The Field of the Cloth of Gold (le Camp du Drap d’Or) is an outrageously ambitious and romantic name. And it commemorates an outrageously ambitious and romantic meeting. Held in June 1520 between King Henry VIII of England and François I of France, the aim was to calm the fractured relationship between England and France. It was also to be the party of the century.
Celebrating the 500th Anniversary
Plans to celebrate the 500th anniversary last year had to be postponed. So here are the details for this year’s celebration (hopefully!)
The Field of the Cloth of Gold is located at Balinghem on the D231 road (Route de Marquise) between Ardres and Guînes, just south of Calais. A commemorative plaque marks the site. Its austerity is in marked contrast to the extravagance of the party.
See the site on Google maps.
Jun 6-7, 2021: Field of the Cloth of Gold (Camp du Drap d’Or)
Various events to celebrate this historic moment will take place in Calais, Guînes and Ardres, as well as at Hampton Court in the UK. There’s no information at the moment, but concerts, re-enactments and more are expected. Check the Pays d’Opale website. For more on the area, also check the Pas de Calais Tourist office website.
Hampton Court in the UK is putting on a splendid exhibition The Field of the Cloth of Gold from Apr 1-Sept 5, 2021.
I know not everyone shares my enthusiasm for history, so please skip the details below (though I assure you it’s fascinating!)
There’s more on places to visit in the area at the end of this article.
The Story of the Field of the Cloth of Gold
The Great Powers of Europe
In the years leading up to the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting three great European powers controlled the complex politics of the day. The players were the King of England Henry VIII, the King of France François I, and the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Spain. At that time the Holy Roman Empire covered a vast area of Europe from northern Italy to Denmark, and across France and Germany to Poland.
The Rivalry between the Two Young Kings
The two young men (Henry was 28; François 25) were true creatures of their era, obsessed with chivalric honor. Both Kings dreamed of power in Europe: François I aimed at Italy; Henry wanted to reclaim northern France.
By 1518 tensions were high in Europe, so high that a formal peace was proposed by leading figures including Thomas More and Erasmus. In that year a treaty of Universal Peace was signed in London and Europe breathed again.
The treaty was a fragile affair and the election of the young Charles V of Spain as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519 didn’t help. Related by marriage to Henry, it was obvious that in any conflict François would be outnumbered by the English King and the Holy Roman Emperor. The Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting was deemed vital and plans were set in place. The aim: to consolidate the relationship between the two great European powers.
The Young Kings Meet
In June 1520 Henry VIII and François I met…not in a grand château or even a large city, but in a field in a shallow valley near Calais. The meeting place was strategically located between English-owned Guînes and the French town of Ardres, a spot where the village of Balinghem now stands.
The scene was magnificent. There were palaces with arched towers, windows, gateways and fountains. And there were hundreds of tents to house the army of courtiers, nobles and their wives, aides and priests.
The Preparations for the Field of the Cloth of Gold
The planning was organized by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, Lord Chancellor to the King of England, but more importantly papal legate to the world. It was an extraordinary event, and the logistics breathtakingly complicated. And it had to be right.
As the two kingdoms had to have equal participation, the territory was carefully surveyed and mapped out. The location was on both French and English soil; the two parties were given equal amounts of land and the ground was levelled to equal heights on each side. After that it was no holds barred.
The English Camp
Preparations began two months before. Builders arrived from England to build tents, a grand tiltyard for jousting and combat and a huge palace for Henry, his wife Katherine and Cardinal Wolsey in Guînes .
The palace covered an area of nearly 12,000 sq yards (10,000 sq m). Made of timber covered with stretched canvas, it was painted to look like stone. Inside there was a central courtyard lined with terracotta roundels, surrounded by four sides, each 328 ft (100 m) long. The palace windows were so full of stained glass that the French called it the Crystal Palace (not intended as a compliment). Red wine flowed from two fountains outside.
The interior was just as lavish with golden ornaments and the best furniture.
The French Camp
On the French side magnificent pavilions sprung up made from the finest of fabrics. In the centre stood a 120ft (36.5 metre) high tall tent, glittering in the sun from its covering of gold. Strong winds brought the giant tent down before the meeting took place, presumably much to the amusement of the English.
The tents and the costumes woven with cloth of gold, a luxury fabric of silk and gold thread, gave rise to the name: The Field of the Cloth of Gold.
Both sides built chapels. The French royal chapel had one of the best choirs in Europe, led by the composer Jean Mouton; the English music was led by composer William Cornysh the Younger.
The Journey Begins
The preparations made, Henry and Katherine of Aragon started on their journey. They travelled to the Channel through Kent, pausing at Otford and Leeds Castle on the way. Henry, never one to give up a chance of scoring a point, entertained Charles V at Canterbury. He cemented relations with the new Holy Roman Emperor and annoyed François at the same time.
It’s difficult to imagine what the entourage that made its way to France looked like, and the effect it had on the onlookers as 6,000 people travelled through the countryside to Dover.
It wasn’t only Henry who showed off his wealth and power; each nobleman and church leader wanted to outdo his neighbour. The list is extraordinary. On the English side just a small portion reads:
“For the King: The cardinal of York, with 300 servants, of whom 12 shall be chaplains and 50 gentlemen, with 50 horses; one archbishop with 70 servants, of whom 5 shall be chaplains and 10 gentlemen, with 30 horses; 2 dukes, each with 70 servants, 5 to be chaplains and 10 gentlemen, with 30 horses. ..“
All in all each side brought 6,000 of their countrymen. The French even brought the King of Navarre.
And everyone needed feeding from the large kitchen tents and bread ovens that were built in each encampment. Food was sourced from a very large area. The English side recorded nearly 200,000 litres of wine and 66,000 litres of beer; 98,000 eggs, over 2,000 sheep, 13 swans and 3 porpoises.
The Kings Meet
The two Kings first met at 6pm on June 7th, 1520. Tension was high from the start (not helped by Henry’s earlier meeting with Charles V in England). So when the French mistook the gold coats of the English for armour, the ceremonies were paused until the French were reassured.
The two Renaissance princes approached each other, doffed their caps and dismounted. They embraced like brothers and went to a golden tent to talk.
18 Days of Partying
For 18 days, the Kings and their courtiers took part in tournaments and masquerades, feasts on a grand scale, jousts and religious services.
The tournaments took up much of the daylight hours. Jousting, combat on horseback and on foot took place between the two nations. Both young princes were good sportsmen but to prevent any possible diplomatic incident they were forced to fight on the same teams against teams of unfortunate soldiers and servants pressed into the games.
Inevitably rivalry spilled over. The French challenged the English to a wrestling match. Henry having had a few drinks, grabbed François and challenged him to a personal fight. François was the better wrestler (Breton wrestlers being better than those from Cornwall) and knocked Henry to the ground.
In retaliation Henry challenged François to an archery contest. The Frenchman had to accept or lose face and Henry handed him his own longbow. Longbows were the formidable weapons that young English boys were brought up to master from an early age, particularly in Wales. It had proved its importance at the Battle of Crecy and Agincourt. François was unable even to draw the bow and honor was satisfied.
The End of the Party
On Saturday June 23rd, the day before the event was to finish, a mass was held in a temporary chapel in the tiltyard, led by Cardinal Wolsey. Both courts were there; both produced exquisite music.
At the end, a final grand piece of showmanship: a dragon appeared in the sky flying from Ardres to Guînes. It was a huge kite made by the English and decorated with François’ salamander emblem and Henry’s Welsh Tudor dragon. Pulled aloft at the end of a long rope tethered to a fast moving carriage it must have been quite a sight. According to eyewitnesses, the dragon’s eyes blazed and its mouth hissed; perhaps it was filled with fireworks.
Five centuries later, its modern counterpart walks the streets of Calais.
The most expensive and lavish display of wealth and power at the Field of Gold was not cost effective. The two countries were soon at war again, drawn into the byzantine plots of European politics.
John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester wrote later:
“Where be all those pleasures now? They were but shadows, and like shadows they be past, like shadows they be fled away, like shadows they be now vanished from us.”
But what a spectacle it must have been!
More on Attractions from the Past
La Tour de l’Horloge in Guînes is a small museum but it’s good for families. It tells the story of the Field of the Cloth of Gold meeting.
The revamped Battle of Agincourt Museum tells the cracking good tale of the famous battle between the English and the French in the Hundred Years’ War.
If you’re visiting this part of France, I thoroughly recommend staying in Calais – it’s a great city with historic and important links to England. Here’s a guide to Calais.
If you want a feeling of what life in the 16th century was like, the unlikely place for this is the Puy du Fou theme park in the Vendée department on the Atlantic coast. One of the themed hotels is called the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Choose to stay in a Blue (French) tent or a Red (English) one.
More events in France in June 2021