Saturday, 6 June 2015

Henry VIII and his infamous Festival of the Cloth of Gold Meeting in 1520

King Henry VIII’s ego is rather large even when he is a young King so much so that when he comes up against the proud King of France, Francis I during the magnificent Festival of Cloth it is inevitable that tensions will mount. What no one can predict is how far they will go to prove who is greater.

To understand the reasons for the clash it is important to understand their characters. Both want to make a favourable impression on their own nation and hence their prestige. For instance we know that Francis I is the first French king to insist on being called ‘Your Majesty’. To this end each becomes a patron of the burgeoning Renaissance movement and Francis in particular is famous for building a large art collection we can now see in the Louvre collection and for using his influence to persuade Leonardo da Vinci to live in France. At the same time they both want to be seen as heroic fighters and in Henry’s case he wants to be thought of as a ‘Medieval Warrior King’ in the same mould as legendary Henry V. It is for these reasons that a clash becomes inevitable. 

The origins of their enmity toward one another begin with the 1518 treaty between England and France. Following this agreement both Kings decide that a special festival will be a good way to tighten their diplomatic ties still further whilst also being an excuse to flaunt their renaissance style.

A meeting place is arranged at the very edge of Calais. The site is carefully chosen as England still has a claim to France and holds land near to Calais.  At the same time to sooth both Kings’ egos everything is arranged to provide equality between the two sides. For instance the valley where the first meeting takes place is also carefully chosen and landscaped to provide areas of equal elevation for the two national parties. Such a grand event takes meticulous planning so it is only to be expected that it is planned and executed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s leading advisor.

Whilst talking of equality in practice right from the start both Kings seek to out do the other with incredible displays of ostentatiousness that have never been seen before. King Henry pitches his marque using an elaborate cloth of gold. Built beside the Guides castle for the English this temporary palace covers an area of nearly 10,000 square meters for the reception of the English king. The palace itself is in four blocks with a central courtyard; each side is about 300 feet long. The only solid part is the brick base about 8 feet high. Above the brickwork, stand the 30-foot high walls made of cloth or canvas on timber frames that are painted to look like stone or brick. The slanting roof itself are made of oiled cloth painted to give the colour of lead and the illusion of slates. Contemporaries comment especially on the huge expanse of glass, which makes visitors feel they are in the open air. It is decorated in the most sumptuous fashion and is furnished with a profusion of golden ornaments. Red wine flows from the two fountains outside. Pavilions are set up made with cloth of gold (real filaments of gold sewn with silk to make the fabric) The chapel alone is served by 35 priests. As if that is not enough Henry VIII has 500 horsemen and 3,000 foot soldiers accompany him into the valley of the Golden Dale. Not to be outdone France’s King, Francis I uses a similar number for himself.

Some idea of the size of Henry's following may be gathered from the fact that in one month 2200 sheep and other viands (exquisite dishes) in a similar proportion are consumed. In the fields beyond the castle another 2800 tents are also erected for less distinguished visitors and the whole panorama is littered with conspicuous wealth. Ladies and knights try to demonstrate their bearing through the use of their ornate dress and revive the mythological age of chivalry.

King Henry arrives at his headquarters at Guînes with his wife Catherine of Aragon on 4 June 1520 whilst his counterpart Francis take up his residence at Ardres. Cardinal Wolsey then visits the French king using his own long train to arrange a meeting between the two monarchs at the Val d'Or, a spot midway between the two places on the 7th.

Their first meeting is a portent of things to come. When the two Kings meet declarations are made by the heralds and officers-of-arms of both parties. Each one declares that the 7,000 soldiers should stand absolutely still on either side of the valley. The matter is treated so serious that the soldiers are ordered to stand completely still whilst the two kings ride down the valley or they will suffer the pain of death.

When finally they reach the bottom of the valley they embrace each other in great friendship and then, dismounting, embrace each other again, taking off their hats. Henry’s sword is held, unsheathed, by the Marquess of Dorset whilst the Duc de Bourbon retains the French king’s sword.

After this remarkable meeting a series of tournaments and banquets take place soon after. Incredibly both kings take part in the tournaments themselves. Whilst at the banquets the kings entertain each other's queens. For instance when Francis I finishes his dinner he spends some time dancing in the banqueting hall. Before he starts to dance, the French king goes from one end of the room to the other, carrying his hat in his hand and kissing all the ladies on both sides – except for four or five who are too old and ugly. He then returns to the Queen and speaks with her for a while before spending the rest of the day dancing.

At the same time there are many other entertainments included archery displays and wrestling between French Breton and English wrestlers. All the time the Kings seek every opportunity to show off. A classic example takes place on Saturday 17 June when both kings enter the field. King Henry’s armour-skirt and horse-trapper are decorated with an incredible 2,000 ounces of gold and 1,100 huge pearls.

Not to be out done the French king seeks to display his chivalrous might and battles with Earl of Devonshire in a tournament joust. They both charge at each other. The Earl himself is particularly well adorned. He appears that day wearing cloth of gold, tissue-cloth and cloth of silver, all elaborately embroidered, with his retinue wearing the exact same uniform. Neither is keen to act cowardly and so they race head on and when they meet they strike so aggressively their lances break. In all they charge each other eight times, during which the French king breaks three lances while the earl breaks two lances and the French king’s nose.

The climax comes when Henry asks for a wrestling session after he has  entered the French Kings tent. To refuse this offer will appear weak and yet the French King knows in a contest of strength he stands little chance against the 6 foot 3 inch tall Henry. Rather than fight Henry on his own terms Philip decides it will be best to surprise him with sly tactics. When Henry VIII pushes with all his considerable might, Francis unexpectedly gives way making Henry lose some of his balance. He then follows this up with a sneeky leg trip manoeuvre that topples Henry and results in Francis victory. According to one French account following Henry’s loss the mood sours and soon after the event finishes. 

So what became of this meeting from June 7th to June 24th, 1520. Well for all its flaunting very little. It nearly bankrupts the treasuries of both France and England and yet no treaties are signed. Indeed only a few weeks later Henry signs a treaty of alliance with the French King’s rival, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and just two years later England is back at war with France. The event is however notable for one particular event that is to have seismic impact on the English nation for it is at this the venue that King Henry VIII meets Anne Boleyn, his future wife and the immediate cause of the religious upheaval known as the Reformation.

Sadly for the Tudors and fortunately for us history fans Henry VIII is not the only vain Tudor. His daughter Elizabeth I is even worse and if you want to find out more about her then check out my History Book and also read more about him at 

How Henry VIII Helped the Astronauts Land on the Moon, in 1969