When Henry VIII Met Francis I: The Field of the Cloth of Gold

In 1520, two of Europe’s greatest leaders, Henry VIII and Francis I, met to discuss a treaty of eternal peace.

Jun 22, 2024By Elizabeth Morgan, BA History w/ Tudor concentration

field of cloth of gold francis i


Anyone with an interest in European history will be familiar with the Field of the Cloth of Gold. This event—a two week peace-summit between England and France—is remembered as the greatest spectacle of the sixteenth century. Although it achieved very little politically, it is sure to have been one of the grandest displays of wealth and kingship ever staged.


Let us venture back to the most exciting of times—the summer of 1520—to attempt to discover what happened when France and England finally put down their swords after centuries of war and dispute. Why, when, and how did King Henry VIII meet King Francis I?


Beginning With the Basics: Who was King Francis I of France?

Francis I, by Jean Clouet, 1527-30, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Although he is now considered one of the more successful French kings, Francis I was not born to wear the crown. He was originally known not as king, not as prince, and not even as duke. Yes, during his earliest years, this future monarch was known simply as “Francis of Orleans.” 


Francis’ father was a Count (Charles of Angouleme), and his mother was the famously clever and politically savvy regent, Louise of Savoy. Their family home was the Chateau de Cognac, an impressive, tenth-century Castle in the French department of Charente.

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At the time of his birth in September of 1494, the young Francis was certainly not expected to inherit the throne from his third cousin, the young King Charles VIII. His ties to Royalty were distant but legitimate; Francis was the great-great-grandson of King Charles V.


However, for the next four years of his life, the prospect of kingship grew steadily more and more likely for Francis. While he was still an infant, he inherited the Earldom of Angouleme on the death of his father and became a Count in his own right. This may seem grand enough for a three-and-a-half year-old child to be getting on with, but things continued to escalate at an alarming rate.


At the age of just 27, as a result of a sudden head injury, Charles VIII died unexpectedly and without an heir. He was immediately succeeded by a new King, Louis XII, who conveniently also lacked a dauphin to rule after him. He would later produce two daughters, Claude and Renee, but thanks to the Salic Law which prevented women from inheriting the throne, they were ruled out of the line of succession.


Coat of Arms Claude of France, by Odejea, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Having not even reached his fourth birthday, Francis suddenly found himself automatically named Heir Presumptive. This meant that he was presumed to take the throne on the death of the king, but could theoretically be displaced by the arrival of a prince. As was befitting his new station, Francis was swiftly vested with a new title, that of Duke of Valois.


It was not until 17 years later that Francis inherited the throne from Louis XII. Disappointingly, and not for want of trying, Louis failed to produce a boy, and became the next in a line of French Kings to die without male issue. By this time, Francis was already married to Louis’ daughter Claude, who also happened to be Heir Presumptive to the Duchy of Brittany through her mother, Anne. The new King Francis was crowned, at the age of 20, in the Cathedral of Reims on the twenty-fifth of January 1515. Claude stood beside him as his beloved Queen Consort.


Throughout his reign, just like King Henry VIII, Francis I attempted to paint himself as the very picture of a successful Renaissance Prince. He was extremely capable both physically and mentally, was proficient in many languages, and had great understanding of many academic subjects.


Not only was he interested in scholarly topics such as geography, arithmetic, Hebrew, Latin, and history, but he was also skillful in pleasures such as tennis, jousting, hunting, riding, wrestling, dancing, music, and chivalry.


King Francis was also keen to establish himself, and his country, as one of the strongest European nations. The moment he placed himself on the throne, he set about continuing the work of his predecessors. Their dream had been to complete the conquest of Milan and Naples, and Francis took it upon himself to rise to the challenge. Most notably, Francis defeated the Swiss at the Battle of Marignano in 1515.


Francis I on horseback, by Francois Clouet, 1540, Source: Fine Art America


The Encyclopaedia Britannica, a lengthy and trusted publication written in Victorian Britain, gives many favorable descriptions of King Francis I and his reign. According to his entry, King Francis was “a renaissance patron of the arts and scholarship, a humanist, and a knightly king, he waged campaigns in Italy and fought a series of wars with the Holy Roman Empire.”


The British historian, Glen Richardson, described the rule of King Francis as a great triumph. “Under Francis,” he began, “the Court of France was at the height of its prestige and international influence during the sixteenth century.” He continued, “Although opinion has varied considerably over the centuries since his death, his cultural legacy to France, to its Renaissance, was immense and ought to secure his reputation as among the greatest of its kings.”


Little wonder there was some rivalry between Francis and the competitive King Henry of England. Whether they liked it or not, these two kings just happened to rule neighboring countries throughout the same decades; Henry from 1509-1547, and Francis from 1515-1547. Their first recorded face-to-face meeting took place in June of 1520, at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.


The Treaty of London

Henry VIII and the Barbor Surgeons, by Hans Holbein the Younger, 16th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


We know that the Field of the Cloth of Gold took place in Calais and that it was held to bring peace between the two kings. We also know that it began on the 7th and ended on the 24th of June during the year 1520 and that nothing so magnificent had ever taken place in Europe before.


However, to understand why it was necessary for King Francis to meet with King Henry in the first place (and why it was necessary to put on such an exhibition), we must first rewind through two years of history, and focus for a moment on the summer of 1518.


It was around this time that Cardinal Wolsey (Chief advisor to King Henry VIII and supreme power in England), was beginning to work on one of the riskiest but greatest projects of his lifetime. This project would soon become known as the Treaty of London, and it was with this Treaty that Cardinal Wolsey intended to unite England peacefully with every other nation in Europe. The idea was originally conceived by Cardinal Wolsey himself, and the terms of the Treaty were considered, negotiated, and confirmed under his expert guidance.


The basic terms of the Treaty of London could not have been more simple. Firstly, all participating nations agreed that they would not attack each other under any circumstance. (if obeyed, this in itself would have been nothing short of a miracle).


Secondly, all participating nations would join together and come to the aid of any other participating nation that found themselves under attack from a foreign nation. Lastly, participating nations who broke the Treaty by attacking another participating nation would find themselves not only excluded from the Treaty but united against by all other nations in Europe.


Map of Europe in 1500, Source: Brilliantmaps.com


Essentially, the Treaty of London was a promise of enduring friendship between all those who had been invited to join. Signatories included Burgundy, the Holy Roman Empire, Sweden, Portugal, the Netherlands, the Papal States, and Spain. All in all, there were twenty leading states in Europe. At the time, the Grand Duchy of Moscow and the Ottoman Empire were considered part of Asia.


Surely, it would have taken an extremely courageous, or extremely deluded leader to invade a country that was allied with nineteen others. In theory, this Treaty should have rendered all participating nations completely unshakeable.


Still, this agreement was not as attractive a prospect as we might imagine. Some nations took more persuading than others—and it was difficult to break old alliances and forgive old enemies. However, all the desired participants eventually agreed to Wolsey’s terms and sent their ambassadors to London. On the second day of October, the Treaty was signed under the watchful eye of Wolsey himself, and (of course) business was only concluded after a week of fun and frivolity, during which Wolsey flawlessly played the role of host.


It was all going so well for Wolsey and his Treaty of London, but unfortunately, within months of the consolidation of the Treaty, he sensed that there were still obvious tensions between two of the most important signatories. Yes, the ancient enemies of England and France were still finding it a challenge to get on amicably.


The Embarkation of King Henry VIII at Dover, by the British School, 1520-40, Source The Royal Collections Trust


As usual, Cardinal Wolsey was quick to come up with a solution and suggested that the two kings meet. It was his hope that they would form a real, personal friendship, rather than just a political one. He proposed a summit between the Courts of England and France, stating clearly that it would be held midway between London and Paris, preferably on neither man’s territory. Both kings would be treated as equals in all ways, for the duration of the excursion. Possibly to Cardinal Wolsey’s surprise, both King Henry and King Francis were willing to go through with the idea.


Just a few months later, in January of 1519, Cardinal Wolsey was officially appointed as proctor for arranging the meeting, in accordance with the terms of the Treaty of London. King Francis wrote to Cardinal Wolsey with his approval; “power is sent from King Francis I of France to Cardinal Wolsey, by the bailly of Caen, to arrange the interview between himself and King Henry. The interview is to be between Guisnes and Ardre, where the pavilions of them and their suites may be pitched.”


Cardinal Wolsey now had the enormous and unenviable responsibility of making this meeting a success. If any element of the excursion happened to go wrong, it would undoubtedly be him who received the blame. Judging by the volume of letters and documents that passed through his hands throughout the year, it is fair to assume that he thought of very little else until the moment of their departure.


Francis the Dauphin, by Corneille de Lyon, 1536, Source: The Gardner Museum


Although the terms of the Treaty of London had already been agreed, sustaining a relationship with France would be a little more difficult than it would with some of the other, more neutral nations. England and France had been enemies for as long as anyone could remember; their histories were littered with victories and defeats, treaties and marriages, wars and appeasements.


In the hope of dispelling the tension, Cardinal Wolsey put forth some more appealing proposals. Mary, King Henry’s two-year-old daughter, would be married to little Francis, the French Dauphin. England would also release hostages taken at the Battle of Tournai in 1515. In exchange for these gifts, France was to agree not to support their old enemy, Scotland, in their ongoing and usually fruitless campaign against England. Last but not least, there was to be a treaty of universal peace and a joint crusade, beginning on an unspecified date, against the Turks.


These were just a few of the items for discussion at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. All discussions would be held chiefly by French and English advisors as they attempted to further their political friendship. In the meantime, the Kings and their followers would attempt to further their personal friendship either on the dancefloor, at the banqueting table, or on the tiltyard.


The Field of the Cloth of Gold: Incredible Facts and Figures

Wrestling match at the Field of the Cloth of Gold on tapestry, 1520, Source: Wikimedia Commons


As we have nothing to measure it against in our modern world, it can be difficult to bring to mind a picture of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and to do justice to its enormity and magnificence. The field would have been a sumptuous sight to look upon; for two weeks, the site of Balinghem in the English Pale of Calais was draped in beautiful, shimmering gold cloth.


Extremely elaborate arrangements were made for the accommodation of the Kings and their retinues, and over two thousand tents were brought for the visitors of lesser importance. Most wonderfully of all, a temporary palace, which required twelve thousand square yards, was erected to house the English entourage. Rumor had it that the fountain in the center of its courtyard flowed night and day with wine. King Francis commissioned an army of tentmakers to construct pavilions from the finest fabrics in France. The result of their work has been described as utterly spectacular.


The Field of the Cloth of Gold, by British School, 1545, Source: The Royal Collection Trust


Although it was originally intended that King Henry and King Francis should be equal for the duration of the summit, the truth remained that they spent much of their time attempting to outshine each other with their dazzling clothes, their skills and talents, and even with their attractive companions.


The numbers present at the Field of the Cloth of Gold were staggering; Cardinal Wolsey alone brought with him 300 servants. Participants included one host (Cardinal Wolsey), one cat (his feline companion), two monkeys (having been brought for entertainment), two kings, two queens, and five cardinals (Wolsey, Adrien Gouffier de Boissy, Francois Louis de Bourbon, and Amanieu d’Albret). Altogether, the English entourage amounted to 5,172 people.


Also required for the summit were 3,217 horses, 6,475 birds, 29,518 fish, 98,050 eggs, and one million pieces of firewood for burning. The whole thing was likely to have cost around 19 million pounds.


King Francis I and King Henry VIII: Their First Meeting

Henry VIII meeting Francis I, by John Leech, 1850, Source: Meisterdrucke.ie


At six o’clock in the evening on the 7th of June, after two years of build-up and intense preparation, King Henry VIII and King Francis I laid eyes on each other for the first time. Quite possibly with mixed feelings of curiosity, jealousy, and affection, they rode out to meet each other formally, in the presence of their courtiers.


Although they were surrounded by friends, family, advisors, and servants, the kings chose to approach each other alone in a shallow valley; the French party waiting on one side, and the English on the other. This they did without the protection of the guards, in order to demonstrate their trust of each other. “On coming near each other, instead of putting their hands to their swords,” as a French chronicler artistically phrased it, “each put his hand to his bonnet.”


When they dismounted, to the joy of both the English and French entourage, the two kings did something completely unexpected, and completely unprecedented. They embraced each other warmly, as if they had known each other their whole lives. Their friendly feelings confirmed, they walked together towards a tent with small parties of nobles, friends, and advisors.


Amusingly, as they approached the entrance of the tent, a small dispute broke out over which king should enter last, each preferring the other to have the privilege of going first. Interestingly, it was Cardinal Wolsey who was selected to enter ahead of them, while the two kings walked in simultaneously, practically arm-in-arm with each other. The chronicler continued, “after a dispute of which king should go last, the kings entered together, and Wolsey entered before them.” 


King Francis I and King Henry VIII: Their Final Parting

Henry VIII, by Joos van Cleve, 1530-35, Source: The Royal Collection Trust


On the 23rd of June, the penultimate day of the event, both King Francis and King Henry attended a final Mass together. Alongside their Queens and their most trusted friends and advisors, they entered into a purpose-built, elaborately decorated chapel. As expected, the Mass was said by none other than Cardinal Wolsey.


During the service, both King Francis and King Henry took it in turn to sing the refrains, which the English Chronicler Edward Hall (1496-1547), claimed was “heavenly to hear.” Once the Mass had been completed, the kings and queens proceeded to the gallery beside the chapel to dine together in great style. This was a final evening of pleasure; in the morning the two courts would bid each other farewell.


And what better way for two kings to part than with the exchanging of gifts? According to Edward Hall, on the 24th of June, King Francis and King Henry expressed a genuine regret that their summit had come to an end.


The kings, queens, princes, and princesses exchanged gifts of horses, litters, necklaces, jewels, and other extravagant goods. King Henry kept his part of the deal by returning the hostages who had been taken at the Battle of Tournai just a few years earlier.


As a final sign of their friendship, King Francis and King Henry were determined to build a Chapel in the Val Dore, the valley in which they first met, for the daily performance of Mass. It seemed to all that the Field of the Cloth of Gold had been a success, and that King Henry and King Francis had healed the wounds of their past and formed a true liking of one another.


The Field of the Cloth of Gold in Art: Locating Henry VIII, Francis I, and Wolsey

The Field of the Cloth of Gold with arrows indicating interesting subjects


One of our most reliable depictions of the Field of the Cloth of Gold is the artwork which appears above. It is simply entitled The Field of the Cloth of Gold, and was painted by an unknown artist.


The work was probably painted within 25 years of the summit—a summit which probably took place within the artist’s living memory—and it was likely to have been commissioned by King Henry VIII himself. The work has since been acquired by the largest private art collection in the world, also known as The Royal Collection. 


The arrows that have been added to the work above point out some of the most fascinating elements of the scene. Look towards the black arrow—here we are given a wonderful interpretation of the Field of the Cloth of Gold Dragon—some historians believe it to have been a kite and that it was flown to signify the climax at the summit on its penultimate day. Others go as far as to say that the dragon was carefully designed to demonstrate the equality of the two kings and that the kite represented both the salamander (the emblem of King Francis) and the dragon (to celebrate King Henry’s Welsh blood).


According to eyewitness accounts, the dragon was capable of breathing fire and smoke and hissing. This, in 16th-century Calais, would have been quite something to behold.


Now look towards the red arrow; here we see King Henry VIII as he rides out to meet King Francis on the seventh day of June. At the yellow arrow, we see Cardinal Wolsey riding onto the field beside Henry. The green arrow shows King Henry making a second appearance on the scene, greeting King Francis inside the tent. The pink arrow shows Queen Catherine of Aragon and Queen Claude acting as spectators at a jousting tournament. Finally, the white arrow shows King Henry and King Francis enjoying the tournament from a private viewing station.


The Field of The Cloth of Gold and its Political Outcome

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, portrayed on The Spanish Princess, Source: Entertainment Weekly


Although renowned for its dazzling and visually pleasing successes, the Field of the Cloth of Gold is by no means remembered for being a political triumph. In truth, more critical historians conclude that the two-week summit was less of an alliance-building project and more of a chance to show off the wealth and power of the two courts. Essentially, it may as well have been a holiday arranged solely for the enjoyment of the Kings and their circles.


To the orchestrator, Cardinal Wolsey, the whole endeavor may very well have seemed like a gross waste of his own effort, time, and money. Since he spent a whole two years of his life finalizing the Treaty of London and organizing the Field of the Cloth of Gold, he is sure to have been disappointed to achieve very little in return for his works.


Under the instruction of their fathers, the Princess Mary and the French Dauphin never married as was planned. The young Francis died, young and unmarried, at the age of 18. Waiting until she was Queen and permitted to make her own choice of husband, Mary remained loyal to her mother’s Spanish heritage and married King Philip II of Spain.


As for the other nations and their allegiance to the Treaty of London—that was another thing that simply fizzled out over a short period of time. The peace that the Treaty of London produced was over before it had had the chance to begin and, unfortunately for Cardinal Wolsey, the agreement promptly fell to pieces.


With full knowledge that it would enrage the French Council, King Henry VIII chose to befriend King Charles V within days of the Field of the Cloth of Gold, and Denmark and Sweden commenced a war of their own. Pope Leo X had never truly approved of peace-making to begin with and would have rathered that these nations unite with him solely for the defense of Rome. A few years later, King Francis I, the man who named himself as the most Christian King, allied himself not with the Pope but with the Turkish Muslim Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, in order to force Charles V to accept the Treaty of Cambrai.


Francis I and Suleiman the Magnificent, by Titian, 1530, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite Cardinal Wolsey’s good intentions, neither the Field of the Cloth of Gold nor the Treaty of London secured the lasting peace that he had hoped for. The terms went wholly ignored, and unrest between England and France continued indefinitely.


Nonetheless, the story of the Field of the Cloth of Gold remains one of the best-known in Tudor history. The significance of the moment at which King Francis I of France met King Henry VIII of England should never be underestimated or forgotten.

Author Image

By Elizabeth MorganBA History w/ Tudor concentrationElizabeth is a historian, writer, and student with a passionate interest in the Tudor era. She also enjoys religious history, mythology, and Renaissance art. Recently she has studied King Henry VIII at Oxford University and history at the Open University and the University of Roehampton. She has also gained two Certificates (King Henry VIII & The Tudors) and a History Diploma (The Tudors). Elizabeth lives in Wales, United Kingdom, and can often be found exploring its many castles, cathedrals, and churches. She regularly writes about her trips to Museums and Heritage sites. Much of her research is dedicated to Cardinal Wolsey. She is the Founder of The Cardinal Wolsey Society, writes daily articles, and publishes its monthly newsletter.