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Henry VIII, Wolsey and Europe 1509-1529


This lengthy exercise uses a room to simulate a map of Europe and the questioning of students in role requires them to think about the motives of individuals and the reasons for their actions. It can last around two hours but you may well wish to break it down into shorter chronological chunks. You may baulk at this amount of time being used on role-play, which some see as unnecessary at ‘A’ level or a frivolous extra, readily jettisoned if time is short. My experience, however, is quite the contrary. This kind of activity enables students to learn more effectively and to work more independently and more confidently. On a topic such as this, students go through two stages of learning. Firstly they have to get to grips with the pattern of events, placing each twist and turn in the right order. Secondly they need to assess the effectiveness of policies and the reasons for successes and failures. In the role-play students retain concentration far better and do far more real thinking than in a lecture and therefore understand far more. Secondly, establishing the overview of events and issues through the role-play boosts students’ confidence and enables them to go on to read and make notes more efficiently. Far from wasting time, the approach saves time in the long-run, because it enables students to work more effectively on their own.

This activity also tackles students’ erroneous or unrealistic impressions of the likelihood of English success. They are, after all, doing English history in England and it is all too easy to assume that English intentions were the mainspring of European events (especially with a character such as Henry VIII) rather than to appreciate the reality, that England was a country of limited power and influence.

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Or, a WORD version of this activity can be downloaded, click here.

This activity is based on the ’Role play ’ style of model; for more examples of this model, click here.


Therefore, this activity is designed to develop students’ understanding of:

  • the pattern of European events between 1509 and 1529. This outline knowledge will then help them read textbooks more confidently and more effectively because they have already gained some familiarity with the events and issues.
  • some of the key problems facing England in its relations with other countries. This involves issues such as geographical position, relative prosperity and the development of alliances.
  • the motives of Henry VIII and Wolsey and to create an initial hypothesis about the degree of success and failure of English policy in this period. This can then provide the focus for further study.

Setting Up

You need space sufficient to create a map of Europe and place your students in different countries. If you are working with 30 students you need more than a normal classroom space.

Click here to download the full room plan in a new window

The first thing to do is to arrange your students geographically to create the map of Europe. The idea is to use the students so that they understand the geographical relationships of countries and also their respective military strengths.

Start by choosing your English group of 2 or 3 students and nominate one student as Henry VIII. Then choose someone to be the Scot - this is not a major role but is important in reminding everyone that the thread of Scottish invasion was something that the English had to consider when contemplating European involvement. Next allocate students in larger numbers as France, Spain and the Empire – say 8 for France to England’s 2 or 3. Identify the rulers with named tabards. Finally, select a Pope and, if you have the numbers, individual students to be small Italian states.

The layout therefore makes clear two things which some students do not automatically realise - that English strength is far less than that of France and other nations and that England is on the fringe of European politics. What do you do if you only have 5 or 6 students? Two possibilities - use empty chairs to simulate the numbers or, if available, use cuddly toys! “But”, someone is thinking by now, “this is A level, my students would be insulted by the use of stuffed rabbits as French councillors.” The answer is to explain why you are doing the exercise and how it will help your students to learn more effectively. If you know that they will respond positively to such an explanation then a touch of fun and laughter does not undermine the intellectual rigour of the exercise. In a long demanding activity it is vital to have lighter moments so students can relax and then re-gather their concentration. I’ve used this kind of activity many times at final-year degree level and explanation of the thinking behind the approach does win suspicious students over.

The Activity

So, here we are, with the leaders of Europe in 1509 in place. What follows is a script that can be amended and added to according to your needs. The left-hand column provides your script – the right-hand column provides ideas about possible responses and developments of the activity.

Your role as teacher and leader is complex – you need to move around Europe feeding in information and asking questions. As with any other question and answer activity, be patient – allow students thinking time. Repeat and rephrase questions, give clues and prompts, whatever it takes to force them to think about the situation from the perspective of their role.

Stage 1: How successful was Henry’s involvement in European politics 1509-1514?

Questions/prompts/answers sought


1. What had been the principles of Henry VII’s foreign policy?

Why had involvement with France caused problems in the past? (e.g. 1471, 1485)

This is probably recap material - important in itself but it’s also helpful to start with material that students can answer so they get used to contributing from the beginning

2. Was English involvement in Europe easy?

  • geographical location
  • manpower ( England 3m, France 14m)
  • finance (Henry’s revenues less than Portugal’s and comparable with Denmark)
  • past successes the result of raids by Edward III and Henry V, not planned conquest.
  • French concern with Italy rather than England. The focus of political attention is not north-western Europe.

Here you are providing students with information so they can appreciate the problems standing in the way of military glory. This can still be involving if you ask students, for example, which foreign ruler had comparable incomes to Henry VII? The physical layout of space as a map and the use of larger groups of students for France etc. will clarify these issues. It can help if everyone turns to face Italy, turning their backs on England – this shows how much more difficult it will be for Henry to make his mark on Europe.

3. What were Henry VIII’s objectives?

If necessary provide clues e.g.

  • evidence of Henry’s interests (jousting and friends e.g. Brandon)
  • reading of Froissart/chivalric romances
  • youth

Establish his key objective: glory/ renown

Probe students’ assumptions about Henry to bring out his likely objective. Again you will supply the information while asking what students think Henry’s objectives were.

4. Why was Henry able to interfere in Europe?

Ask French - what do you want to achieve? (conquest in Italy)

Ask Pope - can you defend yourself?

- how can you create defence? (need for alliance)

Students may assume that because Henry wanted glory then his invasion of France was inevitable. This section shows the role of external events and the importance of alliances in creating the opportunities.


5. At this point the teacher acts as intermediary, moving from the Pope to England, Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor in turn, asking if they will join an alliance to protect the Pope. Make sure each ruler asks for land as his price for helping the Pope but the conclusion is that Henry, Ferdinand and Maximilian agree and thus the Holy League is created. It’s worth asking students what they would call an alliance based around the Pope – wait for suggestions and see if you can push them towards Holy League. This puzzling over what to call it will help it stay in the memory.

6. Ask England - what will you do now?

(attack France - teacher supplies details of expedition to Gascony to support Ferdinand)


Ask Spain - you have won land, will you stay in League? (No - Ferdinand agrees truce with France)


To England - supply details of successes in northern France but news of Spanish defection. What impact will this have on English policy?


Ask Empire - will you stay in League? (No - alliance broken down)


To new Pope - previous Pope died and Allies deserting. Do you need a new policy? (Yes - agreement with France)


To England - now left alone against France, will you continue war? (No - leads to Anglo-French treaty)

Once the Holy League is created the teacher through questions and the supply of information takes students through events, showing both successes like the Battle of the Spurs and also the breakdown of the alliance. The aim is to show that Henry’s policy was dependent on alliances and he could not act independently. This also shows that each nation is pursuing its own objectives - an obvious point but made concrete through the activity.

You can build in the Scottish invasion of England to emphasise the danger to England of becoming pre-occupied with Europe – that’s what the Scot is for!

7. Debriefing point - what have we learned so far? Look at questions such as:

  • how successful can Henry be without allies?
  • how reliable are allies?
  • how would we rate Henry’s success to date?

After the questions ask students how successful Henry had been in his pursuit of glory – ask them to give him a mark out of 10. Students usually award Henry 4 out of 10 for 1509-1514. Here you can begin to build up a graph recording Henry’s success in achieving glory.


Stage 2: Was Henry more successful between 1514 and 1518?

This phase begins with changes in personnel. Swap the leading figures in France around to reflect Francis I’s accession and similarly promote a student to the role of Emperor Charles in place of Maximilian, uniting the Hapsburg empire. Finally choose one of the English students to represent Wolsey. Ask each of these new figures what they would be hoping to achieve and ask Henry how this would affect him. This allows you to slip in information on rivalry between Henry and Francis.

Ask England - have your objectives changed? (No - hostility to France now has added rivalry with Frances and France is stirring unrest in Scotland)

Ask England - what can you do? (invasion? alliance? ignore events in Europe?)

Supply information - in 1515 France forced treaty on Pope, won Marignano, captured Milan and forced Henry’s sister, Margaret, to flee Scotland.

Ask each country - is this the moment to attack France? (Needs curbing French power but is this worth the risk?)

Ask Empire – is England a strong ally? (Not very)

This section can be done quickly - it may take 10 minutes at the most as it chiefly demonstrates the limits of English actions in the face of French power, energy and success. By the end of this section students should be very clear that the likelihood of Henry achieving his objectives is very limited unless circumstances fall in his favour.

Debriefing for everyone - what had been achieved by 1518?

Very little as France took the initiative. England considered a variety of alliances but nothing long-lasting developed. England not powerful enough nor central to events. Rating out of 10 for Henry’s objectives - 1? 2 at most?


Stage 3: Why had English fortunes changed by 1521?

You can structure this section by continuing as before and asking students to rate Henry’s achievement at the end. Alternatively, you could begin by saying that Henry’s achievement in this period merited 8 out of 10 on the “glory scale” - what was the most likely way he could achieve this? This hypothesising requires thinking back over past patterns, thinking about the most likely way for Henry to be successful.

In 1518 the Pope appealed for help against Moslem attacks. Ask each country: will you help the Pope? (Yes - crusading ideal still strong, Humanist desire for peace amongst Christians.)

Ask England - does this offer you any opportunities? (Emphasise Wolsey’s potential role as energetic negotiator - able to lead Europe through peace not war).

Announce Treaty of London 1518 - a mutual non-aggression pact. Discuss what you might call such a pact - Treaty of Universal Peace)

Ask each country: what are the advantages of this peace to you? ( France - stops others allying against you. Others - stops France. England – can appear influential at the centre of events).

Ask England: It’s been a great success but how can you maintain your role? (Needs to stay at centre of negotiation therefore, more meetings).

Announce Field of Cloth of Gold. Meetings of Henry and Charles.

Ask England: Charles has suggested an alliance against France. What will you do? (Refuse – you prefer your existing status as arbiter of Europe).

Ask Charles for his reaction to England’s refusal. (extremely negative)

This again shows the importance of external events, i.e. the Pope’s appeal for help as a trigger for changes in English fortunes. You will need to supply information about treaties etc. It may help to take Henry and Wolsey across to France for the Field of Cloth of Gold and describe some of the highlights of the meeting.













This point about rejecting an alliance is important to emphasise, as it is relevant in next stages e.g. 1525 when England seeks an Imperial alliance against France.

Debriefing - students need to decide whether Henry has achieved glory (is the rating of 8 justifiable?) Also important is the flexibility and initiative shown by Wolsey in achieving through negotiation what had not been achieved through aggression - but could this be maintained if war developed between France and the Empire?


Stage 4: Why did Henry’s fortunes change 1521-1525?

Ask England - war is likely between France and Empire. How will you react? (Henry - keen for war against France. Wolsey - keener to maintain peace through negotiation if possible).

Announce 1521 Anglo-Imperial Treaty but England did not play a major military role. English armies moved into France in 1522-3 but with little effect.

Ask Empire: what is your reaction to your English allies? (disappointment)


Announce Imperial victory over France at Pavia, 1525. Francis captured.

Ask England: your reaction and next actions? (delight, suggest invade France with Imperial help)

Ask Empire: will you join England in invasion? (No - English provided little help after 1521 Treaty to why should we help England?)

There are some complex issues here which need flagging so students can read effectively about the issues. The particular value of role-play here is in raising questions and so motivating students to discover

a) whether Wolsey pursued different policies from Henry

b) why English help for the Empire was limited.

You could introduce a mention of parliamentary protests and the Amicable Grant risings if students can take on board the detail.


De-briefing - a rapid reduction to 2 out of 10 as prestige had been lost. Worth asking whether Wolsey was happier with this outcome than Henry as outright war had been avoided.


Stage 5: Why did England become isolated 1525-1529?

In 1525 Charles V was dominant.

Ask England - what policy will you choose?

  • isolation
  • pro-France (reverses 150 years)
  • pro-Empire (does Charles want this?)
  • peacemaker?

(Henry/Wolsey needed to stay involved in European affairs and tried to mix peacemaking with links with France.)


Ask France - what policy do you want? (To hit back at Empire - created League of Cognac with Italian states).

Ask England - can you be involved? (Problem of distance - no practical aid - provided money/encouragement).

1527 Announce - Charles has sacked Rome and captured the Pope.

To England: you are now seeking annulment of Henry’s marriage - how do you react to news from Rome? (closer links with France)

Ask Charles: what is your attitude to Henry’s request for annulment? (Refer to English failure to provide military help in the past as well as Charles’ relationships to Catherine of Aragon).

To England: how can you develop closer links with France? (Francis made KG; marriage of Princess Mary)

Announce English trade embargo against Netherlands – England unable to go to war because Calais/Guines garrisons unprepared and unpaid. Therefore, trade re-routed through Calais and merchants withdrawn.

Ask Empire: how will you react? (arrest of English merchants, stir trouble in Scotland, mini-Armada assembled)

To England: how do you react to Imperial reactions - aggression or withdrawal?

( England abandons embargo as Henry/Wolsey only sabre-rattling and cannot match Charles’s power.

To France - is England a worthwhile ally? (No)

Who seems to be dictating English policy? (protesting clothworkers!)

To Empire - is England a powerful enemy? (No)

To France and Empire - if you reach an agreement do you need to involve England? (No)

Announce Peace of Cambrai involving France, Empire and the Papacy. Wolsey was not present, partly because Henry needed him at the tribunal dealing with his marriage annulment but also because England not seen as central to events.

Here first ask students for a policy. If there is no response you can offer a range of policies and ask them for the pro’s and con’s of each before they decide.




















Offer students hints e.g. ask Henry whether he has any children? How could his daughter help create better links with France?






Here you need to provide information explaining what’s happening in England Bearing in mind - popular hostility to pro-French policy; 1527 harvest very poor and so food prices high which has led to reduced domestic purchase of cloth. This in conjunction with trade embargo has led to unemployment and this has triggered protests and assemblies of clothworkers across East Anglia and the South of England. Not good!!



Debriefing - English status/glory in 1529? 0 out of 10? isolated? peripheral? Has Wolsey satisfied Henry’s desire for glory?

How have foreign and domestic events been linked together? What are Wolsey’s career prospects?



While each section above had had its own short debriefing element, an overall review of the activity can cover:

  1. Review the overall graph – identify the peaks and troughs of success. Discuss whether everyone would interpret events in the same ways. [ Click here for an example graph ]
  2. Look at the reasons for changes in the pattern – why was English policy successful at some stages and not at others? To what extent were Henry and Wolsey able to dictate or influence events?
  3. To what extent were Henry and Wolsey in agreement about policies?
  4. What questions now need investigating and following-up? This sets up students for detailed reading to reinforce and extend the outline knowledge and understanding gained in the activity.

Notes & Variations

This model of activity can be used for other periods and reigns. Students doing Tudor history at A level will benefit from repeating this type of activity several times as they will learn how to use it and learn from it effectively through experience.


1. Did you make the right choices about which students played which parts? Did you learn anything about individual students that would have been harder to learn from more standard activities?

2. What was the impact of this activity on motivation to read and effectiveness of reading? [discuss with students]

3. How often should a technique like this be used within an AS/A2 course?

4. Did this technique make a long-term impact on knowledge and understanding?


The Tudor Century

by Ian Dawson

The Early Tudors: England 1485 - 1558

by Samantha Ellsmore, David Hudson and David Rogerson


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Constructive feedback is always welcome, particularly anything that will help other teachers.

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Setting Up

The Activity


Notes & Variations