Henry VIII and Emperor Charles V – a major anniversary
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Charles in 1520, shortly after his election as Holy Roman Emperor. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.) Unknown Netherlandish painter.

The 500th Anniversary of Emperor Charles V's State Visit to England.

It is surprising that there has been so little (if any) recognition of the quincentenary of this major state visit. This is an extended account of Emperor Charles V's visit to England in the early summer of 1522 between 26th May and 6th July. It covers the background to the visit, details of the emperor's stay and its aftermath.

A shorter account of Charles 's visit to England in 1522 can be found in the blog 'Henry VIII and Charles V - a major anniversary'.

The relationship between Henry VIII and Charles V is investigated in a new book by Richard Heath due to be published by Pen and Sword in early 2023.


The visit of Emperor Charles V, the nephew of Henry VIII’s wife Catherine of Aragon, 500 years ago was one of the great state occasions of Tudor England. Despite this it receives much less attention than the famous meeting at the Field of Cloth of Gold between Henry and the French king two years earlier. Yet it was far more productive. A major treaty was signed, detailed plans for war were made and marriage arrangements discussed. It marked the high point in the relationship between Henry and Charles. Lasting six weeks, there were formal ceremonies, public spectacles and also plenty of time for the leisure activities that both monarchs enjoyed. But just how significant was it? Did it establish a long-term understanding that only Henry’s wish to annul his marriage to Catherine ended, or was it an expensive expedient organised to meet the immediate political priorities of the monarchs?

By 1520 Charles, as king of Spain and its lands in Italy, ruler of the Low Countries and Holy Roman Emperor, was one of the two super-powers in Christian Europe together with the king of France, his bitter rival, Francis I. Both had far greater resources at their disposal than Henry, though the English king had ambitions to sit at the top table. It was the conflict between Charles and Francis that gave Henry, along with his chief minister Cardinal Wolsey, the opportunity to play a leading role in international affairs and encouraged hopes of achieving that ambition.

Who should Henry support?

In 1518 the treaty of London, in which the rulers of Christendom signed up to a ‘universal peace’ and a commitment to combatting the growing challenge of the Ottoman Turks, had gained Henry and Wolsey much credit. But this peace was unlikely to last. In 1519 Charles’s victory over both Francis and Henry in the election to become Holy Roman Emperor left France in danger of being encircled by Charles’s territories. In early 1521 Francis encouraged his allies to invade his rival’s lands in the Low Countries and Navarre, hoping to take advantage of Charles’s relative inexperience, commenting: ‘He is young and has no practical experience of war’. However Charles had able commanders who not only repelled the attacks but were then ordered to respond aggressively in Italy, the focus of much of their rivalry.

Henry was keen to exploit the situation. England’s support would be of considerable value to both sides. His problem was who to back and when? France was England’s traditional enemy. English kings had ruled significant, though shrinking, areas of France since 1066 and from the fourteenth century had intermittently claimed the French throne. The young king Henry wished to win the renown of his namesake Henry V and had already led one campaign into France in 1513. Spain and the Low Countries, important to English trade, had often been England’s allies. The obvious choice therefore would be to support Charles.

But this was not without risks. Francis had already displayed his military prowess by capturing Milan in 1515. Earlier treaties meant that the French paid Henry valuable pensions which would be lost if he chose Charles. Internationally Henry still had much to gain by being seen as a mediator, working for peace in Europe. Openly siding with Charles would destroy that image, so he wished to maximise concessions from the emperor before doing so. An element of brinkmanship was required because if Charles was victorious before Henry made that commitment then the emperor would have no reason to concede anything. The next few years showed just how rapidly alliances could change in sixteenth century international politics.

In May 1521 Charles signed an agreement with Pope Leo X with the aim of driving the French out of Italy. This made it possible for Henry to claim that a war against Francis would be a just war, against an aggressor who in the eyes of the Church had broken the universal peace. In August 1521, despite holding peace talks in Calais, Wolsey travelled to Bruges to meet Charles. He reported to Henry that ‘the Emperor and my Lady [Margaret of Austria, Charles’s aunt and regent of the Low Countries] came to my lodgings familiarly’ and entertained him in a ‘plenteous and sumptuous manner’. He informed the king that for his age Charles ‘is very wise and well understanding his affairs.’

On 25 August an agreement was signed. It was to be kept secret until 1523 but committed both monarchs to invade France. It stated that ‘the Emperor and England shall be protectors of the Pope’, that they would ‘put down heresy … in such lands they may conquer in France’ and in return the pope would ‘grant dispensations for the marriage between the Emperor and the king of England’s daughter, Mary.’ Henry agreed to make the Channel safe for Charles’ intended voyage from the Low Countries to Spain. Plans were also made for Charles to visit to England. This would follow up on their two brief meetings in 1520 and an earlier one in 1513 when Charles had been taken by Margaret of Austria, his guardian, to join Henry’s celebrations after the capture of Therouanne and Tournai from France. The 13-year-old Duke of Burgundy had been impressed by the newly victorious Henry, just as in 1506 the young Henry had been in awe of Duke Philip, Charles’s father, when he met him in England.

These early impressions and more recent understandings now paid dividends. The preparations for Charles’s visit to England soon got underway. Originally planned for Easter 1522 it was delayed by Charles’s need to finalise his affairs in the Low Countries. Although Charles claimed that he preferred expenditure to be on preparations for war rather than extravagant hospitality, the size of his entourage made this impossible. He arrived with 200 nobles from Spain, Germany and the Low Countries, 100 officers and 1,700 servants.

In cities on the proposed route of the emperor, especially London, the dwellings of wealthy citizens were assessed for how many visitors they could accommodate. Inns and stables were requisitioned for the use of servants and the horses. Consideration was given to the provision of tables, chairs and lighting as well as the quantities of wood, coal, and of course the food and drink that would be consumed. Street decorations for the formal processions in London had to be designed and constructed. The guilds which were expected to pay for them were slow in contributing and many workmen were reluctant to be involved for fear of non-payment. Nevertheless Henry was determined that there would be a fine show to celebrate a valued international alliance and honour his guest.

The visit - ‘Brothers of one mind’

Charles was greeted on Sunday 25 May 1522 near Gravelines by the Marquess of Dorset and escorted to Calais. The next day, after a four hour crossing to Dover, he was met by Wolsey and a party of 300 lords, knights and gentlemen. A delay in the arrival of their baggage meant that Charles was still in Dover on Wednesday and so Henry unexpectedly rode from Canterbury to welcome him. Henry always enjoyed surprising his guests but Charles took it in his stride. Before they left Dover on Friday the king proudly showed Charles around his fleet and they spent some time aboard the warship ‘Henry Grace a Dieu’.

They then set off for Greenwich, staying overnight in Canterbury, Sittingbourne, and Rochester before arriving at Gravesend on Monday 2 May. There the company boarded the royal barges to be rowed upstream to the Palace of Placentia, more commonly known as Greenwich Palace. Arriving at 6 pm they were welcomed by Queen Catherine, the 6-year-old Princess Mary and the assembled court. Charles expressed ‘his great joy to see the Queen, his aunt, and especially his young cousin the Lady Mary.’

He stayed in the royal apartments which were decorated with fine tapestries and was entertained with banquets, dancing and jousting at which Henry excelled. On the second morning of the tournament Henry received a message from Sir Thomas Cheyney, his ambassador in France, and immediately requested Charles to join him. Henry had previously sent ‘requests’, more accurately demands, to Francis that he pay the pensions due, cease making war on the emperor, release English merchants held unlawfully and end his support for the anti-English faction in Scotland. The message from Cheyney contained Francis’ response that ‘we have well considered your master’s desire to which we nothing agree, nor hold us content with his request’. Hall’s Chronicle then states ‘Thus now was the war open of all the parties.’

Charles's formal entry into London

On Friday 6 June Henry and Charles left Greenwich for London. They were greeted by the mayor after which Sir Thomas More made an ‘eloquent oration in praise of the two princes … and what comfort it was to their subjects to see them in such amity’. In Charles’s words they ‘entered London in great triumph, not only like brothers of one mind, but in the same attire’ and that they ‘met with a magnificent reception from a great company of knights and gentlemen, with solemn and costly pageants, to the great joy of all the people.’

Nine pageants were spread along the one-and-a half-mile route from London Bridge, north up Gracechurch Street, right onto Cornhill, then along Cheapside to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Full of classical illusions they celebrated the ancient lineages of their two dynasties, the friendship of monarchs, and their joint willingness to defend Christendom. The often repeated inscription read: ‘Carolus Henricus vivant. Defensor uterque. Henricus Fidei, Carolus Ecclesiae’ (Charles and Henry live. Defenders both. Henry of the Faith, Charles of the Church). Henry had been delighted to be named ‘Defender of the Faith’ by Pope Leo in October 1521. The seventh pageant, the first of three in Cheapside, gives an idea of their scale. It consisted of two large gateways supporting a structure with four towers connected by galleries of cloth and silver. These were full of musicians and singers. The sides were decorated with the coats of arms of emperors and English kings. On the arrival of the monarchs a giant rose was lowered and out of it stepped a girl who handed a white rose to Charles and a red one to Henry. This was followed by the singing of verses praising the emperor and the defence of Christendom.

Charles was lodged in Blackfriars Priory and his nobles in the new palace of Bridewell. There followed games of tennis, banquets and on Whit Sunday services at both St. Paul’s and Westminster Abbey. The next week was spent hunting and feasting as the monarchs travelled to Richmond Palace, Hampton Court and then Windsor where they arrived on Thursday 12 June. They stayed for a week during which time the Treaty of Windsor, the details of which their ministers had been working on for many weeks, was signed.

Plans for War

The tone was set on the Sunday evening when Henry and Charles watched a play in which ‘Friendship’, ‘Prudence’ and ‘Might’ together tamed a wild horse. The imagery was clear to all – Francis was to be brought under control by the Anglo-Imperial/Spanish alliance. In the preamble to the treaty the monarchs justified their actions. Francis, it claimed, rather than working with other Christian leaders to combat Turkish attacks, was taking advantage of the situation to conquer lands for himself. ‘The King of England, therefore, renounces his friendship with the King of France and regards his treaties with him as not concluded. As the Emperor and the King of England, who is Defender of the Faith, are in duty bound to defend the Catholic Church, they have concluded an everlasting alliance.’

They promised to ‘make a common war upon France by land and by sea, and not to desist from it until they have conquered all that France unjustly withholds from them.’ Neither would make peace without the knowledge of the other. The co-ordinated invasion of France, known as the ‘Great Enterprise’, was now to take place by 1524. Each monarch was to provide 30,000 foot soldiers and 10,000 cavalry. It was also agreed that Charles would cover the cost of the French pensions that Henry would now lose.

Charles was to marry Henry’s daughter Princess Mary and dowry payments were discussed, though when she would travel to Spain remained unsettled. This was the most unrealistic part of the agreement. Mary was only 6 years old and Charles, now 22, was already under pressure from his subjects to marry and produce an heir. A wait of at least eight years would not be welcome. For the moment though these concerns were put to one side.

After taking solemn oaths to abide by the terms of the treaty, Henry and Charles left Windsor on 20 June, taking three days to reach Winchester, where they dined before the newly decorated Round Table. After a week they moved to Bishop’s Waltham Castle, near Southampton. It was here that Charles’s will was completed, signed and witnessed. After thirty English vessels under Admiral Howard had patrolled the Channel to ensure that it was clear of French ships, Charles’s fleet sailed into Southampton. Charles left for Spain on 6 July.

Everything had gone as well as the monarchs could have expected. Charles had secured Henry’s support against Francis which would greatly assist him by diverting French troops away from Italy. Henry had won the emperor’s backing for his ambitions in France, perhaps even the French throne, organised a prestigious marriage for his daughter and had protected his financial interests. However, treaties at the time were full of laudable aims and extravagant commitments that the signatories were unlikely to be able to fulfil. They usually represented short-term political and diplomatic manoeuvring. Despite talk of an ‘everlasting alliance’ was this one any different?


Both did invade France, an English army commanded by the Duke of Suffolk in 1523 and Charles’s armies the following year. Although neither were defeated, these were not co-ordinated attacks. No permanent gains were made. Both monarchs expected more from their ally and the campaigns ended in mutual recriminations. By the end of 1524 Henry’s diplomats were already in negotiations with the French. After Charles’s army won its great victory in February 1525 at Pavia in northern Italy, capturing the French king, without any assistance from England, Charles rebuffed Henry’s enthusiastic plans for the dismemberment of France. Later in the year Charles renounced his betrothal to Princess Mary and in 1526 married Isabella of Portugal. He failed to reimburse Henry for any of the lost French pensions. Once back in France, after his release in March 1526, Francis, with Henry’s encouragement, immediately created an alliance hostile to Charles.

Charles’s visit was more than an opportunity for Henry to put on a display of splendour; it served the immediate political purposes of them both. However it failed to produce any long-term benefits for Henry. Given the personal rivalry between the monarchs and the rapidly changing circumstances of the time this was hardly surprising. When Charles and Francis eventually made peace in 1529 England was largely ignored, though Francis agreed to renew Henry’s pensions. Henry’s relations with the emperor deteriorated still further when he ended his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and broke away from the Roman Catholic Church. But despite the fears of many, especially during the late 1530s, Charles was never likely to invade England and they once again became allies against France in the 1540s. However the two monarchs never met again after the visit of 1522, even though Henry reigned for another twenty-five years and Charles survived him by more than a decade.

Richard Heath
Richard Heath
Richard Heath graduated in history from the University of Cambridge and was a history teacher for 35 years. He now enjoys travelling with his wife in their VW camper van, exploring historical sites and appreciating all that Europe has to offer.

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