While Henry VIII is best known for his six wives and for breaking away from the Pope and forcing England to become a Protestant country, he also declared war at various times throughout his reign.
He invaded France twice, and twice England clashed with Scotland on the battlefield, leading to the ends of James IV of Scotland at the Battle of Flodden and his son James V after the Battle of Solway Moss. When Henry VIII waged war on France, he traveled with his army and was on the field, though not out in front. Since the life of the king was precious, bodyguards often surrounded him, wielding “gun shields.”
Once such shield has recently been put up for sale at auction for £50,000, according to the Daily Mail.
“The metal armour, around the size of a dustbin lid, has a specially designed hole in the centre to poke a matchlock pistol through,” reported the Daily Mirror. “After Henry’s demise in 1547, an inventory of the Royal Armoury held on to 35 of them.”
The shield to be auctioned is convex and circular with “a diameter of around 20 inches and would have been held using iron straps at the back,” said the article. It is not known which battles the shield was used at. It possibly saw action during Henry VIII’s invasion of France in 1513. He was in his early twenties at the time and consumed with ambition to reconquer the lands once held by Henry V but lost in the Hundred Years War. Only Calais remained of Henry V’s hard-fought campaigns.
Henry VIII had married Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur’s widow, at the start of his reign. His main allies in the war on France were Catherine’s father, King Ferdinand, and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian. They called themselves the Holy League.
Henry VIII landed at Calais in July; he soon had an army of 30,000 men. Alongside his ally Maximilian, King Henry ordered his army to engage the French in battle. On August 15th the French were defeated at the Battle of the Spurs. It was called that because supposedly the French retreated so hastily that all the English could see was their spurs.
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After celebrating extensively in the court of Margaret of Burgundy, Henry and his generals and courtiers returned to England. He had spend the equivalent of $300 million in today’s money on his war but had not gained territory that was of significance. “Although later reports said that Henry shared in the glory of pursuing the fleeing foe, he was well to the rear when the skirmish began and is unlikely to have had much of a personal role in it,” according to Tudor Place.
There are other gun shields in existence that are believed to date from Henry VIII’s second invasion of France, in 1544, when he was in his fifties and married to his sixth wife, Catherine Parr. This war accomplished not much more than the first one, but it was also incredibly expensive. Henry VIII was commander in chief but he had generals such as the battle-hardened Duke of Norfolk leading the troops.
One royal gun shield now on display at the V&A Museum in England is believed to date from the second French battle. It comes from a group of shields “that have been thought to be Italian in origin, as they were offered to Henry VIII in a letter of 1544 from a painter of Ravenna named Giovanbattista,” according to the V&A. “They are described as ‘several round shields and arm pieces with guns inside them that fire upon the enemy and pierce any armour.’ They are an unusual example of a short-lived technological innovation and Henry VIII’s interest in new inventions.”
The shield that is being auctioned comes from a private collection. Ned Cowell, a specialist at auctioneers Woolley and Wallis of Salisbury, Wiltshire, told the Daily Mirror: “To have an object so closely associated to a monarch that wrought such profound changes on English society is just incredible.”
“To find these is extremely rare and as far as I know there has not been one on the market since the 1970s… It’s an amazing opportunity and we’ve been taking a lot of interest in it already.”