Monday, October 21, 2013

Question from Peter - Polish soldiers in England under Henry VIII

During a recent discussion with a friend, it was suggested that there may be many people living in England who, unbeknownst to them, have Polish ancestry. This assumption is based on the "fact" that Henry VIII summoned a not inconsiderable number of Polish soldiers (mercenaries?)for some purpose to England during his reign and many of them subsequently settled over here. I am unaware of such an event happening, but perhaps someone could either confirm or dispel this theory.


  1. I'd look up Kett's Rebellion and the government's countermeasures ...

  2. You might also check out Chapter 7 of David Potter's monstrously expensive Henry VIII and Francis I: The Final Conflict. Fortunately, Chapter 7 is largely available to read free on Google Books.

    It's a detailed and somewhat amusing discussion of Henry's efforts to hire mercenaries for his French war in 1545. No Poles are mentioned - Germans seem to be the main focus of his agents, as they had the requisite lance and gunnery skills.

    I am doubtful of your friend's assertion relative to Henry VIII. There were Polish mercenaries but they seem to have specialized in anti-Ottoman and anti-Muscovite warfare in the East, hired by their own king or the Emperor, with a few renegades fighting for the Sultan.

    Potter's chapter includes a 1545 report of one Elis Gruffyd from the camp around Calais, where he identifies:

    "... many depraved brutish foreign soldiers from all nations under the sun - Welsh, English, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scots, Spaniards, Gascons, Portingals, Italians, Arbannoises, Greeks, Turks, Tartars, Almains, Germans, Burgundians, Flemings ..."

    Note that the writer distinguishes between "Almains" (which I had thought the catchall contemporary term for Germans) and "Germans" - possibly there is a distinction between Rhineland Germans (Anne of Cleves' followers were called "Almains") and Germans to the East.

    Nary a Pole is mentioned, although "German" could possibly cover a Pole living in the German towns and colonies in the borderlands of Poland. "Tartars" is suggestive, too - no Pole would want to be considered a Tartar, of course, but the writer might have seen outlandish costume and headdress and assigned the term "Tartar" accordingly.

    The second issue is the question of settling mercenaries in England. Settling professional hired killers in large numbers in your own country is a risky undertaking for any king, and Henry ruled a highly xenophobic people. We read contemporary accounts of uprisings by London apprentices against the Flemings and Germans in the Steelyard. If Polish mercenaries were invited en masse to England, I think there would be more records of the event.

    The Plantagenet and Tudor kings did hire mercenaries and brought them to England - the Yorkists used German troops, and of course Henry VII relied on French and Breton hirelings, but they all seem to have moved on after the contracts expired or the battle was won. Henry VIII seems to have kept his mercenaries on the Continent.

    The Poles I read about living in England seem to have been few in number and mostly Protestant reformers sheltered by the patronage of various clerics during the reign of Edward VI.


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