Drive south-east from the Eurotunnel exit at Coquelles by Calais. Take the D231 through Guînes towards Ardres, and in 20 minutes or so, you will be confronted by a grey stone monument which at first sight might be taken to be one of the many memorials to the fallen of the First and Second World Wars, which, tragically, populate this area of France.
Nothing could be further from the truth, as the date on the stone – 1520 – bears witness. This was not, 500 years ago, the scene of an Anglo-French conflict (although the King of France did get a bloody nose while jousting), but instead the now featureless farmland marks the site of arguably the biggest party of the Middle Ages: the formal meeting of Henry VIII of England and François I of France on Camp du Drap D’Or – Field of Cloth of Gold.
Setting the Scene
The primary instigator of what has been described as “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’” was Cardinal Wolsey, for many years Henry VIII’s right-hand man, until his fall from grace in 1529.
Wolsey’s aim was twofold. He wanted to establish peaceful relations between the two monarchs, both of whom were young (Henry, aged 29, was four years older than François) and keen to play leading parts on the European stage. Wolsey also wanted, through the magnificence of the festival, to demonstrate that although England was much smaller than France, it had recovered from the ravages of the Wars of the Roses, which had ended 35 years before, and was now an economic and political force to be reckoned with.
The problem was that Henry and François were rivals. Henry considered that he, not François, was the rightful king of France via descent from Henry V (who had died too soon to assume the title). François, meanwhile, had bigger fish to fry in the form of the Holy Roman Empire, which owned Burgundy, among other territories, and with which he was regularly in a state of war. At the same time, he resented England’s continued presence on the French mainland via the ‘pale’ of Calais and had already suffered from Henry VIII’s territorial ambitions, manifested at the Battle of the Spurs in 1513, where the English king – supported on this occasion by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian – had expanded and strengthened his hold on the region.
Nonetheless, encouraged by Wolsey, by June 1520, Henry and François were friends (or claimed to be) and the event was on. That said, when the jousting tournament took place, wise counsel had put the two kings on the same team to prevent (another) clash of arms.
Henry VIII, Britannica.
François I, Walters Art Museum.
The Threat from the East
It is arguable that the original impetus which led, at least indirectly, to the great meeting on the Field of Cloth of Gold occurred some 67 years earlier in 1453, when two events materially altered the European political landscape.
In reverse order: On 17 July 1453, the English army under John Talbot, first Earl of Shrewsbury, was defeated at the Battle of Castillon, near Bordeaux, by the French forces of Charles VII, resulting in the English finally losing the Hundred Years War and, moreover, the province of Aquitaine, whose disputed ownership had been one of the primary causes of that war. This territorial change, and the end of the long, costly conflict, enabled France to build itself into a largely unified and militarily consequential state.
Only 49 days earlier, on the other side of Europe, a much greater power shift took place as the Ottoman Turks achieved their long-held ambition of capturing Constantinople from the Byzantines.
To quote Edward Gibbon, describing the end of the siege: “… In the confusion of darkness an assailant may sometimes succeed; but in this great and general attack, the military judgment and astrological knowledge of Mahomet advised him to expect the morning, the memorable twenty-ninth of May, in the fourteen hundred and fifty-third year of the Christian æra…
“Amidst these multitudes, the emperor, who accomplished all the duties of a general and a soldier, was long seen and finally lost… The prudent despair of Constantine cast away the purple: amidst the tumult he fell by an unknown hand, and his body was buried under a mountain of the slain…
“It was thus, after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes, the Chagan and the caliphs, was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mahomet II.”
(Gibbon. Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol IX, Ch LXVIII)
The fall of Constantinople sent shockwaves through Europe. These continued to echo for decades to come and led politicos such as Wolsey to think in terms of building defensive alliances between Europe’s leading Christian power blocks.
As Lord Kinross wrote: “When Suleiman, in his youth succeeded to the Ottoman throne [in 1520], Cardinal Wolseley said of him to the Venetian ambassador at the court of King Henry VIII: ‘This Sultan Suleiman is twenty-five years old and has good judgement; it is to be feared he will act like his father’ [who in a reign of only nine years had doubled the size of the empire].
“The Doge had written to his ambassador: ‘The Sultan is young, very powerful and extremely hostile to the Christian race.’ The Grand Turk, ‘Signor Turco’ to the Venetians, inspired the rulers of western Europe only with fear and mistrust as the ‘powerful and formidable enemy’ of Christendom.”
(Kinross. The Ottoman Empire, Part III)
However, as far as Henry, François and Wolsey were concerned, it was not Suleiman the Magnificent, but his father and immediate predecessor Selim who had an unexpected (and positive) impact on the outcome of the Field of Cloth of Gold proceedings.
Sultan Selim I, nicknamed “the Grim” for reasons that will quickly become clear, was the youngest of three brothers. In 1512, at the head of a force of janissaries (Turkish slave infantry), he forced the abdication of his father Sultan Bayezid, whom he may subsequently have had poisoned, and guaranteed his pre-eminent position in the traditional Ottoman way:
“His first action on ascending the throne was to have his two brothers strangled with the bowstring. He extended the fratricidal principle to cover the strangulation of his five orphan nephews, boys from the age of five upwards, while he listened to their cries from an adjoining room.”
(Kinross. The Ottoman Empire, ibid)
History does not accurately relate how King Henry and Sultan Selim came into contact (certainly they never net), but what is clear is that: “… Henry VIII had begun to favour Ottoman fashions for both grand ceremonial occasions and ‘fancy dress’ parties. He posed for portraits on distinctive Ottoman carpets. ‘Turkeywork’ was bought in and imitated; the carpets with their distinctive cloud-band. Ushak birds and leaves in a swastika formation were textile treasures often displayed on tables as they were thought too fine for feet.”
(Hughes. Istanbul, a Tale of Three Cities. Ch 57)
In some way, the ‘Sublime Porte’ (i.e. the Ottoman Court) got wind of the king’s enthusiasm and, among other gifts, Selim supplied two monkeys, which contemporary accounts suggest were gilded with gold leaf. Whether this gilding took place in Turkey or England is unclear, but what is certain is that Henry took the monkeys with him to meet the French king on the agreed neutral ground between English-owned Guînes and French Ardres.
The results were better than one might have imagined, as the golden pair gambolled around the many and huge pavilions, which were decorated with gold worked into long strips and wound around a silk core, then woven into the heavy, rich and expensive cloth of gold which gave the 1520 event its name.
“One further aspect of King Henry’s retinue was the presence of two royal monkeys covered in gold leaf; these were known to have been gifts from the Ottoman Sultan Selim I and brought much laughter and merriment from Francis I as a contemporary of Cardinal Wolsey recounts: ‘The French King was overcome with much curiosity playing with those little knaves that did all they could to steal and pester his advisers, yet he willed them to be present at every banquet’.”
Short-lived but long remembered
It is impossible to judge how much precious metal was employed in the construction of the many pavilions and tents that were erected on the Field of Cloth of Gold, but it is certain that each country attempted to outdo the other. Contemporary accounts suggest that the French king’s temporary palace was 120 ft (37m) tall, while the equivalent English edifices covered an area of nearly 12,000 square yards (10,000 m2).
Further, among the many entertainments, there were unconfirmed reports that the two kings engaged in a bout of wrestling under a golden canopy (as this painting suggests).
Sadly, and despite the enormous effort and cost of this grand festival, the medieval world’s greatest ‘Golden Hallo’ did not lead to the long-term peace that Wolsey had envisaged, and England and France were once more at war in 1522. Yet, Henry’s relationship with François remained complex – an unstable combination of admiration, emulation and enmity, of peace punctuated by war – a state of affairs that maintained until the death of both monarchs in 1547.
But for all that, it was a great party.
(Picture - Sultan Selim I by Nakkaş Osman, Wikipedia.)