Jousting for Peace

Thomas Penn

  • The Field of Cloth of Gold by Glenn Richardson
    Yale, 288 pp, £35.00, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 14886 2

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.

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