Fields of the Cloth of Gold: the greatest show on earth

It was meant to be a celebration of peace. But when Henry VIII and French king Francis I met for the first time 500 years ago, their primary aim was to project their majesty to the world – and one another. Glenn Richardson describes the orgy of ostentation that was the Field of the Cloth of Gold

Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France meet (in marquee, top) at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, June 1520. “For all their expressions of friendship,” writes Glenn Richardson, “the two kings spent most of the summit attempting to outshine one another”. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

They crashed together “with a noise like thunder that resounds to the very stars”. That’s how a contemporary poet described a clash of French and English knights in a shallow vale in what is now northern France 500 years ago.

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English and French troops had fought one another in landscapes such as this for centuries. But this was a showdown with a difference. For these knights weren’t fighting to the death. Instead, they were jousting. And they were doing so as a grand expression of reconciliation in one of early modern Europe’s most famous peace summits – at a site that is now known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The summit in the Pale of Calais was staged for two reasons: to put the seal on a new Franco-English alliance that had been signed in London in 1518, and to inaugurate a “Universal Peace” across Christendom. But what took place over 17 days from 7 June 1520 was a lot more than a diplomatic conference designed to bring to an end years of conflict between the continent’s leading nations. For the Field of the Cloth of Gold was every bit as much about showmanship, extravagance and almost obscene levels of royal self-indulgence as it was about peace. And it very much reflected the substantial egos of its two leading protagonists: Henry VIII of England and his French counterpart, Francis I.

Aged 28 and 25 respectively, Henry and Francis were young and ambitious. Both men saw the summit as an opportunity to make a grand statement to the watching world – and to one another: to project their wealth, their might and their impeccable taste on the grandest of stages. This showmanship informed every aspect of the meeting as it got under way in the countryside between the towns of Guînes and Ardres.

The feat of arms

Both kings arrived with enormous retinues – each numbering around 6,000 people, and including within their ranks the highest nobles and officials of their realms. The entourages – which also included hundreds of knights, gentlemen and troops – were housed in scores of tents erected to create enormous pavilions in the fields directly below the walls of the two towns. These pavilions were dressed in rich velvets of many colours, adorned with gold roses, fleurs-de-lis and the gold-threaded material that gave the event its name.


LISTEN: Historians Fabrice Bensimon and Renaud Morieux consider the complex relationship between France and Britain in the 18th and 19th centuries


The chief aim of the summit may have been to strengthen the bond of friendship between Henry and Francis. But also loom- ing large on the organisers’ minds as they finalised their preparations for the event was the imperative of ensuring that neither monarch upstaged the other – that both men emerged with their pride intact. To this end, the two kings, who had never before met one another, had originally been supposed to convene on neutral ground. But, in February 1520, Francis agreed to do Henry the honour of entering English territory – as the Pale of Calais then was. In return, Francis was given control of the tournament that accompanied the summit.

For that tournament, or “feat of arms”, the French king devised three competitions: jousting, mounted combats in the arena between groups of knights, and foot combat between knights over barriers. These competitions were staged in a specially constructed rectangular tiltyard with stands for spectators to view the entertainment put on by an estimated 200–300 participants.

The two kings never competed directly against one other. Instead, they led mixed teams of French and English knights as challengers against all-comers in a series of mock combats designed to show off their prowess as warriors. (The surviving score checks suggest that both monarchs per- formed reasonably well, but that the standard of jousting was not particularly high – chiefly due to inclement weather.)

Fine dining

On the two Sundays over which the tournament was staged, the focus switched from fighting to feasting, as the kings hosted one another at banquets of extraordinary ingenuity and scale.

This wasn’t just fine dining; this was an opportunity for both men to put on a show – and outshine their counterpart in the process. And nowhere was this desire to impress more evident than in the temporary banqueting palace that the English built just outside the walls of Guînes.

Comprising four blocks ranged around a central square court, and encircled by brick and timber-framed walls reaching to 9 metres, and topped by battlements, this 10,000-me- tresquare edifice was a remarkable feat of engineering. And, boasting four brick-built towers at its outer corners and an elaborate entrance gateway surmounted by a Renaissance shell motif, it must have made for an imposing sight to its visiting French guests.

Yet perhaps its most impressive features lay within. The palace incorporated a banqueting hall, a chapel and a suite of rooms for Henry and his wife, Catherine of Aragon; his sister Mary, the Duchess of Suffolk; and his chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey. One French source described the edifice as being “flooded with light on every side from windows made of glass… that stretch to the very floor, displaying English sovereigns”. As an expression of English technological expertise – and, with it, the power and personal sophistication of the English king – it took some beating.


LISTEN: Glenn Richardson explores the events of the Field of the Cloth of Gold and considers its impact on Anglo-French relations


Francis built or adapted a similarly splendid temporary residence in the town of Ardres, at which Henry and his close entourage were received. We know less about this building than its English counterpart. But we do know that it, too, was highly decorated, had an impressive banqueting hall and a covered gallery that linked it to the tented city of pavilions in the fields below the town.

The banquets presented within these palaces were structured around a series of three or more courses, each of which consist- ed typically of about 50 dishes, all served to music and fanfares. Imaginative and entertaining table settings of castles and horsemen – fashioned out of marzipan – provided the guests with points of conversation.

And helping the conversation flow was the finest alcohol money could buy. Wine, sourced in Burgundy, the Loire Valley and Bordeaux, flowed freely. Beer and ale were shipped over from England, and also brewed locally in Calais. The range, sheer volume and expense of the fare set out before the guests was astounding, even by the standards of the upper ranks of contemporary society.

Once the meals were concluded, the company danced in formal masques, with the kings and their courtiers donning elaborate costumes and acting out parts as heroes in chivalric and classical romances. The two monarchs showed off their moves and greeted the ladies of one another’s courts, before making carefully synchronised returns to their respective residences.

Henry’s prisoner

For all the pomp and circumstance and expressions of amity, both kings chafed under the strict protocols designed to prevent one from overshadowing the other at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. That perhaps accounts for Henry’s decision to challenge Francis to an impromptu wrestling match, which the French king won decisively – to Henry’s great embarrassment. This incident was recorded in a French report of the meeting; English chroniclers, however, chose to ignore it.

This desire to steal the show may also help to explain Francis’s apparently spontaneous decision to visit Guînes early one morning and there declare himself Henry’s prisoner. In response, Henry was forced into a greater expression of friendship towards his French counterpart than he had previously been prepared to offer. He also presented Francis with a gift of a jewelled collar, to which Francis responded by giving Henry bracelets. All observers thought this episode something of a personal coup for the French king and, perhaps rather less unexpectedly, Henry duly reciprocated with his own ‘surprise’ visit to Francis at Ardres a few days later.

These exchanges – however competitive – didn’t constitute a serious threat to the relationship that the two kings had established over the course of the summit. But they do reveal that the tournaments, the banquets and the exchange of lavish gifts were driven every bit as much by a desire to intimidate the opposing entourage as to build bridges with them. They were the means by which the monarchs displayed their personal qualities – and demanded respect in return.

After two weeks of mock combats, feasting and dancing, the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold came to an end with a High Mass celebrated on 23 June at an outdoor chapel built over the tiltyard. At the zenith of the Mass, there appeared “flying in great loops, a splendid and hollow monster stretched out in the sky”. The “monster” was in fact a kite – an enormous fire-breath- ing dragon, or perhaps a salamander, that dipped and soared above the crowd.

Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match, which – to his great embarrassment – he lost decisively

It was a spectacularly ostentatious climax to what had been a spectacularly extravagant event. But did this orgy of ostentation actually achieve anything? In diplomatic terms, did it really merit the eye-watering expense?

For all its magnificence, the Field of the Cloth of Gold has often been regarded as something of a puzzle. It has been described as a ludicrously optimistic peace conference, or a sham designed by King Henry to lull Francis into a false sense of security before attacking him. Yet it was neither – and to explain why, we must return to the beginning of Henry’s reign.

When Henry ascended the throne in 1509, England controlled a tiny pocket of land in what is now northern France (known as the Pale of Calais). The new English king dreamed of regaining much of the French territory that once fell under the sway of his Plantagenet predecessors and so, in 1513, he invaded France (then ruled by Francis’s father-in-law, Louis XII). But just a year later, Henry agreed a peace treaty with the French king – even offering Louis his sister Mary’s hand in marriage. This was a smart move, but it was undermined by Louis’s sudden death and Francis’s accession in January 1515.

Then, in 1517, the Ottomans conquered Egypt and Syria, prompting Pope Leo X to call for an international truce in Europe, preparatory to military action against them. Leo’s plea was widely heeded – and, by October 1518, all the major European sovereignties had commit- ted themselves to what became known as the Treaty of Universal Peace. This international league was underpinned by an alliance secured by the betrothal of Henry’s daughter, the future Mary I of England, to King Francis’s son, the Dauphin François. One of the terms of the alliance was that Henry and Francis would meet personally – as they would go on to do at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Paying a tribute

In the eyes of Cardinal Wolsey, one of the architects of the pact, the alliance had a chance of working but only if both kings profited by its terms. Francis was able to purchase (rather expensively) from Henry the city of Tournai lost to the English in war in 1513. Henry secured increased annual payments from Francis that he regarded as ‘tribute’ for ‘his’ kingdom of France. Francis also hoped Henry would offer him fuller support against his even greater rival, Charles of Spain, who was elected as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in June 1519.

As it turned out, the Treaty of 1518 did not bring a universal peace. Barely a year after the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Francis launched a pre-emptive strike against the emperor, fearful that if he did not, Charles would deprive him of the duchy of Milan, which Francis had conquered in 1515.

Henry was drawn formally into the war by 1522 after becoming Charles’s ally and attacked France the following year. The conflict ended with Francis’s defeat and capture by imperial forces at the battle of Pavia in February 1525. Henry was briefly hopeful that Charles and he might jointly carve up France between them, but could not raise the money to attack France again.

In January 1526, Francis signed the Treaty of Madrid – in which he agreed to cede vast swathes of territory to Charles – but rejected it after returning to France. He turned to Henry for support, and a renewed Anglo-French alliance had been reached by 1527.

Henry and Francis met a second and final time at a scaled-down version of the Field of the Cloth of Gold at Calais and Boulogne in 1532. Thereafter a difficult but productive peace was maintained between them for 15 years. That’s a long time in 16th-century international politics, and arguably a legacy of that extraordinary meeting in northern France in 1520.

Over the past five centuries, the Field of the Cloth of Gold has almost become a watchword for royal extravagance. And rightly so. But, as that long Anglo-French peace proves, it cannot be dismissed as frivolous. It served a purpose for both monarchs, enabling them to express their magnificence – in ways that both disconcert- ed and reassured their rivals.

Above all, with the eyes of the world trained upon them, the Field of the Cloth of Gold provided Henry and Francis with a platform from which to project their personal power as Renaissance monarchs – both in times of peace and war.

Glenn Richardson is professor of early modern history at St Mary’s University, London. His book The Field of Cloth of Gold is out now

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This article was first published in the July 2020 issue of BBC History Magazine