Everyone loves a bit of Tudor history, but did you know that this month is the 500th anniversary of The Field of the Cloth of Gold? But what exactly was this event? And why is it important that we still remember it today? In the latest guest post for the Hisdoryan blog, Rebecca from History Rambler explains all.
This month marks the 500th anniversary of the historic meeting of the English and French
Kings, Henry VIII and Francis I, near Calais in 1520. Well known for its extravagance, the
18-day event saw a schedule packed with tournaments, dancing, jousting, pageants, and
even a spot of wrestling.
The name of this meeting, the Field of the Cloth of Gold, comes from the expensive
gold cloth used by the French on their tent-like accommodation. The guest list, which is
estimated at around 12,000 people, were well catered for with numerous feasts and
thousands of litres of wine and beer (some of which was served via impressive wine
fountains). While it might sound like it was a non-stop party, this right royal get-together had
an important purpose behind it and is significant both in 1520 and 500 years on.
The main purpose of the event was to showcase the newfound peace between these two
countries and solidify the friendship between Henry and Francis. Just one year later,
however, the pair were once again at war. It’s tempting to dismiss the Field of the Cloth of Gold
as being a bit of a failure as it clearly didn’t accomplish what it set out to and it seems to
have been a waste of time and, perhaps more importantly, a staggering amount of money.
But the Field of Cloth of Gold does give us an amazing insight into what it meant to be a
good king in the sixteenth century.
Why was the Field of the Cloth of Gold significant in 1520?
The friendly meeting of the French and English Kings was an important statement as Anglo-
French relations had not been easy since the Hundred Years War began in the fourteenth
century. England and France were still traditional rivals. Matters were not helped by the fact
that Henry himself had already gone to war against the French, taking a minor victory at the
Battle of the Spurs in 1513. Now the leaders of these two historic enemies were seen
embracing each other as brothers and walking arm in arm to kick off over two weeks of
revelling and partying. This would have sent out a message not only to those in attendance,
but also the other European leaders like the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
Of course, the sheer scale and extravagance of the event would have made it a huge
undertaking for both royal courts, with much to be done like constructing accommodation,
packing food, gifts, and equipment. But it was also an important chance for their two Kings to
be directly compared, side by side. A king is the most powerful person in their country. Their
people, their courtiers, and even their nobility, are beneath them and so they can’t be truly
compared to their king. The only person that can is a fellow monarch. So, when it comes to
the Field of the Cloth of Gold, it didn’t matter if Henry could out-joust his friends back home, or if
he dressed better than everyone at his court. What mattered there was if Henry was better
than his true equal, another divinely appointed king, Francis.
Just because the Field of Cloth of Gold was held under the banner of peace, doesn’t mean
there was no competition between the Kings, who were both young, athletic, and highly
skilled. The schedule saw the pair show off their bravery in jousts, although carefully
arranged so that they never actually charged against each other. There was one ill-fated
wrestling match between the Kings, supposedly suggested by a slightly tipsy Henry (which
he then promptly lost), before he regained his pride when Francis tried to use his longbow
but didn’t have the strength to draw it back.
Within the Tudor era, the idea of what it meant to be a “good king” was changing. By 1520
there had been a shift away from simply being a “warrior king” (although military success
was still a huge motivator for both Henry and Francis), towards a newer style of kingship.
The ideals of chivalry shown in jousts were, of course, still intrinsic to both Kings, but now
also encompassed the cultured and educated “renaissance prince” alongside out-and-out
The attempts to showcase their own grandeur was in its way a form of competition. By being
able to give each other extravagant gifts or host fellow royalty in absolute splendour, Henry
and Francis gave out the clear message that they were a good king. Before they parted, the
pair exchanged expensive gifts detailed with delicate goldwork as a show of both their
friendship and their prosperity. The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a key opportunity for the pair
to show off not only to their own court, but internationally, that they were living in a style
befitting their position as king.
So Why is the Field of Cloth of Gold Still Significant Now?
First of all, it shows us the changing nature of international relationships in the sixteenth
century. We can see now, with the benefit of hindsight, that the peace Wolsey sought to
create in 1520 didn’t last. But, for a while at least, England was championing peace and an
alliance as an alternative to hugely expensive war campaigns.
Also, the Field of the Cloth of Gold shows how similar these two Kings really were, despite them often being portrayed as enemies. They both enjoyed dancing and music alongside gaming
and jousting. They were motivated by the same drive for military success, but also a desire
to house a suitably grand royal court and be seen gifting expensive presents. Henry’s
relationship with Francis was a key one during his reign and the Field of the Cloth of Gold was
an important milestone in Anglo-French relations, albeit a short-lived one.
On an individual level, the Field of the Cloth of Gold is also really useful when looking into the personality of Henry VIII as it came at an interesting, lesser studied, point in his life. In 1520 Henry was not yet 30 and was far from the overweight tyrant he would later be known as.
So, it gives us a fascinating insight into the earlier years of Henry’s reign when he was
young, athletic, and generally a bit nicer.
In terms of the legacy of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, there is one magnificent painting,
currently on display at Hampton Court Palace, that shows the scale of the event. It depicts
Henry riding in on his horse surrounded by hundreds of guests and everything from the wine
fountains, to a tiltyard and even what appears to be a dragon flying through the sky (this was
actually a custom-made kite). It was, however, painted some 20 years later in around 1545,
perhaps in an attempt for Henry to relive his glory days.
It would be easy to dismiss the Field of the Cloth of Gold as being a big party held just for the
sake of it, as England and France were once again at war just one year later, but the event
shouldn’t be overlooked because of this. While it ultimately failed in its original aim of forging
peace, it is still very interesting because of the insight it offers into kingship. It was a chance
for Henry and Francis to show off what being a good king meant and how they felt they were
the perfect embodiment of it with their physical fitness, their extravagant gifts and their
magnificent travelling courts.
If you’d like to find out more, the sources I used were the Historic Royal Palaces’ website,
the History Extra article ‘Your Guide to the Field of the Cloth of Gold’, and Glenn
Richardson’s article ‘Good Friends and Brothers? Francis I and Henry VIII’ from History
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‘On This Day’ anniversaries, period dramas, my visits to historic places and more!