Field of Cloth of Gold Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Field of Cloth of Gold was a high point in the history of chivalry and the colorful pageantry of the Renaissance. It proved to be a failure, however, as an effort to achieve peace between England and France.

Summary of Event

The Field of Cloth of Gold is the popular name for the meeting, in June of 1520, between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. The idea of this meeting had been discussed since the Anglo-French treaty of 1514, and it reemerged during the negotiations for the Treaty of London London, Treaty of (1518) in 1518 (a treaty confirmed by Pope Leo X and ratified by Spain and Venice). Planning for the historic meeting had begun in 1519, and by January, 1520, both Henry and Francis had charged Cardinal Thomas Wolsey with making preparations for it. Field of Cloth of Gold (1520) Henry VIII Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas Francis I (1494-1547) Charles V (1500-1558) Margaret of Austria More, Sir Thomas Rastell, John Erasmus, Desiderius Budé, Guillaume Henry VIII (king of England) Francis I (king of France) Wolsey, Cardinal Thomas Belknap, Sir Edward Vaux, Sir Nicholas Barclay, Alexander Rastell, John Mouton, Jean Charles V (Holy Roman Emperor) Margaret of Austria More, Sir Thomas Budé, Guillaume Erasmus, Desiderius

Wolsey drew on the best talent and experience in England for the planning and execution of the pageant. By January, 1520, however, the cardinal was confronting serious problems of protocol and logistics, and the erection of the great hall at Guisnes (near Calais) was entrusted to Sir Edward Belknap and Sir Nicholas Vaux. In the spring of 1520, three thousand workmen spent four months constructing the buildings to house the meeting, and some of the finest Tudor master craftspeople and makers of pageants were engaged.

On April 10, Vaux wrote to Wolsey, begging the cardinal to send Alexander Barclay, the Benedictine poet and translator of Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde, 1509, better known as The Ship of Fools), “to devise histories for the banquet house and other buildings.” The many-talented John Rastell—lawyer, playwright, printer, and celebrated deviser of pageants—was called on to design, make, and garnish the roofs of the banquet hall. He succeeded so brilliantly that Edward Hall, the Tudor chronicler, exclaimed especially over the splendors of the roofs and declared that they “were covered with cloth of silke, of the most faire and quicke invention that before that time was seen.”

Wolsey’s organizational skills were challenged by the sheer scope of the event he had planned. He gathered hundreds of tents and pavilions and tons of plate, cutlery, and glass. Six thousand masons, carpenters, and other builders set to work to render Guisnes Castle suitably magnificent. A contemporary painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold (attributed to Vincenzo Volpe and now in Hampton Court Palace) details the sweep of the tents in the camp located between Guisnes and Ardres, in northwestern France. The foreground depicts one of the elaborate buildings (a replica of an idealized Tudor palace) constructed for the occasion. This single temporary palace built for Henry covered an area of nearly 12,000 square yards (10,034 square meters), and it was decorated sumptuously. Beyond the temporary palace and chapel were fields in which twenty-eight hundred tents were erected for less distinguished visitors. Francis spent an immense sum on the field, and Henry’s expenditures were even greater, for Francis was content to stay in a lavish series of tents or pavilions, while Henry had created more expensive trompe l’oeil constructions of wood and plaster, painted to look like brick.

The two monarchs and their retinues met on June 5 and continued to meet until June 24, spending the days in jousting and tilting and much feasting. The level of consumption of the monarchs and their courts was almost beyond description. In less than one month’s time, the English alone consumed two thousand sheep and all kinds of other provisions: hundreds of barrels of wine and beer, rabbits, storks, eels, quails, and cheese, together with sufficient fuel for the kitchens. When tilting was not possible because of high winds, there was wrestling and dancing, activities in which Henry took the greatest pleasure—until Francis threw him at wrestling.

On the penultimate day of the pageant, Saturday, June 23, an open-air altar was erected, and Wolsey sang a Solemn High Mass before the two kings and numerous ambassadors. The cardinal then delivered a sermon on peace. On the final day, June 24, there was one final banquet and the exchanging of expensive gifts and elaborate farewells.

It is likely that the well-known chapel-master for France’s Queen Anne of Brittany, Jean Mouton, was involved in the French preparations for the field. Mouton was a celebrated composer of motets as well as masses and was in the service of Francis. He was also a favorite composer of Leo X, and he added much to the French presentations in the rivaling of chapels at elaborate services. One of his English counterparts was William Cornysh, master of the children of the Chapel Royal, whose play describing the negotiations of Henry and Charles V following the field was performed at court in 1522.

Days before the Field of Cloth of Gold, Henry had met with the Emperor Charles V, and the two had decided to meet again immediately following the field. They rendezvoused at Gravelines (a seaport town near Dunkerque) for two days. Charles V and his aunt, Margaret of Austria, made a return visit to Calais, where a splendid banqueting hall within the palace had been specially constructed, although it was damaged by wind. The emperor left on July 14, and Henry returned to England without further delay. To meet first with Francis and then Charles was not thought contrary to the spirit of the treaty of 1518, and it may well be seen as embodying Wolsey’s (and Henry’) intentions to carry further the spirit of that treaty. The French, however, were suspicious.

The reaction of contemporary Humanists to the meeting at the Field of Cloth of Gold was mixed. Some praised the very idea of a meeting of the two monarchs; others expressed their doubts and reservations because of the extravagance involved. Whatever their specific judgment, though, there is no doubt that the event made a significant impression upon observers of the time. Several prominent intellectuals attended the field, including Englishmen Sir Thomas More and John Rastell and celebrated French Humanist Guillaume Budé. At the field, Budé and More, who had been corresponding since 1518, were finally able to meet in person. Afterward Budé traveled with the French court to Amboise and Blois; More went with Henry to meet Charles V at Calais. There More met with Desiderius Erasmus, although somewhat briefly, owing to the attendance required of each Humanist. Saint John Fisher, the bishop of Rochester, preached against the excessive costs of the Field of Cloth of Gold, as he had preached to censure the clergy at the legatine synod of 1517 for greed, desire for gain, and love of display.

“It is easy to dismiss the Field of Cloth of Gold as vain posturing, as a huge, expensive game, as a Renaissance folly,” twentieth century historian J. J. Scarisbrick has written. It was all that: fiercely and proudly extravagant, and in the end productive of little that was to prove permanent, but it was more than a folly. For Wolsey, it was part of a brilliant and seemingly flawlessly executed program to put England on the path of peace with France, but within two years the two were at war again.

Significance

The Field of Cloth of Gold was spectacular Renaissance pageantry; it celebrated chivalry and the apparent achievement of peace through the personal agreement of two great princes. Whether the planning of the field is attributed solely to Wolsey or credit is given largely to Henry’s self-portrayal as the peacemaker of the period, an effort was made during the month of the Field of Cloth of Gold to strengthen and cement the 1518 Treaty of London. In the long run, Henry’s confidence in Wolsey was shaken, England’s role as the mediator of Europe was tried to the breaking point, and the ancient enmity between France and England proved too deep and too strong to be patched over by a glittering show.

The field was in part a staggeringly expensive game, and the stakes for all the principals were high. None of the principals, neither Wolsey, Henry, Francis, Charles, nor the Pope, can be said to have won. The year 1520 was also the year of the excommunication of a then-obscure Augustinian priest in Germany named Martin Luther, who would shortly take his place on the stage of the Reformation. In retrospect, the field was viewed by most as a vain posturing.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Anglo, Sidney. Spectacle, Pageantry, and Early Tudor Policy. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Admirable scholarly study by the renowned authority on Renaissance pageants.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bamforth, Stephen. “Un Poème de Sylvius sur l’entrevue du Camp du Drap d’Or.” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 52 (1990): 635-641. A scholarly analysis of a poem viewing the field from a French perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bietenholz, P. G., et al. Contemporaries of Erasmus. 3 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1985-1987. Provides biographies of leading figures in the Renaissance and Reformation. Published to accompany, and help explain the context of, a 1974 edition of the works of Erasmus. Includes illustrations and bibliographies.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Richardson, Glenn. “Field of the Cloth of Gold.” In Tudor England, edited by Arthur Kinney and D. W. Swain. New York: Garland, 2001. Brief but informative essay in an encyclopedia of Tudor England.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Jocelyn G. The Field of Cloth of Gold. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1969. Still the best monograph on the field.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scarisbrick, J. J. Henry VIII. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968. Recommended for its judicious dealing with highly controversial problems of Henry VIII, the field among them.

Aug. 29, 1475: Peace of Picquigny

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

1494: Sebastian Brant Publishes The Ship of Fools

1515-1529: Wolsey Serves as Lord Chancellor and Cardinal

Dec. 18, 1534: Act of Supremacy

1544-1628: Anglo-French Wars

Jan. 1-8, 1558: France Regains Calais from England

Jan. 20, 1564: Peace of Troyes

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