The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII by Steven Gunn - review by Jonathan Healey

Jonathan Healey

How We Learned to Love the Arquebus

The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII


Oxford University Press 297pp £35 order from our bookshop

In 1525, with the end of one of Henry VIII’s seemingly interminable wars with the French approaching, a letter writer turned his thoughts to the coming peace. The English, he wrote, with no little excitement, ‘schorttle shalle have goode cheype merchaundyes’. Corn and linen would become affordable again, as indeed would ‘all maner wynes’: red, white, claret, white malmsey, rumney, ‘bastard’, camplete, tyre, muscadel, alicant and hollock. War in the age of Henry VIII may have been the sport of kings, but it was the woe of the English wine connoisseur.

War was everywhere. It was in people’s memories: they thought back to the wars of the previous century, in which Englishman had fought Englishman. It was even in the world around them, with the marks and tokens of recent battles still standing in the landscape. War could be central to debates about the main social issues of the age: part of the worry about enclosure and the conversion of arable land to pasture was that ploughmen were strong in the arm whereas shepherds were not. As there was little in the way of a standing army, adult Englishmen were charged with defending the realm. They could be mobilised to fight off invasion. To prepare themselves, they were expected regularly to hone their archery skills. Archery practice was a social event: a spectator sport that saw local people betting on which of their neighbours was the most accomplished.

Military history has had something of a bad reputation among academics of late, though its long fall from fashion is scarcely evident from even the most tentative sally into a bookshop. Steven Gunn’s study, based on his James Ford Lectures given in Oxford in 2015, may not stir

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