A Tudor and His Navy

The Mary Rose as depicted in the Anthony Roll, c. 1545.
The Mary Rose as depicted in the Anthony Roll, c. 1545.

As a unified state completely surrounded by water, England needed a strong navy in order to protect against attacks and invasions. Henry VII established the Royal Navy. His son, Henry VIII, continued to strengthen the navy, adding more ships and equipping them with advanced artillery. A strengthened royal navy was borne out of the diplomatic situation brought on by Henry VIII’s separation from Rome. Because of the diplomatic conflicts, and the need to strengthen the navy and its ships, Henry VIII’s reign revolutionized the Royal Navy with style and power.

Under the reign of Henry VII, it is evident that there was a significant improvement in England’s navy. When Henry became king in 1485, he assumed the responsibilities and ownership of the ex-Yorkist Royal Navy, keeping the Yorkist organization intact.[1] While Henry VII was not a member of the Yorkist family, Henry married Elizabeth of York after the War of the Roses, and essentially inherited the ex-Yorkist Royal Navy. He then improved it. European ship design experienced a transformation in the fifteenth century, impacting the way Henry VII built his ships. Henry’s inherited navy “was essentially a force of carracks,” or merchant ships, heavily armed with guns to ward off any pirates, protecting the goods on board.[2] His reign consisted of increasing England’s wealth and limiting any political disputes within England and between the surrounding nations. Henry paid close attention to balancing the books for money management, which helped to increase the revenue from lands, customs, loans, and taxes.[3] As for foreign policy, he recognized that England was far weaker compared to France and Spain, so he allied with Spain in order to avoid aggressive attacks from France.[4] When he died, he left Henry VIII with six ships, which was poor considering how wealthy Henry VII had been during his reign.[5]

Henry’s intentions for the Royal Navy was not to have a balance of power between the other European countries in regard to the sea, but to have a fleet strong enough to make up for the lack of manpower he had on land.[6] As king, Henry VIII assumed responsibility for the Royal Navy, and significantly improved the fleet throughout his reign. He built and purchased vessels, adding to the six his father left for him. By 1515, the Royal Navy had a total of 24 vessels. In the 1540s, Henry upgraded the fleet’s cannons. The style of his ships was not only influenced by European ships, but also by the weaponry available. A number of his warships were equipped with the best and most powerful guns and cannons. Henry had always had a fascination with ships, but strengthening the Royal Navy would make England seem like “a worthwhile ally to the [Habsburg] Empire.”[7] Tudor foreign policy, especially during the reign of Henry VII, had always been focused on neutrality and involved France and Spain as allies, because England both lacked the power to fight either state and was in close proximity to both.[8] This policy transformed once the Reformation began.

Because of the possibilities of attacks from either France or Spain, he strengthened the navy in order to protect England. Before the break with Rome, he was married to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of King Ferdinand of Spain. Henry wanted to annul the marriage after she failed to produce a male heir, but Pope Clement VII refused. This led to England’s break with the Catholic Church, thus leading to his divorce in the newly developing Church of England. The alliance Henry VII negotiated with Spain before Henry VIII married Catherine fell apart. England no longer had the protection of Spain. There would have been an attack from Spain. However, Charles V, the new king of Spain, and Catherine’s nephew, was far too busy with a conflict with the Turks in the southeastern portion of his empire. In 1538, while Charles and Francis I of France were directing their foreign policies at one another, Henry feared that there was a possible alliance between the two superpowers. He felt that “the major Catholic powers of Europe were pooling their power.”[9] A majority of Europe was Catholic, and by combining the power of France and the Spain, Henry and England would not survive if there were to be a war. In December 1538, there was a “papal order that support[ed] the deposing of Henry.”[10] Henry was essentially excommunicated from the Church. This weakened any alliance he previously held, and made him vulnerable to attacks from any of the European Catholic states.

The papal order led to a turning point in the transformation of Henry VIII’s navy. He took this threat seriously, and ordered the modernization of all coastal defenses on the south coast of England. In 1539, he had well over 100 ships, one of which, named the Mary Rose, was built in 1509. The fear of France and Spain allying still lingered in the back of Henry’s mind. From 1539-1541, Charles V and Francis I of France were allies, for a time, but their position was quickly followed by conflict. In February 1543, Henry allied with Charles, and planned an attack on France within two years. Henry wanted to acquire Boulogne. He deployed 5,000 troops, and in September 1544, Boulogne surrendered to the English and Henry was superior over Francis. A few days later, Charles deserted Henry and made peace with Francis.[11] In the summer of 1545, France invaded English waters in retaliation to the loss of Boulogne. The battle lasted for two days, with France repossessing Boulogne. The short-lived battle managed to show the Royal Navy’s dominance.

It is evident that due to the increased risk of foreign attack, and the need to strengthen the navy and its ships, Henry VIII’s reign reformed the Royal Navy. The urgency to strengthen to navy arose because of the need to ensure an alliance between France and the Hapsburg Empire, along with the need to have an advantage over continental Europe. The navy, inherited from Henry VII, increased in size and strength by the end of Henry VIII’s reign. Despite the Mary Rose capsizing, the warship still provided historians with understanding of how the Tudor warships have modernized since Henry VII. The newly built ships helped fuel the age of exploration for Elizabeth I. The Royal Navy showed that in spite of England’s shortcomings, England was more than able to overcome any obstacle.

-Prena Lulgjuraj


[1] Arthur Nelson, The Tudor Navy: The Ships, Men and Organisation 1485-1603 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 2001), 26.

[2] Agnus Konstam, Tudor Warships (1): Henry VIIIs Navy (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008), 12.

[3] “Henry VII,” Henry VII, Web, Accessed 21 Oct. 2015.

[4] “Domestic and Foreign Policy of Henry VII,” Domestic and Foreign Policy of Henry VII, Web, Accessed 20 Oct. 2015.

[5] Nelson, 35.

[6] Nelson, 36-37.

[7] Nelson, 42.

[8] “Henry VIII and Foreign Policy – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. Accessed October 6, 2015.

[9] “Henry VIII and Foreign Policy – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. Accessed October 6, 2015.

[10] “Henry VIII and Foreign Policy – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. Accessed October 6, 2015.

[11] “Henry VIII and Foreign Policy – History Learning Site.” History Learning Site. Accessed October 21, 2015.

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