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Come and Party Like it's 1520!

Guest post by Vivienne Brereton

How could any of us have known back in 2019, when so many preparations were being made for the 500th anniversary of The Field of Cloth of Gold near Calais, France, in June 2020, that not many months later, none of us would be able to party. Fact is often stranger than fiction! In the sixteenth century, periodic periods of sickness/plague were very normal and royalty spent quite a lot of time fleeing from one safe house/castle to another. Using social distancing to remove themselves from anyone remotely contagious. Sadly, in 2020, the nearest any of us got to the 500th anniversary celebrations was online: in virtual tributes being organized by various groups. And the nearest to anything resembling a masque were the ones on our faces.

My own first encounter with the legendary Field, as far as I know, was on the cover of an ‘A’ level history book by Sir Geoffrey Elton (as esteemed as Sir David Starkey once was, and uncle of the comedian, Ben) ‘England under the Tudors’. On the front cover of the book, originally published in 1955 but periodically updated, is a colourful close-up of Henry VIII on his horse, wearing a doublet of bright red, shot through with exorbitantly expensive cloth of gold. He is surrounded by an army of noble followers, arriving at Calais in search of entertainment and pleasure - not in pursuit of war as in 1513.

On the back cover of the book is a fountain spouting wine; the temporary English castle; the impromptu wrestling match between the Tudor King and the Valois King; and the magnificent tents of cloth of gold, or green and white striped ones: Tudor colours. That image must have buried itself deep into my subconscious because many years later, I found myself beginning a series of Tudor novels with the Field of Cloth of Gold as a rather splendid backdrop. My series, ‘The House of the Red Duke’ is the result of very enjoyable research and a most welcome reacquaintance with the mesmerizing Field of Gold.

Dr. Joycelyne Gledhill Russell wrote the definitive account of the twentieth century in her 1969 ‘The Field of Cloth of Gold’, not to be updated for forty years until Professor Glen Richardson published his excellent book of the same name in 2013, described by Suzannah Lipscomb as “a sparkling new account.” Dr Russell describes the historic meeting as:

“an Olympic games: the jousts, tournaments, archery, wrestling. It was a musical and dramatic festival: the solemn music of royal choirs, the evenings’ minstrelsy, the masques. It was an architectural competition; the English raised a large temporary palace, the French a myriad tents and pavilions. It was a wine and food festival: the banquets, with every luxury in food and drink, and free wine for all. It was an international ‘concours d’elégance’ in dress and costume, in jewellery, and in caparisons for the choicest mounts.”

It is generally agreed that the magnificent festival held just outside the English Pale of Calais, and the village of Ardres, in Picardy, France, was the brainchild of Thomas Wolsey, hot on the heels of his breathtakingly bold Treaty of London in 1518. Commissioned by both kings to arrange the festival, Henry VIII agreed to take six thousand of his subjects across what was then called the Narrow Sea to meet an equal number of the rival court of the French King, François I.

In 1520, the political future of Europe was resting on the shoulders of the relatively inexperienced shoulders of three warlike young men: Charles of Habsburg, the twenty-year-old newly-elected Holy Roman Emperor; François of Valois, the twenty-five-year-old King of France; and Henry Tudor, at twenty-nine, the most senior of the three. The House of Tudor had been drawn into an enormous power struggle between the Houses of Habsburg and Valois so it is no surprise that the Festival was sandwiched in between a visit to England by Charles V and a second meeting between the Emperor and Henry straight after the end of the festivities. In the ever-shifting sands of European diplomacy, England was currently being courted by both French and Imperial representatives. In the centre of all this, stood Thomas Wolsey, relishing every moment of the courtship with as much delight as a desirable woman who has two suitors vying for her hand.

So, who was allowed to partake in this nod to our modern Olympic Games, Oscars, and Cannes Film Festival? Not the poor, that was for sure. Attracted by the idea of free food and wine, and the chance to see the rich and famous at play, François I issued a proclamation from Montreuil forbidding them to come within four leagues of his retinue, on pain of hanging. Having said that, the English chronicler, Edward Hall, makes reference to how: “vagabonds, ploughmen, labourers, waggoners, and beggars lay in drunken heaps” near two fountains: one of blue and gold and crowned with a statue of Bacchus, the god of wine; the other crowned with a statue of Cupid. It seems limitless quantities of red and white claret were dispensed to an eager crowd.

Proper invitations to the summit were as valuable and rare as one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets but they came at a very high price. It was not unheard of for some people to mortgage off their estates to pay for their clothes; in fact, many were so eager to attend, they were prepared to carry their mills, forests and meadows on their backs. So was it all worth it? It seems so. There were some very dramatic moments such as the first meeting between the two Kings on Thursday, June 7th, the Feast of Corpus Christi. For obvious reasons, suspicion was paramount on both sides, both fearing the meeting could be a flimsy excuse for an ambush. Professor Richardson describes what happened: “The music of trumpets, sackbuts, flutes and drums, which had accompanied the marches to this point, was stilled. A tense silence reigned, broken only, it is pleasant to imagine, by the whinnying of horses and the twittering of swifts in the late-afternoon sky above. After a short time Francis moved his horse a few steps forward…The trumpets and sackbuts sounded again. The two kings detached themselves from their attendants and now faced each other alone with only a short distance between them…they spurred their horses forward. To the orchestrated cheers of their respective sides, each man reached for his bonnet and doffed it to the other in salute.”

This gives an idea of the excitement and trepidation, both very real. The two kings finally met, dismounted and embraced before going into a tent for talks. Another less successful meeting came at an impromptu wrestling match between the two of them. An over-confident Henry challenged François to a game and was dismayed to find himself instantly sprawled on his back, owing to a clever ‘tour de Bretagne’. He tried to insist on a rematch but was turned down. As Professor Robert Knecht put it so succinctly: “The English records are silent about this incident.”

There were thrills and spills too in the lists, with the competitors keeping the audience entertained, not least by their choice of costume. Beneath an enormous artificial Tree of Honour upon which hung the shields of the competitors, lances would be broken and points scored; horses compared and the most prized, from Naples or Mantua, for example, given as gifts. Costumes were decorated with puzzles to keep the crowd guessing; one day King Francois wore one of purple velvet with little books in white satin. This was meant to mean ‘libera me’ (‘deliver me’) This word play continued into the following days and ended up being a message to a would-be lover to deliver him from his bonds of love.

All this proved to be very thirsty work, not to mention giving the competitors the appetite of a horse. With 160 tuns of French and Gascon wine and 560 tuns of beer, 340 cows, 800 calves, 80 hogs, plenty of fish, to mention just a few items, it is doubtful that anyone went hungry. It is not difficult to imagine the preening and point scoring that went on between both countries and both sexes. King Henry’s beautiful younger sister, Mary, formerly Queen of France, was more than happy to take her place once again in the spotlight. Queen Katherine must have a moment of anguish when she looked at the swollen belly of her French counterpart, Queen Claude, who had no problem delivering male heirs to her charming but faithless husband.

In ‘A Phoenix Rising’, the first novel of my series, Thomas Howard, head of the mighty Howards, is imagining just before the start of the Festival what the English and French are saying behind the scenes:

As I gazed at the Thames ahead, I considered how talk of the Festival was taking place not only on water but also on land; I recalled all the comments I’d heard:

By Saint George! How can you possibly need a gown of cloth of gold, as well as all the others?”

Will we find Frenchmen more charming than our own?”

Who’ll break more lances…us or them?”

Can their court really be that dissolute?”

Across the Narrow Sea, I knew there was equal anticipation and excitement. Being very familiar with the French court, it didn’t take a huge leap of imagination to imagine what was being said there:

Dieu merci, they speak our tongue, not just their own heathen one!”

I’ve heard the women kiss on the mouth when greeting guests.”

Will their King be taller than ours?”

Perhaps I’ll find a wife amongst the English—”

And how did this unforgettable extravaganza end? Russell lets the acerbic tongue of the disapproving Bishop John Fisher have the last word. As he put it:

“All wordely pleasures vanysshethe away,

To day a man in golde, to morrow closyde in clay.”

Richardson is more upbeat about the positive effect of the Festival and disagrees with Russell who describeS it as: “in fact merely an excuse for a party on a grand scale.” From the vantage point of a world on June 7th, 2021, very slowly emerging from lockdown, and 500 years + 1 on from the famed meeting of the two kings, Russell’s description sounds extremely appealing.

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1 comentário

28 de ago. de 2023

This sounds great! another addition to my TBR pile!

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