The Field of the Cloth of Gold
In the year 1520 there were three kings of Europe, all of whom were young men and very ambitious. One was Henry VIII of England, one was Francis I of France, and the other was Charles V of Germany. The question was which two should unite against the other one.
In that year war between France and Germany was threatened. The king of each country was anxious to have Henry VIII as his ally. Now, Francis of France and Henry of England had never met, and in order to bring about an alliance between the two monarchs a great meeting upon a plain near Calais in France was arranged. It was planned that Henry should establish his court at Guines, while Francis stayed at Ardres, the two towns being not far apart. The monarchs were then to meet between the two towns.
Both these monarchs were very fond of display; particularly so was Henry of England. He was fond of dress and jewels and horses, and all of his life had enjoyed himself to the fullest extent. Consequently Henry desired the meeting to be a very gorgeous one; but on the other hand, Francis, who was poor, and was saving his money for the war against Germany, did not desire an extravagant display, but wanted the meeting to be very simple.
In this Francis was over-ruled. Henry wanted a great show, and all of his lords and ministers were equally desirous of showing the power and splendor of England. So Francis, hearing what the English had made up their minds to do, determined to do likewise.
The French nobles tried to outdo one another in magnificence. It was said of them that they carried their mills and their forests and their friends on their backs, which meant that they had mortgaged their estates to provide clothes and jewels for the great occasion.
For weeks before the appointed time thousands of workmen from England, having crossed to France, were making ready a magnificent pavilion which was to be just outside the gates of Guines, for the English monarch and his retinue.
This pavilion was made of wood and covered with cloth to resemble stone. It contained a great quantity of glass, which was very costly and considered luxurious in those days when glass was scarce. All the parts of the pavilion had been carefully made in England to be put together after they had been shipped to France.
It was a square building, over three hundred feet long on each side. In it were beautiful apartments for the king and queen and all the nobles of their suite, and decorated with the utmost magnificence. Bright jewels shone upon the canopies over the royal chairs and were scattered on the carpet in front of the place where Henry and his wife were to sit. In the center of the square was an open court where fountains played water and wine. Near the pavilion was a chapel hung with tapestry and filled with the relics of the saints of England.
Francis of France could show no such magnificence as all this. Still he erected two fine buildings in Ardres, one for himself and the other for his queen. He built another one just outside his town, where the two monarchs were designed to meet.
At last Henry and his retinue crossed to France and established themselves at Guines, where they were to spend the nights, and in the magnificent pavilion, where they were to spend the days. Two days after the arrival of Henry, the long-expected meeting of the kings took place. They were both young men, very handsome and very ambitious, and had never met before.
In spite of a great show of friendliness there was suspicion on both sides. It was arranged that each monarch should leave his town at the same moment, and with the same number of followers and men-at-arms, for each of them feared treachery, Henry of England fearing it the more.
At the appointed time guns were fired from both towns as a signal for the monarchs to move. Each king rode forward a half a mile and halted, then approached the other slowly. Each train eyed the other curiously. An English lord exclaimed, "Sire, it seems to me there are more French than English upon the field. I advise your majesty to have the French counted before we proceed."
But the Earl of Shrewsbury rebuked the courier for his cowardliness and advised the king to move forward without fear. "So I shall, my lord," said Henry with decision, and then gave the order for his train to advance.
The monarchs came together. Henry was short and active, and rode his horse easily. His hair was of a golden hue and he wore a bushy beard beneath his chin. He was dressed in crimson velvet, trimmed with satin, and rode a magnificent Spanish horse.
Francis was tall and slender and dark, but he was quite as handsome as his English rival. He was dressed in silver cloth, trimmed with gold. The dress of the two monarchs dazzled the eyes of all beholders.
Each rode in front of his train and greeted the other. The horse that Henry was riding became nervous and swerved aside, but Francis reached out his hand and caught it firmly by the bridle. The two kings then dismounted from their horses and, according to ancient custom, embraced each other. Then they walked arm in arm toward the great pavilion, where they were to converse and to witness the tournaments.
So magnificent was the field in its banners and trappings and display, that nothing like it had ever been seen before. Some one said, "This looks like a field of cloth of gold"—and so it has been called ever since.
The sports began, in which the two kings freely joined. For six days there was tilting with the spear and broadsword exercises and games of strength and skill among the knights. In the main the English were victorious, for they proved themselves better wrestlers, and Henry himself had great skill with bow and arrows.
One day as the sports were on, Francis said, "My brother, I am a good wrestler and I would have a fall with you." Henry laughingly agreed, and the two monarchs stripped off their finery and stood in the lists. Francis was a trained wrestler and threw the heavy English monarch to the ground. Henry arose laughingly but somewhat irritated, and said he would like to try Francis in a second round, but the wise courtiers on both sides, knowing the consequences of such a royal struggle, intervened and dissuaded the kings from further tests.
Francis, wearying of the formality and restraint of this magnificent meeting, decided he would indulge his love of fun. Accordingly, early one morning, with but three attendants, he rode across the plain to the town of Guines, where Henry was still asleep in his apartments.
The French king passed the sentries at the gates and the guards at the door, for no one would dare stop the king of France. Laughingly he asked the direction to the chambers of the English king.
Arriving there, he knocked loudly and entered. Henry was barely awake, but he received his merry rival laughingly. Leaping from his bed, he said, "I am your prisoner. Do with me as you will. This is quite a clever trick on your part and I am helpless in your hands."
Francis jestingly said, "I have come to assist in putting on your majesty's clothes." So he performed the service of a valet and assisted Henry in attiring himself for the day. Having performed this service for his rival, he rode back to Ardres.
Henry of course must do no less than pay a similar unexpected visit to Francis next day, and probably help to bring him in his morning coffee or something of that sort. Both the monarchs, however, showed much caution. For instance, when Henry rode to Ardres, he took care to wear his mask so that if traitors should be about they would not be quite sure which was the king. Francis was equally cautious.
One evening Francis paid his respects to Catherine, the English queen, at her residence in Guines. When he started out on his return to Ardres he met a party returning to Guines. It was the English monarch, returning from a ride. Henry raised his mask and showed his face; Francis raised his mask and disclosed his own identity. Then laughing at one another Henry took a jeweled chain from around his neck and threw it around the neck of the king of France. In return Francis presented Henry with a costly bracelet, and with many jests they separated, each one going his way.
Thus we see that what each king did the other tried to do in return, but all the time each one was watching the other. A fortnight passed away in these courtesies.
One day a gale sprang up unexpectedly and with great violence and broke the cords of blue and golden ropes that held the great pavilion of the English king, and the splendid structure then lay in ruins on the ground. It did not take long, however, to build another hall in great haste, for there were several thousand workmen around, after which the feasts were continued.
At the end of the fortnight the kings embraced one another and parted with many expressions of regret. However, nothing was said or agreed upon so far as an alliance between the two kings was concerned. The magnificent pavilion was packed up and sent home, and Francis returned to his own, believing that Henry was on his way to England.
In this, however, he was mistaken. Henry did not return to England, but leaving his queen in Calais, he made an appointment with Charles of Germany, where, strange to say, he made an alliance with him. So that when war broke out between France and Germany, Henry declared himself upon the side of the German king. Thus was all the feasting and splendor, all the magnificence of the Field of the Cloth of Gold of no avail.
The fair words that had been spoken, the promises that had been given, and all the smiling eyes that had looked into each other during the two weeks of the merry-making, amounted to nothing when it came to the great question of what one kingdom should do in case of war.