Updated: Apr 21, 2021
The biggest diplomatic extravaganza of the age. The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a huge event in royal history.
The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a site in Balinghem – equidistant between Ardres in France & Guînes in the then-English Pale of Calais – that hosted a tournament field as part of a summit from 7 to 24 June 1520, between King Henry VIII of England & King Francis I of France. The summit was orchestrated to increase the bond of friendship between the two kings following the Anglo-French treaty of 1514. The two kings would meet again in 1532 to arrange Francis's assistance in pressuring Pope Clement VII to pronounce Henry's first marriage (to Katharine of Aragon) as illegitimate. Under the direction of English Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the chief nations of Europe sought to put an end to war forever among Christian nations. The site of the event is indicated by a commemorative plaque on the D231 road (Route de Marquise). Though now in France, Balinghem was at the time regarded as part of England. This caused some tensions between the English & French, as the latter preferred a location closer to the border.
Each king tried to outdo the other, with dazzling tents & clothes, huge feasts, music, jousting & games. The meeting was so named because the tents & the costumes displayed so much cloth of gold, an expensive fabric woven with silk & gold thread, 'Field of the cloth of gold' The most extravagant arrangements were made for the accommodation of the two kings & their large retinues; & on king Henry's part especially, no efforts were spared to make a great impression in Europe with this meeting. Before the castle of Guînes, a temporary palace covering an area of nearly 12,000 square yards (10,000 m2), was erected for the reception of the English king. The palace was in four blocks with a central courtyard; each side was 328 feet (100 m) long. The only solid part was the brick base about 8 feet (2 m) high). Above the brickwork, the 30-foot (10 metre) high walls were made of cloth or canvas on timber frames, painted to look like stone or brick. One other aspect of King Henry's retinue was the presence of two royal monkeys covered in gold leaf; these were known to have been gifts from the Ottoman Sultan Selim I & brought much laughter & merriment from Francis I as contemporary Cardinal Wolsey recounts, "The French King was overcome with much curiosity playing with those little knaves that did all they could to steal & pester his advisers, yet he willed them to be present at every banquet". The slanting roof was made of oiled cloth painted to give the colour of lead & the illusion of slates. Contemporaries commented especially on the huge expanse of glass, which made visitors feel they were in the open air.
Chronicle descriptions make it clear the decorations, carved & painted had martial iconography;
'The foregate of the same palace or place with great & mighty masonry by sight was arched, with a Tower on every side of the same portered by great craft, & inbatteled was the gate and Tower, & in the fenesters, & windows, were images resembling men of warre redie to cast great stones: also the same gate or Tower was set with compassed images of ancient Princes, as Hercules, Alexander & other, by entrayled worke, richly limned with gold & Albyn colours, .... also the tower of the Gate as seemed was built by great masonry, ... for the sundrie countenances of every Image that their appeared, some shooting, some casting, some ready to strike, & firing of gonnes, which shewed very honourably' — Grafton's Chronicle, or Chronicle at Large 1569.
The building was decorated in the most elegant fashion & furnished with a wealth of golden ornaments. Red wine flowed from the two fountains outside. The chapel was served by 35 priests. Composer Jean Mouton was most likely in charge of the musical production by Francis I; the French royal chapel had one of the finest choirs in Europe, & contemporary accounts indicated that they "delighted their hearers." Musical production on the English side was probably led by composer William Cornysh the Younger, master of the Royal Chapel for Henry VIII. In the fields beyond the castle, 2800 tents were erected for less distinguished visitors.
Journeying from Calais, Henry reached his headquarters at Guînes on 4 June 1520, & Francis took up his residence at Ardres. After Cardinal Wolsey, with a splendid train, had visited the French king, the two monarchs met at the Val d'Or, a spot midway between the two places, on 7 June. The following days were taken up with tournaments, in which both kings took part. There were banquets in which the kings entertained each other's queens. The many other entertainments included archery displays & wrestling between Breton & Cornish wrestlers.
Wolsey said Mass & the two sovereigns separated on 24 June, Corpus Christi. The painting depicts a dragon flying overhead & this could be interpreted to mean that the Mass itself was interrupted by a mysterious event thought to be a dragon or salamander flying over the congregation. The superstitious would have viewed this as a great portent, but it was probably a firework accidentally or deliberately set off. Alternatively the dragon in the painting could be interpreted as symbolic. The sermon was read by Richard Pace, an intimate friend of Erasmus. Wolsey gave a general indulgence for all present. This meeting made a great impression on contemporaries, but its political results were very minor. While the carefully established rules of the tournament stated that the two kings would not compete against each other, Henry surprisingly challenged Francis in a wrestling match, but it turned sour for Henry when he quickly lost. Relations between the two countries worsened soon after the event when Cardinal Wolsey arranged an alliance with Charles V, who declared war on France later that year commencing the Italian War of 1521–26.
A record of the list of participants survives in at least two places: in the Rutland Papers & in the Letters & Papers, Foreign & Domestic, of King Henry VIII, catalogued as Letters indented specifying, in accordance with the treaty of 12 March 1519, the number & rank of the lords, ladies & gentlemen to attend the King & Queen at the interview with Francis I. King Henry VIII;
"For the King: The cardinal of York, with 300 servants, of whom 12 shall be chaplains & 50 gentlemen, with 50 horses; one archbishop with 70 servants, of whom 5 shall be chaplains & 10 gentlemen, with 30 horses; 2 dukes, each with 70 servants, 5 to be chaplains & 10 gentlemen, with 30 horses. 1 marquis with 56 servants, 4 to be chaplains & 8 gentlemen; 26 horses. 10 earls, each with 42 servants, 3 to be chaplains & 6 gentlemen; 20 horses. 5 bishops, of whom the bishop of Winchester shall have 56 servants, 4 to be chaplains & 8 gentlemen; 26 horses;—each of the others, 44 servants, 4 to be chaplains & 6 gentlemen; 20 horses. 20 barons, each to have 22 servants, 2 to be chaplains & 2 gentlemen; 12 horses. 4 knights of the order of St. George, each to have 22 servants, 2 to be chaplains & 2 gentlemen; 48 horses. 70 knights, including Sir William Mathew, grandson of Sir David Ap Mathew of Wales. Each knight to have 12 servants, one to be a chaplain; 8 horses. Councillors of the long robe; viz., the King's secretary, the vice-chancellor, the dean of the Chapel, & the almoner, each to have 12 servants, one a chaplain, & 8 horses. 12 King's chaplains, each with 6 servants & 3 horses. 12 serjeants-at-arms, each with 1 servant and two horses. 200 of the King's guard with 100 horses. 70 grooms of the chamber, with 150 servants & 100 horses among them; 266 officers of the house, with 216 servants and 70 horses; 205 grooms of the stable & of the armories, with 211 horses. The earl of Essex, being earl marshal, shall have, beside the number above stated, 130 servants & 100 light horses. Sum total of the King's company, 3,997 persons & 2,087 horses". All of the English Knights of the Garter, some 23 in all, were present.
Katharine of Aragon entourage;
"For the Queen: 1 duchess, with 4 women, 6 servants & 12 horses; 10 countesses, with 3 women & 4 servants, & 8 horses each; 12 baronesses, with 2 women, 3 servants & 6 horses each. 20 knights' ladies, with 1 woman, 2 servants & 4 horses each; 14 ladies, with 1 woman, 2 servants & 3 horses each; 6 ladies of the chamber, with 1 servant & 2 horses each; 1 earl, with 42 servants, 3 to be chaplains & 9 gentlemen; horses 20. 3 bishops, to have 44 servants, 4 to be chaplains & 6 gentlemen; horses 60. 4 barons, with 22 servants, 2 to be chaplains & 2 gentlemen; horses 48. 30 knights, with 12 servants, 1 to be a chaplain; horses 240; 6 chaplains with 3 servants & 2 horses each. Grooms 50, officers of the King's chamber, with 20 servants & 30 horses; officers of the King's stable 60, with 70 horses. Sum total of the Queen's company, 1,175 persons & 778 horses.
Field of the Cloth of Gold in more detailed close-ups;
1. Henry VIII is shown entering the town of Guînes with his entourage, where the English set up camp for the summit. In the procession are Sir Thomas Wriothesley, Garter King of Arms; & Cardinal Wolsey alongside the king. The figure ahead, carrying the sword of state is, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset.
2. You can see the forefront of the palace built specifically for the event & was only temporary. It had a solid, brickwork foundation but the walls & roof were made from timber & canvas, reducing the overall cost of the building work. The canvas was painted to make it look like it was made from bricks.
3. The fountains of alcohol; In front of the temporary palace there were two fountains, one for beer & one for wine, for the endless consumption of those attending the event. If you look closely at the foreground, you can see revellers who have doubled over & becoming sick from drinking too much, also other have begun a drunken brawl.
4. The Gold Dining Tent; The lavish gold tent depicted in the middle of the painting is Henry's golden dining tent, next to which are the ovens & tents where meals were prepared. Food was consumed in enormous quantities at the event, with thousands of hungry guests attending.
5. The kings meet; In the centre of the painting lies another luxurious gold tent. Look closer & you can see the meeting of King Henry VIII & King Francis I is taking place inside. The interior was made up of blue velvet, embroidered with French fluer-de-lys, indicating that this tent belonged to Francis.
6. At the top right of the painting are tournament fields where there is jousting, sword fighting, & archery taking place. The two kings spared no expense when it came to sports, games, feasts & music. The tournament lasted for eleven days, with brief interruptions for bad weather!
7. The Tree of Honour; Next to the tournament fields was the Tree of Honour, an artificial tree built for the summit & covered with gilt. The tree held shields, which indicated the different competitions of the tournament, & if knights wished to participate then they showed their interest by touching their lances on their desired rival's shields.
8. The French camp; In the distance is the town of Ardres, where the French were staying during the event. This painting, attributed to the British School, was likely commissioned by King Henry to not only commemorate the Field of the Cloth of Gold, but to also highlight the lavishness of the English camp compared to the French.
9. The Salamander firework; On the penultimate day of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the two kings, their queens & retinues all attended mass together. Towards the end of the service a salamander firework was accidentally set off, which reportedly terrified the people of Guînes . It is shown in the top left of the painting, flying over the town.
10. Queen Katharine, it has been suggested is the woman seen in the tent to the far right of the painting here, or she may be in the group behind the tent alongside her ladies-in-waiting.
11. The Palace Windows, King Henry had glass windows installed for his temporary palace, they were created by Flemish glazers & so the French referred to it as a "crystal palace". Glass was expensive, & it is estimated that around £36,000 was spent in total by the English on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, more than twice the annual costs of the royal household.
12. The Tudor Rose, The red & white rose, the iconic emblem of the House of Tudor, can be seen throughout the painting. Most noticeably, at the front of the temporary palace, as well as being part of the embroidery of the tent on the far right. Henry clearly wanted to make it a spectacular occasion!
Books of interest,
British royal family history