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On the morning of 31 May 1520 Henry VIII and his queen set sail from Dover, with an entourage of 5,000 of the flower of English aristocracy. Waiting for them in the Val d’Or were the French King Francois, his wife Queen Claude and their entourage of 5,000. They were to participate in a month long festival of entertainments, jousts and feasts intended to seal a treaty between England and France. The preparations, masterminded by Cardinal Wolsey for the Field of the Cloth of Gold were almost two years in the making, it was the greatest, most magnificent and last diplomatic occasion of this kind, the costs to both countries were enormous. As an event it was a spectacular success, there were delegates from every European country, all of them testifying to the magnificence of the costumes, the pavilions, the food and the entertainments. As an exercise in diplomacy it was a complete failure, the treaty was never signed, a month later Henry VIII had taken England into war with France - again.


Elaborate masques and entertainments had been a part of international diplomacy for a couple of centuries. Despite wars and struggles for territory, the Royal and aristocratic communities of the European states were close, virtually all of them were related by marriage and by the 12th century united by shared cultures that had nothing to do with country or ethnicity. We can trace the idea of Chivalry to two roots, one - military was certainly the crusades during which a number of orders were founded. The other had its roots in the Troubadour traditions of Languedoc and Provence which spread into the northern French, Germanic and English kingdoms in the 1150s. The Provencal troubadours came from the upper reaches of society and like their equivalents in the north were trained in the skills of war although in the prosperous, liberal and settled south they seldom needed to use them. On the whole they had received a better education than the aristocracy of the North and readily adopted the role of ‘poet’ styling themselves as ‘musical warriors’. During the winter months a troubadour would spend time at his castle practicing his knightly skills and composing new poems the bulk of which were concerned with chivalry and love and particularly with the concept of ‘ideal’ love, a pure emotion having nothing to do with marriage, sexual passion or dynastic ambitions. Few of the Occitan lords could play an instrument so they employed male and female jongleurs to create musical settings for their poems. In the spring the troubadour would set out on horseback accompanied by his jongleurs to visit the castles of his neighbourhood and present new works and participate in Tournaments conducted according to the laws of Chivalry.

In 1152 Eleanor of Aquitaine, the patron of Troubadour poets married Henry Duke of Normandy at Bordeaux and came with him to England when he became Henry II. The celebrated troubadour Bernard de Ventadour joined Eleanor at her palace at Bermondsey which became a new troubadour court and opened the door for the influence of Provencal manners and literature. Within a few years English lords were becoming the patrons of the new music and poetry and of a courtly and chivalric culture, Eleanor’s son Richard was known as the ‘Troubadour King’ but the ideal had spread throughout many of the royal houses of Europe by his time and he was one of many kings, dukes and princes writing poetry, dedicating themselves to ideal ladies (seldom their wives) and paying homage to chivalry by mounting tournaments and so on. Eleanor’s daughters all spread the troubadour tradition and were patrons of poets and musicians

The Orders of the Garter (England) and the Golden Fleece (Burgundy) carried prestige and meaning throughout the aristocratic communities of Europe. (Example - The Duke of Montefeltro was made a Knight of the Garter in 1474 in recognition of his services in training English Knights at his Court in Urbino. Henry VII of England then conferred the same honour on his son Guidobaldo. In this case it was because the King wished to enlist Guidobaldo in attempts to persuade Pope Julius to allow the marriage of Henry to Catherine. Castilglione, the author of The Book of the Courtier came to England to act as the Duke’s substitute at the investiture of the Order at Windsor. The young Raphael was commissioned to make appropriate paintings for the occasion). By the 15th century European courtly culture became suffused with ideals originating in the Italian courts. It was in Italy that the works of the ‘ancients’ were first studied and classical scholarship came into being. Many of the emerging powerful Italian families were enthusiastic amateurs of the new learning - Cosimo de Medici sponsored scholars in his so-called Neo Platonic Academy, scholars were employed as tutors in the great households. By the 15th century the great Italian Houses - Sforza, Monetefeltro, Este and particularly the Medici were players on the international political stage, intimate with the aristocratic houses of Europe and the higher clergy.

Italian learning became (in theory) an essential part of the education of rulers and aristocrats, the ideal was defined by ‘The Courtier’ written in 1528 by Baldassare Castiglione in which the author describes the ideal prince, how he should be educated the accomplishments he should have and how he should conduct himself in various situations. The book was first published at Venice and was speedily translated into Spanish, German, French, Polish and English, (translated by Sir Thomas Hoby in 1561). Accordingly a knowledge of Latin and some Greek was required, the works of the Roman writers should be studied. (Homer and Ovid) and the most internationally celebrated writers were Italian, Dante, Petrarch and to a slightly lesser extent, Bocaccio. The ‘modern’ Romances of 16th century Italian writers like Ariosto and Tasso were also highly regarded. The early Tudor poets looked to Italy for their inspiration and relied on Italian poetic forms such as the sonnet. It wasn’t a one way process, the Italian patricians were impressed by aristocratic chivalry and quick to adopt some of its aspects. The chivalric code belonged to an earlier age, to the 12th and 13th centuries but the Arthurian Romances and other works like Ariosto’s ‘Orlando Furioso’ (the story of Roland) remained favourite reading matter for the educated classes in most European states. In this courtly world classical myths and all that developed from them became a kind of international language, understood by the elite and certainly not understood by anyone else. Stories from Homer, Ovid and the Romances rather than from the Testaments became the basic subject matter for the elaborate court masques staged to entertain visiting dignitaries, celebrate a marriage or a birth or to honour a royal sponsor.

Such masques were an important part of diplomacy and obviously the more elaborate they were the greater the prestige of the host and the honour accorded to the guests. Every large court had a writer/director responsible for staging these and most court painters, however prestigious understood it to be part of their employment to design costumes and sets. Mantegna did this for the Gonzaga, Leonardo for the Sforza and later for Francis, Durer for the Emperor Maximilian, Holbein made sets for Henry VIII. The principal actors in the masques were usually professionals, other roles might be played by members of the court and the plots always included dances performed by the whole company.


To understand the Field of the Cloth of Gold we need to understand the relationship between the principal players, the two who actually met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the 29 year old Henry VIII of England and the third and youngest, the 20 year old Charles of Spain who was not there but who was the catalyst, the Medici Pope Pope Leo X and Cardinal Wolsey, possibly the most able and far sighted diplomat of his age. All were locked into the religious and territorial struggles of the 16th century. At the centre of these struggles was Spain which had risen from being a patchwork of small kingdoms to become a powerful and well connected state. The process began when Isabella of Castile married Ferdinand, the son and heir of John II of Aragon. - good match, the House of Aragon owned Naples and Sicily. The couple were first cousins and before they could be married a papal dispensation was required. This was obtained very quickly but later turned out to have been a forgery concocted by the king of Aragon, the archbishop of Toledo and Ferdinand himself. On October 19, 1469 Ferdinand and Isabella were married, ten years later John of Aragon died and the two great kingdoms of Spain were united. Ferdinand and Isabel consolidated their own power by curbing the Castilian nobility and reforming the Church in which corruption and immorality were rampant from the archbishop of Toledo right down to the village priests. Perhaps the greatest source of royal power was the Inquisition, this papal institution created in the 13th century to deal with the Albigensian heresy had become virtually extinct. Isabel gained papal permission (Sixtus IV) for an updated version, the finding of ‘false’ conversos Muslims and Jews who had converted to Christianity but secretly maintained their rites and customs.

In 1482 Isabel asked Sixtus IV for crusading rights against the Nasrid kingdom of Granada which offered no threat to Christian Spain, the rulers paid an annual tribute to the Castilian crown but Isabella and Ferdinand understood that war with an outsider was a perfect means of unifying their kingdom, moreover the recent loss of Constantinople had shocked the Christian world so a ‘crusade’ against Granada was certain of wide support. Granada, the last city in the kingdom fell to them in 1492, the year Columbus sailed for America. (Henry VIII was a year old) Just three months later an expulsion order was issued for any Jew refusing Christian baptism, shortly afterwards unconverted Muslims were expelled. Adherence to any faith other than Catholicism became treason. Spain was now the acknowledged champion of the Catholic Church and set to take her place at the centre of the European stage. through Aragon she had the kingdoms of Naples and Sicily, shortly afterwards a Papal edict of Alexander VI conferred virtually all the new lands discovered in the west on Castilla (Portugal was allowed Brazil)

France was her greatest rival in Europe, a scant four decades after it had lost half its population and had been almost destroyed in the Hundred Years War with England. National regeneration had began from the lowest possible point but under Louis XI (1461-83) ‘The Universal Spider’ it proceeded apace. Louis was a deeply unpleasant man but he was also shrewd and quite determined to assert the power of the Crown over the whole of France and to extend French influence beyond its borders. His strategy was simple but effective, intervene and arbitrate; no military intervention unless absolutely necessary, manipulate others into doing the fighting. His first task was to contain his own nobles who were unwilling to be stripped of any of their feudal rights and rose against the Crown several times. Louis gained the support of the mercantile towns by granting charters and letting the towns fight their own feudal lords. He negotiated with England to stop any further invasions, effectively the English were bought off with 75,000 crowns. The lords of both countries were disgusted but Louis and Henry VIII’s grandfather Edward IV of England were very pleased with the deal. He dealt with the powerful Burgundian Dukes by encouraging the Swiss to move against them. Charles the Bold was killed at Nancy in 1477, he had no male heir so Burgundy reverted to the Crown. Renee of Anjou’s son willed all his Provencal lands to the French Crown which gave Louis the whole of the south. Revival of French power was so rapid that from the reign of Louis XI onwards the French King was able to intervene in European affairs beyond his own frontiers. He saw a united Spain as a potential threat and had taken steps in 1468 to prevent the marriage of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, In the same way he tried to prevent the marriage of Marie of Burgundy with Maximillian von Habsburg, both attempts failed and both marriages would eventually have serious consequences for France.

By 1504 Spain also had her first hold on her vast European empire, gained not by war but by marriage. The children of Ferdinand and Isabel were married to cement alliances. Princess Isabel was married to Alfonso the heir to the Portugese throne, when she died Alfonso took her younger sister Maria as his second wife. Catherine the baby of the family married Arthur the English prince and subsequently Arthur’s brother Henry VIII but it was the Burgundian marriages of Juan and Juana, arranged to counter the growing power of France which held the key to Spain’s future. The Dukes of Burgundy began their rise to power in the 14th century when tactical marriages had added Flanders, Hainaut, Holland and Zeeland to the Burgundian holdings. Mary of Burgundy, the last of the line married Maximilian I the Habsburg German king and future Holy Roman Emperor.

From this marriage came two children, Philip the heir to the vast Burgundian and Habsburg lands married Juana of Castile and Margaret married Juan the heir to the Castilian/Aragonese throne. Royal hopes rested on Juan, on him lay the continuing unity of Castile and Aragon, his wife had also brought to the marriage a portion of the Burgundian/Habsburg lands which would have given Spain useful European holdings. Unfortunately Juan was not physically very strong and the story has it that he was so enamored of Margaret of Burgundy that he literally wore himself out with sexual excess and died. Juana now became first in line to succeed Isabel but she was deeply unstable. Her marriage to Philip ‘the Fair’ had exacerbated her instability, he was charming, shallow, handsome and openly unfaithful. They had six children (2 emperors and 4 queens) but he had a number of affairs and plotted against her which drove Joanna into deep depressions - probably exaggerated by her husband. When Isabel died in 1504 it was with the realization that the unification of Castile and Aragon was probably lost with the death of her son Juan and that her lands in Castile would go to her playboy son in law. Fortunately Philip the Fair died in 1505, Juana collapsed mentally and after the long delayed burial of her husband (she refused to believe that he was dead) she retired into seclusion at Tordesillas where she spent most of the next 46 years alternating between periods of lucidity and bouts of deranged melancholy, nevertheless she remained Queen of Spain until her death in 1555. (she outlived her baby sister Catherine by 29 years)
Cardinal Cisneros persuaded Ferdinand to remain as regent, a role he filled with considerable success. When he died in 1516 Castilla and Aragon fell to the same heir - with restrictions, the 15 year old Charles of Ghent, heir also to the Burgundian and Habsburg thrones. He was sent a rose of wrought gold from the new Medici Pope Leo X ‘because he was soon to be the most important man in the whole of Europe’.

Henry VIII was born on 28th June 1491, the year before Columbus sailed for America and the city of Cordoba fell to the Catholic monarchs. He was the third child of Henry Tudor and Elizabeth of York, the second of their four sons and the only one to survive into adulthood. (the couple had four sons and four daughters) Arthur, his elder brother was heir to the throne and most of the ‘official’ attention was lavished on him. The usual titles and honours were bestowed on Henry, on 30th of October 1494 the three year old prince was brought from his household at Eltham to be received as a Knight of the Bath (did not become an Order until the 18th century) and to be created Duke of York. In 1501 he took part in the Spanish Marriage between his 15 year old brother and Catherine of Aragon, the ten year old boy was very much admired for his manners and skill at dancing. Details concerning Henry’s education are very sparse but it seems to have followed the standard grammar formula. Apparently he could read Latin and some Greek and was familiar with the works of Homer, Virgil, Ovid et al. His tutor was the poet laureate John Skelton from Cambridge and presumably he acquired the linguistic and musical skills so admired by foreign visitors from other Cambridge scholars brought to court by Henry Tudor’s mother Lady Margaret Beaufort who shared the responsibility for the upbringing of the prince and his younger sister Mary.

When Arthur died of consumption at Ludlow four months after his marriage. Henry was instantly ‘transformed’, he was no longer the second son and as heir apparent he was quickly grated fresh titles, Duke of Cornwall, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. However, he was given absolutely no training for the role and during his father’s lifetime he was given no responsibility for state affairs of any kind or any personal freedom. According to a Spanish envoy called Fuensalida who came to England in 1508 the young prince was kept under such strict supervision that he might as well have been a girl. Henry Tudor’s motives are probably not too hard to understand, he had lost five of his eight children as well as his wife (1503); his heir was precious and must be guarded. Fuensalida had come to England in an attempt to salvage the contract for the marriage between Henry and Catherine. (He acted several times for Henry VII including negotiating the marriage of Margaret Tudor to James of Scotland)

The Spanish connection was so important that Henry Tudor considered marrying Catherine himself the same year that his wife died before deciding that Prince Henry should inherit her instead. In June of 1503 a treaty was signed for the marriage of the Prince who was then almost twelve and Catherine who was seventeen. The marriage would take place as soon as the Prince reached his fifteenth year on 28 June 1505 by which time Catherine’s parents would have delivered another marriage portion and a papal dispensation would have been granted to allow the marriage. Two days after the treaty was signed the pair were betrothed but Catherine was still living in miserable widowhood with her household at Durham House in the Strand supported by a very small allowance from Henry Tudor.

Isabella her mother died in 1504 and had already removed herself from governmental affairs the year before, Ferdinand was not convinced that another English marriage would be to Spain’s advantage and was looking for a better aliance for his youngest daughter so in 1505 Catherine’s second dowery and the papal dispensation had not arrived. The 28th of June came and went and there was no marriage. Two days later Henry Tudor instructed the Prince to made a solemn protest before Bishop Fox disowning the marriage contract. Henry Tudor had a couple of motives, he wanted to force the Spanish to cough up the missing marriage portion but he had decided that Henry might be better off with Catherine’s niece, Eleanor of Castile, Juana and Philip the Fair’s eldest daughter who at age 8 was nearer Henry’s age than her aunt Catherine. (almost 6 years his senior) Henry Tudor was playing a long game - Eleanor was the granddaughter of the Habsburg Emperor Maximillian I; Henry Tudor had his own eye on Maximillian’s daughter Margaret, Juan of Spain’s widow (She refused another marriage and actually became one of the most powerful women in Europe in her own right as ruler of Franche Comte, Governor of the Low Countries and guardian of her nephew Charles V) and was attempting, unsuccessfully to arrange a marriage between Eleanor’s brother Charles - the future King of Spain and inheritor of the Habsburg Empire and Mary, the youngest Tudor child. This would have given England a triple alliance with the Habsburgs, virtual immunity from French ambitions and the possible control of half of Europe.

By 1508 Catherine in virtual imprisonment at Durham House had grown into a determined and mature 23 year old woman. Fuensalida deemed the situation impossible and recommended that Catherine should go home to Spain. She was opposed to the idea but may well have agreed had Henry Tudor not died at Richmond Palace in 1509. The day after his father’s death the 18 year old Prince Henry was proclaimed king and married Catherine on 11th June 1509, the question of the dowery was set aside and all qualms about the papal dispensation were ignored. The coronation was magnificent and vastly expensive, a prototype for innumerable other festivities - jousts, May celebrations and so on. Henry had inherited a very wealthy country - he could afford the extravagance.

In the first years of his reign Henry seemed to be the perfect monarch, handsome, he excelled at wrestling, dancing and tennis. He was a skilled archer, jouster and tilter. He was a nimble-minded pupil, he knew Latin, French, some Italian and a little Spanish. He received some instruction in Greek from Richard Croke, a minor English Humanist who was teaching at Cambridge. His grasp of theology was sufficient and he had an active interest in mathematics. It was his custom to discuss geometry, divinity and astronomy with Thomas More. He was a gifted musician who scoured England for singers for the chapels royal and filched musicians from Wolsey’s choir. Sacred music in the Renaissance style was introduced into the royal chapel in 1516 and the king had a number of foreign musicians at court including Dionisio Memo the organist of St Marks in Venice.

The king played the lute well, he could manage the organ and had a strong voice. He also wrote - two five part masses, a motet and a large number of instrumental pieces, part songs and rounds. He seemed to be the archetype of the Renaissance monarch and praise was heaped on him from various quarters, from Erasmus and other Humanists. In truth Henry was not a modern man, he was certainly not a modern monarch. If we compare him to his arch rival and contemporary Francois of France we find a man steeped in old fashioned ideas of kingship, rooted in the past. He reveled in his new freedom, he was spectacular, a troubadour who wore his regality with splendid conviction. He was dangerous even in an era of dangerous monarchs. Henry Tudor had been more interested in winning commercial advantages than bits of France; he did not want the expense of war and diplomacy - he had solved the problem of Scotland by marrying his daughter Margaret to the Scottish king and had looked at the possibilities offered by the New World. His son had a choice - to follow the new way or to take the old, he chose the latter and lead England back into her past and another round of the Hundred Year War. He ignored the New World and 40 years later when English attention was redirected to the Americas, Spain already had a vast advantage which it would take generations to rival. Henry Tudor had removed England from the arena of European conflict - Henry chose to take it back and he could do so with the support of the English aristocracy who were on the whole still steeped in the old traditions of war and chivalry. Times had changed since the 15th century and when Henry engaged in war with France he was bringing his country into a conflict with consequences that would cripple his country.

Henry was just 3 years old when Francois, his nemesis and rival was born, like Henry he was not the first in line for the crown. Louis the Spider’s children, Jeanne and Charles both carried the Valois ‘curse’ of physical and mental disabilities. Jeanne was crippled and apparently so ugly that her own father could not tolerate her in the same room as himself. Charles VIII was nightmarish in appearance with a tiny, malformed body and a large head.
He could barely speak but he was possessed by a dream of regaining the Angevan lands in Italy. In 1494 he lead the chivalry of France over the Alps in an effort to retake Naples which had fallen to the Spanish. In 1498 Charles was watching a game of tennis at his chateau at Amboise when he struck his head against a low gallery and died that same evening. He had been married to Anne of Brittany but he had no heir.

The closest in line to the Crown was the Duc d’Orleans who was married to the crippled Jeanne of France and he assumed the throne as Louis XII in 1498. His first act was to have his marriage with Jeanne annulled on the grounds of non-consummation. Poor Jean was put through a series of physical examinations in front of a panel of 27 witnesses - she subsequently retired to a convent. Louis then married Anne, the widow of Charles VIII who was the greatest heiress in France, her Dutchy in Brittany was virtually an independent country. It was in the reign of Louis XII that the fortunes of France and Italy were woven together and Italian Renaissance culture crossed the Alps and laid the foundations of an artistic, literary and architectural language which would dominate for almost 300 years. The French, and several other European states had designs on Italy for some time, Louis XII based his claims to parts of the peninsular on the fact that his grandmother had been a Visconti and began to lay claim to more lands in the north and south of the peninsular. Michelangelo’s patron, the ‘warrior Pope’ Julius II responded by forming the ‘Holy League’ of states opposed to the French. Cardinal Giovanni de’ Medici - the future Leo X engineered a peace meeting between the various powers interested in Italy, France, the Emperor Maximillian, Ferdinand of Spain and Pope Julius but the peace did not hold and in 1511 Louis called a General Council of the Church in an attempt to depose Julius and the Pope responded by excommunicating France.

In 1512 the Church of France was officially in schism with Rome and remained so after Leo X became Pope in 1513. In the meantime there was the problem of succession to the French throne. Louis XII’s wife Anne of Brittany had given him two daughters, Claude born in 1499 and Renee a year later but there were no sons. However Louis had a ward, Francois, a senior Prince of the Royal (Valois) Blood, the son of Charles D’Angouleme and Louise of Savoie. When Count Charles died in 1495 Louis had made the year old boy Duc de Valois and given him, his widowed mother and his sister Marguerite an official residence at the fortress/palace at Amboise on the Loire close to Tours. Francois spent his childhood with his mother and sister at Amboise; they remained the most important female influences in his life.‘He was born, one might say between two adoring women, his mother and his sister, who always remained in their ecstasy of worship and devotion’ Mme L’Angouleme, Francois’ mother effectively dedicated her life to the education and promotion of her children, the best scholars were brought to Amboise and Francois and his sister (2 years his senior) were taught together, Marguerite became one of the most brilliant women of her age, her brother was certainly advised by her from time to time and referred to her as ‘a pearl among pearls.

Louise was determined to see her son crowned as king, she consistently referred to him as ‘my king, my lord, my emperor, my son’; - he was the ‘first reserve’ but the succession was not a sure thing. Louis XII’s wife Anne of Brittany was determined to give him a son. She loathed both Mme. Louise and Francois and was vigorously opposed to his betrothal to her daughter Claude in 1503 (he was 9 and she 7) Had she lived she would have done everything to prevent the marriage but she was not physically strong and died in 1514 when she was 37. When he was 14 Francois was summoned to live at Louis’ court at Blois, he was being groomed as King. In 1514 Anne of Brittany died, Louis was 52, burned out physically and mentally and unlikely to produce an heir, Francois cemented his position by marrying Claude - the groom, bride and all the guests all wore black because the court was in mourning for the Queen. It was a dynastic marriage and Francois was absolutely incapable of being faithful to his wife but he was genuinely fond of Claude and in the 10 years they were together she gave him 7 children.

By 1514 the English were in French lands for the first time since the Hundred Years War. Julius had promised the French throne and the title of Most Christian Majesty to Henry VIII of England if he could undertake a successful invasion. This ‘crusade’ suited Henry who had been king for less than a year and wanted an opportunity to distinguish himself. He was backed by a number of his nobles, resentful of the fact that they had lost their French lands some 50 years before. Henry VII Tudor had abandoned any attempt at reconquest which he saw as a destructive waste of time, money and manpower but his son was able to raise 5, 000 troops for an invasion in 1513. (There was also the matter of the presence at the French court of the Yorkist pretender to the English Throne - a nephew of Richard III the ‘Duc de Suffolk dit Blanc Rose’ Several European sovereigns supported the claims of the White Rose to the English throne).

Francois was allowed to lead a detachment of French troops against the English, Charles was about to occupy the Spanish throne. Henry’s chief adviser Thomas Wolsey was anxious to negotiate a pact between the two countries and brokered a marriage between the widower Louis XII and Mary of York the beautiful 18 year old sister of Henry VIII. It was hoped that Louis and Mary might beget a child although most contemporary observers deemed this highly unlikely. Henry VIII was fond of his sister but had no qualms at sending her to a husband nearly 3 times her age and generally considered a dotard. (apparently she agreed on the strict understanding that she be allowed to select her next husband) The wedding took place on 9th October 1514 and Mary was crowned Queen of France at St Denis on November 5th. The morning after Louis boasted that he had ‘done marvels’ but Francois knew better from a spy who had watched the King’s dismal performance. ‘I am happier and easier in my mind than for 20 years past’ Francois confided to a friend ‘as I am sure, unless someone has lied to me, that it is not possible for the King to beget children’. By Christmas of 1514 Louis knew that he was dying and summoned Francois to Paris, telling him to prepare for the accession. The King died on the night of 1st January 1515 and Francois I became King of France at the age of 21. The same year Pope Leo X made Wolsey Cardinal as a reward for his peace making efforts. (Mary was now Queen Dowager and a very desirable property. The Emperor Maximilian tried to obtain her for the Archduke Charles - later the Emperor Charles V and Charles I of Spain) The French did not want this match which would create an Imperial alliance with England and neither did Mary who was already in love with Charles Brandon the Duke of Suffolk. Henry had forbidden the match on the grounds that Brandon was ‘of low estate’ but she married him in a secret ceremony in Paris on 3rd March of 1515. Eventually they returned to England and Brandon was forgiven. Mary and Charles’ granddaughter and heir was Lady Jane Grey).

At the time of his accession Francois was six foot tall and certainly not conventionally handsome. He was however noted for his magnificent physique, superb manners and unusual gifts as a conversationalist. He and his contemporaries were very different from the great nobles of the previous generation, exposure to Italian culture certainly had something to do with this. Francois was brought up to be a ‘gentleman’ in the Italian sense; the blueprint was Baldassare Castiglione’s ‘Book of the Courtier’ (first written in 1508). It taught that the aristocratic gentleman should be skilled in arms but he should also have an appreciation of the arts, be lettered and modest in manners. The author met Francois before his accession and wrote ‘he seemed to me beside the handsomness of person and beauty of visage, to have in his countenance great majesty, accompanied nevertheless with a certain lovely courtesy’ he adds that Francois ‘highly loved and esteemed letters, and had a very great reputation among learned men’.

Immediately after his accession Francois began planning his own invasion of Italy and assembled a formidable army of around 30,000 men, paid soldiers from his standing army, Scots archers, mounted skirmishers and 9,000 veteran soldiers from the mercenary companies known as the Bandes Noires. Francois left his mother as Regent and lead his armies across the high passes of the Alps. The Swiss armies were defeated after a long battle at Marignano and Francois took Milan, the Genoese surrendered their republic to him. In December of the same year he met the Pope Leo X, the first Medici Pope, at Bologna. The King and the Pope had much in common; Leo was a humanist scholar and a great patron of the arts, Francois admired both of these things and was anxious to establish himself as a patron and collector. A Concordat was signed which annulled the schism with Rome and gave the French crown unprecedented control of the French Church, the right of nomination to 10 archbishoprics, 82 bishoprics, 500 abbeys and numerous priors and canonries. The King returned home in triumph having gone some way to reviving French prestige. He was also determined to establish a renaissance in his own country. Francois was keen to promote the modern arts and began to import Italian artists and some architects to supply the deficiency in France.

Francois had seen Leonardo’s Last Supper at Sta Maria delle Grazie when he was at Milan and he would have had the fresco detached and taken to France had it been possible. Instead Francois acquired Leonardo, himself who arrived in France in late 1516 bringing drawings, notebooks and several paintings including the Mona Lisa, the Virgin of the Rocks, the Virgin and Child with St.Anne and the St John. Francois appointed him ‘First Painter, Engineer and Architect to the King’ with an annuity of 700 gold crowns and a small chateau at Cloux where he died in 1519. In 1516 the King bought two paintings by Andrea del Sarto and shortly thereafter the painter, who was deeply in debt accepted an invitation to become his Court Painter. He only stayed a short time before returning to Florence with a commission to buy pictures for Francois. Andrea frittered the money away and never dared to return to France.

The King’s other agents were scouring Italy for paintings, ‘objets’ and manuscripts, French prestige was such that several expensive gifts were made to Francois. In 1516 Pope Leo commissioned Raphael to paint ‘St Michael’ and ‘The Holy Family’ for Francois, Cardinal Bibbiena sent him Giuliano Romano’s portrait of Joanna of Aragon. The remodeling of the Royal chateaux began and a new palace at Chambord in the Renaissance style was planned by Bernabel da Cortona, a pupil of Guiliano da Sangallo one of the architects of St Peter’s. Francois’ court was one of the most famous in Europe and the flower of European aristocracy was coming there, one such flower was Anne Boleyn who came with her father in 1419 when she was 12 and stayed until she was 14.
Francois’ triumph was not welcomed by Henry VIII who did not enjoy hearing about the successful exploits of a man two years his junior and was anxious about the possible implications for his own country. Worse, Francois had arranged the betrothal of his first daughter Louise (b.1515, died 1517) to the 15 year old Charles Habsburg, Catherine of Aragon’s nephew and the future heir of Spain, the Netherlands and the vast Habsburg lands. Against Wolsey’s advice, Henry turned to Charles’ grandfather the perpetually hard-up Emperor Maximilian and bribed him to co-operate in an invasion of France. Maximillian took a small army, signed at treaty with Francois, accepted 75, 000 French crowns and went home. Henry was now the laughing stock of Europe. By 1518 French prestige was immense and almost every European state was forging alliances with her. Wolsey the statesman understood that England could not afford to be at odds with France and opened negotiations for the betrothal of Francois’ infant son the Dauphin Francois (b 1517) to the Princess Mary Tudor, (born 1516) daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon.

In January of 1519 the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian died, the position of Emperor was not hereditary, it was the job of the Electors of the Imperial lands to decide on the succession. The Papacy and many of the electors actually favoured Francois who let it be known that he was not adverse to taking on the Empire which was tempting to any monarch with ambition. In the event Maximilian’s grandson Charles was elected and held the post for 38 years (1519-1556) - it cost him 850,000 florins in bribes and gifts. the 19 year old Charles was now the ruler of the largest empire since Charlemagne. It encompassed Castilla, Aragon, several Italian states, the new Spanish colonies in America, parts of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Bohemia and sections of Germany. Charles met Henry in the Netherlands early 1520 at the behest of Wolsey and his aunt Catherine of Aragon, both urged Henry to side with her nephew.


Francois had also invited Henry VIII into an alliance against Charles; Wolsey was in the enviable position, England was being courted by both of the great powers, it was a matter of deciding which alliance would most benefit the country of if the best option was to steer a middle course. Wolsey had already proposed a great ceremonial event, ostensibly to celebrate a Franco/English pact but in reality an occasion designed to demonstrate the wealth and prospective power of England. It was not the first occasion of this kind, in 1396 an equivalently splendid display in the same place (lands still held by England) had been arranged when Charles VI of France and Richard II of England met at Ardres near Calais to negotiate a peace to conclude the 100 years War. The preparations for the Field of the Cloth of Gold were almost two years in the making, the cost to both England and France were enormous and during the period of preparation the two Kings were constantly aware of each other’s plans. Hearing that Francois had grown a beard Henry swore that as a sign of fellowship he would not shave until they met but Queen Catherine objected and he went back to his razor. This apparently caused some alarm in diplomatic circles until it was pointed out that the new affection between the kings was ‘not in the beards but in the hearts’.

On the morning of 31 May 1520 Henry VIII and his queen set sail from Dover, probably in the ship ‘Henry Grace a Dieu‘ - Great Harry. The ship was rigged with gold damask sails for the occasion. The entourage which sailed with them numbered 5,000, the flower of England’s lords, gentry and great ladies, most of her prelates and high officers of state. The armada landed safely at Calais the same evening. This was still English soil and the Pale, or lands around the port included the small town of Guines six miles away. The meeting was to take place near here in a valley known as the Val Dore. We have a number of accounts of the occasion, from English writers and French both of whom were naturally partisan; in addition there accounts left by Venetian and other Italian delegates who supplied exhaustive descriptions and observations. Both Kings knew of the other’s preparations for the meeting and both were determined to outdo the other.

Francois was waiting with 5,000 courtiers and some 3,000 horses at the French camp outside Ardres. The king’s main pavilion was a huge tent some 60 feet high supported by great masts. It was covered with cloth of gold with three horizontal stripes of royal blue velvet, each stripe sewn with the golden lilies of France. The whole was surmounted by a wooden statue, six feet tall of St Michael trampling on the dragon, the Archangel wore a blue mantle sewn with gold lilies and held a lance and shield bearing the royal arms of France. Inside the pavilion was lined with royal blue velvet sewn with fleurs-de-lis and had a ceiling fringed with gold. It was divided into rooms some of which were hung with black velvet. In addition there were three smaller pavilions to serve as a chapel, dressing room and council chamber. There was also a round pavilion of blue velvet, a banqueting hall called the ‘house of solace and sport’. Queen Claude’s tents were of toile d’or, toile d’argent and violet satin sewn with the gold lilies of France and the silver ermines of Brittany. Together with the tents of the little Princess Mme Charlotte the French camp numbered 400 pavilions, an entire town of silver and gold, silk and velvet and floating tapestries designed by Clouet.

Henry VIII had been determined from the outset to outdo Francois. Near Guines a prefabricated castle had been built of wood and canvas painted to look like brick and stone with great windows of diamond paned glass. The gatehouse was flanked by redbrick towers and decorated with Tudor roses and statues. In front of the gatehouse were two fountains, one of blue and gold crowned with a statue of Bacchus pouring out wine, the other bore a statue of Cupid and from both ran conduits of white and red wine and claret. The effect was apparently somewhat marred by the crowds of vagabonds, ploughmen, labourers and so on who turned up for free drinks, overindulged and then lay about in drunken heaps.

Inside the castle was a whole range of apartments on three stories with hangings of cloth of gold and silver and silk in Henry’s personal colours of green and white. They were furnished with chairs of estate and Turkish cushions. (one of the ceilings was possibly taken to Ightham Mote for the New Chapel) Here lodged the King and Queen Catherine and Henry’s sister Mary, now the Duchess of Suffolk who still styled herself ‘Queen Dowager of France’ having been married for a brief time to the aged Louis. Wolsey had sumptuous apartments with sheets and pillows of gold cloth and a gilded bed with curtains of crimson velvet. The Great Hall had a ceiling of pale green silk studied with gold roses and a floor patterned white and yellow and spotted with red roses. Behind this lay the chapel with a choir hung in gold and silver sewn with pearls and a high alter with a great crucifix, ten candlesticks and statues of the twelve Apostles all made in solid gold. Around the castle were the tents of the great lords and the minor nobility - the rest were lodged in the town and sometimes in considerable discomfort.

It was a full week before the kings met. Wolsey was anxious to secure the peace he had won in 1518 and went ahead to negotiate and to secure the marriage contract made in that same year between Francois’s son the infant Dauphin and Henry’s daughter the princess Mary. The kings finally met in the late afternoon of Thursday 7th of June, the Feast of Corpus Christi. Another gold pavilion was erected in the Val Dore with rich hangings and Turkey carpets. Both monarchs, still suspicious of each other were accompanied to the meeting place by a large contingent of infantry, Francois brought his Swiss Guards and Henry his Yeomen of the Guard and his archers in white and green. Francois’s doublet was of cloth of silver slashed with cloth of gold and embroidered with diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds over which he wore a cloak of gold shot with purple. His long boots were white, his bonnet black and sparkling with jewels. Even his great bay horse,The Dappled Duke was caprisoned with gold and jewels. The Venetians were immensely impressed by Francois - his broad shoulders and small waist and general elegance of figure. Henry was also in silver ribbed with gold and studded with jewels, round his neck was the collar of the Garter from which hung a great gold George. He too rode a bay horse trapped with gold bells - the French were impressed by his manner but thought him rather fat and his face, apart from his red beard rather effeminate. With Henry came Wolsey in crimson velvet on his mule which was caprisoned in red and gold.

This was a tense meeting, both sides were still afraid that the other might have concealed troops or arms but the two kings rode towards each other and doffing their hats while still in the saddle, embraced in front of the great gold tent and dismounted to embrace for a second time. There was great applause and then arm in arm they then walked into their tent, a spiced wine cup was presented and the monarchs toasted each other - ‘English and French - good friends’. Francois certainly made a deep impression on Henry, Fleurange says that when an English herald reading a proclamation began ‘I Henry King of France....’ Henry stopped him, saying to Francois ‘I cannot be while you are here, for I would be a liar, say instead, I Henry King of England’. This was an act of diplomatic courtesy but it is possible that Henry really did feel inferior, less than 100 years before his family had been petty Welsh squires, Francois on the other hand came of a line of French kings which had reigned since the 10th century.

The form of the entertainments and hospitality was dictated by custom - jousting began on Saturday 5th of June, 300 gentlemen took part on the first day. On Sunday 6th Francois dined with Queen Catherine in the wooden castle and Henry with Queen Claude at Francois’s pavilion at Ardres. After dinner Francois went to the Great Hall where he found 130 ladies dining - the king proceeded to kiss them all ‘saving the four or five that were old and not fair’ Dancing followed although Queen Claud did not take part, Francois’s partner was the beautiful Miss Anne Browne to whom he took a great fancy and who was his partner at dance on all subsequent occasions.

Jousting continued over the next ten days; Claude who was expecting her fifth child rode to the scene in a litter of cloth of silver, Queen Catherine came in a litter of crimson satin picked out in gold. The Italians were rigorous in their criticism of the clothes worn by the female English and French contingents - the Venetians found the French ladies to be elegant in their dress but the Mantuan ambassador considered the Englishwomen neither pretty or well dressed, he also thought they drank too much. Both kings took part in the joust and apparently distinguished themselves. There were wrestling matches between the English Yeomen and the French Swiss Guard and Henry challenged Francois to a match - Francois apparently won with a fall called the Tour de Bretagne.

On Saturday 17th June Francois and Claude entertained the English king and queen and masques were performed by Henry and his courtiers. Early that same morning Francois had appeared at Guines while Henry was still asleep and demanded entry to the King’s bedchamber. He then insisted in acting as Henry’s valet - Henry was delighted ‘Brother you have played me the best trick ever played and shown me the trust I should have given you. From now on I am your prisoner’. He then gave Francois a collar of rubies worth 30,000 gold ducats - Francois reciprocated with a bracelet worth twice as much but would not stay for breakfast.

In the second week jousting was replaced by tilting - the matches attended by both kings whose changes of costume almost beggar description. Banquets, masques and dancing went on throughout; the food was rich and lavish, Wolsey gave dinner parties of his own which were renowned for their exceptional cuisine. The climax came on June 23rd, St John’s Eve. At noon Wolsey celebrated Pontifical High Mass at a chapel specially built near the tilt yard. There were five Cardinals at the altar and 20 other prelates. After the service there was a banquet in the open air with the kings eating together under a gold canopy with a display of chivalric sports to follow. The evening concluded with a firework display during which a dragon was seen to fly over the encampment - accident or design it was seen as a bad omen. The next day - Sunday 24th was the last, Francois spent it at Guines with Queen Catherine - Henry was at Ardres with Queen Claude. There was a great giving of presents, jewelry, a fragment of the True Cross and other gifts of great value.

As a diplomatic exercise the event was a complete failure. On 14th of July - only 20 days after the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Henry VIII ‘took sides’ against Wolsey’s advice and signed a treaty with Charles V in which he promised not to make any alliances with France; the marriage between Mary Tudor and the Dauphin was abandoned. Despite friendships with Francois, Henry and his aristocracy still felt that England had an ancient right to the greater part of France.

English holdings 14th century and 15th Alliance with Francois would not regain it, a dynastic marriage would only unite the countries; a pact with Charles could possibly give England what she wanted. At exactly the same time Pope Leo was preparing to betray Francois because Charles had promised to give Imperial Parma and Piacenza to the Medici - the secret pact was signed on 8th May 1521, the day Martin Luther was condemned at Worms.