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Participants in the Field of Cloth of Gold (act. 1520) were the men and women who attended one of the most spectacular set-piece diplomatic events of the early sixteenth century, the meeting between Henry VIII, king of England, and François I, king of France, near Ballingham, between the English-held town of Guînes, a few miles south of Calais, and the French town of Ardres in Picardy. From 7 to 24 June 1520 the kings and their entourages indulged in cultural exchange and rivalry through a series of tournaments, jousts, banquets, and plays, while their ministers attempted to negotiate a strategy to contain the ambitions of the new Habsburg Holy Roman emperor, Charles V.

The diplomatic background

Western European politics in the first half of the sixteenth century were dominated by the ambitions and rivalries of three men—Henry VIII, François I, and Charles V. Of these Henry VIII presided over a kingdom that was the smallest in terms of population and military resources, yet provided a crucial balance between Valois France and the Habsburg territories. Following Charles's election as Holy Roman emperor on 28 June 1519 Henry and François revived the idea, first mooted three years earlier, of a personal meeting between the two monarchs, and in August Henry even promised not to shave his beard until the two kings had met (his vow later backfired when a Frenchman observed him clean-shaven, infuriating François's formidable mother, Louise of Savoy). The proposed meeting was not widely popular in England. Henry's wife, Katherine of Aragon, who was also the emperor's aunt, much of the nobility, and public opinion were opposed to a project that, however, had the strong support of the king's chancellor and chief minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Planning had in fact begun in February 1519, in the hands of successive English ambassadors to Paris, Sir Thomas Boleyn and Sir Richard Wingfield. The imperial election brought urgency, and on 12 March 1520 Wolsey was able to produce a treaty detailing the exact terms of the two kings' rendezvous. Charles V, in Spain preparing to travel to Aachen for his coronation as king of the Romans, was understandably alarmed at the news and decided to pay Henry an impromptu visit himself. On 26 May he landed in Dover, and he and Henry met briefly in Canterbury, swearing an oath of mutual assistance in the cathedral. François in turn warned Henry of Charles's duplicity, and Wolsey had to work hard to repair the damage done by the emperor's unlooked-for visit. But both kings were now committed to the idea of a summit, and they soon began their journeys towards Calais. The English contingent crossed from Dover on 31 May, in ships organized by the vice-admiral, Sir William Fitzwilliam; their rigging was supplied by the naval administrator John Hopton. Shipping was also supplied by the Cinque Ports, under the direction of the deputy warden, Sir Edward Poynings.

The preparations

The first problem needing to be solved in advance of the meeting was the choice of a suitable venue. Wolsey proposed a site midway between Guînes and Ardres, and François graciously agreed to the meeting taking place on English soil. The English commissioner, Charles Somerset, earl of Worcester, who was already acting as intermediary between the two courts and was largely responsible for on-the-spot organization, and his counterpart Gaspard de Coligny, marshal of France, chose a valley called the Val Doré near the village of Ballingham; a mound was constructed on each side upon which the respective entourages were to assemble. Both kings drew up lists of their entourages, comprising their households, the nobility and their servants, which eventually numbered over 6000 people on each side. Special care was made to ensure that the most beautiful women of both courts were present. Sir Richard Wingfield assured François that Henry would not feel ‘encumbered or find fault with an over great press of ladies’ (LP Henry VIII, 3/1, no. 806). A joint Anglo-French watch was organized and proclamation was made to the effect that vagabonds were to vacate the meeting area on pain of death. No soldiers, except for the garrisons of Calais and Boulogne, were to come within two days' march of the site.

Most of the English party were to be lodged in and around the town of Guînes—accommodation was arranged by Sir Christopher Garneys, chief porter of Calais. Under the direction of Sir Nicholas Vaux, a huge temporary palace of brick, glass, and wood painted to resemble brick, decorated with classical motifs, was built outside Guînes Castle. The king's painter John Brown provided decorations, mottoes to embellish the buildings were written by the poet Alexander Barclay, and the printer John Rastell worked to beautify the roof. Meanwhile François constructed a temporary town of tents and pavilions outside Ardres. The centrepiece of the forthcoming meeting was to be a tournament, again to take place on English soil. A ‘tree of honour’, an artificial elm-like tree entwined with a hawthorn bush representing England and a raspberry bush representing France, took centre stage. Sir Edward Guildford supervised the purchase of arms and armour in the Low Countries, while forges were built at Calais and Guînes. There was some worry over victuals, but François assured the English that Henry's subjects might buy all they needed from the French at nearby Merguyson and in the event food and drink were plentiful enough. Indeed, during the month of their stay in and around Calais and Guînes the English consumed over 2200 sheep and other livestock. Gold and silver plate for banquets was brought over by Sir Henry Wyatt [see under Wyatt, Sir Thomas].

The attendance

It has been estimated that some 6000 men and women accompanied King Henry and Queen Katherine to France in 1520, summoned from all over England. Some were present in an ex officio capacity, for instance Sir Ralph Egerton, the king's standard-bearer, Sir Henry Guildford, the master of the horse, Thomas More, who had the keeping of the king's signet, and Thomas Wriothesley, Garter king of arms. Others were the king's constant companions, personal friends who were often members of his privy chamber. Henry's brother-in-law Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, was foremost among these mostly young men, courtiers who regularly joined the king in jousts and masques. But although they shared the king's pleasures, they were not therefore lacking in ability. Some had first-hand experience of France—Nicholas Carew and Francis Bryan had recently been on embassy there (and made something of an exhibition of themselves). Sir William Parr was a successful soldier, John Russell a long-serving diplomat (later first earl of Bedford, he was also able to accumulate an impressive estate), while Thomas Manners, eleventh Baron Ros, was rewarded for his activity in several branches of government by being made first earl of Rutland. Several of the men in Henry's entourage had military experience. Sir William Skeffington was master of the ordnance. Sir William Sandys, a close friend of Henry VIII despite the difference in their ages, served in France in 1513 and 1514 and then became treasurer of Calais, in that capacity helping to organize the festivities of 1520. Walter Devereux, third Baron Ferrers, fought in France in 1512 and at Flodden a year later.

The English contingent was predominantly male. The entourage of Queen Katherine—who seems to have been outshone by her sister-in-law Mary, widow of Louis XII of France and now duchess of Suffolk—included a considerable number of men, for instance Sir Robert Poyntz, the elderly chancellor of her household, and the pious and cultivated Henry Parker, tenth Baron Morley. She was also attended by three bishops, John Fisher, bishop of Rochester, Charles Booth, bishop of Hereford, and George D'Athequa, the Spanish-born bishop of Llandaff. But her retinue also contained numerous female attendants. One of them, Maria Willoughby (née de Salinas), had probably come to England with Katherine in 1501, but most were English noble and gentlewomen, like Gertrude Courtenay, countess of Devon, Elizabeth Grey, later Elizabeth Fitzgerald, daughter of the marquess of Dorset, and, probably, Mary Carey, later Mary Stafford, who soon afterwards moved from the queen's household to the king's bed.

Unsurprisingly, given the ostensible purpose of the meeting, the English diplomatic corps was well represented, comprising both laymen and clerics. The former included such men as Sir Thomas Cheyne, who had served on embassies in France and Italy, and Sir Robert Wingfield, a long-serving ambassador to the imperial court; the latter was attended by Elis Gruffudd, a member of the Calais garrison who later wrote a detailed account of the Field of Cloth of Gold. But ecclesiastics predominated. Prominent among them was Nicholas West, bishop of Ely, an experienced diplomat who had first served as an ambassador in 1502 and had been in France in 1517–18; his associates in 1520 included John Kite, who had gone on embassy to Spain, John Clerk, who had served in Italy, and William Knight, whose experience lay in the Low Countries—all three were, or became, bishops. (Their French counterparts included Giovanni Gioacchino di Passano and Louis de Perreau, both of whom later served as ambassadors to England.) Of course not every churchman who attended was summoned for his diplomatic expertise. Several were present because they were royal chaplains, for instance Edward Lee, later archbishop of York, and John Stokesley, a future bishop of London. John Longland, a canon of St George's, Windsor, may have been there because he was a notably eloquent preacher.

As well as courtiers, officials, and clerics, a large number of Englishmen attended simply because they had been summoned by a king who wanted to impress the French with the number and wealth of the subjects who followed him on such an occasion. It was the finery in which they appeared that gave the meeting its name—even the king's chaplain James Denton attended ‘clothed in damask and satin’. Many who attended were knights or esquires of the body, men who came occasionally to court but whose principal function was to act as the king's retainers and to represent his interests in the shires—men like the Yorkshireman Sir Richard Tempest [see under Tempest family], the Norfolk landowner Sir William Paston, and the Cornish soldier Sir Peter Edgcumbe [see under Edgcumbe, Sir Richard]. Others were simply men of standing and power, either nationally or locally. Edward Stafford, third duke of Buckingham (who grumbled at the expense), and Henry Algernon Percy, fifth earl of Northumberland, were two of the greatest men in England under the king. Gerald Fitzgerald, ninth earl of Kildare, was of comparable stature in Ireland. All three sometimes came to court, whereas the spendthrift Richard Grey, third earl of Kent, seldom did so, but still felt obliged to attend his king on this occasion. Many lesser men did the same, for instance the Oxfordshire landowner Sir Adrian Fortescue (one of the knights in attendance on the queen) and the Staffordshire squire Sir Lewis Bagot [see under Bagot family].

The meeting

Following his arrival at Calais, under the terms of the treaty Henry should have progressed immediately to Guînes, but he wrote to François explaining that the ladies of the court were tired after the channel crossing and that the royal party would remain in Calais for a further four days. To ease François's worries Wolsey travelled himself to Ardres, accompanied by 100 gentlemen and riding on a mule. The subject of their discussions is unknown, but Charles, at this point, was only 60 miles away in Flanders, and Wolsey may have suggested that the emperor be invited to the summit. On 7 June a crisis occurred when Henry (who had moved on to Guînes two days earlier) learned that, contrary to the terms of their agreement, François had stationed 3000–4000 troops near the meeting place. Henry threatened to leave, whereupon François immediately agreed to withdraw his troops.

The meeting of the two kings later that day is recorded in detail by several contemporary sources. At 5 p.m. guns were simultaneously fired from the castles of Guînes and Ardres, at which point the two kings with their entourages moved out to the Val Doré, a mile south of Guînes. Both parties were sumptuously clothed, and though the French had more horses and were more elegantly dressed, the heavy gold chains of the English prompted much comment. The two camps assembled on their respective mounds on either side of the valley and a fanfare of trumpets, sackbuts, and other instruments rang out. Then silence fell as the two kings descended into the valley. Suddenly, they spurred their mounts and began to charge towards each other; as they approached they leapt to the ground and embraced. Arm in arm, they retired to a specially erected tent, accompanied only by Wolsey and Guillaume Gouffier, seigneur de Bonnivet, while Thomas Grey, second marquess of Dorset (who carried the sword of state), and Charles, duc de Bourbon, stood guard outside. An hour later they emerged and began to introduce their nobles to one another. Wine and spice cakes were shared and, as darkness fell, the two sides retired to their lodgings.

On 9 June the jousts began. The royal shields were carefully hung side by side, at the same height, on the tree of honour. On this and other days Henry was himself an enthusiastic participant, at the head of a team that included Suffolk, Dorset, Carew, and seasoned courtiers like Sir Richard Jerningham and Sir William Kingston. On the 10th Henry dined with Queen Claude at Ardres, while François was entertained at Guînes by Queen Katherine. On 11 June further feats of arms were performed, during which one Italian observer was alarmed at the capacity of the ladies of the English court to consume large quantities of wine, drinking directly from the flask in a most uncouth manner. Contemporary accounts differ on the quality and outcome of the displays of arms at the tournament. But despite the personal involvement of the two kings, praise was heaped above all on the lavish costumes worn by those taking part. The weather frequently interrupted the jousts, and wrestling matches between the English and some Bretons were arranged. Both kings took an interest and, according to one French observer, Robert de la Marck, seigneur de Florange, Henry at one point grabbed François by the arm saying ‘Brother, let us wrestle’. The younger François was, however, too quick for Henry, hooking his leg behind that of the English king and throwing him to the ground. Henry rose to his feet, flushed and angry, and only a timely call for dinner prevented an awkward situation from developing. Florange claimed that the two kings' later animosity sprang from the incident, but the tale is almost certainly apocryphal.

In any case the affinity between the two young monarchs appeared genuine enough. On 17 June François surprised Henry by arriving unannounced at Guînes and presenting himself as Henry's prisoner. This gesture of trust greatly impressed the English and two days later Henry reciprocated by turning up in similar fashion at Ardres. On 23 June Wolsey celebrated mass in great pomp on the tournament field, with music provided by both English and French choirs. The English musicians were the boys and gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, led by the composer William Cornysh. The chapel choir of Wolsey's own household must also have been present, under its own master, Richard Pygott. During the service ‘a great artificial salamander or dragon, four fathoms long and full of fire appeared in the air from Ardres’ (CSP Venice, 1520–26, no. 50). This was probably a kite pulling some ingenious fireworks, but it certainly alarmed many observers. Once the mass was concluded, Richard Pace, Henry's principal secretary and also a leading diplomat, preached on the blessings of peace, before Wolsey granted a plenary indulgence and bestowed the pope's blessing on the two kings. The next day, the final day of the meeting, the two queens gave rings as prizes for the jousts to each other's husbands, before the two kings bade farewell (with tears in their eyes, according to the account given to foreign ambassadors by Louise of Savoy). Henry and François also promised to build a palace in the Val Doré for future meetings at joint expense, as well as a chapel dedicated to Our Lady of Friendship.

Neither plan saw fruition. These fine words counted for nothing amid the realities of Renaissance politics. Soon afterwards Wolsey met Charles's ambassadors at Calais and the emperor himself at Bruges and negotiated an Anglo-imperial treaty in August 1521. Charles travelled to Italy to be crowned emperor, and François, afraid that this marked a reassertion of Habsburg claims to the duchy of Milan, attacked in Luxembourg and Navarre. On 29 May 1522, less than two years after the meeting of the two kings, Clarenceux king of arms appeared before François at Lyons and in Henry VIII's name declared war upon him.

The consequences

Despite the ostensible amity displayed by the two monarchs Anglo-French tensions were never far from the surface at the Field of Cloth of Gold. The Venetian ambassador observed: ‘These sovereigns are not at peace … they hate each other cordially.’ Contemporary English stereotypes of drunken and cowardly Frenchmen resurfaced; one member of the English train was overheard to say that if he had a drop of French blood in his body, ‘he would cut himself open and get rid of it’. John Fisher, preaching later in the year, described the occasion as merely an image of the transience of worldly glory, and Polydore Vergil likewise saw the meeting in a negative light. Its only consequence, he wrote, was that:
From many most wanton creatures in the company of the French ladies the English ladies adopted a new garb which, on my oath, was singularly unfit for the chaste; even to-day there are some who dress in this way, abandoning for the most part the far more modest costume of their forebears. (Anglica historia, 269)
Later historians have also been largely negative in their assessments of the Field of Cloth of Gold. A. F. Pollard considered it ‘perhaps the most portentous deception on record’ (Pollard, 142), while J. J. Scarisbrick thought it merely the product of Wolsey's ego and his determination to stamp his mark on European affairs. More recently Robert Knecht has offered a more positive assessment of the event, in that the two monarchs were united by a common Renaissance culture, but even so, their ‘eternal friendship’, which the Field of Cloth of Gold celebrated in such ostentatious style, was bound to be sacrificed in the name of politics and the reality of the princely power struggles of early sixteenth-century Europe. Nevertheless the Field of Cloth of Gold is now popularly associated with Anglo-French friendship and cultural exchange.

The very many participants in the Field of Cloth of Gold with entries in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography include: Henry Bourchier, second earl of Essex; Sir Anthony Browne; William Carey; Sir Edward Chamberlayne; Sir William Coffin; Sir Marmaduke Constable; Henry Courtenay, marquess of Exeter; William Crane; Sir Robert Curson; Sir Thomas Docwra; Sir Robert Drury; Robert Fayrfax; George Hastings, third Baron Hastings; Sir John Heron; John (i) Horsey [see under Horsey family]; Sir John Hussey; Sir Edmund Knyvet [see under Knyvet, Sir Edmund]; Sir Thomas Lestrange; John Lloyd; John Lumley, fifth Baron Lumley; Thomas Magnus; Sir Henry Marney; Sir John Mordaunt; Sir Edward Neville; George Neville, third Baron Bergavenny; Ralph Neville, fourth earl of Westmorland; Henry Norris; Sir John Norton; Sir Arthur Plantagenet; Sir Anthony Poyntz; Robert Radcliffe, seventh Baron Fitzwalter; Thomas Ruthall; Sir John Scott; Sir William (iii) Scott [see under Scott family]; Henry Stafford, earl of Wiltshire; Henry Stafford, tenth Baron Stafford; Edward Stanley, first Baron Monteagle; George Talbot, fourth earl of Shrewsbury; John Taylor; Cuthbert Tunstal; William Vertue [see under Vertue, Robert]; John Veysey; Sir Edmund Walsingham; Thomas West, eighth Baron West and ninth Baron de la Warr; Sir Richard Weston; Sir Henry Willoughby [see under Willoughby family]; Sir Anthony Wingfield.

David Grummitt

Sources  

CSP Venice, 1520–26 · Hall’s chronicle, ed. H. Ellis (1809) · P. Gwyn, The king's cardinal: the rise and fall of Thomas Wolsey (1990) · P. J. Gwyn, ‘Wolsey's foreign policy: the conferences at Calais and Bruges reconsidered’, HJ, 23 (1980), 755–72 · R. J. Knecht, ‘The Field of Cloth of Gold’, François Ier et Henry VIII: deux princes de la renaissance (1515–1547), ed. C. Giry-Deloison (Lille, 1996), 37–52 · LP Henry VIII, vol. 3 · A. F. Pollard, Henry VII1, new edn (1913) · The Anglica historia of Polydore Vergil, AD 1485–1537, ed. and trans. D. Hay, CS, 3rd ser., 74 (1950) · J. G. Russell, The Field of Cloth of Gold: men and manners in 1520 (1969) · J. J. Scarisbrick, Henry VIII (1968) · D. Starkey, ed., Henry VIII: a European court in England (1991), 50–53