It was said to be an effort to strengthen the ties of friendship between Henry VIII and Francis I of France. Only two years earlier a non-aggression pact called the Treaty of London, with England, France and The Holy Roman Empire, the Papacy, Burgundy and Spain as signatories, where they undertook not only to not attack each other, but also to come to each other’s aid if one of them came under attack by another nation. But only a few years later, the treaty was at risk of falling apart, not least due to England siding with Spain in the latter’s conflict with France.
The meeting had originally been planned for 1519 but was at the time postponed, something that made Henry promise not to shave until he met the French king, a challenge that Francis accepted, and which was interrupted only by the fact that Catherine of Aragon made it clear that she did not like her husband bearded. He succumbed to her demands to shave it off, and it was decided between the kings that their love for each other was to be found in their hearts and not in their beards.
There was someone who was deeply worried by this newfound “love”, and that was Charles V of Spain. In his anxious to have a meeting with Henry before Francis did, he met up with Henry in Dover just before Henry was to leave for France. There is an account of how the two kings embrace on the steps to Charles bedroom in the Dover Castle where he was staying during his visit, which maybe can be taken as a proof that Charles at least for the moment had little to fear from Henry´s meeting with the French king;
“the Emperor hearing the king to be come, came out of his chamber to meet with the king, and so met him on the stairs ere he could come up, where each embraced other right lovingly: then the king brought the Emperor to his chamber, whereas their communing was of gladness”.
The following the day Catherine of Aragon, Charles aunt, met up with the two in Canterbury.
After Charles had departed, the English court set sail for France in a logistic endeavour that in its planning was Thomas Wolsey´s doing. Henry VIII was accompanied by over 5 000 people on the journey. The party consisted of the highest nobility and a major part of the royal Court.
While the Field of Cloth of Gold aimed to achieve political results, there is no doubt the event itself was a big show off between the two monarchs, where they both hoped to outshine his counterpart.
A temporary palace was built just outside of Calais to house the English court, surrounded by tents for other the nobility and others in the retinue. Of course, these wasn´t any tents, they were made of cloth of gold, just like many of the other fabrics and clothes worn by the participants, and this is where the name of the meeting come from.
During the two week long meeting which consisted of jousting, dining, negotiations and socialising; one evening Catherine dined with the French king while Henry dined with the French queen Claude; even no proof exist to confirm it, it is very possible that one of queen Claude´s ladies-in-waiting served as interpreter by the English and the French on some occasions; Anne Boleyn.
The meeting took place on neutral ground and when the two kings met for the very first time, they rode towards each other from opposite sides of an open field, only to embrace when they met in the middle.
In the jousting the two kings fought together as “brothers” instead of against each other, but it seems like Henry was the more gifted one in that field. There exist a story of a wrestling match where Francis allegedly won over Henry, but oddly enough it seems the only contemporary source that exist is that of king Francis´s best friend.
It turned out in the end that from a political point of view, the joviality between the two monarchs wasn´t worth much. Only two years later, when conflict ensued between Francis and Charles V, Henry took the side of his wife´s nephew, Charles, and the hereditary animosity of between the respective crowns continued for the time being.
Henry VIII – Lucy Wooding
Anglo-French Relations under Henry VIII/Tudor England and its Neighbours – Glenn Richardson