Edward VI was left an interesting European situation on the death of his father, Henry VIII, in 1547, and his foreign policy was very much built on the foreign policy of his father. Henry VIII had two simple aims for England with regards to foreign policy. The first was to not get involved in a European venture unless it proved impossible not to do so. The second was to do whatever was good for England. Obviously the two were very much linked.
When Edward was crowned king, Europe had already divided into two camps – Protestant and Catholic. However, the Catholic nations were not necessarily united against a common foe. Catholic France was wary at best of the ambitions of the Catholic Holy Roman Empire. Catholic France also had reasons to fear Catholic Spain on her southwestern border. While mainland Europe was involved with its own issues, England could pick her allies so that the nation itself benefited.
However, a new king who was still a minor presented the Privy Council with a potential problem. Major powers in Europe might interpret a youthful king as a weakness and might have tried to exploit the situation. In particular, the Privy Council believed that France might try to exploit the situation by encouraging Scotland to attack England. Henry had tried to resolve any future problems with Scotland by trying to get Edward married to Mary, Queen of Scots. On his death and Edward’s accession, this was still a possibility but it presented the Privy Council with two major problems. First was their belief that the French connection with Mary might give France a backdoor into English politics. Their second concern was that there were those who believed that Mary was the rightful heir to the throne after the death of Edward and Mary Tudor. This again, so Somerset believed, would give France too much of a potential to involve itself in English affairs.
Somerset, as head of the Privy Council, decided that the best way ahead was to isolate Scotland and sign a defensive agreement with France. This might have worked with Francis I but his death led to the accession of Henry II, a far more aggressive character who viewed any form of a ‘defensive alliance’ with England as a sign of national weakness – something he could not tolerate. Somerset had no choice but to improve the defences of Calais and Boulogne and he ordered that the Royal Navy should patrol the English Channel and make a show of doing so.
Henry II sent 4,000 troops to Scotland in June 1547. They were a threat to the English border and Somerset directly intervened. He, along with Dudley, led a joint land/sea attack on Scotland. Well-equipped with modern cannon and well-trained cavalry they quickly made inroads into Scotland (September 1547) from Berwick and looked set to advance on Edinburgh. Rather than have the city bombarded, the Scottish army crossed the River Esk and attacked the English at the Battle of Pinkie on September 10th, but was heavily defeated. Somerset had defeated the Scottish army but he did not have a large enough force to occupy Scotland. Somerset assumed that he had sent a very clear message to the Scottish lairds and withdrew his army to England on September 18th.
Somerset had hoped to end the Scottish problem with his overwhelming victory at Pinkie. In fact, his victory served to stir up Scottish nationalism and the Scottish nobles met in Stirling and decided to ask for more help from Henry II. They were willing to offer Mary, Queen of Scots, as a future wife to Henry’s son, Francis.
Relations between England and France soured. Somerset was now faced with the real prospect of two united enemies – one with a common border in the north and one across the Channel in the south. Somerset knew that he could ill afford to fight wars both in the north and south at the same time. Both financially and militarily it would have put a huge burden on the nation. Somerset, just months after his victory over the Scots at Pinkie, appealed to them for an alliance between both England and Scotland. The Scots preferred to cultivate relations with France. In June 1548, a French fleet landed 10,000 troops in Scotland and in August Mary, Queen of Scots, moved to France. Henry II stated that he now believed that Scotland and France were one nation.
Somerset had many domestic issues to deal with and foreign policy took on a lower profile. The commanders of the English armies in southern Scotland, Lord Wharton and Lord Grey, sought help from Somerset as to what they should do. They got none. This lack of involvement and commitment by Somerset was eventually to be held against him when he was arrested, but it also encouraged the Scots to attack the English garrisons in Scotland. 5,000 English troops were besieged at Haddington Castle, some ten miles from Pinkie. Somerset was faced with a serious problem. Whereas those who were already plotting against him probably did not know the full extent of England’s problems, Somerset did. He knew that he could not send any more men to Scotland as Henry II was massing his forces just outside of Boulogne. The one thing in his favour was the historic dislike between France and the Holy Roman Empire. Somerset correctly gambled on the fact that Charles V would not tolerate France occupying such a vital port as Boulogne. This gave Somerset the time to send a force of just under 14,000 men to Haddington where the garrison force was relieved. However, the force had to be called back as the government could not maintain its upkeep.
This gave the Scots the opportunity to attack Haddington Castle yet again. However, it soon became clear that many Scottish nobles were far from happy with the way the French seemed to believe that they could conduct military policy in Scotland and relations between the two swiftly deteriorated.
Regardless of what was happening in Scotland, events in England caused Somerset to withdraw the garrison at Haddington Castle. The rebellion by English peasants in 1549 forced Somerset to bring back the English garrisons based in Scotland, as they were needed to put down the rebellions. The French also found that they could not afford to keep their men in Scotland and they were withdrawn. Scotland was not in a position to attack England by itself and as a result, the situation was left in limbo with nothing resolved.