The Consequences of Ottoman Aspirations in Europe for Henry VIII’s England

The early sixteenth century saw the advance of the Ottoman Empire into Europe. Though the Ottomans remained far away from England to be considered a real threat, the English were still influenced by Ottoman actions. Ottoman technological superiority led to better military tactics, which facilitated raids and invasions in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea. The Ottomans’ influence in the Mediterranean Sea also grew with their defeat of Venetians at the Second Battle of Leopanto in 1500.[1] By the time Charles I of Spain became Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire as Charles V in 1519, Ottoman pirates were raiding the French southern coast and disrupting trade routes.[2] It was with the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent that the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith and began various campaigns that would unequivocally threaten Christian Europe. The growing conflicts against the Ottoman Empire in Central Europe inadvertently aided Henry VIII in his efforts to reform the English church detailing and help to explain why the rest of Europe made little to no real effort to stop Henry.

Henry adopted a more belligerent approach at the start of his reign, as he believed in asserting more control over lands in France; he also believed that the French crown was his, and was even a secret contender in the royal election of 1519 for the crown of the Holy Roman Empire. Henry’s aggression against the French, aided by Emperor Maximilian I, predecessor to Charles V, for the crown ended with the emperor’s death. After the imperial election of 1519, Francis I of France sought help from Henry against Charles V as France was now encircled by Imperial powers; Charles V also sought an alliance with Henry against France. Henry’s alliance with Charles V was marked by the promise of Charles’ marriage to Henry’s daughter, Mary.[3] An alliance that would benefit both Henry and Charles in various matters against the French, such as of the formation of Switzerland, plots to deter Franco-Venetian alliances, and most importantly, control over Italy.[4] Yet, when war came between Charles and Francis, England made little contribution against the French when imperial forces alone defeated the French army securing Italy, which changed Charles’ mind about needing England. But, any cordial relations left with Charles V came to an end when Henry sought an annulment of his marriage with Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn.[5] Charles forced Pope Clement VII, who was under imperial control after the sack of Rome in 1527, to refuse Henry’s petition to divorce Catherine of Aragon, his aunt. Charles V detested the idea of his aunt’s honor being deprived, yet he made no effort to defend his aunt’s honor as no imperial ambassador arrived in England nor take any military action.[6] Though Charles may not have gone to war to save his aunt, the Ottomans deterred any political or diplomatic maneuvers to save Catherine.

While the mercurial alliances and conflicts between the Holy Roman Empire, France, and England continued, the Ottoman were slowly gaining control of the Mediterranean Sea and Eastern Europe with the defeat of the Knights of St. John in Rhodes and the capture of Belgrade and Buda, which caused Charles to send aid and grant the island of Malta to the Knights.[7] The most alarming action made by the Ottoman was the siege of Vienna in 1529, which is one of various reasons why Charles made little effort to help his aunt. After the siege of 1529, Charles had to rebuild Vienna and prepare for another siege the Ottomans were arming for. The constant threat of the Ottoman Empire on the Holy Roman Empire distracted Charles leading to Henry VIII to divorce Catherine of Aragon on his own accord without Papal authority and thus starting several events leading to the English Reformation.

Henry was enraged with Pope Clement’s refusal of his annulment, especially since there was precedent for an annulment. This dissatisfaction with the Papacy led, in part, to Henry’s break from Rome, while the Papacy was too involved in more pressing matters, securing an army and engaging against the Ottomans. After securing a divorce with the aid of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury, Henry and Cranmer made several acts to ensure his authority. The Act of Restraint of Appeals of 1533, forbade all appeals to Rome and made the King the final authority on all religious matters, and the Supremacy Act of 1534 declared Henry head of the church of England. In 1536, Cranmer published the Ten Articles detailing the guidelines of an independent Church of England.[8] The series of events and acts made by Henry and the English parliament finally reached a turning point in Rome: Pope Paul III called for the deposition of King Henry VIII by any Catholic in 1539. Furthermore, Francis I and Charles V signed the Treaty of Toledo, an agreement to make no further alliances with Henry VIII, all of which seemed to be the height of European aggression towards England at the time, which could be due to Ottoman advancement in Europe.

As the Reformation and the break from Rome occurred in England, the Ottomans were increasingly more involved in European affairs. In the 1530s the Ottomans had increased their expansion into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean dramatically. The siege of Corfu and the Battle of Preveza, with the Spanish and the Venetians, distracted the Papacy and Charles from England by engaging jointly, along with other Catholic states, and securing means to fight. The sacking of Gibraltar and Charles V’s conflicts with the Ottomans throughout Hungary and conflicts with Francis left England relatively untouched by Charles.[9] The only real threat was France, but Henry and Francis were at peace, at the time, since the French were forming an alliance with the Ottomans in the trade pact of 1536.[10] The alliance between France and the Ottoman Empire made a scandal in Europe as a Christian kingdom made an alliance with an Islamic empire with imperial aspirations. The Franco-Ottoman alliance caused Charles V to seek the excommunication of Francis I, which did not occur, and further distracted Charles, Francis, and the Papacy from England.[11] The culmination of events between the Ottomans and continental Europe led to little actions against the Reformation in England.

Direct Ottoman influence on England was limited, yet the Ottomans characterized European affairs. The Ottoman invasions of Eastern Europe, control over the Mediterranean Sea, and the Franco-Ottoman alliance shifted priorities in Europe, from keeping England Catholic to the more dangerous threat. The consequences of Ottoman aspirations in Europe in part helped Henry VIII secure the English Reformation.

-Ian Colliard


[1] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic of the Reign of Henry VIII (1509-1513), ed. RH Brodie, vol. 1: 98

[2] Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain, 1485-1714 (Harlow: Pearson/Longman, 2005), 41

[3] Ibid., 41-43.

[4] Further Supplement Letters, Dispatches and State Papers Relating to the Negotiations between England and Spain Preserved in the Archives at Vienna and Elsewhere (1513-1542), ed. Garret Matingly, (London, 1947): 17

[5] Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain, 44-45.

[6] Further Supplement Letters, Dispatches and State Papers Relating to the Negotiations between England and Spain Preserved in the Archives at Vienna and Elsewhere: 449

[7] Further Supplement Letters, Dispatches and State Papers Relating to the Negotiations between England and Spain Preserved in the Archives at Vienna and Elsewhere: 44

[8] Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain, 62-67,

[9] Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Relating to English Affairs Existing in the Archives and Collection of Venice and in other Libraries of Northern Italy (1534-1154): 67-69

[10] Jensen De Lamar. “The Ottoman Turks in Sixteenth Century French Diplomacy,” Sixteenth Century Journal, 451.

[11] Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts Relating to English Affairs Existing in the Archives and Collection of Venice and in other Libraries of Northern Italy (1534-1154): 53

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