What was the Field of the Cloth of Gold?
It was a spectacular meeting between the kings of England and France, the likes of which had never been seen before. On 7 June 1520, Henry VIII met Francis I of France in a valley near Calais for a grand festival – 18 days of tournaments, feasts, masquerades and religious services. Due to its opulence and grandeur, the event was known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Officially, it was an event designed to solidify the friendship between the two nations; in reality, it was a chance for each king to show off his wealth, power and refinement.
What was the purpose of the Field of the Cloth of Gold?
It was hoped that the momentous event would mark an end to almost two centuries of animosity between England and France. Both Henry and Francis were at the height of their power, and their boisterous rivalry could easily have spilled over into war once again.
Kings of England had been pressing claims to the throne of France since the early 14th century, in a series of on-and-off conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War. Following in his predecessors’ footsteps, Henry VIII had invaded France in 1513 (while Francis was still heir to the French throne) and scored a victory at a skirmish dubbed the Battle of the Spurs; the following year peace was secured with the then king Louis XII. Francis’s ascension to the French throne in 1515 might have heralded a new chapter, but Henry saw Francis as a nobody who was merely squatting on his throne. The spectre of war was never far away.
Why was the Field of the Cloth of Gold held?
It was a direct result of the Treaty of London, organised by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (the man who would later fail to secure papal blessing for Henry’s annulment to Katherine of Aragon). This treaty was a pact of non-aggression between the major powers of Europe, including England, France and the Holy Roman Empire. Among the terms was the commitment that Henry and Francis would meet to affirm their friendship.
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Where did the Field of the Cloth of Gold take place?
Wolsey and his French counterpart Guillaume Gouffier decided that the meeting should take place on neutral ground – between English-owned Guînes in the Pale of Calais and the French town of Ardres.
How hard was it to organise?
It took just two months for tents, a tiltyard for jousting and a palace to be built for Henry and Catherine of Aragon. Keen to best his French rival, a type of ‘portable palace’ for the English court was built from timber and canvas and painted to resemble stone. Stained glass and terracotta roundels were used to give it the appearance of Hampton Court Palace; it even had a wine fountain. Of the French pavilions – all made by master craftsmen – the centrepiece was a 120ft tent decked completely in gold. This glittering edifice didn’t last long: strong gales meant it had to be taken down before the kings met.
What happened when Henry VIII met Francis I?
The atmosphere was tense right up until the actual meeting. The gold coats worn by the English party were briefly mistaken for armour and all was paused until the French were reassured that Francis was in no danger. Then the kings doffed their caps and embraced each other as if old friends.
Why did Henry’s beard almost cause a diplomatic incident?
Plans for the meeting were briefly put on hold when, in 1519, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I died (both Henry and Francis put themselves forward as candidates for the imperial crown, but were usurped by Maximilian’s grandson, 19-year-old Charles V). In anticipation of the postponed summit, both monarchs agreed not to shave their beards until they met, so that they could compare them. Henry, however, ‘forgot’ this and arrived in France clean shaven. Francis’s mother was, reportedly, outraged. The situation was only prevented from becoming a diplomatic incident by the suggestion that Catherine of Aragon had implored her husband to shave, as she preferred him without facial hair. Francis was appeased and professed that his and Henry’s love for each other was “not in their beards but in their hearts”.
What happened for the rest of the 18-day festival?
Feasting, sporting contests and revelry. To ensure there were no arguments, Henry and Francis allied themselves against brave volunteers when it came to the sporting events such as the joust. The queen consorts, Catherine and Claude (alongside Francis’ mother, Louise de Savoie, and Henry’s sister, Mary Tudor) each hosted the opposing king for feasts, dances and theatre. A dragon kite was made for the occasion, with Francis’s salamander symbol entwined with the Tudor dragon – a symbol of the two kings’ bond that awed the crowds.
Wrestling was the preferred entertainment when the weather turned sour. Completely unexpectedly, and after a few drinks, Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match, but was easily defeated. He did, however, best the French king at archery, as his longbow proved too heavy for Francis to draw.
On the penultimate day, a mass was held in a temporary chapel erected for the occasion, presided over by Cardinal Wolsey – the most senior clergyman in attendance – and each party’s choir sang. The kings parted ways on 24 June, but not before gifting each other the work of their finest goldsmiths.
Was the Field of the Cloth of Gold a success?
On 10 July, Henry met with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and both agreed to forge no new alliance with France for two years – diplomacy through expensive partying had not worked, it seemed. By mid-1521, France and the Holy Roman Empire were again at war and England was dragged into it – a peaceful Europe no more. The Field of the Cloth of Gold became a distant memory.
What does the surviving painting of the event tell us?
It is supposed that Henry VIII ordered this painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold (artist unknown) around c1545 (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
In c1545, more than 20 years after the extraordinary meeting, Henry VIII is supposed to have commissioned an oil painting of the events. The artist (or artists) is unknown. Painted so long after the event, it is filled with inaccuracies, but still gives an idea of the scale and number of people involved.
On the right side of the painting, are the ovens that would have helped feed the 12,000 or so people at the event. The now aging and infirm Henry is shown in his younger glory three time over, decked in his finery as a true Renaissance prince: first on horseback in the procession, then embracing Francis in the magnificent gold tent towards the rear of the painting (though of course, the tent had been taken down by then), and finally watching a jousting match.
The Henry on horseback is the most intriguing: his head has been cut out and replaced with a later portrait of the king that bears striking resemblance to works by Hans Holbein the Younger.
Highlights from the c1545 painting of the Field of the Cloth of Gold
Hampton Court Palace is planning an exhibition to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold when circumstances allow. hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace
Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed‘s staff writer
This content first appeared in the June 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed