For two-and-a-half-weeks in June 1520, two of Renaissance Europe’s greatest monarchs—England’s Henry VIII and France’s Francis I—convened for a celebration of unmatched proportions. Named after the gold-embellished fabric used to craft the tents, costumes and decorations, the Field of Cloth of Gold cost the modern equivalent of some £15 million pounds, or almost $19 million. Ostensibly organized as an affirmation of the young kings’ friendship, the summit also afforded each ruler the chance “to outdo the other in splendor and military prowess,” says historian Tracy Borman.
Both men answered this appeal to vanity in full force. From June 7 to 24, around 12,000 royals, nobles, attendants and servants gathered in fields on the northern tip of modern-day France, between English-held Guînes and French-held Ardres, where they enjoyed nights of revelry in enormous temporary palaces of brick, timber, canvas and glass. Guests dined on such delicacies as 29,000 fish, 98,000 eggs, 6,475 birds, 2,200 sheep and 216,000 gallons of wine; competed in jousts, wrestling matches and other tests of athletic prowess; and performed in elaborate masques. Even the most lavish modern Renaissance fair would pale in comparison with this unmitigated display of wealth.
When Henry and Francis rode out to meet each other for the first time, the former wore a garment “ribbed with cloth of gold” and “of such shape and making that it was marvelous to behold,” according to English chronicler Edward Hall. Francis, meanwhile, donned a cloth of gold frieze, jewels and a bonnet with white plumes. Later, Henry attended a tournament in armor adorned with 2,000 ounces of gold and 1,100 pearls. (Gold was acquired through mining and trade.)
Additional examples of the excess on show at the Field of Cloth of Gold abound: From fountains flowing with red wine to a firework-filled kite sent soaring across the sky, it’s no wonder that the extraordinary celebration—which arguably failed to achieve its stated goal of securing lasting peace—endures in popular imagination.
To understand why England and France “invested so much money, … time and energy into what seems a very peripheral and ephemeral event,” consider the high stakes, says Glenn Richardson, author of The Field of Cloth of Gold.
Two years prior, in the fall of 1518, Henry’s top advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, had convinced Europe’s leading powers—including the Holy Roman Empire, France, England, the Papal States and Burgundy—to sign a treaty of universal peace, with each promising to aid the others if attacked. Tenuous at best, the agreement was undercut by England and France’s uneasy history, from the Hundred Years’ War of the 14th and 15th centuries to a series of more recent skirmishes. According to Richardson, Wolsey, acting under the auspices of Pope Leo X, believed that the treaty would only function as intended “on the basis of a personal understanding between these two kings.”
The balance of power in early 16th-century Europe revolved around Henry, Francis and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, three dashing young rulers who dominated the continent for decades by forming and breaking alliances with each other at will. Through the Field of Cloth of Gold, Francis, then feeling increasingly threatened by Charles’ rapacious expansion through central Europe, hoped to secure Henry as an ally against the emperor. The English king, however, was eager to negotiate with both men; days before the summit, in fact, he met with Charles on his home turf.
Making peace with a fellow monarch often entailed as much spectacle—and cost—as warfare, which Richardson describes as “the main way in which [rulers] made their name, their international reputation.” Establishing harmonious relations through a war-like tournament therefore enabled Henry and Francis to offer “friendship with one hand” and a “barely hidden fist with the other.” As Borman explains, “With alliances often giving way to aggression, … each king had to prove that they had the military might and manpower for war.”
At the same time, the amount of resources expended on the Field of Cloth of Gold reflected the fraught personal relationship between Henry and Francis, who shared a love of Renaissance culture, a weakness for lasciviousness and a fiercely competitive streak. Says Borman, “The rivalry … was so intense that it almost blinded them to the expense involved. They were desperate to prove their superiority over each other, no matter the cost.”
Wolsey orchestrated the 1520 summit much like he’d spearheaded the treaty of 1518, overseeing the complex web of preparations needed to transport, feed, house and entertain an English entourage of more than 5,000. These efforts culminated in Henry and Francis’ June 7 meeting: Though the opening salvo nearly ended in disaster after the French mistook the English faction’s gold-trimmed outfits for armor, the kings soon cleared up the confusion, “met and embraced in sight of both the nations,” as Hall recounted. Upon dismounting, they “went together into the rich tent of cloth of gold … arm in arm.”
Henry and Francis both wanted to upstage the other, but diplomatic considerations ensured that they maintained a surface appearance of equality. Neither commanded a larger retinue than their fellow king, and during the summit’s three main feasts, each dined at his counterpart’s court—overseen by the countries’ respective queens, Catherine of Aragon and Claude of France—to avoid the politically charged question of who should take precedence. The two also competed on the same side in tournaments, facing off with courtiers from both parties in events such as jousting, archery, and combat on horseback or foot.
“The carefully established rules of the tournament dictated that two kings could not compete against each other,” writes Borman in Henry VIII and the Men Who Made Him, “so Henry contented himself with showing off his prowess—and that of his companions—against a series of French opponents.” The English king was so enthusiastic in his efforts that one of his best horses died of exhaustion.
In terms of pure material splendor, the 28-year-old Henry held the edge over 25-year-old Francis. But he soon found himself outmatched in a one-on-on showdown. As recorded by a French chronicler, a drunken Henry defied protocol by challenging his rival to a wrestling match. After a brief tussle, Francis easily claimed victory. Henry handled the defeat with grace, quickly recovering and suggesting a follow-up archery bout.
Much of historians’ knowledge of the Field of Cloth of Gold stems from accounts written by ambassadors and other attendees. Visual evidence of the gathering is scarce, but a monumental painting likely commissioned by Henry around 1545 offers a sense of its scale and sumptuousness. Rather than accurately depicting the summit, the artwork acts as an “evocation of various events that happened,” according to Richardson.
A makeshift palace built on foundations of brick or stone dominates the scene, its canvas walls and roof painted to resemble a real castle and its windows made of imported glass. Smaller tents are scattered across the painting’s background (2,800 were erected to house the two courts), and a jousting field stands in the top right. Henry himself, looking more like the portly statesman of Hans Holbein’s famous portrait than a swashbuckling Renaissance man, rides in a procession at the bottom left. In an ironic twist of fate, the king’s original head was cut out of the painting and replaced for unknown reasons at some point after the work’s creation.
Due to a lack of documentation, ascertaining the conditions under which Henry’s workers constructed his temporary court is difficult. Still, writes Richardson in The Field of Cloth of Gold, the disparity between these individuals’ “wage levels, estimated annual worth and conditions and the levels of income and expenditure among those [in attendance] is simply staggering.” Though few details on individual contributions survive, Richardson points out that the number of artisans, carpenters, tailors, bricklayers, painters, seamstresses, soldiers and laborers employed in preparatory work was nearly equal to the number of people who attended the event itself.
The servants who waited on Henry and his court during the Field of Cloth of Gold enjoyed a higher standard of living than the workers tasked with readying the site for its royal guests. Some of the better-off servants even had servants of their own. As representatives of the king and, by extension, his honor, all were expected to dress and act in a manner befitting their station.
Also visible in the 1545 tableaux are the ovens used to cook the celebration’s delectable feasts. In all, Richardson estimates that it took more than one million planks of wood to heat these fires. According to Tudor food expert Brigitte Webster, the greatest culinary expenditures across the board were on beer, wine, red meat, poultry and spices.
The bulk of supplies needed to feed the French and English camps came from local merchants—an arrangement that lessened the need to transport goods over long distances but placed a significant strain on the local economy. Still, certain items remained unavailable or difficult to track down: The English, for instance, brought whole herds of deer and sheep over to France, keeping them in pens near Guînes, where Henry’s court was based, until it was time to “make the ultimate sacrifice,” in Richardson’s words. The French, meanwhile, had to drive animals from the Loire Valley in central France to the temporary court in Ardres.
French and English cuisine were fairly similar in the 1520s. Meat featured heavily, and vegetables, though growing increasingly popular in Italy and other European countries, were rarely enjoyed on their own. Both nations used plenty of spices and sugar in their cooking, as these expensive delicacies—imported from Asia, Africa and the New World—evinced wealth and status.
“The finest and the rarest [foods] were reserved for the royal tables and those of the highest nobility,” says Webster. On average, feasts consisted of three courses made up of around 50 different dishes. Items on offer ranged from swans and peacocks bred by the wealthy—the exotic birds were feathered, cooked, redressed in their own plumage and gilded in gold—to venison pie, candied orange peels, pears in wine, fruit jellies, Tudor wafers, a spiced drink called Hippocras, gingerbread, porpoises and even a dolphin. Of particular note were “subtleties,” or small sculptures crafted from sugar paste or marzipan: These elaborate table decorations depicted such scenes as the Annunciation, the presentation of kings to the mother of Christ and an angel appearing to shepherds on a hillside, writes Richardson in The Field of Cloth of Gold.
At the summit, even dinnerware testified to its owner’s status. During the three main feasts, Henry and Francis ate off of gold plates, while their wives used gold-plated silver dishes. Wine was served in Venetian glass—the “finest and most expensive available,” according to Webster—and actual silver spoons were provided. Incredibly, the food historian notes, the English brought many of their dining hall furnishings, from the dishes to napkins and tablecloths, from home.
After the meal ended, guests enjoyed concerts, formal dances and masques, which historian Sydney Anglo describes as a “multiform spectacle combining music, poetry, … combat scenic display and dance.” Participants donned disguises designed to mask their identities, but Henry, who reveled in dramatically revealing his identity to seemingly unsuspecting crowds, had such a recognizable “physique, manner and movement,” according to Richardson, that the court was often able to spot him. Following the unmasking, courtiers concluded the feast with a sweet course known as a banquet and, on some occasions, a short period of informal dancing.
On the penultimate day of the meeting, Wolsey held mass in a temporary chapel adorned with tapestries, a giant, jeweled crucifix and religious artworks gilded with silver. At some point during the service, a “splendid and hollow monster stretched out in the sky, over the earth, … thanks to the cunning art of [the] English constructed on the inside from hoops and on the outside woven from cloth,” as poet Jacques Dubois later wrote. Alternatively interpreted as a dragon referencing Henry’s Welsh ancestry or a salamander—Francis’ personal symbol—the enormous kite was a feat of engineering. Drawn on a cable by a wagon, it boasted pyrotechnic capabilities that made it appear to breathe fire.
On June 24, the summit drew to a close with a day of feasting and extravagant gift-giving. The kings parted as friends, seemingly setting the stage for lasting peace. But less than a month later, Henry met with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to forge a separate alliance. In 1521, war broke out between France and the empire, and by 1522, England had entered the fray on Charles’ side.
The fact that England and France were at war with each other within two years of the Field of Cloth of Gold led observers both then and more recently to dismiss the event as a failure. In a sermon given shortly after the meeting, Bishop John Fisher offered a verdict echoed by later historians, arguing that “these Princes were mortal and mutable, and so their wills did change and [did] not abide.” During the 20th century, some experts went so far as to suggest that the summit was merely a pretense organized to shield both men’s imminent plans for war.
Richardson adopts a different view, placing the true value of the tournament in its long-term impact on Anglo-French relations. Though the Italian War of 1521–1526 found Henry and Francis on opposing sides, a subsequent conflict spanning 1526 to 1530 united the two countries once again—this time in defiance of Charles, whose imperial forces were overtaking Italy.
Further forcing Henry in his former rival’s direction was his desire to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, in favor of Anne Boleyn. As Catherine’s maternal nephew, Charles was loath to align himself with her estranged husband. When Henry broke from the Catholic Church and formed the Church of England, he further alienated not only the emperor, but other Catholic powers across the continent.
During this uncertain time, Francis proved to be one of Henry’s only foreign supporters, and for long stretches of the 1520s and ’30s, their rivalry “was, paradoxically, expressed in extravagant demonstrations of ‘peace-making’ and of royal brotherhood,” writes Richardson in The Field of Cloth of Gold.
Exchanging gifts, ambassadors and information in a “continued [display] of one-upmanship” yielded cultural benefits for both countries, the historian says. And while “it didn’t bring about the great universal peace that it was expected to, it laid the foundations … for difficult but productive Anglo-French peace for much of Henry’s reign.”
(Smithsonian magazine, June 23, 2020)