Our history : What the owner of Middleton Hall was doing 500 years ago? – The Field of the Cloth of Gold

June 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This famous and very extravagant summit between King Francis I of France and King Henry VIII of England took place between the 7th and 24th June 1520. The summit gained its name because of its extravagance with so much expensive cloth of gold on show. Sir Henry Willoughby of Middleton Hall went to the Field of the Cloth of Gold as part of the English Queen Katherine of Aragon’s retinue.

The aim of this summit was to improve the fledgling good relationship between the traditional enemies of France and England. This was achieved in the traditional renaissance manner of a show of extravagance with both sides trying to outdo the other in terms of wealth and prowess. At this time, England was being courted as a lesser but strategically important ally by both of the major powers of Europe: Francis I of France; and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

The summit was held at a place called Balinghem, which at that time was just in the Pale of Calais and consequently part of England. The English were based at Guînes and the French, on the French side of the border, at Ardres. Between them, on the English side, a Camp was erected where tournaments were held. One of the most stunning features of this summit were the temporary structures constructed for the event, which included a palace for King Henry VIII.

Fab5669/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

The new ostentatious temporary palace built by King Henry VIII for the summit at Guînes consisted of four blocks around a central courtyard that were each 328 feet (100m) long and encompassed an area of 1,312 feet (about 12,000 square yards or 10,000m2). The foundations were brick and the walls were timber-framed with cloth affixed to the timber to resemble either brick or stone masonry. Even the roof was made of an oiled cloth painted a lead colour to make it resemble slate. Every window was gold gilt, so that the structure appeared to shine in the sun. Inside, the walls were covered with rich cloths and tapestries. The English retinue consisted of a total of about 5,804 people and 3,223 horses. Although the palace contained a great many rooms it was still not enough to provide lodgings for all of the nobles. Therefore, many tents were erected in the adjacent field, said to be about 820, which only added to the spectacular sight. The palace did not only contain the lodgings but also the official state rooms and the working rooms necessary to run a household.

Before the entrance gate to the palace, a fountain was constructed that was gilded with gold and a colour described as bice, which was a green-blue colour. The fountain was engraved with the image of Bacchus, the God of wine. Bacchus was depicted pouring the wine, which by conduits generously poured out of the fountain to all the people. The fountain poured red, white and claret wine. On the other side of the gate was a pillar of an ancient Roman design that bore four gold Lions. The pillar was wrapped in a wreath of interwoven gold and on the summit was a statue of Cupid with his bow and arrows of love ready to strike.

King Francis I had commanded that his lodging was to be made near the town of Ardres in the territory of an old ruined castle. There, a large tent supported by two large masts was erected. The roof hung on a second mast and the ropes and tackle bore the colour blue set with stars of gold foil. The orbs of the heavens by the use of colours in the roof were curiously wrought in a manner like the sky and a crescent angled towards the town of Ardres. The crescent was covered with frets and knots and made of yew bushes and box branches and other things that would remain green for a long time. The French encampment was said to contain a further 300-400 elaborately decorated tents of velvet and gold cloth.

The area called the Camp was 900 feet in length, 320 feet in breadth and surrounded by broad and deep ditches except at the entrance. Numerous stands were created around the Camp for the ease of the viewers, including special ones for the Queens. It was noted that on the stage for Queen Katherine hung an expensive tapestry made completely of pearls called “Huges Dyke”.

Giogo/Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA

The first meeting of the two Kings took place on the 7th June. On this day the Kings with their entire retinues of Marqueses, Dukes, Earls, Lords, Knights, Squires, Gentlemen, Bishops and their footmen lined up in their finest clothing and after firing a cannon towards the other settlement, both sides began to march (or ride on their horses) towards each other. When they came face to face the Kings dismounted and went into a large cloth of gold tent where the formal addresses explaining the reason for the summit were spoken. Afterwards came the first banquet.

Apart from the banquet at the first meeting, the other main banquets were held on the 16th June and at the end of the summit on 23rd and 24th June. At the banquets on the 16th and the 24th, the Kings switched places. King Francis going to Guînes and was entertained by Queen Katherine whilst, at the same time, King Henry went to Ardres and was entertained by Queen Claude. On both of those occasions Henry and his accompanying noblemen went in masked clothing, whereas Francis only went in masked apparel to the last banquet. There was much dancing and music. It is even said that a firework display, with a firework in the shape of a dragon, took place at Guînes.

The 9th June was another formal ceremonial day where the shields of the Kings and their challengers for the upcoming sporting events were placed on a symbolic tree that had been constructed on a hill next to the Camp. Those that were to answer the challenge then brought their shields to the tree. This tree was a mix of Hawthorn (symbolising King Henry) and Raspberry (symbolising King Francis). It was artificially wrought but with such skill as to resemble nature as much as possible. The leaves were made of green damask and the trunk, branches, boughs and withered leaves were made of cloth of gold affixed to timber. The trees were 33 feet tall, 43 feet wide and covered an area of about 129 feet. On the trees were flowers and fruits that were wrought in silver and Venice gold.

From the 11th June to 19th June the jousting took place in the Camp. The Kings and their challengers faced in turn the band of the answerer to the challenge. All participants, including their horses, wore extensive expensive armour as well as rich clothing. Throughout the jousting events, King Francis came in different attire each day, which through embroidered images and words created part of a sentence on each appearance.

The 20th and the 21st June was the Tournament competition. On horseback with swords the Kings and their challengers fought against the answerers. Injuries were unsurprisingly commonplace and there were required to be a number of substitutions of those taking part for the second day. This time it was King Henry who wore the symbolic attire. On one day branches of Eglantine (Rosa rubiginosa) were embroidered onto the cloth. This was to symbolise pleasantness and sweetness when handled gently, but when handled harshly it would prick and hurt. A symbolism that went beyond just the imminent use of swords!

Friday 22nd June was dedicated to wrestling, archery and battles on foot at the barrier with spears, swords (both single and double handled) and darts. The Lord of Fleuranges wrote that King Henry was a wonderfully good, strong archer that made it a pleasure to watch. It had been carefully arranged so that the Kings would not compete against each other during the summit. However, King Henry suddenly challenged King Francis to a wrestling match, which rather soured the mood when Henry quickly lost.

The summit concluded on the 24th June with the exchange of gifts between King Henry and King Francis. It was hoped that the scale and sight of this summit would prove to be a good omen for the future relationship. Ultimately, it had little political impact. From the French perspective, it was a very expensive failure. In the end an alliance between England and the Holy Roman Empire was agreed instead. The fledgling good relationship between England and France worsened when the Holy Roman Empire went to war with France the following year (Four Years’ War, 1521-1526). England and France found themselves on opposite sides of the battlefields. Ironically, the first town that England captured in that war was Ardres!

The event is commemorated by an annual celebration at Guînes and a commemorative plaque to mark the site.

Debbie Jordan, Middleton Hall Trust Volunteer & Historian