On the 7th of June 1520, the sensational meeting of Kings of England and France occurred near Calais that was to become known to history as “The Field of the Cloth of Gold”. This luxurious meeting became the standards to which international peace treaties were measured in many years to come. There was the long history of tensions and rivalries between England and France, which the meeting was intended to put an end to.
King Henry VIII and his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, arrived in Calais on the 31st of May. Henry should have reached the English stronghold of Guînes on the same day, but instead he dispatched a page to the French ruler that the ladies of his large retinue of about 5,000 people were exhausted after the journey across the English Channel and needed a few days of rest. King François I did not object to the delay, but he nevertheless warned Henry to be at the meeting place on the planned day in time.
While the Tudor court rested for four days in Calais, King François and, his first wife, Queen Claude of France, together their huge train, were in the French town of Ardres. Accompanied by his own train of a hundred gentlemen clad in crimson velvet, Cardinal Wolsey paid a visit to François. The cardinal loved pomp and rode a mule with harnessing of fine gold and trappings of crimson velvet when he was met by French courtiers at Ardres. François hosted a banquet in Wolsey’s honor, and one would like to know what they discussed; there was gossip that the cardinal proposed to mediate between François and Charles V, who was only fifty or sixty miles away from Calais in Flanders at that time.
On the 5th of June 6, the French and English pitched their tents (approximately 2000!) near the field. However, there were last minute difficulties: Henry learned that the French had stationed between 3,000 and 4,000 soldiers nearby, so the summit was almost called off, but François prudently withdrew the troops. Most likely, memories of The Hundred Years’ War were still fresh in the minds of the French, so they resolved to try and defend the Valois family in case the English attacked.
A French historical account describes François I’s magnificence as he left Ardens.
“The King wore a cap of black velvet with feathers of the same color, and some large jewels in it very well set, which the King estimates at 2,000 ducats. His doublet was embroidered with gold knots, the shirt protruding from the slashes, the tags of which were most beautiful jewels. His breast was bare, and he had sleeves (manegetti). Over the doublet was a cloak of cloth of gold embroidered; at the back of the cloak a certain bit of cloth of gold slashed, looking like a half cape, or well nigh a half mantle, fastened over the left shoulder, which half cape or mantle was costly and ornamented with large jewels. On his legs, he wore white boots (burzachini bianchi).”
This description does not mean that the Valois monarch did not wear a shirt at all. The phrase “his breast was bare” refers to a relative lack of jewels adorning that part of his clothes. Perhaps the king’s doublet was less lavishly embroidered on the front than on the sleeves.
An English contemporary account describes Henry VIII’s splendid appearance:
“The King of England wore a very handsome and costly doublet of cloth of silver, with a girdle and apron (traversa) or “sbarra” from the cincture to the shoulder, of cloth of gold studded with very beautiful jewels, and a black velvet cap with jewels and black feathers; and he rode a very handsome bay courser with a “trapper” embroidered in gold.”
The meeting continued until the 24th of June. As Jean du Bellay reported in his papers, the two sovereigns decided to pass their time “en déduit et choses de plaisir” (in other words, in entertainments and pleasures), leaving negotiations to their councilors. For nearly two weeks, it was a mind-blowing and most eccentric display of riches and extravagance, which included, for example, “a forest of exotic pavilions” to house the English Court, “a wooden and canvas palace” to act as the King’s Chamber, as well as “two wine fountains flowing with red wine”. Every day, François and Henry were appareled in their most fabulous clothes as they did their best to outshine each other; their courtiers dressed in “velvet, satin and cloth of gold”. Those days were full of unprecedented festivities and merry jousts, lots of music and various games, as well as entertainments such as archery displays and wrestling between Breton and Cornish wrestlers. There were feasts in which the rulers entertained each other’s queens, as if swapping queens for an evening and allowing them to act as a hostess. On the summit, there was so much cloth of gold displayed on the tents and clothes that the site of the meeting was named after it.
The rest of the meeting, including the wrestling match between François and Henry, will be covered in another article next week.
All images are in the public domain.
Text © 2019 Olivia Longueville