Portable Palaces: The Field of Cloth of Gold, 1520

Four hundred and ninety seven years ago today – 7th June 1520 – Henry VIII and Francis I, the kings of England and France respectively, met each other for the first time in a field between the two small towns of Guînes and Ardres, a little to the south of Calais, in northern France.

Under a tent made of cloth of gold in the bottom of a shallow valley with their large retinues looking on from the crests of two opposing hills, the two kings embraced and declared themselves brothers and equals. Their meeting, long in the planning, was arranged to ratify a peace treaty signed in London two years earlier that, for the time-being at least, signalled a cessation of hostilities between the great European powers. This meeting and the festivities that followed it has become known to history as the Field of Cloth of Gold. A painting of the event, painted about two decades later, hangs at Hampton Court Palace.

British School, The Field of Cloth of Gold, oil on canvas, c.1545, Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (RCIN: 405794)

Despite the pleasantries for the two and a half weeks following their first meeting, the two kings engaged in political one-upmanship. They and their attendants took each other on on the tournament field at jousting and by foot combats, with bouts of wrestling, and through great banquets at which each tried to out-do the other’s lavishness and hospitality.

For me, however, as I continue to research tents and ephemeral architecture, it is the temporary buildings and the encampments themselves that fascinate me the most. Here, just as in the tournament lists and the banqueting halls, each side tried to out-do each other with the most elaborate and expensive structures. By all accounts the magnificent sight of hundreds of tents made from the finest fabrics meant that the event lived up to the name Field of Cloth of Gold.

Whenever anyone asks me why I’m interested in 16th century tents, I usually tell them about the tent that Francis I had made for the Field of Cloth of Gold which he pitched just outside Ardres where he was based for the duration. It was made of valuable cloth of gold and blue velvet strewn with golden fleur d’lys. At the top of the central pole was a six-foot tall gilded statue of St Michael. It is probably this tent that is shown in the background of the painting at Hampton Court (although the artist seems to mistakenly depict it as the location for the two kings’ first meeting).

Detail of the painting of the Field of Cloth of Gold showing a representation of Francis I’s tent. British School, The Field of Cloth of Gold, oil on canvas, c.1545, Royal Collection Trust /© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (RCIN: 405794)

What the painting cannot express is the scale of this tent. According to one Italian observer it rose to a height of 120 feet (36.5m) in the centre. The tent pole was so large that it was made of two ships’ masts lashed together and had to be erected by a team of sailors. To put that into perspective, it’s about the same height as the White Tower at the Tower of London from its lowest point, or the equivalent of a ten-storey building. The extraordinary ingenuity and the massive expense involved in making this tent never cease to amaze me.

It may not come as too much of a surprise to learn that this huge tent blew over in the squally weather that preceded the meeting.

Alden Gregory

Curator of Historic Buildings and AHRC Leadership Fellow

Further reading: Glenn Richardson, The Field of Cloth of Gold, Yale University Press (2013)

Portable Palaces is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council

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