The Field of Cloth of Gold

Mar 4, 2022 0 comments

Situated just ten miles south of Calais, Balinghem is an unremarkable little village, but five hundred years ago this quiet countryside played host to one of the most spectacular meetings in history—between rivals King Henry VIII of England and King Francis I of France. For a period of 18-days, the two greatest monarchs and their vast entourage took part in a grand festival of banquets, tournaments, masquerades and religious services. The gathering was so magnificent and the display of wealth and power was so ostentatious that it became known as the Field of Cloth of Gold.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, oil painting of circa 1545.

The balance of power in early 16th-century Europe revolved around King Henry, King Francis and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who dominated the continent for decades by forming and breaking alliances with each other at will, explains The Smithsonian Magazine. Threatened by Emperor Charles V’s rapid expansion through central Europe, Henry decided to forge an alliance with Francis as an ally against the emperor. However, the actual meeting was less talked-about than the construction of the place itself.

Both Kings saw the meeting as an opportunity to show off their wealth, culture, grandeur and fine taste. King Henry erected a magnificent tent, an entire castle, covering an area of nearly 10,000 square meters for the reception of the French king. The tent was 100 meters long on each side, with a 2-meter-high brick base to its walls, topped by a further 10-meter-high wood-framed wall of canvas painted to look like brick. The roof was oil-painted on cloth to look like lead tiles.

Fran├žois I, king of France and Henry VIII of England.

Outside this pop-up palace were two fountains that flowed red wine, in order to wash down great quantities of food that was cooked to feed the thousands of men who had assembled at the place. Although records do not show how many people were present, to give you some estimate, each king brought 500 horsemen and 3,000 infantry, for starters. We also know that some 2,800 tents were erected to house the visitors, and that the two-and-half week event claimed 29,000 fish, 98,000 eggs, 6,475 birds, 2,200 sheep and 216,000 gallons of wine.

An average feast consisted of three courses made up of around 50 different dishes. Items on offer ranged from swans and peacocks to venison pie, candied orange peels, pears in wine, fruit jellies, Tudor wafers, a spiced drink called Hippocras, gingerbread, porpoises and even a dolphin. Of particular note were “subtleties,” or small sculptures crafted from sugar paste or marzipan: These elaborate table decorations depicted such scenes as the Annunciation, the presentation of kings to the mother of Christ and an angel appearing to shepherds on a hillside, writes Glenn Richardson in The Field of Cloth of Gold.

“The lavish banquets were accompanied by archery displays and wrestling matches between Breton and Cornish fighters. Moreover, the two young and boisterous royals were naturally drawn to competition once more and in a raucous atmosphere Henry VIII chose to challenge young Francis I to a wrestling match. Losing the match, Henry then challenged Francis to an archery competition,” writes Historic UK.

On 24th June, after eighteen lavish days and nights of celebration, the summit reached its conclusion and Cardinal Wolsey assembled a great crowd in order to say Mass. At the end of the service, a great awe-inspiring dragon was sent flying through the air. This great kite combined the salamander emblem of Francis I with the Welsh Tudor dragon, and was flown to signify the end of the meeting. This was followed by one last banquet and the exchange of gifts.

The Field of Cloth of Gold was a colossal waste of time and money, because less than a month after this extravagant event, King Henry met with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to forge a separate alliance. In 1521, war broke out between France and the empire, and England was forced into the war on Charles’ side.

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