The bloody end met by Mary Queen of Scots at the hands of her cousin Elizabeth I of England is well known. But what of Mary’s early reign?

Hazel Blair explores how events on the Continent impacted Anglo-Scottish relations in the 16th century.


The ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots

The Italian Wars and the Reformation were earth-shattering, pan-European events that caused fractures far beyond their epicentres. So, though seemingly remote on Europe’s northern fringe, 16th-century Anglo-Scottish relations did not develop in a vacuum.


The century began with the two kingdoms signing a Treaty of Perpetual Peace in 1502, followed in 1503 by the marriage of King James IV of Scotland to Henry VII’s daughter Margaret Tudor. But the romance of ‘the Thistle and the Rose’ – as the pair were affectionately known – could not unseat Scotland’s thoroughly entrenched ‘Auld Alliance’ with France.

James IV was compelled to act against England when Henry VIII, still Catholic, joined the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire in taking up arms against Louis XII in response to his invasion of Italy in 1513. The result was a crushing Scottish defeat at the Battle of Flodden, which wiped out a significant portion of Scotland’s nobility and ended with the fatal wounding of James himself.

Despite being an English victory, Flodden highlighted England’s vulnerable position sandwiched between two enemies with common cause, making the destruction of the Auld Alliance one of Henry’s foremost aims.

Henry VIII arrives with his entourage at the Field of the Cloth of Gold for a summit with the King of France in 1520. This image dates from c.1545, so it conveys something of the splendour of the Tudor military during the 16th century.


James IV’s death ushered in a period of instability in Scotland during the minority of James V, with pro-English and pro-French factions struggling for power in the young king’s name.

Despite continued border disputes and a degree of suspicion between the two monarchs, James and his uncle Henry preserved peace between their two kingdoms during the 1530s, formalising this by treaty in May 1534: both were eager to focus their attentions on domestic matters.

Just six months later, however, having failed to secure papal annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry passed the Act of Supremacy, establishing himself as ‘the only supreme head on Earth of the Church of England’.

The Pope, outraged, branded Henry a heretic, excommunicated him, and called for his deposition, looking to Europe’s Catholic leaders for support in a crusade against the schismatic sovereign.

By 1539, the conflict between the German Habsburgs and the French Valois over rights to land in Italy had ground to a halt, and the threat of invasion loomed large on England’s horizon. To make matters worse for Henry, Scotland had recently renewed the Auld Alliance, and James had taken a French bride.

Although James wished to maintain peace with England, if required to take up arms against England in support of France or the Papacy, the Catholic Scot was really in no position to decline.

Aware of both their predicaments, Henry hoped to meet the Scottish king in York in 1541, but James, unwilling to abandon France, snubbed Henry’s advances.


Henry, now furious, launched a series of border raids in order to press his case for peace. But as the skirmishes escalated, both kings prepared for war.

The Habsburg-Valois conflict resumed in July 1542, and Henry joined the Habsburg campaign against France, making the neutralisation of Scotland a yet more pressing priority. But the Scots fought back the English attacks with vigour, and containment was difficult to achieve.

On 24 November 1542, some 15,000 Scots marched into northern England to meet the English threat – a force of 3,000 men led by Lord Thomas Wharton. Driven by the contingencies of the European context, all-out war had begun.

Hazel Blair is a historian and former Assistant Editor of Military History Monthly.

This is an extract from a 14-page special feature on the Tudor war against Scotland. Get the full story – including the strategy, battles, and tactics of the war – in issue 87 of Military History Monthly.

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