The Field of Cloth of Gold

Henry VIII's historic meeting with his great rival François I was a defining point in his reign

Henry VIII's historic meeting with his great rival François I was a defining point in his reign

At 6pm on 7 June 1520, Henry VIII of England met François I of France near Calais, for an astonishingly grand European festival, designed to improve relations between the two great rival kingdoms. So magnificent was the occasion that it became known as the Field of Cloth of Gold.

To celebrate their newfound friendship — orchestrated by Henry's right-hand man, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey — Henry and François had agreed to meet and now, in a shallow valley a little to the south of Calais in northern France, the two kings embraced warmly.

The momentous moment marked the start of 18 days of feasts, tournaments, masquerades and religious services set amidst a sea of specially built — and incredibly elaborate — tents, banqueting houses and 'portable palaces'. 

Top image: The Field of the Cloth of Gold c.1545. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

An old rivalry

In 1520 Henry VIII and François I were both young and at the height of their powers. Henry was 28 years old whilst François was 25. They were both athletic, cultured and ruthlessly ambitious.

Each king had a begrudging admiration for the other, but they were natural rivals.

The conflict between Henry, François and their counterpart, the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I — who ruled a vast area of central Europe that stretched from modern-day northern Italy to Denmark and across France and Germany to Poland — led to a volatile cocktail of power struggles that came to a head in the years leading up to the Field of Cloth of Gold.

King Henry VIII circa 1520 National Portrait Gallery.

Henry VIII, King of France?

Since the early 14th century, English kings had claimed the French throne and had fought wars to take it. Henry VIII styled himself as a great military leader and idolised his predecessor Henry V, the victor of the Battle of Agincourt.

In 1513, Henry attempted to recreate the glories of his idol by invading France. François, who was heir to the French throne at the time, fought against Henry and his army.

Henry gained the support of the Emperor Maximilian I during his campaign and gained a modest victory at the Battle of the Spurs, but his glories were not to last.

Image: King Henry VIII by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, c.1520. © National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Francois I

The French King

By 1515, François had come to the throne as King of France and established himself as a great warrior at the Battle of Marignano. The peace treaty that followed — to which the Emperor Maximilian I was a signatory — sidelined Henry VIII, leaving him isolated and humiliated.

In Henry's eyes, François was an upstart who had inherited a country that was wealthier than his own, and a throne that Henry believed was rightfully his.

Image: Francois I c.1515-20. © Bridgeman Images

A painting of Cardinal Wolsey in red robes.

Calls for peace

Against the background of war, humanists such as Erasmus, Thomas More and Guillaume Budé began to argue that kings should seek peace as a route to glory.

In 1518 these efforts were finally successful. Representatives from across Europe came to London to sign a treaty of Universal Peace (sometimes referred to as the Treaty of London).

The treaty of Universal Peace was the brainchild of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s chief advisor. By securing the peace treaty in London, Wolsey had placed Henry at the front and centre of European politics.

Central to the treaty of Universal Peace was an agreement that Henry and François should meet to affirm their alliance and their commitment to peace. Wolsey began making the preparations for their meeting immediately, but politics elsewhere in Europe got in the way.

Image: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of Emperor Charles V with his English Water Dog

A youthful new Emperor

In 1519 Emperor Maximilian I died and elections were held to find a successor. Both François and Henry put their names forward, but the eventual winner was the young King of Spain, Charles V. 

At 19 years old, Charles was much younger than both Henry and François and had inherited a vast territory much bigger than either England or France. 

Charles was also Henry's nephew through marriage. As a result, Henry's wife, Katherine of Aragon, often pressured Henry to side with Charles in international disputes.

Charles' appointment as Emperor added a new dimension to the rivalry between the biggest European powers.

Image: Emperor Charles V (1500-1558) with his English Water Dog. © Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna

The Field of Cloth of Gold confirmed

The delay caused by the imperial election meant that the meeting that would become known as the Field of Cloth of Gold was scheduled for 1520.

As soon as the meeting was agreed, Wolsey started making plans from his home at Hampton Court Palace.

Did you know?

In 1520, Wolsey was still building his new palace at Hampton Court.

Illustration showing the town and castle of Guînes (Pas-de-Calais)

A neutral location

Wolsey agreed with his French counterpart, Guillaume Gouffier, that the meeting would take place in the summer on neutral ground between English-owned Guînes and the French town of Ardres.

Image: Plan of the town and castle of Guînes (Pas-de-Calais). © The British Library Board, Cotton MS Augustus I ii 23

Preparations

Preparations were underway for the party of the century. In just over two months, a huge English workforce had erected hundreds of tents, built a tiltyard (or tournament arena) for jousting and armed combats, and constructed a vast temporary palace for Henry, Katherine, and Wolsey in Guînes.

Portrait of King Henry VIII

The kings' beards

To confirm their commitment to the meeting both kings promised not to shave off their beards until they met. However, Henry soon forgot the promise and removed his.

When news of his 'betrayal' reached François’ mother, Louise de Savoie confronted the English ambassador, Sir Thomas Boleyn, father of Anne Boleyn, for an explanation. Quick-witted Thomas explained that Henry had been forced to shave by Katherine of Aragon who preferred him clean-shaven.

Satisfied by this excuse, Louise replied that it did not matter too much because the kings' love for each other was 'not in their beards but in their hearts'.

Image: King Henry VIII © National Trust Images / Derrick E. Witty

The Field of the Cloth of Gold depicting the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I in 1520.

The temporary palace

The temporary palace in the English camp was built from timber covered with stretched canvas, painted to imitate stone.

The inside of the courtyard was lined with terracotta roundels like those at Hampton Court Palace and the palace windows were glazed with so much stained glass that the French called it the Crystal Palace.

Image: Crop of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, c.1545. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

A portrait of Katherine of Aragon, wearing an English gable hood and a red gown.

Henry and Katherine set off

The preparations made, the two kings, each accompanied by as many as 6,000 men and women, began their journeys to the site.

Henry and Katherine of Aragon travelled to the Channel through Kent, pausing at Otford and Leeds Castle on the way. At Canterbury, before embarking for France, they met and entertained the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.

Despite the treaty of Universal Peace, tensions still surfaced. François was offended and concerned by Henry’s meeting with Charles V.

Image: Katherine of Aragon. Reproduced by kind permission of His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church Commissioners.

On 31 May Henry and Katherine embarked from Dover and landed in Calais a few hours later. The long planned-for moment, when the English and French kings would meet for the first time, arrived on 7 June.

Image: The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover c.1520-40. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Henry and François embrace

In the late afternoon on 7 June 1520, the two camps processed from Guînes and Ardres towards the Val d'Or (the Golden Valley) to seal a new spirit of friendship between their countries; a friendship which, they hoped, would bring an end to the wars that had made them enemies for almost 200 years.

The party of the century

The scene was now set for 18 days of celebrations and tournaments at which Henry and François could show-off their skill, wealth, and sophistication.

Image: A manuscript illustration depicting 16th-century jousting from Paulus Hector Mair's De arte athletica II. © Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München, Cod.icon. 393 (2, fol. 96v-97r)

A mounted knight accoutred in blue and crimson, and with his horse's cloth decorated with the Tudor rose. Originally published/produced in S. Netherlands (?), early 16th century

The tournament consisted of jousting, combat on horseback, and combat on foot. Both Henry and François were accomplished sportsmen but to save embarrassment and injury the two kings fought on the same side against teams of brave volunteers. Even so, François still left the field with a bloody nose.

Image: A mounted knight, possibly Henry VIII. © The British Library Board, Cotton Augustus III

Illustration of King Henry VIII having been thrown to the ground by King Francis I

Rival kings in combat

The weather in June 1520 was changeable and on several days the tournament was rained off. To entertain themselves Henry and François turned to other sports.

French wrestlers, including two priests, challenged the English to wrestling matches. Getting into the spirit, and having had a few drinks, Henry abandoned protocol, grabbed François by the collar and challenged him to a match. It was an unwise move: François had grown up in a region of France famous for its wrestlers and he easily knocked Henry to the ground.

In retaliation Henry showed off his archery skills and challenged François to shoot his own longbow, which proved too heavy for François to draw.

Image: King Henry VIII having been thrown to the ground by king Francis I. The servant remarks: 'Your Majesties, dinner is served.' © Look and Learn / Bridgeman Images

A portrait of Katherine of Aragon attributed to Lucas Horenbout (or Hornebolte)

Katherine and Claude

Queens Katherine of Aragon and Claude of France were in positions of considerable diplomatic influence at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Katherine was an experienced diplomat in her own right and an expert hostess. She had been married to Henry for 11 years and in most respects had excelled in her role as Queen Consort.

However, the principal role of a 16th-century queen was to secure the dynasty by giving birth to a male heir. The fact that Katherine had not delivered Henry the son that he longed for, and that a heavily-pregnant Claude had already given François two boys would have overshadowed her skills as a political mediator at the event.

Coincidentally, Anne Boleyn may also have been at the Field of Cloth of Gold in the retinue of Queen Claude. Within a decade, Henry would have abandoned Katherine in favour of Anne.

Image: Katherine of Aragon, c.1525. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Portrait of Queen Claude

Along with Henry’s sister Mary Tudor and François's mother Louise de Savoie, Katherine and Claude hosted the feasts, dances, and theatrical entertainments that filled the evenings. Katherine entertained Francois in the English camp while Claude hosted Henry in the French camp.

Image: Queen Claude. © Bridgeman Images

The Field of the Cloth of Gold depicting the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I in 1520.

Feeding the camps

An estimated 12,000 people attended the Field of Cloth of Gold and all had to be catered for. Large kitchen tents and bread ovens were erected in the encampments and food supplies were sourced from far and wide.

English food and drink accounts reveal that they took nearly 200,000 litres of wine and 66,000 litres of beer. Some of this ran through the wine fountain that stood in front of Henry's temporary palace. English food supplies included 98,000 eggs, more that 2,000 sheep, 13 swans, and 3 porpoises.

Image: Crop of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, c.1545. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Painting of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1475–1530)

Wolsey centre stage

Saturday 23 June, the penultimate day of the event, was marked by a religious Mass staged in a temporary chapel erected on the tiltyard. Both courts came together in one place and the choirs of the Chapels Royal of England and France took turns to sing.

Presiding over the Mass was Cardinal Wolsey, the most senior churchman in attendance. He wore vestments made from cloth of gold that had been borrowed from Westminster Abbey for the occasion.

Image: Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. © Christ Church Picture Gallery

The Field of the Cloth of Gold depicting the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I in 1520.

The dragon

As the Mass drew to a close the assembled crowd marvelled at a dragon flying through the sky from Ardres to Guînes. Created by the English, the dragon combined François’ salamander emblem with Henry’s Welsh Tudor dragon in a tribute to the new friendship between the two sides.

This ‘dragon’ was a kite made by the English from canvas stretched around wooden hoops. It was pulled across the sky at the end of a long rope tethered to a carriage. Eyewitnesses reported that the dragon’s eyes blazed and its mouth hissed which suggests that it might have been filled with fireworks.

Image: Crop of The Field of the Cloth of Gold, c.1545. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Gold and enamel box with putti decoration

Parting gifts

The Field of Cloth of Gold ended on Sunday 24 June with another round of elaborate banquets. Henry and François exchanged expensive gifts of exquisite goldsmiths’ work and fine horses and parted on good terms.

Image: Enamel and gilt-copper casket, possibly a jewel box, mid-16th century. By tradition this gold and enamel box was a gift from Francis I to Cardinal Wolsey. It then passed to Henry VIII and from him to Anne Boleyn. © Fondation Gandur pour l’Art, Genève / Thierry Ollivier

The aftermath

On that Sunday in June 1520, it seemed that the Field of Cloth of Gold was a success. Serious diplomatic incidents had been avoided, weather aside the event had run smoothly, and both kings had ably demonstrated their power and magnificence. It looked like peace in Europe would prevail.

But the cracks in the friendship between England and France soon started to appear.

Portrait of Francois I

End of Universal Peace

Ultimately, the treaty of Universal Peace could not last. Two weeks after the Field of Cloth of Gold, Wolsey arranged another meeting between Henry and Emperor Charles V, hoping to secure a new alliance between England, France and the Holy Roman Empire.

However, both Charles and François were suspicious of Wolsey's motives and the alliance did not come about.

By the middle of 1521 François and the Emperor were back at war after Charles attacked French territory. England was drawn into the conflict and peace in Europe was shattered.

Image: Francois I​. © Bridgeman Images

Painting depicting the Battle of Pavia c. 1530

England and France at war

In 1522 English soldiers sacked the countryside around the French town of Boulogne and in 1525 François himself was taken prisoner by Italian troops following the French defeat at the Battle of Pavia.

The rapid failure of the peace treaty and the sheer expense and extravagance of the Field of Cloth of Gold has meant it has been criticised by some as a royal vanity project and folly.

Image: The Battle of Pavia c.1530. Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019.

Wolsey falls from power

Even the architect of the Field of Cloth of Gold did not last the decade. In the late 1520s, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey slipped from royal favour and from power.

His inability to secure Henry's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, who still had not given birth to a son, and facilitate his marriage to Anne Boleyn sealed his fate.

The list of charges against Wolsey that was drawn up by his enemies at the end of his life included criticism of the extraordinary amount of money he had spent on Henry’s meeting with François.

The King's wrath

Wolsey would die of natural causes before Henry could formally punish him, but the King did take Hampton Court Palace before he died.

King Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger, oil on copper, probably 17th century, based on a work of 1536. Purchased, 1863, National Portrait Gallery, NPG 157.

Reflecting on past glories

Despite the controversy, Henry VIII never forgot his moment of glory at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Throughout the 1530s and 1540s he tried in vain to recapture the triumphs of his youth.

Henry and François met again in Calais in 1532, but the event was more muted and had none of the spectacle and pageantry of 1520. Again, the friendship between the two kings did not last.

In 1544, an aging and infirm Henry pulled on a suit of armour for the last time and laid siege to the French town of Boulogne hoping to prove that he was still the same virile military commander who had routed the French at the Battle of the Spurs three decades earlier.

Image: King Henry VIII, after Hans Holbein the Younger, based on a work of 1536. © National Portrait Gallery

At about the same time, Henry commissioned a painting of the events at the Field of Cloth of Gold that had been such a defining moment in his life.

The painting shows Henry as a young King in his finery, the model of a great Renaissance prince, and captures scenes of jousting and feasting at which he had once excelled.



The Field of the Cloth of Gold depicting the meeting between Henry VIII and Francis I in 1520. INTERACTIVE

INTERACTIVE

Explore the Field of Cloth of Gold

Image: The Field of the Cloth of Gold c. 1545. © Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Below: Henry VIII by an unknown artist, based on a work of c.1542. © National Portrait Gallery, London

Image: The Field of the Cloth of Gold c. 1545. © Royal Collection Trust / Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Guînes Castle

Despite bringing so many tents, and constructing a magnificent temporary palace, Henry VIII slept in the relative comfort and security of nearby Guînes Castle. In 1520 Guînes was within an area of English owned territory around Calais.


The Dragon

A giant dragon flew through the sky at the Field of Cloth of Gold, adding to the spectacular occasion. The dragon was in fact a kite filled with fireworks that was attached by a long rope to a wagon that was driven between Ardres and Guînes.


François I’s tent

François I demonstrated his magnificence by building a 120ft tall tent covered in cloth of gold and topped with a 6ft tall gilded statue of St Michael.

The creator of The Field of the Cloth of Gold painting used it as the model for the golden tent in which the two kings are shown meeting, but in fact François' giant tent had blown over in bad weather before the meeting took place.


Henry VIII meeting François I

Detail of Henry VIII stained glass from the west window in The Great Hall

Henry VIII and François I met for the first time on 07 June 1520 in a golden tent. The tent was pitched in a shallow valley called the Val d’Or (Golden Valley) halfway between their two camps.

The English and French retinues stood and watched the momentous occasion from either side of the valley.

Image: depiction of Henry VIII in a stained glass window in the Great Watching Chamber at Hampton Court Palace.


Jousting

Jousting was the most prestigious tournament event, and was one of Henry VIII's favourite sports.

At the Field of Cloth of Gold Henry and François jousted on the same team so that they did not have to face each other. Jousting could be dangerous and François left the arena with a bloodied nose.

Image: jousters compete on a tiltyard at Hampton Court Palace.


The Tree of Honour

On the edge of the tiltyard (tournament arena) stood an artificial tree with leaves and branches made from silk and cloth of gold. Hanging from the tree were three shields, each representing one of the three tournament sports; jousting, combat on horseback, and foot combat.

To participate in one of these events each knight had to touch the shield of his choosing.


Queens and kings

The English Queen Katherine of Aragon and the French Queen Claude of France played an important role in the diplomacy and the entertainments at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Katherine and Claude, who was heavily pregnant during the event, hosted banquets and masques and handed out prizes to knights who had distinguished themselves in the tournament. Katherine entertained Francois in the English camp while Claude hosted Henry in the French camp.


Bread ovens and kitchens

Feeding over 12,000 people who attended the Field of Cloth of Gold was no mean feat. It lasted for 18 days and supplies had to be shipped in from all over England and France.

The English provisions included more than 2,000 sheep, 98,000 eggs, 13 swans, and three porpoises.

Image: Tudor cooks prepare a feast for the King in Henry VIII's Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.


Wine fountain

The English, and no doubt the French, brought huge quantities of wine and beer to Guînes in 1520.

Accounts suggest that the English took the equivalent of 266,000 bottles of wine and 132,000 bottles of beer. The English built fountains that ran with wine and beer.

Image: a replica of the wine fountain at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, in Base Court at Hampton Court Palace.


The temporary palace

The Great Gatehouse, showing the 16th century terracotta roundel Tiberius after treatment by Graciela Ainsworth Sculpture Conservation, October 2011. All sections (2).

The Tiberius bust is one of a series of terracotta roundels each representing the bust of a Roman emperor. Attributed to Giovanni da Maiano (c1486-1542) and commissioned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (c1475-1530) in the late 1510s.

Henry VIII's greatest piece of showmanship was a huge temporary palace, built from timber and canvas that was painted to look like masonry and tiles. Each side of the building was 100m long. In the middle was a large courtyard and to the rear there was a chapel.

The palace was decorated with terracotta roundels like those still visible at Hampton Court Palace (pictured) and all the windows were glazed. There was so much glass that the French called this the Crystal Palace.

Image: A 16th-century terracotta roundel on The Great Gatehouse at Hampton Court Palace, depicting the Roman emperor Tiberius. The Tiberius bust is one of a series of terracotta roundels each representing the bust of a Roman emperor. They were commissioned by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in the late 1510s.


Procession

Henry VIII processed to meet François I accompanied by a huge entourage. Like the French, the English wore their best clothes – including huge quantities of cloth of silver and gold. This helped to give the Field of Cloth of Gold its famous name.


Cardinal Thomas Wolsey

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was the mastermind behind the Field of Cloth of Gold and would have been easy to spot in his crimson robes.

Although he later fell from favour, in 1520 Wolsey was Henry VIII’s most trusted and able servant.


Henry VIII in procession

Henry VIII loved pageantry and wanted to be the most magnificent prince in Europe. On the first day of the Field of Cloth of Gold, Henry wore a doublet and mantel of cloth of silver, with a real gold belt – even his horse was decorated with real gold bells.




A portrait of Henry VIII, richly dressed and bejewelled by an unknown artist.

Where be all those pleasures now? They were but shadows, and like shadows they be past, like shadows they be fled away, like shadows they be now vanished from us.

John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, commenting on the short-lived luxury of the Field of Cloth of Gold

Visitors explore Henry VIII's Kitchens after re-interpretation in 2018.
Things to see

Transport yourself back to the heyday of Tudor feasting and entertainment in Henry VIII's Kitchens at Hampton Court Palace.

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Hampton Court Palace

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The Tudor Great Hall at Hampton Court Palace, showing the Abraham Tapestries and the room set out for day visitors.
Things to see

Experience the splendour of the Tudor court in Henry VIII's Great Hall, complete with his magnificent tapestries.

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Hampton Court Palace

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Deaf visitor watching Council Chamber films with transcript
Things to see

Experience history in the making in one of the most private spaces in the Tudor palace of Hampton Court.

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Hampton Court Palace

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Tudor Rose Cushion - Perfect for a history lover, this Tudor rose cushion symbolises the joining of two rival houses, York and Lancaster.

Tudor Rose cushion

Perfect for a history lover, this Tudor rose cushion symbolises the joining of two rival houses, York and Lancaster.

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Anne Boleyn 'B' initial necklace mug

Anne Boleyn 'B' initial necklace mug

Anne Boleyn's 'B' initial necklace is arguably one of the most famous pieces of Tudor jewellery and is visible in many Anne Boleyn portraits. This exquisite stoneware mug features a unique interpretation of Anne Boleyn's 'B' initial pendant on a dramatic black glaze.

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Anne Boleyn initial hanging decoration

Anne Boleyn initial hanging decoration

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