The Field of Cloth of Gold 
by Glenn Richardson.
Yale, 288 pp., £35, November 2013, 978 0 300 14886 2
Show More
Show More

Trying​ to describe the spectacular summit meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I which took place in June 1520, contemporaries fell into a kind of stupor. It was the eighth wonder of the world, said one. Another thought the temporary palaces – erected at staggering expense for the sole purpose of a fortnight’s worth of jousts and junketing – outdid the ‘miracles of the Egyptian pyramids and the Roman amphitheatres’. To one Italian observer, the English palace – with brick walls 300 feet long, so many windows that it seemed as though half the building was ‘made entirely of glass’, and chambers that in size and opulence outdid some of Henry’s permanent houses back home – merited the simplest and greatest of comparisons: ‘Leonardo,’ he wrote, ‘could not have done it so well.’

The Field of Cloth of Gold’s scale and complexity reflected the momentous nature of the encounter: the first meeting, in person, between two of Europe’s most powerful monarchs, it was designed to cement their ‘perpetual friendship’ and an everlasting peace between two states whose relations had historically veered between mutual animosity and open war. Although the English had been decisively kicked out of France almost seventy years previously, they still clung desperately to the northern European coast via their Calais toehold, and their kings still laid claim to the French crown. The last half-century had seen three full-scale – though ultimately abortive – English invasions of northern France, the most recent and most energetic of which had been led by Henry in 1513. French kings, meanwhile, had done their best to destabilise England by backing pretenders to the English crown – including (half-heartedly) Henry VIII’s father.

A strong sense of competition and personal honour fuelled this glorified summit meeting. Henry at 29 was at the height of his magnificence and, in the opinion of a Venetian diplomat, ‘much handsomer than any other sovereign in Christendom’; seeing him play tennis, apparently, took the breath away. But Francis, physical, amorous, culturally precocious and three years younger, had burst onto the stage in a way that made Henry insanely jealous. On bringing him the news of Francis’s spectacular victory at Marignano in northern Italy in September 1515, a mere eight months after he had ascended the throne, the French ambassador remarked on Henry’s effort to hold back tears of frustration, his eyes red ‘from the pain he suffered in hearing and understanding the good news and prosperity of my master’.

There were, then, good reasons why both these exceptionally ambitious kings should have turned their encounter, in the Anglo-French borderlands south of Calais, into an apotheosis of conspicuous consumption. As Glenn Richardson notes in his minutely detailed book, relatively abundant surviving sources – documenting everything from the designs for the sprawling tent complexes to the provisioning of food and drink for 12,000 guests (particular attention was paid to the beer in northern France and whether it ‘be as cheap, good and plentiful there as in England’) – provide us with a window onto the event. The total expenditure was enormous: Richardson estimates some £36,000 on the English side, significantly more than the annual costs of the royal household, and £40,000 on the French. But then, the Field was intended to mark a peace that, for both Henry and Francis, would be more glorious than war. Moreover, the Anglo-French treaty to be celebrated there lay at the heart of a yet more ambitious project. Its guiding spirit was Henry’s ‘angel-tongued’ lord chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the man in whom, as the Venetian ambassador put it, ‘the whole power of the state is really lodged’.

In war-ravaged 15th-century Europe, an old idea began to gain new impetus: the dream of a unified Christendom, bound together by its one supranational institution, the Church in Rome. This was a peace, a pax romana, which all the princes of Europe had a duty to uphold. The idea, which infused diplomatic language and relations of the age, acquired particular urgency because, in the eyes of the Church, Europe had to unite in the face of a common enemy: the Ottoman Empire, whose relentless advance through the eastern Mediterranean and into south-eastern Europe now threatened the heart of Christendom. Throughout the universities, courts and chancelleries of Europe, this call for peace was embraced by thinkers who, in the early 16th century, included men like the theologian John Colet, Thomas More and their presiding genius, Erasmus.

In England, policymakers bought into the idea of peace for pragmatic reasons as much as out of ideological conviction. As Henry VII’s former minister Edmund Dudley put it in 1509, in a treatise dedicated to the 18-year-old Henry VIII, war was a ‘right marvellous consumer of treasure and riches’. Counsellors, he said pointedly, should be very careful when advising their sovereign to start a war, for while ‘the beginning seemeth a great pleasure,’ exit strategies were rather more difficult: ‘the way is very narrow to come honourably out thereof, and then oftentimes full painful.’ Besides which, he noted not unreasonably, ‘it is very dangerous for the soul and body.’ The king of England, he wrote, had a duty to uphold peace: his sage, authoritative conduct would lead foreign princes willingly to offer him honourable peace in return.

Writing these words from the Tower, the unpopular Dudley was the first of a long line of ministers to suffer Henry VIII’s short way with difficult situations, ending up with his head on the block. But he knew his king. Having been cooped up for the entirety of his short life by his controlling father, the young Henry – ‘rich, savage and thirsting for glory’, according to Machiavelli – was desperate to make his mark, and there was no better way to do so than by attempting to ‘recover his right’ from England’s ancient enemy: he was sabre-rattling against France from the moment he ascended the throne.

Four years later, in the spring of 1513, after a quiet chat with Colet about his problematic sermons on peace, from which the chastened Colet emerged showering his blessings on the king’s just and holy war, Henry invaded France, in the footsteps of his hero Henry V. But, despite the capture of the prize city of Tournai, the invasion was a damp squib. Henry’s allies, the Spanish, failed to turn up, while the death of Pope Julius II, the bellicose, French-hating pontiff who had backed Henry’s war, resulted in a new papal push for peace, taking the legs from under the English campaign. Henry, impotent and furious, was forced to come to terms with the French.

In the years that followed, he came to realise that peace might after all provide him with the international prestige he craved. Although the likes of Erasmus influenced the atmosphere with their condemnation of the ‘disgraceful and frivolous pretexts’ princes found for going to war – which included the dredging up of ‘some mouldering, obsolete title’ to support their claims – it was Wolsey who, more than anyone, helped Henry understand how, by embracing current intellectual ideas, he could obtain the kind of lustre that he had once hoped to achieve through conflict.

On 3 March 1518, Pope Leo X published a bull spelling out the nature of the Turkish threat to Christendom and calling for a pan-European truce as the preliminary to a crusade to reconquer Constantinople. Like most monarchs of the age, Henry proclaimed himself a loyal son of the Church, but he was highly selective in his response to papal edicts, and highly sensitive to papal attempts to encroach on his sovereign jurisdiction. He saw no reason why he should let the pope’s legate, Cardinal Campeggio, into England to deliver a papal pronouncement, and besides, as he pointed out, the pope needed to be ‘more apprehensive of a certain other person … one who devises worse things against Christendom than Sultan Selim’ – meaning, of course, the French king, Francis I.

English resistance quickly gave way to accommodation as Henry and Wolsey realised that Leo’s call to arms presented an opportunity to place England at the very heart of European affairs, while solving the intractable problem of Anglo-French animosity in a way that avoided the exorbitant costs that accompanied war. The English would even make a tidy profit, thanks to the sale of Tournai back to the French and a renewed insistence on the annual ‘tribute’ payable to the English crown in recognition of its claim to the French one. In the autumn of 1518, after secret summer-long talks with the French ambassador, Wolsey unveiled English plans for a treaty of peace and collective security to be signed by all Europe’s major powers. At its heart was a new Anglo-French alliance of ‘perpetual friendship’ in which Henry’s daughter Mary was betrothed to the French dauphin. The two kings, the treaty stipulated, were to meet in person as ‘brothers in arms’.

Wolsey had appropriated the pope’s vision of pan-European peace and given it an English spin, placing himself, now a papal legate, at the centre of affairs. In early October, the treaty was celebrated at St Paul’s, with a high mass of exceptional pomp – Wolsey, naturally, was the master of ceremonies – followed by the kind of supper that, as one ambassador remarked, Cleopatra or Caligula might have struggled to host, and a week-long sequence of banquets, jousts, plays, dancing and pageants. Henry and Wolsey basked in the glow of papal approval: briefly, Christendom’s centre of gravity lay not in Rome but in London. As Wolsey’s mentor, Richard Fox, acknowledged, the Universal Treaty of London was ‘the best deed that was ever done for the realm of England’. But early the following year, the Treaty came under threat.

In January 1519, one of its key signatories, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, died, leaving the Habsburg crown to his grandson Charles V. Charles had already inherited the Low Countries from his father, and the crowns of his maternal grandparents, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, which included swathes of southern Italy. Now, he was ruler of a massive empire stretching from one end of Europe to the other, contesting territorial claims with the French, especially in Italy and the Franco-Burgundian borderlands of Flanders. Later that year, his election as Holy Roman Emperor – he beat Francis in the process – aggravated the deep-rooted hostility between the two kings and set the seal on Charles’s pre-eminence. In French eyes, his election raised an old spectre: a Christendom united, but under imperial rule. As planning for the Field of Cloth of Gold got underway, war between Europe’s two pre-eminent sovereigns looked inevitable.

Richardson’s book seeks to throw new light on what we know of the Field itself: from how it was organised, provisioned and enacted, to the reasons such a sensational junket should have mattered – and in this it undoubtedly succeeds. It also offers a corrective to what Richardson views as a ‘deep scepticism’ on the part of historians, a sense that never was so much money spent on such an extravagant spectacle to so little effect – for the Field, it transpired, would mark little more than a hiatus in an ongoing and intensifying sequence of European wars. But that, Richardson implies, is a judgment which benefits from hindsight. Both the protracted build-up to the encounter and the event itself, he argues, were animated by a desire to avoid war at any cost, and in this the aspirations of both parties were sincere: the Field ‘gave physical expression to genuine hopes of peace’. Richardson is undoubtedly right: hopes of peace, on both sides, were genuine enough. But, as he points out, in striving to outdo each other in displays of political, military and cultural might, Henry and Francis each strove to ‘secure the other’s co-operation, or at least acquiescence, in his own plans’. In other words, peace – even perpetual peace – meant different things to different actors in different contexts.

The idea of universal peace had been co-opted by English and French kings in order to justify waging war, usually against each other, throughout the 15th century. England’s most successful war leader of the age, Henry V, was a case in point. Following his successful reconquest of France in 1415, both his parliament and his chroniclers emphasised the justice of his war: in attempting to ‘recover his right’, he too had tried desperately to achieve a ‘perpetual peace’ between England and France, and had embarked on military action as a last resort, ‘reluctantly and against his will’, the duplicitous French having failed to bow to Henry’s reasoned arguments as to why they should hand over their kingdom to him.

Half a century later, in April 1467, England, long since ejected from France and under the kingship of the Yorkist Edward IV, was recovering from a round of brutal civil war. The Milanese ambassador to the French court reported that Louis XI – the ‘universal spider’ – had told him of a ‘secret’ deal that had been struck between England and France. This would, again, involve a treaty of ‘perpetual peace’, in which England would renounce its claim to the French crown for ever, and the two kings would live together as ‘brothers in arms’. No sooner had the ink dried on the treaty than the two countries would begin a ‘war of extermination’ against the Burgundian Netherlands. If all this, from the French perspective, sounded rather too good to be true, it was: barely two months later, Edward IV hosted a spectacular tournament in London, in which the honoured guests were not the French, but Louis’s sworn enemies the Burgundians. This tournament was the prelude to a revived English claim to France and a great Anglo-Burgundian wedding, the ‘marriage of the century’, between the Burgundian duke Charles the Bold and Edward’s sister Margaret, which involved weeks of pageants, banqueting and jousting. As one of the English attendees wrote back to his mother, the only possible comparison was to ‘King Arthur’s Court’. These two Anglo-Burgundian set-pieces became touchstones for much subsequent ceremonial, including the Field of Cloth of Gold. Yet they were founded on unstable ground. Charles the Bold – a man who proudly paraded his own Lancastrian heritage, and was still sheltering Lancastrian exiles at his court even as his marriage to a Yorkist princess was in full swing – told the French that the reason he had agreed to the marriage was to make sure the Anglo-French agreement didn’t happen. At the same time, Edward, in the double-dealing characteristic of the age, had instructed his diplomatic supremo, the earl of Warwick, to negotiate a ‘perpetual truce’ with France. Louis had not entirely made up his story of a secret deal.

Calls for perpetual peace – and the extravagant festivities that accompanied agreements and treaties – were part of a reality in which insecurity and mutual suspicion were endemic. So while the Field of Cloth of Gold did indeed involve genuine hopes for peace, it was also affected by a sense of chronic instability: the encounter, precariously balanced, could quite easily slide into aggression. The formal preparations, which began in earnest in early 1520, were, as Richardson shows, dominated by a scramble for the higher ground, both metaphorically and literally. English and French planners quibbled over everything from the siting of the tournament – aspects of which were minutely relocated numerous times to satisfy the honour of both kings – to the shape of the valley in which the two entourages were to meet (it was carefully relandscaped so that Henry and Francis could meet on level terms). The French, meanwhile, reinforced the defences of nearby castles and towns, in order not to be surprised in the event of an English or Anglo-imperial attack; the English, getting wind of these preparations, speculated about a French ambush and started to stockpile more ordnance themselves. As Richardson puts it, ‘both sides talked of peace but prepared for a fight.’

Charles V, meanwhile, was convinced that the forthcoming summit was the prelude to an Anglo-French war against him. But, as emperor, he had cards of his own to play, while his aunt, Catherine of Aragon, was perfectly placed to make her displeasure emphatically known to Henry, who was after all Charles’s uncle. Moreover, recent history had seen English kings seek active alliance with the Habsburgs, so when Charles V solicited a meeting, Henry, attracted by the imperial stardust that would accompany such a visit, was happy to oblige. He wrote to the French royal council to ask if the summit could be postponed by two weeks, ostensibly because preparations were going slowly but actually so that he could see Charles beforehand. The French ambassadors replied that his request would cause Francis ‘to imagine many things’. In the event, Henry not only met Charles before the Field of Cloth of Gold – on Henry’s arrival at Dover Castle in the small hours of Saturday, 26 May, the pair met and hugged ‘right lovingly’ on the stairs outside Charles’s apartments – but arranged to meet again immediately after it. Such amity was, of course, essential to any pan-European peace: as Wolsey stressed, peace in Christendom depended on peace between the three monarchs. The problem was that it looked to many like the diplomatic shenanigans with which they were all too familiar.

All of which​ meant that, when the great circus that was Henry’s entourage finally arrived in northern France, the moment was freighted with tension. In the early evening of 7 June, Corpus Christi, the feast of the holy sacrament and of Christian peace and unity, both sides advanced towards the valley where the kings were to meet. They did so cautiously, like the armies they were – Henry’s retinue alone included two thousand foot soldiers and a brigade of elite archers – with scouts riding ahead to spot any signs of aggressive intent. At one point, Henry was inclined to turn back. When, finally, the retinues faced each other, the drama was intense: the two solitary figures spurred their horses out into the open ground, charging at each other as though in combat, before flourishing their feathered hats. Even their hasty dismounting to embrace one another turned into a competition as to who could get out of the saddle first.

Over the next fortnight, the fabulous programme of banqueting, dancing, gift-giving, masques and jousting unfolded in an atmosphere of enforced jollity. One banquet, on Sunday, 10 June, involved so much stuffing and guzzling that the revellers ‘choked themselves’; the ensuing dancing was delayed in order to enable Francis to kiss all the ladies present, except four or five who were ‘old and not fair’. The weather didn’t help. On 13 June, severe storms washed out an entire day’s jousting and wrecked the French tents. The tournament itself, the subject of much wrangling over precedence, was spectacular. Hedged about with rules and precautions to ensure that no injury or death stoked tensions any further, it was performed in dazzling costumes and with especially light weapons which enabled its participants to ‘deliver more strokes and more gorgeously’.

Henry’s and Francis’s efforts at bonhomie were shot through with rivalry and oneupmanship, each trying to trump the other’s grandiloquent statements of friendship. When Francis turned up unannounced in Henry’s bedchamber one morning, declaring himself Henry’s prisoner, Henry felt it incumbent on himself to do the same a couple of days later. On one occasion, Henry rode a horse so hard it died the same evening; on another, he challenged Francis to a wrestling match, only to find himself surprised by the French king’s ability and unceremoniously floored. Henry’s requests for a rematch were denied by the announcement of supper.

The most telling moment came on the first day. As Wolsey read out the text of the alliance in front of the two kings, he came to the words ‘Henry, king of England and France’. Commanding Wolsey to ‘expunge that title’, Henry told Francis that it was ‘good for nothing’. Francis, though, asked for the reading to continue. ‘My brother,’ he reassured Henry, ‘now that you are my friend, you are the king of France, king of all my possessions, and of me myself.’ But then he added: ‘I acknowledge no other king of France than myself.’ All of which, as Richardson points out, reflected the reality of the situation. Henry could call himself what he liked: it didn’t alter the fact that there was a huge gulf between his claim to the French throne and Francis’s possession of it.

Yet for all this, the Field of Cloth of Gold was a triumph of magnificence, and it placed Wolsey, the master of ceremonies, firmly centre-stage along with his king. On Saturday, 23 June, he presided over the concluding mass, enrobed, enthroned and with jewelled slipper-clad feet, like the papal representative he was, a small but telling step above his French counterpart, Cardinal de Boisy.

For Richardson, in the summer of 1520 ‘Henry and Wolsey held all the cards,’ their friendship anxiously sought by both Francis and Charles V. But rather than the tripartite alliance that Wolsey had talked about so noisily all the way through the Field – to French disquiet – there existed an uneasy equilibrium, with England as the balance between two superpowers, each of whom sought to pull it into war on their side. The Treaty of London had committed Henry to declaring war on any country that broke the peace, even though his ill-equipped navy, negligible artillery, lack of heavy cavalry and dwindling coffers made such a threat practically impossible to fulfil. By 1521, barely a year after the Field of Cloth of Gold and despite Wolsey’s efforts to bring Francis and Charles together at a hastily convened conference at Calais, Europe was at war. When England entered the war the following year, it did so as usual in alliance with the Habsburgs against its old enemy, France.

In the words of Garrett Mattingly, the great diplomatic historian, the Habsburg-Valois wars of the next decades ‘surpassed anything Europe had previously known for extent and destructiveness’. As for the peace process that culminated in the Field of Cloth of Gold, Mattingly also observed that ‘ambitious efforts to organise peace usually precede serious general wars.’ His essay was published in March 1938.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences