Field of the Cloth of Gold: Renaissance Monarchy at Work

Glenn Richardson

5 mins

05 Jun 2020

The Field of Cloth of Gold was one of the most famous diplomatic meetings of the Renaissance. It was a tournament jointly hosted by King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France to celebrate an Anglo-French alliance and a ‘Universal Peace’ agreed in Europe in 1518.

When and where was the Field?

The Field took place between 7 and 24 June 1520 in what is now northern France (but was then English territory called the Pale of Calais) between the towns of Guînes and Ardres.

Each side built temporary accommodation in and near the towns. The English constructed a temporary banqueting palace just outside the walls of Guînes.  It was 328 feet (100m) square. There were also hundreds of canvas tented pavilions covered in rich fabrics, including the cloth of gold that gives the event its name.

Why was the Field held?

In early 1520 Henry was 28 years of age and had been king since 1509. In 1513 Henry had personally invaded France in pursuit of his dynastic claim to the kingdom. Francis was 24 years old and had ruled France since 1515.  That year, Francis had conquered the duchy of Milan.

Endemic warfare in Italy and the Ottoman’s conquest of Egypt and Syria in 1517 prompted Pope Leo X to formulate plans for a five-year truce in Christendom.

In 1518 Cardinal Wolsey rather hijacked these plans and turned them instead into a multi-lateral non-aggression pact. All participants swore not to attack each other and to support any one of their number who was attacked by another. Henry would arbitrate disputes between them.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Archbishop of York, statesman and a cardinal of the Catholic Church. As a papal legate he had immense power in the name of the pope (Leo X at the time of the meeting), by unidentified painter.

Perhaps surprisingly, the major European powers including Francis and Charles of Spain signed up. At the time Charles and Francis were keen rivals and both wanted to become Holy Roman Emperor. Charles was elected in 1519 and Francis looked to Henry as a potential ally against him.

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 that he regarded as ‘tribute’ for ‘his’ kingdom of France. Therefore, when Henry and Francis met in 1520, they could do so as equals and each sought to reinforce his position through offering friendship to the other, but on his own terms.

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Who was at the Field?

Each king brought an entourage of between 5-6,000 people. Henry was accompanied by Queen Katherine (of Aragon). King Francis brought Queen Claude, who was heavily pregnant at the time.

Their leading nobles, courtiers and advisors such as Wolsey, who had organised the whole event, also accompanied them, with many nobles and knights who participated in the tournament, together with their wives and servants.

The two young monarchs who met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold: left, Francis I of France (reigned 1515–1547) (portrait by Jean Clouet, Louvre Museum, Paris); right, Henry VIII of England (reigned 1509–1547) (portrait after Hans Holbein the Younger, Royal Collection, Windsor Castle).

What happened during the Field?

The two kings met for the first time on Thursday 7 June, about half-way between the two towns. Surrounded by their leading nobles, they embraced and swore to uphold the alliance they had agreed. Over the following fortnight, they jointly hosted a series of tournament competitions conducted in a specially built tournament ground.

The tournament field was a joint Franco-English civil engineering project and there was nothing similar until the Concorde aircraft and the making of the Channel Tunnel in the 20th century.

There was jousting along a barrier or ‘tilt’ that separated the competitors. This was followed a few days later by a freer form of combat called a ‘tourney’ with mixed teams of English and French knights fighting. Finally, there were foot combats across barriers between pairs of knights. Both kings fought alongside, not against, each other as the brothers in arms they now claimed to be.

Wrestling at the Field of the Cloth of Gold (tapestry, c. 1520). Francis I is shown top right, above an actual cloth of gold. (Credit: By Anonymous – http://www.sothebys.com/fr/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.14.html/2014/masterworks-n09209).

On three occasions there were extravagant banquets given by one court to the other. Francis and his immediate entourage went to Guînes while Henry went to Ardres.

The banquets had multiple courses and the English kitchen accounts list some 6,475 birds including swans. Huge numbers of deer, lamb and no fewer than 98,050 eggs were accounted for in dishes made for these English banquets.

They were followed by formal masques and dancing. Henry and Francis were both skilled dancers and showed off their talents, dressed in elaborate costumes and acted out the roles of heroes in chivalric and classical romances. Afterwards both made carefully synchronised returns to their respective residences.

The event came to an end with a High Mass celebrated by Cardinal Wolsey on 23 June. An outdoor chapel was built over the tiltyard the previous night. The cardinal proclaimed a papal indulgence for the large congregation. The following day, the two kings promised to meet again and then farewelled each other, exchanging gifts of jewelled collars, horses, cups and plate and cash.

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What happened after the Field?

At the Field the two kings were testing each other’s potential as a friend as well as possible enemy. For Francis though, it was not so much Henry as Charles V who was the problem. Hoping to trigger the collective security mechanism, he covertly attacked imperial territory in 1521.

The plan backfired completely and led to open war with Charles. Both sides appealed to Henry who was finally drawn into the war on Charles’s side. He attacked France in 1523.  Francis was finally defeated and captured at the Battle of Pavia in February 1525 as he tried to recover the duchy of Milan.

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He was compelled to sign the disadvantageous Treaty of Madrid of January 1526. Francis repudiated it as soon as he returned to France. Henry was disappointed that Charles had not supported his wish to divide France between them after Francis’s defeat.

By 1527 Wolsey had persuaded him once more to ally with Francis. A difficult but productive ‘eternal peace’ was agreed and maintained for the next fifteen years.

This peace, a legacy of the 1520 meeting, gave Henry some support as he broke from Rome over his wish for an annulment to his first marriage. Henry’s support for him, or at least indifference to Charles, helped Francis to hold his own against the most powerful ruler of Western Europe, even if he never got back his much-prized duchy of Milan.

Why was the Field significant?

The Field was an ambitious event held to affirm the ideal of royal chivalry as the best means to maintain peace and Christian unity among European states.

It could not, however, prevent the incessant dynastic conflict between Francis and Charles, and their sons, that caused so much warfare in sixteenth century Europe.

At heart, the Field of Cloth of Gold was a display by the kings of England and France of the material and human resources at their command in support of their claims to princely honour and renown. Each tried to demonstrate a compelling magnificence that enhanced his international status, whether he was at war or peace.

With its jousting kings, tents and pennants, banqueting and extravagance, the meeting has often seemed a curious instance of theatrical medievalism. Yet if understood in its proper context, the Field shows us a great deal about how Renaissance monarchy worked.

Dr Glenn Richardson is Professor of Early Modern History at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He is the author of Renaissance Monarchy: The Reigns of Henry VIII, Francis I and Charles V (London, 2002) and The Field of Cloth of Gold (Yale and London, 2014). In 2020 Routledge will publish his new biography of Cardinal Wolsey.