Field of Cloth of Gold


For two and a half weeks in June 1520, a meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I of France occurred near Calais that was to become known to history as the Field of Cloth of Gold. Although the political purpose of the meeting didn’t amount to much in the over-all scheme of things in early 16th century Europe, the glamour and extravagance of the meeting give us a picture of two Renaissance princes and their times.

In 1518, through the work of Cardinal Wolsey, the Treaty of London was signed as a non-aggression pact between the major European powers of the time. But less than a year later, the pact was already in danger of falling apart. To preserve the peace, Wolsey arranged a meeting between Henry VIII and Charles V, the new Holy Roman Emperor, and a meeting of Henry VIII and Francis I of France. This second meeting was to be in France, near the English-held town of Calais.

Francis I and Henry VIII were close in age, with Henry being just three years older than his French counterpart. Henry had been king of England for 11 years at the time of the meeting while Francis had been on the French throne for five-and-a-half years. Both Kings had been hailed as great Renaissance princes, which no doubt raised curiosity for each man about the other. This meeting was also a chance for each to display the grandeur and wealth of their courts.

Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon and their large retinue left from Dover on about the first of June and stayed in Calais for six days before riding out to meet the French King. One of the more spectacular parts of the meeting was a temporary palace of timber and canvas brought by the English court to go with the pavilions and tents.

Excerpts from Hall’s Chronicle describing the meeting:


“Thursday 8 June being Corpus Christi day, Henry and the French king Francis I, met in a valley called the Golden Dale which lay midway between Guisnes and Arde where the French king had been staying. In this valley Henry pitched his marquee made of cloth of gold near where a banquet had been prepared. His Grace was accompanied by 500 horsemen and 3,000 foot soldiers, and the French King had a similar number of each.

When the two great princes met proclamations were made by the heralds and officers-of-arms of both parties, to the effect that everyone should stand absolutely still – the king of England and his company on one side of the valley and the king of France with his retinue on the other. They were commanded to stand thus, completely still, on pain of death whilst the two kings rode down the valley. At the bottom of the valley they embraced each other in great friendship and then, dismounting, embraced each other again, taking off their hats. Henry’s sword was held, unsheathed, by the marquess of Dorset whilst the duc de Bourbon bore the French king’s sword similarly all the while.

On Friday 9 June the two kings met up at the camp where a tiltyard had been set up with a pretty green tree with damask leaves nearby. On Saturday two shields bearing the arms of the two kings were hung upon this tree and a proclamation made to the effect that anyone who intended to attend the royal jousts and compete in feats of arms – such as the running at the tilt, fighting tourneys on horseback and fighting on foot at the barriers with swords should bring their shields of arms and have their names entered into the records kept by Clarencieux and Lancaster, officers-at-arms.

On Sunday 11 June the French king came to Guisnes to dine with the Queen of England and was graciously received by the Lord Cardinal, the Duke of Buckingham, the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Northumberland and various other noblemen, together with a large number of ladies and gentlemen all richly dressed in cloth of gold, velvet and silks. That day too the French king was himself magnificently dressed in tissue-cloth set with precious stones and pearls.

When dinner was over, some time was spent dancing in the banqueting hall. Before he started to dance, the French king went from one end of the room to the other, carrying his hat in his hand and kissing all the ladies on both sides – except for four or five who were too old and ugly. He then returned to the Queen and spoke with her for a while before spending the rest of the day dancing.

At the same moment King Henry was dining with the French Queen at Arde where he spent the time in a similar manner until seven o’clock in the evening when he returned to Guisnes and the French king likewise returned to Arde.

On Monday 12 June both kings and their men-at-arms met at the aforementioned camp. Also present were the Queen of England and the Queen of France, wife of Francis I with her ladies-in-waiting – all riding in litters and sedan chairs covered in sumptuous embroidery. Some other ladies also arrived mounted on richly decorated palfreys.

Then the two kings with their teams of challengers and their sides entered the field, every one fully armed and magnificently dressed. The French king started the jousts and did extremely well, even though the first lance was broken by King Henry, who managed to break one on each charge. The French king broke a good number of lances but not as many as Henry.

Thursday 15 June saw Henry in the field again, fully armoured and challenging all comers. Opponents that day included two French noblemen with their men-at-arms, all well-mounted and finely dressed, who acquitted themselves well. On Friday 16 June there was no contest at the camp because of a tremendous gale. On Saturday both kings entered the field and king Henry’s armour-skirt and horse-trapper were decorated with 2,000 ounces of gold and 1,100 huge pearls, the price of which was incalculable, the Earl of Devonshire also appeared that day wearing cloth of gold, tissue-cloth and cloth of silver, all elaborately embroidered, with his retinue wearing the same uniform.

When the French king and the Earl of Devonshire charged at each other, so fierce was their encounter that both their lances broke. In all they ran off eight times, during which the French king broke three lances while the earl broke two lances and the French king’s nose.

On Saturday 23 June a large and well-appointed chapel was set up on the grounds, decorated with ornate hangings and filled with statues of saints and holy relics. Later the lord cardinal said mass in the chapel – which had been built and fitted out entirely at king Henry’s expense. During the service the chaplains of both kings took it in turns to sing the refrains, which was heavenly to listen to. The mass completed, the kings and queens, together with their noble retinues, proceeded to the gallery beside the chapel to dine in great style.”

The celebrations concluded the next day, on the 24th. The meeting really did not do much in the way of improving the relations between the two countries and in just a couple of years, England and France were once again, as they had been many times in the previous centuries, at war.