This article responds to recent studies that have applied to early modern English literature the aims of the ‘new British history’, which seeks to bridge the divide between anglocentric and anglophobic approaches to Britain’s past. Critics have established ‘British’ contexts for sixteenth-century literature, focusing on how England’s colonial projects in Wales, Ireland and Scotland affected writing by Spenser and Shakespeare in particular. Yet in this rush to approach Tudor England from a British perspective, recent criticism risks losing sight of England’s self-image in the earlier sixteenth century as an ‘empire’, independent of Rome and the rest of Britain alike. This article explores England’s imperial self-image within the reign of Henry VIII, focusing on literature (the 1522 Entry; Leland’s Assertio and Laboryouse Journey) that makes use of King Arthur as icon of an independent England. In Henrician England ‘empire’ signalled policies at once isolationist and expansionist, and the article argues that both meanings had currency within the first half of the sixteenth century.