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#AceHistoryDesk – Shortly after 5pm on the afternoon of Thursday 7 June 1520, Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France met for the first time. Surrounded by an entourage of knights, gentlemen and troops, they greeted each other on horseback in a shallow vale between the town of Guînes (within the English territory of the Pale of Calais) and the French town of Ardres.
That first meeting, and their time together over the following fortnight, became known to history as the Field of Cloth of Gold.
Henry, then 28 years of age, had been king since 1509. Francis was 24 and had ruled France since 1515. Ever since their accessions, Francis and Henry had enjoyed a keen personal rivalry as kings of Europe-wide significance. In this, the younger man had enjoyed the better success to date. For Francis, Henry’s coming to meet him was proof of this. For Henry, meeting Francis was proof that his French rival had reached the limits of this success and now acknowledged that he needed Henry’s support.
The Field of Cloth of Gold was not, as it has sometimes been described, a ‘peace conference’ or a ‘political summit’ at which the two leaders negotiated the terms of an agreement with each other.
Instead, they met to inaugurate a ‘Universal Peace’ in Christendom that had been agreed two years earlier in London. The Ottoman conquest of Persia in 1517 prompted Pope Leo X to call for an international truce in Europe, preparatory to military action against the Turks. Until that time, Henry and Francis had each pursued military ambitions. In 1513 Henry had conquered the city of Tournai and the town of Thérouanne in France during a war against Louis XII, in which he was allied to Ferdinand of Aragon and the Emperor Maximilian. They had then abandoned their alliance with Henry and, advised by Wolsey, he turned the tables on them by allying with his former enemy. In October 1514, Louis married Henry’s sister Mary. But Francis I’s accession in January 1515 and his conquest of the Duchy of Milan in September that year rather eclipsed Henry’s earlier success.
To secure Henry’s cooperation in his scheme for a truce in 1518, Pope Leo made Cardinal Wolsey a legate a latere (literally, one sent from the pope’s side).
Rather than organise the papal truce as instructed, Wolsey used his legatine authority to suggest, instead, a multilateral alliance in which all the participants swore not to attack each other and to a pact of mutual defence. Peace would thereby, he said, become more secure and permanent than by a mere truce. Henry would arbitrate disputes. Incredible though it seems now, by October 1518, most of the major European sovereignties, royal, ducal and republican, had committed themselves to what became known as the Treaty of Universal Peace. This international league was underpinned by the alliance secured by the marriage of Henry’s daughter, Princess Mary, to the Dauphin François. One condition of the alliance was that the two kings would meet in person.
War and peace
It was typical of the militaristic elite of 16th-century Europe that such peacemaking had to have a glamorous, chivalric quality to it. For that reason, they celebrated peace by pretending to be at war. The Field of Cloth of Gold was essentially a tournament but this was not, formally at least, a nationalistic, England versus France, encounter. Henry and Francis jointly led teams combining English and French knights as the challengers against all comers who were similarly organised into mixed Anglo-French teams. The tournament comprised three different competitions: jousting along a barrier, or ‘tilt’; mounted combats between groups of knights called a tourney; and, finally, foot combat over barriers between pairs of knights. The barriers limited the potential harm to competitors while forcing knights to fight in ways that were more entertaining for onlookers.
The tournament competitions were held on most days apart from Sundays and were conducted in a large rectangular tiltyard or ‘field’, with viewing stands on either side, protective ditches, railings and palisades. These facilities were built by teams of English and French engineers and labourers working together during April and May 1520. It was a unique instance of a joint Anglo-French civil project in the pre-modern period. Nothing like it would occur again until the Concorde project and the building of the Channel Tunnel in the 20th century.
In February 1520 it had been agreed that each king could bring with him an entourage of about 6,000 people – the size of a respectable medieval army. The entourages were comprised of men of the high nobility, knights and gentlemen and their wives and servants. For the English court, assembling and transporting this number of people from Dover to the Pale of Calais was akin to a military operation. For the French, it was more a matter of sufficient numbers travelling in time to constitute themselves as the royal entourage at Ardres by the end of May. However they got there, this vast number of people had to be accommodated. Hundreds of canvas tents were erected outside the walls of Ardres and Guînes, dressed in rich cloths: velvet, silk and the cloth-of-gold that gave its name to the event. Rather than individual tents, as might be seen on a modern camping ground, most were assembled together to create pavilions of varying size and amenities, which replicated the spatial arrangements of contemporary manor and town houses. Officials of the two royal households then allocated these constructions, in order of splendour, to the members of the national elites who comprised the royal entourages.
The tournament gave an overall structure to the two weeks of the event, with different competitions on successive days. On the two Sundays during the meeting, and on the final day, each court offered spectacular banquets to the leading members of the other. In order to maintain equality and reciprocity between the two kings, at no time did either formally host the other. Instead, Queen Claude and Francis’ mother, Louise of Savoy, welcomed Henry and his leading courtiers at Ardres. Meanwhile, at Guînes, Queen Katherine and Cardinal Wolsey received Francis and his most prominent lay and clerical advisers and friends.
Sweet and savoury
The banquets had multiple courses, each of which offered about 50 dishes. They combined savoury and sweet elements and were presented to fanfares and music. The English court kitchen accounts show that some 6,475 birds were presented during the several banquets at the Field, including storks, bitterns, lapwings, larks, egrets and swans. Peacocks were cooked and then re-dressed in their own plumage, their beaks painted with gold, and then served at the tables. No fewer than 98,050 eggs and over one million planks of firewood were accounted for by the master cooks of the English court kitchen. They had temporary kitchens, baking houses and bread ovens within the town of Guînes and in the fields outside, as depicted in the painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold now at Hampton Court Palace.
When the banquets concluded, the company danced in formal masques, followed by informal dancing. Henry and Francis were both skilled dancers and showed off their talents, dressed in elaborate costumes and acting out the roles of heroes in chivalric and classical romances. Afterwards both made carefully synchronised returns to their respective towns and residences.
The expense and range of provisions on the French side were of an equivalent order to the English. Although much less direct evidence of them survives, they also had temporary kitchens in the fields near Ardres. While many people did attend the banquets, they had also to be catered for on a day-to-day basis during their stay. The French set up a ‘staple’ or supply depot for food, wine and fodder for horses at nearby ‘Merguyson’ (Marquise). There, the household staff of the French, and indeed the English, courts and the servants of the nobles and gentry in attendance, could purchase what they needed at reasonable rates – agreed beforehand with Wolsey.
The English built a temporary banqueting palace just outside the walls of Guînes to house the entertainments. It was 328 square feet (100m), comprised of four blocks ranged around a central square court. The walls were built on stone foundations and were of brick to a height of eight feet (2.5m). Above the brickwork, the timber-framed walls reached to a height of 30 feet (9m). The walls were surmounted by a frieze decorated in an Italianate classical style. Four brick-built towers stood at its outer corners and the palace featured an elaborate entrance gateway surmounted by a Renaissance shell motif. The roof was made of oiled canvas, painted in lead colour to simulate slates.
The largest space in the building was a banqueting hall, which could be divided into smaller rooms when needed. There was also a chapel. The king and queen had suites of rooms on either wing of the palace. Henry’s sister, Mary, Duchess of Suffolk, and Wolsey had parallel rooms at the front of the building. A French poem describing the whole event named it a ‘crystal palace’, flooded with light on every side from windows made of glass, from Flanders, that ‘stretch to the very floor, displaying English sovereigns’. The building was a demonstration of technological expertise and intended to show Henry’s power and personal sophistication as an architectural patron. In Ardres, Francis built or adapted a temporary residence to entertain the English king and the members of his close entourage. Comparatively little information about this building is available. It is known that it was, like the English temporary palace, highly decorated with an impressive banqueting hall and smaller rooms for different groups to meet and commune. It also had a covered gallery that linked it to the tented pavilions in the fields below the town. There is some circumstantial evidence that it was designed by the Italian architect, Domenico da Cortona, who served Francis throughout his reign. In 1532 a mandate repaying his expenses during some 15 years’ work records Ardres, alongside Tournai and Chambord, as a place at which he ‘built in wood, in the town as well as the castle’, but it gives no further details. It is hard to imagine any occasion other than this when the French king would have needed the services of an architect of the like of Cortona in such a small border town as Ardres.
The event came to an end with a High Mass celebrated by Wolsey on 23 June. An outdoor chapel had been built over the tiltyard the previous night and a large congregation of French and English courtiers attended. The cardinal proclaimed a papal indulgence for those in attendance. At the high point of the Mass, there appeared, ‘flying in great loops, a splendid and hollow monster stretched out in the sky’. This extraordinary apparition turned out to be a dragon kite made by the English but flown from the direction of Ardres over the tournament yard. It was perhaps intended to be a Welsh dragon, complimenting Henry. Yet ‘its eyes blaze, and with quivering tongue it licks its mouth, which opens wide; the dragon hisses through its gaping jowls’. This detail from the French poem suggests it was actually a salamander amid flames, the personal emblem of Francis I, perhaps flown by the English as a compliment to the French king. The following day, 24 June, the two kings said farewell to each other. They exchanged expensive gifts of jewelled collars, horses, cups and plate and cash. They also rewarded all the close members of each other’s entourages.
For all its extraordinariness, the Field of Cloth of Gold has often sat uneasily with notions of ‘balance of power’ politics. It has puzzled historians, who have tended to explain it as an unrealistically optimistic peace conference or a deliberate effort by Henry to gull Francis before attacking him in a pre-agreed alliance with Emperor Charles V. Others have dismissed it as a frivolous, essentially meaningless, instance of theatrical medievalism. Neither view stands up to close scrutiny.
The event inaugurated an international peace that had been agreed in London two years earlier. As Wolsey understood, 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 1513. Henry secured increased annual payments from Francis, which he regarded as ‘tribute’ for ‘his’ kingdom of France. For his part, the French king saw them as expensive but worthwhile payments to keep Henry quiet while he got on with his own dynastic pursuits in Italy. Yet, by 1518, Francis needed more from Henry. He hoped he would support him against Charles of Spain, who was elected Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in June 1519. His own territorial claims against Francis included not only the Duchy of Milan, but also the Duchy of Burgundy, a sizeable part of France. Therefore, when Henry and Francis met in 1520, they could do so as equals and each sought to reinforce his own position through cooperation with the other. Francis threatened to leave Henry isolated in Europe once more if he failed to maintain the agreement between them. Henry offered his support in return for Francis recognising the king of England’s status as peacekeeper of Europe and for not contravening the letter or spirit of the 1518 agreement.
This was the reason for the strict protocols that were agreed for the Field. They were intended to minimise the chance of one king upstaging or disconcerting the other’s view of how their agreement was to work, though both kings found it difficult to stick within the agreed boundaries.
One of the most celebrated events at the Field was Henry’s impromptu wrestling challenge to Francis. Despite the French king’s initial reluctance to square up to Henry when challenged, he won the short competition between them decisively. More practised at the art of Breton wrestling than Henry realised, Francis threw his opponent onto his back – much to Henry’s embarrassment. One French report of the encounter survives but it was ignored in all English sources. Henry, it seems, wanted literally to get to grips with his rival, but the result was hardly what he was expecting. Francis made his own impromptu gesture when he visited Guînes castle early one morning and declared himself Henry’s prisoner. Henry was more or less forced into an equally demonstrative expression of trust and good intention towards Francis of the kind the French king had been seeking and which, until then, Henry had been unwilling to offer. He gave Francis a gift of a jewelled collar, to which Francis responded by giving Henry bracelets. All observers thought it something of a personal coup for the French king and, perhaps rather less unexpectedly, Henry made his own ‘surprise’ visit to Francis at Ardres a few days later. Counter-intuitively perhaps, this kind of personal competitiveness was not an unwelcome intrusion on expressions of peaceful goodwill, but the assertion of personal qualities of chivalry and demands for respect in return. The two kings were testing each other’s strength within (and somewhat beyond) the agreed protocols, every bit as much as potential allies and friends, as potential enemies.
The emperor attacks
Predictably, the 1518 treaty did not usher in a universal peace. Francis, it seems, could not repose enough confidence in the mechanism of mutual European defence to stop him launching a pre-emptive attack against the emperor’s territory in the spring of 1521. He was evidently anxious that, should Charles consolidate his power in Italy (as he showed every sign of doing), he might then deprive Francis of the Duchy of Milan, won with such élan in 1515. Francis’ attempt to distract Charles with war north of the Alps proved shortsighted. The emperor counter-attacked effectively. Both sides appealed to Henry more as an ally than as an arbitrator of their dispute. Wolsey called a conference at Calais and, initially at least, genuinely tried to mediate the conflict in accordance with the ideals of the 1518 peace.
In the end, however, it was axiomatic for him that Henry be kept on the winning side if it came to open conflict in Europe. Henry was finally drawn into the war in 1522; he attacked France for the third time in his reign the following year. The war ended at the Battle of Pavia in February 1525, when Francis was captured by imperial forces and taken prisoner to Spain. Henry was thrilled at this news and expected that he and Charles would divide a conquered France between them, only to discover that he had insufficient money to embark on such a quest. Charles soon made it clear, however, that he would not jeopardise a comprehensive settlement with Francis for the sake of Henry’s ambitions in France. He compelled the French king to sign the Treaty of Madrid in January 1526. Francis, arguing it was signed under duress, repudiated it as soon as he returned to France in March that year. By then, Wolsey had swung Henry behind the idea of a renewed, and yet more financially advantageous, Anglo-French alliance. It had been formally agreed by the spring of 1527 when Charles’ rebellious troops sacked Rome to the outrage of Christendom.
This gave Henry and Francis cause to co-operate as the apparent champions of the papacy against the unruly power of an over-mighty emperor. A difficult but productive peace was maintained for almost 20 years. The two kings met a second and final time at a scaled-down version of their 1520 meeting, at Calais and Boulogne in October 1532. Henry was accompanied to that meeting by Anne Boleyn, then the Marquess of Pembroke. By the time the couple had returned to London early the following year, Anne was pregnant with Henry’s child. Henry now needed his ‘good brother and perpetual ally’, as he and Francis now called each other, more than ever before. This peace, arguably a legacy of the 1520 meeting, certainly gave Henry some room to manoeuvre, at least as the implications of his break with Rome worked themselves out in the 1530s. Francis gave limited diplomatic assistance to Henry over the marriage and at no time did he ever seriously contemplate action against the king at the behest of the papacy or Charles V.
The Field of Cloth of Gold was an idealistic phenomenon that looked back towards an imagined age, where royal chivalry had seemed to serve peace and Christian unity among European states. It could not prevent the 50 years of intermittent conflict between Christian rulers that followed. It is accurately characterised as extravagant but should not be dismissed as frivolous. In the end, the 1520 meeting was a deliberate display by the kings of England and France of the material and human resources at their commands. Francis and Henry intended it to demonstrate a compelling magnificence that enhanced their status. Above all, it was arranged as an occasion at which each king asserted his personal power and authority as a Renaissance monarch – as much in peace as in war.
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