500 years of Franco-English ‘most expensive festival’

It is the 500th anniversary to the day of the “most expensive festival in history”, when King François I of France and King Henry VIII of England met near Calais, and organised 18 days of unparalleled luxury.

7 June 2020
The Camp du Drap d'Or in a painting. Today marks 500 years of Franco-English ‘most expensive festival’ Camp du Drap d'Or Today marks 500 years since the unprecedented splendour of the Camp du Drap d’Or between the Kings of France and England
By Connexion journalist

The site of the meeting is known as Camp du Drap d’Or (known in English as the Field of the Cloth of Gold). It was on June 7, 1520, that the two kings met on a diplomatic mission, and held 18 days of some of the most luxurious festivities ever seen, between the towns of Ardres and Guînes (Pas-de-Calais, Hauts-de-France).

There were feasts, jousting matches, and balls.

Why did this happen?

In 1519, Europe was said to be entering a new era, after the death of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor on January 12.

Three men were competing to take his place: Charles, King of Spain; François I, King of France; and Henry VIII, King of England - with the latter encouraged to enter the race by the Pope.

The title of Holy Roman Emperor was symbolic, but it conferred huge prestige.

At this time, what was known as the Holy Roman Empire covered a vast land area; including Spain, most of what is now modern-day Italy and Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. It also included the French towns of Lille, Dunkirk, Strasbourg and Chambéry.

It soon became clear that the battle was between Charles and François I. The former spent two tonnes of gold on convincing - or buying - the votes of the princes who would make the choice; the latter spent one and a half tonnes of gold.

Charles, King of Spain - who was the grandson of the late Maximilian I - was eventually elected to the position in Frankfurt, on June 28, 1519.

Despite his defeat, François I was not ready to retreat from more European influence.

After the most recent Italian War, he had become Duke of Milan, but still longed to take the kingdom of Naples. Preparing for a fight with Spain, France sought allies.

King Henry VIII of England appeared to be a good option.

(King François I. Image: Jean Clouet / Public Domain)

The two kings - advised by their councillors, especially the powerful Cardinal Wolsey in England - decided to meet near Calais, which was, at the time, the only English-ruled area in Europe.

French nobleman and chronicler, Martin Du Bellay, whose memoirs of the Italian Wars are considered one of the most significant primary sources of the era, explains: “The year 1519 saw an interview take place between their two Majesties, with the aim that they might, in person, confirm the friendship between them that had been first made by their councillors.

“The day came when the King [of France] found himself at Ardres, and the King of England was in Guînes. Then their councillors drew a path from Ardres to Guînes, where the two Princes would meet.”

This was the first time that the two monarchs would meet, and each was keen to show the power and prestige of their court and kingdom.

King François I wanted to show that France, with its 16 million inhabitants, was a strong power with enough force to rival Charles of Spain; and King Henry VIII wanted to show that despite its small size - just three million people - England was also a mighty power.

The two kings therefore decided to mount a “festival”, that was in fact a competition to show who could demonstrate the most splendour and luxury.

Set to meet in the “Val Doré (Golden Valley), between Ardres and Guînes - which is now modern-day Balinghem - each King began to prepare for the encounter, with the councillors and courtiers setting about constructing a camp quite literally fit for a king.

At least 3,000 people were invited on each side - with some accounts putting the numbers closer to 10,000-12,000 people in total.

Luxury and splendour

According to accounts, King François I mounted 300-400 tents and marquees, covered in silk and golden thread.

This included a tent for the King himself, which was more than 36 metres tall, and held up by masts that would normally be used for shipbuilding. The tent was itself covered in a 110-metre-long golden sheet.

As for King Henry VIII, he constructed a “glass palace” - the equivalent of 100 m² - made from bricks and wood painted to look like bricks, with almost half the building constructed in glass.

This was extremely expensive and using a very modern technique; glass windows would not even become commonplace for nobles until decades later.

Historian Aurélie Massie, who has written a thesis on the event named Les Artisans du Camp du Drap d’Or (1520) : Culture Matérielle et Représentation du Pouvoir (The Craftsmen of the Camp du Drap d’Or (1520) : Material Culture and Representation of Power”, explained: “There were many hundreds of craftsmen and artists hired for the occasion.

“From Spring 1520, a colossal project was put in place. The expense was astronomical.”

On the French side, the tents alone required “35,000 aunes (41,300 metres) of canvas”, with pine, fir, oak and walnut wood sourced from the Auvergne and the massif du Forez, in the Loire. They were constructed in Tours, and required assembly and decoration on-site.

The golden fleurs de lys - prestigious symbols - and golden fabric and silk came from Florence and Venice in Spain.

On the English side, there were a reported 500 carpenters, 300 masons and 100 woodworkers involved.

Wood came from Holland, and stone from Fiennes, near Guînes.

One of the most symbolic installations was the “Tree of Honour” - a work of two artificial trees intertwined on a hill.

As described in great detail by the English chronicler Edward Hall, these comprised a “raspberry tree” for François I and a “hawthorn tree” for Henry VIII, which were made of wood, and covered with damask, green satin and gold cloth; with flowers and buds made of silk.

(King Henry VIII. Image: Joos van Cleve - Royal Collection / Public Domain)

The legend is born

On May 31 1520, King Henry VIII left Dover to sail to Calais. Councillors and noblemen also attended, including none other than the father of the future second wife to Henry VIII, Thomas Boleyn.

On June 7, the meeting between the two kings finally took place.

Chronicler Martin du Bellay wrote: "The King and the King of England, each mounted on a horse of Spain, riding with each other, each with his share of the greatest nobility seen in a hundred years, both being in the prime of their lives, seem to be the two most beautiful Princes in the world, and as skillful in all weapons, both on foot and on horseback.”

He continued: "It was fair to say [due to] the magnificence of their accoutrements...that the said meeting would be named the Camp de Drap d'Or [the camp of golden cloth].”

English Chronicler Edward Hall added: “The golden palace, which sparkled on the plain of Guînes, seemed to be enchanted. In front of its gates were two old wine gods [Bacchus], covered in gold.”

Inside, he added, was a “scene of breathtaking beauty”, with “roofs covered in silk that shone like molten gold...golden were the tapestries, surrounded by precious stones. The chairs and the cushions were gold. The chapel was more beautiful still.”

Everyone wore clothes of satin, velour, damask, silk and golden embroidery, said Du Bellay.

(Henry VIII embarking at Dover. Image: Royal Collection, Hampton Court / James Basire After Unknown (1520/1550) / Public Domain)

Banquets

According to British historian Glenn Richard, the festival feasts over the 18 days of festivities included 100,000 eggs; 3,000 sheep and lambs; 800 veal, and 300 cows; washed down with 66,000 litres of beer and 200,000 litres of wine - including from Auxerre, Beaune, Grave, Orléans, and Gascony.

There were even wine fountains. In the English camp, there is evidence of at least two, which were made with three tubes - one for water, one for wine, and one for hypocras, a kind of wine sweetened with honey and spices.

Following the work of a Calais lycee student on the subject, a reproduction of these “wine fountains” was constructed at Hampton Court palace in England, to celebrate 500 years since the event. The reproduction is said to be able to provide a flowing fountain of both wine and beer.

Mass and games

Cardinal Wolsey is said to have given mass, in the presence of both Kings, on the penultimate day of festivities.

Accounts then say that “a dragon” was seen flying over the camp, describing the animal as “a burning salamander, comet or dragon”. The animal was likely in fact a kite, decorated to look like a Tudor dragon, with fireworks, launched by the English at Guînes as a show of propaganda.

The festival also included jousting matches, tournaments, masked balls, and dances; as well as choirs.

More than 150 people were said to be present at each jousting match, with each country keen to provide their best riders and knights to take part. Horses were brought in from the Netherlands, metal for the jousting poles from Flanders, and 1,000 swords imported from Milan.

But the two kings did not compete. To avoid a diplomatic crisis, the kings would instead joust on the same side, against volunteer “opponents”.

Other sports included foot combat, and archery.

(Wrestling at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. Image: Anonymous / Sotheby's / Public Domain)

 

Diplomacy and betrayal

Amid this spectacle, councillors were working behind-the-scenes to establish an alliance between the two Kings, ostensibly against Charles of Spain.

Among the proposed signs of friendship were royal pensions set to be exchanged between noblemen, and presents to be exchanged between the two kings, in the name of “being friends for life”.

But this did not last. Just 20 days later, King Henry VIII - through Cardinal Wolsey - would meet Charles at Gravelines, and sign their own friendship treaty. 

This would become an alliance against France in 1521; and when, in 1522, King François tried to take the Kingdom of Naples, he would start the sixth Italian War, and would be fought by none other than King Henry VIII.

Camp costs

Yet, the Camp du Drap d'Or quickly became a symbol of excess and luxury, and was seen as such by contemporaries and by later historians.

British historian Greg Jenner is among those to have attempted to estimate the cost, and has dubbed it “crazy money”.

On his blog, he wrote: “[It] was a dual-funded endeavour, with both France and England throwing cash at it with extraordinary lavishness (and some might say recklessness).

“[King Francois I] spent 400,000 livres (£40,000 in Tudor money) on this 2-week spectacle. But the crown later sold off lots of the fabric and accoutrements in 1543, recouping 125,000 livres.

“So, let’s be generous and say he only spent £27,000 / 275,000 livres. The annual royal expenditure in running the court, in 1523, was 543,800 livres. But, in terms of the wider French economy, [it] cost about 1/8 of the state’s annual budget. That is a huge amount.

“King Henry VIII, never one for modesty, spent £36,000 on the festivities – more than his royal household’s entire annual expenditure, and more than 1/3 of England’s total annual income of £90,000. By Tudor standards, that is CRAZY MONEY.”

Yet, the historian added: “In summary, – with all its trappings (including wine fountain and gold-encrusted monkeys, obviously) – [it] cost £63,000 in Tudor money. But now for the really hard bit. Trying to measure equivalent value across the centuries is an almost impossible task, there really is no accurate way to do it.”

Legacy

The meeting would go down in history, despite its ultimate diplomatic failure, and has been remembered and celebrated in art and literature on both sides of the Channel.

In the play Henry VIII, Shakespeare would make reference to its excess, and scenes from the festival would be painted many times.

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