale. This fitted nicely with his father-in-law Ferdinand of Aragon’s military plans.
0n 17 November 1511 Henry signed up to Treaty of Westminster and the Holy League which promised to protect the papacy. The only thing better than fighting the French was to fight the French as part of a holy war – you might describe it as a win-win situation so far as Henry was concerned.
The Holy League was formed by Julius II with the intention of removing the French from Italy – so really and truly it is part of the Italian Wars which began in 1495 and were concluded in 1559. Julius II realised the threat that the French posed and entered into an alliance with the Venetians in 1510. Let us leave the tooings and froings of the European powers aside – suffice it to say that in March 1512 Julius II withdrew the title “Most Christian King” from Louis XII and then gave France to Henry VIII of England. There was the small matter of the French not wanting to hand France over to Henry.
Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset arrived in the basque regions with 10,000 men. They marched to Fuenterrabia where the plan was that an Anglo-Spanish force would capture Aquitaine. Thomas Grey was the second marquess and the third son of Thomas Grey the eldest son of Elizabeth Woodville – meaning that our marquess was one of Henry’s half-cousins. The family had a bit of a colourful relationship with the Tudors but now he was sent off to acquire Aquitaine. This suited Ferdinand of Aragon’s (pictured at the start of this paragraph) desire to put the French off invading Northern Spain. He had his eyes on Navarre. The English stayed put until August 1512 during which time Ferdinand didn’t provide the support to capture Aquitaine that he had promised to his son-in-law (which didn’t help Katherine of Aragon’s relationship with her spouse) and also tried to persuade Grey to help him in his campaign in Navarre. Grey refused to deviate from his task.
Whilst all this was going on finances ran low as did food and all I can say is that troops turned to wine and became rather unwell due to lack of food, poor hygiene and bad weather. 3,000 of them caught the bloody flux. They blamed it on foreign food but generally speaking dysentery isn’t caused by garlic or wine. Sir Thomas Knyvet died at this time. Ultimately Grey’s army mutinied and when he arrived home Grey was in the doghouse. Henry considered trying him for dereliction of duty. It can’t have helped that Henry was hardly covered in glory at this point.
Somehow Grey managed to extricate himself and went with Henry the following year on campaign to France. He was at the Siege of Tournai and the Battle of the Spurs. In May 1513 English troops began to arrive in Calais. By then the Emperor Maximilian had joined the Holy Roman League and Louis XII of France was trying to persuade the Scots to attack the English – which ended disastrously for the Scots at Flodden. By the end of June Henry VIII was also in France having been outfitted by Thomas Wolsey who increasingly had the king’s ear at the expense of Katherine of Aragon – whose father had made something of a fool of Henry encouraging him to make an attempt on Aquitaine the previous year with the intent of using him as a distraction for his own ends. Despite that Henry left Katherine as regent during his French campaign and to ensure that there wasn’t any unrest had the Earl of Suffolk executed before he went – and let’s not forget that he was a cousin of sorts as well. Edmund de la Pole was the Yorkist heir. The Earl’s younger brother was in France so escaped Henry’s precautionary executions but it probably didn’t help that he called himself the White Rose.
On 24 July Henry and emperor Maximilian laid siege to Thérouanne. The Duc de Longueville was sent to relieve the town but when the English saw the French cavalry make an attempt to supply the town they chased after it. The French fled – hence the name Battle of the Spurs- suggesting that the French did more fleeing than fighting!
Part of the reason for the French confusion was because Henry Percy, the Fifth Earl of Northumberland appeared with English cavalry in front of the French forces whilst they were also potentially outflanked by English archers.
There was an undignified chase with the French trying to get their men to stop and fight. Henry and the Holy Roman Emperor captured six French standards and the Duc de Longueville. The duc, Louis d’Orleans, was packed off back to England where he was ensconced in the Tower. Whilst he was a prisoner he began a relationship with Jane Popincourt, a Frenchwoman who had been in the household of Elizabeth of York, who is also alleged to have been one of Henry VIII’s mistresses. Certainly when all the shouting was over and Henry’s sister Mary Tudor was married off to the aged Louis XII he struck Jane’s name from a list of women in Mary’s household. When Jane did eventually go to France to join Longueville, Henry gave her £100 which might have been for loyalty to Elizabeth of York, might have been for tutoring the Tudor children in French and it might have been for other things – unfortunately the accounts don’t give that kind of information.
Really and truly the Battle of the Spurs is not a battle in the truest sense of the word but it did bulk up Henry VIII’s martial reputation and answered what he’d arrived in France for in the first instance – i.e. glory and prestige on a European stage.
Thérouanne surrendered on the 22 August.
Hutchinson, Robert. (2012) Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII. London: Orion Books
Weir, Alison. (2001) Henry VIII: King and Court. London: Jonathan Cape