An AU scenario: Spanish invasion in England

One of my readers asked me the question what would have happened if Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had invaded England and had dethroned King Henry VIII. First of all, I want to say that it is highly unlikely that the emperor would have decided to invade England.

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The Imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who was strongly against the “King’s Great Matter”, was utterly devoted to Catherine of Aragon and loathed Anne Boleyn wholeheartedly, could have tried to push Catherine to raise a rebellion in England against Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, but I have no doubt that Catherine wouldn’t have supported that rebellion.

When Henry ignored the pope’s refusal to grant him an annulment and married Anne Boleyn, rumours began to spread that soon Charles V would invade England. It seems that some nobles, including Thomas Cromwell, took the threat quite seriously, although it was in fact improbable. A riot in England would have suited English Catholics and Chapuys, and it is true that Chapuys wrote his master many letters, encouraging Charles to declare war on England.

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Lauren Mackay gives an accurate assessment of Chapuys’ thoughts about the Spanish invasion (taken from the book “Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the writings of the Spanish Ambassador Eustace Chapuys”):

“The ambassador knew however that this was almost impossible. He noted in his despatch in late May that Charles himself could judge whether Chapuys had acted in accordance with Charles’s orders of 1529, namely that he was not to make matters worse, not to threaten war, nor in any way imply that there might be a rupture in the friendship and good intelligence between the two countries.”

Henry VIII might have had certain thoughts about war with the Spaniards. But he wasn’t a man of half measures, and nothing could have changed his mind – he wouldn’t have abandoned Anne to reunite with Catherine. He wasn’t a man who could have been frightened of a foreign monarch’s threats, definitely not after he had achieved absolute power in England.

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Still, we learn from Chapuys’ reports that Henry was quite concerned about the possibility of invasion. Lauren Mackay described the moods of the king and his courtiers in details, although the ambassador’s descriptions should be taken with a pinch of salt – he might have exaggerated many things in his reports due to his fervent desire for invasion to happen and his hatred for Anne Boleyn.

Lauren Mackay wrote:

“The ambassador’s description of the rest of the court’s behaviour under the threat of invasion is a vivid sketch of something close to mass hysteria. For all his breast-beating, Henry was truly terrified of war. Chapuys wrote that the men of court were in various states of panic, as if they had lost their senses, seemingly bewildered at the state of affairs and not knowing how to repair the damage. According to Chapuys, the slightest hint of war would have the king and his court taking flight like a frightened flock of birds. Chapuys knew that the English fears were groundless; Charles had not invaded despite Chapuys urging him to do so over several years.”

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Chapuys wrote the emperor about declaring war on England in several letters and looked around the court, trying to choose potential allies from a pool of most devoted Catholics. But he wasn’t a fool and he understood that the move to raise the rebellion employing English Catholics could have severely aggravated Mary and Catherine’s positions.

And what did the emperor do? Charles was overcautious and gave the ambassador only vague instructions about a possible course of action.

Taking into account the above, I don’t think that the Spanish invasion in England could have taken place after England’s break with Rome and Henry’s marriage to Anne. However, I agree that it is interesting to think about the what-if scenarios of what could have been if Charles had invaded England.

The Entry of Charles V. Into Antwerp (sketch) Painting by Hans Makart; The Entry of Charles V. Into Antwerp (sketch) Art Print for sale

Spanish invasion is definitely an interesting AU scenario. Below you can find the summary of the possible consequences of invasion:

  • Catherine of Aragon would have been restored to the throne, and Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn would have been declared null and void. Mary, Henry and Catherine’s daughter, would have become Queen of England and Catherine could have been a regent.
  • The fate of Henry VIII is questionable. It is unlikely that he would have remained King of England after the successful invasion. It is also unlikely that Henry would have been executed because he was an anointed king and I cannot see the emperor signing his death warrant. However, he could have been imprisoned in the Tower of London, like Henry VI of England was incarcerated in the Tower at Edward IV’s order. Later, Henry VIII might have been killed in prison, although I doubt that Catherine would have sanctioned her husband’s murder. Henry might have been perished in battle as well, like Richard III did.

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  • Anne would have been stripped of her crown and her titles. She and her relatives would have been disgraced publicly disgraced and expelled from the country; I don’t exclude that they might have been even executed. The nobles, who had previously supported the Boleyns, would have switched sides and pledged their fealty to Mary and Catherine.
  • The restoration of Roman Catholicism would have followed. English reformers would have been harshly persecuted. The pope would have sent his trusted papal legate to England, for example Reginald Pole. Thomas Cranmer would have been stripped of his archbishopric, and Reginald Pole could have been appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Many reformers could have been burnt at the stake for heresy.

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If Charles V and his troops invaded England and won the war with Henry VIII, many things would have been different in the lives of many people. 

Mary would have married at a much younger age and could have produced surviving issue. Catherine might have lived past 1536 as she wouldn’t have spent the last years of her life in exile. Anne might not have lived her natural lifespan, although she might have been ejected from England instead of being put to death. Henry’s fate is the most debatable one in this AU. Jane Seymour wouldn’t have become queen, and Edward VI wouldn’t have been born.