Historical Tales: 4—English - Charles Morris

The Field of the Cloth of Gold

It was the day fixed for the opening of the most brilliant pageant known to modern history. On the green space in front of the dilapidated castle of Guisnes, on the soil of France, but within what was known as the English pale, stood a summer palace of the amplest proportions and the most gorgeous decorations, which was furnished within with all that comfort demanded and art and luxury could provide. Let us briefly describe this magnificent palace, which had been prepared for the temporary residence of the English king.

The building was of wood, square in shape, each side being three hundred and twenty-eight feet long. On every side were oriel windows and curiously glazed clerestories, whose mullions and posts were overlaid with gold. In front of the grand entrance stood an embattled gate-way, having on each side statues of warriors in martial attitudes. From the gate to the palace sloped upward a long passage, flanked with images in bright armor and presenting "sore and terrible countenances." This led to an embowered landing-place, where, facing the great doors, stood antique figures girt with olive-branches.

Interiorly the palace halls and chambers were superbly decorated, white silk forming the ceilings of the passages and galleries, from which depended silken hangings of various colors and braided cloths, "which showed like bullion of fine braided gold." Roses set in lozenges, on a golden ground-work, formed the chamber ceilings. The wall spaces were decorated with richly carved and gilt panels, while embroidered silk tapestry hung from the windows and formed the walls of the corridors. In the state apartments the furniture was of princely richness, the whole domains of art and industry having been ransacked to provide their most splendid belongings. Exteriorly the building presented an equally ornate appearance, glass, gold-work, and ornamental hangings quite concealing the carpentry, so that "every quarter of it, even the least, was a habitation fit for a prince."

To what end, in the now far-away year of 1520, and in that rural locality, under the shadows of a castle which had fallen into irredeemable ruin, had such an edifice been built,—one which only the revenues of a kingdom, in that day, could have erected? Its purpose was a worthy one. France and England, whose intercourse for centuries had been one of war, were now to meet in peace. Crecy and Agincourt had been the last meeting-places of the monarchs of these kingdoms, and death and ruin had followed their encounters. Now Henry the Eighth of England and Francis the First of France were to meet in peace and amity, spending the revenues of their kingdoms not for armor of linked mail and death-dealing weapons, but for Splendid attire and richest pageantry, in token of friendship and fraternity between the two realms.

A century had greatly changed the relations of England and France. In 1420 Henry V. had recently won the great victory of Agincourt, and France lay almost prostrate at his feet. In 1520 the English possessions in France were confined to the seaport of Calais and a small district around it known as the "English pale." The castle of Guisnes stood just within the English border, the meeting between the two monarchs being fixed at the line of separation of the two kingdoms.

The palace we have described, erected for the habitation of King Henry and his suite, had been designed and ordered by Cardinal Wolsey, to whose skill in pageantry the management of this great festival had been consigned. Extensive were the preparations alike in England and in France. All that the island kingdom could furnish of splendor and riches was provided, not alone for the adornment of the king and his guard, but for the host of nobles and the multitude of persons of minor estate, who came in his train, the whole following of the king being nearly four thousand persons, while more than a thousand formed the escort of the queen. For the use of this great company had been brought nearly four thousand richly-caparisoned horses, with vast quantities of the other essentials of human comfort and regal display.

While England had been thus busy in preparing for the pageant, France had been no less active. Arde, a town near the English pale, had been selected as the dwelling-place of Francis and his train. As for the splendor of adornment of those who followed him, there seems to have been almost nothing worn but silks, velvets, cloth of gold and silver, jewels and precious stones, such being the costliness of the display that a writer who saw it humorously says, "Many of the nobles carried their castles, woods, and farms upon their backs."

Magnificent as was the palace built for Henry and his train, the arrangements for the French king and his train were still more imposing. The artistic taste of the French was contrasted with the English love for solid grandeur. Francis had proposed that both parties should lodge in tents erected on the field, and in pursuance of this idea there had been prepared "numerous pavilions, fitted up with halls, galleries, and chambers ornamented within and without with gold and silver tissue. Amidst golden balls and quaint devices glittering in the sun, rose a gilt figure of St. Michael, conspicuous for his blue mantle powdered with golden fleurs-de-lis, and crowning a royal pavilion of vast dimensions supported by a single mast. In his right hand he held a dart, in his left a shield emblazoned with the arms of France. Inside, the roof of the pavilion represented the canopy of heaven ornamented with stars and figures of the zodiac. The lodgings of the queen, of the Duchess d'Alenšon, the king's favorite sister, and of other ladies and princes of the of the tents, to the number of three or four hundred, emblazoned with the arms of their owners, were pitched on the banks of a small river outside the city walls."

No less abundant provision had been made for the residence of the English visitors. When King Henry looked from the oriel windows of his fairy palace, he saw before him a scene of the greatest splendor and the most incessant activity. The green space stretching southward from the castle was covered with tents of all shapes and sizes, many of them brilliant with emblazonry, while from their tops floated rich-colored banners and pennons in profusion. Before each tent stood a sentry, his lance point glittering like a jewel in the rays of the June sun. Here richly-caparisoned horses were prancing, there sumpter mules laden with supplies, and decorated with ribbons and flowers, made their slow way onward. Everywhere was movement, everywhere seemed gladness; merriment ruled supreme, the hilarity being doubtless heightened by frequent visits to gilded fountains, which spouted forth claret and hypocras into silver cups from which all might drink. Never had been seen such a picture in such a place. The splendor of color and decoration of the tents, the shining armor and gorgeous dresses of knights and nobles, the brilliancy of the military display, the glittering and gleaming effect of the pageant as a whole, rendering fitly applicable the name by which this royal festival has since been known, "The Field of the Cloth of Gold."

Two leagues separated Arde and Guisnes, two leagues throughout which the spectacle extended, rich tents and glittering emblazonry occupying the whole space, the canvas habitations of the two nations meeting at the dividing-line between England and France. It was a splendid avenue arranged for the movements of the monarchs of these two great kingdoms.

Henry VIII


Such was the scene: what were the ceremonies? They began with a grand procession, headed by Cardinal Wolsey, who, as representative of the king of England, made the first move in the game of ostentation. Before him rode fifty gentlemen, each wearing a great gold chain, while their horses were richly caparisoned with crimson velvet. His ushers, fifty other gentlemen, followed, bearing maces of gold which at one end were as large as a man's head. Next came a dignitary in crimson velvet, proudly carrying the cardinal's cross of gold, adorned with precious stones. Four lackeys, at tired in cloth of gold and with magnificent plumed bonnets in their hands, followed. Then came the cardinal himself, man and horse splendidly equipped, his strong and resolute face full of the pride and arrogance which marked his character, his bearing that of almost regal ostentation. After him followed an array of bishops and other churchmen, while a hundred archers of the king's guard completed the procession.

Reaching Arde, the cardinal dismounted in front of the royal tent, and, in the stateliest manner, did homage in his master's name to Francis, who received him with a courteous display of deference and affection. The next day the representatives of France returned this visit, with equal pomp and parade, and with as kindly a reception from Henry, while the English nobles feasted those of France in their lordliest fashion, so boisterous being their hospitality that they fairly forced their visitors into their tents.

These ceremonial preliminaries passed, the meeting of the two sovereigns came next in order. Henry had crossed the channel to greet Francis; Francis agreed to be the first to cross the frontier to greet him. June 7 was the day fixed. On this day the king of France left his tent amid the roar of cannon, and, followed by a noble retinue in cloth of gold and silver, made his way to the frontier, where was set up a gorgeous pavilion, in whose decorations the heraldries of England and France were commingled. In this handsome tent the two monarchs were to confer.

About the same time Henry set out, riding a powerful stallion, nobly caparisoned. At the border line between English and French territory the two monarchs halted, facing each other, each still on his own soil. Deep silence prevailed in the trains, and every eye was fixed on the two central figures.

They were strongly contrasted. Francis was tall but rather slight in figure, and of delicate features. Henry was stout of form, and massive but handsome of face. He had not yet attained those swollen proportions of face and figure in which history usually depicts him. Their attire was as splendid as art and fashion could produce. Francis was dressed in a mantle of cloth of gold, which fell over a jewelled cassock of gold frieze. He wore a bonnet of ruby velvet enriched with gems, while the front and sleeves of his mantle were splendid with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and "ropes of pearls." He rode a "beautiful horse covered with goldsmith's work."

Henry was dressed in cloth of silver damask, studded with gems, and ribbed with gold cloth, while his horse was gay with trappings of gold, embroidery and mosaic work. Altogether the two men were as splendid in appearance as gold, silver, jewelry, and the costliest tissues could make them,—and as different in personal appearance as two men of the same race could well be.

The occasion was not alone a notable one, it was to some extent a critical one. For centuries the meetings of French and English kings had been hostile; could they now be trusted to be peaceful? Might not the sword of the past be hidden in the olive branch of the present? Suppose the lords of France should seize and hold captive the English king, or the English lords act with like treachery towards the French king, what years of the outpouring of blood and treasure might follow! Apprehensions of such treachery were not wanting. The followers of Francis looked with doubt on the armed men in Henry's escort. The English courtiers in like manner viewed with eyes of question the archers and cavaliers in the train of Francis. Lord Abergavenny ran to King Henry as he was about to mount for the ride to the French frontier.

"Sire," he said, anxiously, "ye be my lord and sovereign; wherefore, above all, I am bound to show you the truth and not be let for none. I have been in the French party, and they be more in number,—double so many as ye be."

"Sire," answered Lord Shrewsbury, "whatever my lord of Abergavenny sayeth, I myself have been there, and the Frenchmen be more in fear of you and your subjects than your subjects be of them. Wherefore, if I were worthy to give counsel, your grace should march forward."

Bluff King Harry had no thought of doing anything else. The doubt which shook the souls of some of his followers, did not enter his.

"So we intend, my lord," he briefly answered, and rode forward.

For a moment the two kings remained face to face, gazing upon each other in silence. Then came a burst of music, and, spurring their horses, they galloped forward, and in an instant were hand in hand. Three times they embraced; then, dismounting, they again embraced, and walked arm in arm towards the pavilion. Brief was the conference within, the constables of France and England keeping strict ward outside, with swords held at salute. Not till the monarchs emerged was the restraint broken. Then Henry and Francis were presented to the dignitaries of the opposite nation, their escorts fraternized, barrels of wine were broached, and as the wine-cups were drained the toast, "Good friends, French and English," was cheerily repeated from both sides. The nobles were emulated in this by their followers, and the good fellowship of the meeting was signalized by abundant revelry, night only ending the merry-making.

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday passed in exchange of courtesies, and in preparations for the tournament which was to be the great event of the occasion. On Sunday afternoon Henry crossed the frontier to do homage to the queen of France, and Francis offered the same tribute to the English queen. Henry rode to Arde in a dress that was heavy with gold and jewels, and was met by the queen and her ladies, whose beauty was adorned with the richest gems and tissues and the rarest laces that the wealth and taste of the time could command. The principal event of the reception was a magnificent dinner, whose service was so rich and its viands so rare and costly that the chronicler confesses himself unequal to the task of describing it. Music, song, and dancing filled up the intervals between the courses, and all went merrily until five o'clock, when Henry took his leave, entertaining the ladies as he did so with an exhibition of his horsemanship, he making his steed to "bound and curvet as valiantly as man could do." On his road home he met Francis, returning from a like reception by the queen of England. "What cheer?" asked the two kings as they cordially embraced, with such a show of amity that one might have supposed them brothers born.

The next day was that set for the opening of the tournament. This was to be held in a park on the high ground between Arde and Guisnes. On each aide of the enclosed space long galleries, hung with tapestry, were erected for the spectators, a specially adorned box being prepared for the two queens. Triumphal arches marked each entrance to the lists, at which stood French and English archers on guard. At the foot of the lists was erected the "tree of noblesse," on which were to be hung the shields of those about to engage in combat. It bore "the noble thorn [the sign of Henry] entwined with raspberry" [the sign of Francis]; around its trunk was wound cloth of gold and green damask; its leaves were formed of green silk, and the fruit that hung from its limb was made of silver and Venetian gold.

Henry and Francis, each supported by some eighteen of their noblest subjects, designed to hold the lists against all comers, it being, however, strictly enjoined that sharp-pointed weapons should not be used, lest serious accidents, as in times past, might take place. Various other rules were made, of which we shall only name that which required the challenger who was worsted in any combat to give "a gold token to the lady in whose cause the comer fights."

Shall we tell the tale of this show of mimic war? Splendid it was, and, unlike the tournaments of an older date, harmless. The lists were nine hundred feet long and three hundred and twenty broad, the galleries bordering them being magnificent with their hosts of richly-attired lords and ladies and the vari-colored dresses of the archers and others of lesser blood. For two days, Monday and Thursday, Henry and Francis held the lists. In this sport Henry displayed the skill and prowess of a true warrior. Francis could scarcely wield the swords which his brother king swept in circles around his head. When he spurred, with couched lance, upon an antagonist, his ease and grace aroused the plaudits of the spectators, which became enthusiastic as saddle after saddle was emptied by the vigor of his thrust.

Next to Henry in strength and prowess was Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who vied with the king for the honors of the field. "The king of England and Suffolk did marvels," says the chronicler. On the days when the monarchs did not appear in the field lesser knights strove for the honors of the joust, wrestling-matches helped to amuse the multitude of spectators, and the antics of mummers wound up the sports of the day. Only once did Henry and Francis come into friendly contest. This was in a wrestling-match, from which the French king, to the surprise of the spectators, carried off the honors. By a clever twist of the wrestler's art, he managed to throw his burly brother king. Henry's face was red with the hot Tudor blood when he rose, his temper had been lost in his fall, and there was anger in the tone in which he demanded a renewal of the contest. But Francis was too wise to fan a triumph into a quarrel, and by mild words succeeded in smoothing the frown from Henry's brow.

For some two weeks these entertainments lasted, the genial June sun shining auspiciously upon the lists. From the galleries shone two minor luminaries, the queens of England and France, who were always present, "with their ladies richly dressed in jewels, and with many chariots, litters, and hackneys covered with cloth of gold and silver, and emblazoned with their arms." They occupied a glazed gallery hung with tapestry, where they were often seen in conversation, a pleasure not so readily enjoyed by their ladies in waiting, most of whom had to do their talking through the vexatious aid of an interpreter.

During most of the time through which the tournament extended the distrust of treachery on one side or the other continued. Francis never entered the English pale unless Henry was on French soil. Henry was similarly distrustful. Or, rather, the distrust lay in the advisers of the monarchs, and as the days went on grew somewhat offensive. Francis was the first to break it, and to show his confidence in the good faith, of his brother monarch. One morning early he crossed the frontier and entered the palace at Guisnes while Henry was still in bed, or, as some say, was at breakfast. To the guards at the gate he playfully said, "Surrender your arms, you are all my prisoners; and now conduct me to my brother of England." He accosted Henry with the utmost cordiality, embracing him and saying, in a merry tone,—

"Here you see I am your prisoner."

"My brother," cried Henry, with the warmest pleasure, "you have played me the most agreeable trick in the world, and have showed me the full confidence I may place in you. I surrender myself your prisoner from this moment."

Costly presents passed between the two monarchs, and from that moment all restraint was at an end. Each rode to see the other when he chose, their attendants mingled with the same freedom and confidence, and during the whole time not a quarrel, or even a dispute, arose between the sons of England and France. In the lists they used spear and sword with freedom, but out of them they were the warmest of friends.

On Sunday, June 24, the tournament closed with a solemn mass sung by Wolsey, who was assisted by the ecclesiastics of the two lands. When the gospels were presented to the two kings to kiss, there was a friendly contest as to who should precede. And at the Agnus Dei, when the Pax  was presented to the two queens, a like contest arose, which ended in their kissing each other in lieu of the sacred emblem.

At the close of the services a showy piece of fireworks attracted the attention of the spectators. "There appeared in the air from Arde a great artificial salamander or dragon, four fathoms long and full of fire; many were frightened, thinking it a comet or some monster, as they could see nothing to which it was attached; it passed right over the chapel to Guisnes as fast as a footman can go, and as high as a bolt from a cross-bow." A splendid banquet followed, which concluded the festivities of the "Field of the Cloth of Gold." The two kings entered the lists again, but now only to exchange farewells. Henry made his way to Calais; Francis returned to Abbeyville: the great occasion was at an end.

What was its result? Amity between the two nations; a century of peace and friendship? Not so. In a month Henry had secretly allied himself to Charles the Fifth against Francis of France. In five years was fought the battle of Pavia, between France and the Emperor Charles, in which Francis, after showing great valor on the field, was taken prisoner. "All is lost, except honor," he wrote. Such was the sequel of the "Field of the Cloth of Gold."