Published 500 years after the event took place, this book serves as a quincentenary celebration of the legendary first meeting between Henry VIII, the English king (r. 1509-1547), and Francis I, the French king (r. 1515-1547). Known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold, the festivities were held over the course of two weeks in June 1520 and served as an attempt at brokering a friendship between the two often-combative nations. But it was also a competition of one-upmanship between the two royals, each vying to see who could provide the most-elaborate display of wealth.
The first section of the book introduces us to the main characters. While Henry VIII, Francis I, and Catherine of Aragon have all become larger-than-life figures in the annals of history, the Field of the Cloth of Gold occurred before many of their more-noteworthy life events. This is emphasised in the book, which highlights the early years of their lives, painting a picture of their youthfulness, and attempts to draw the focus of readers away from what they know is coming further down the line.
The second section delves into the particulars of the proceedings. It was an exceedingly extravagant event, and Amy Licence succeeds in capturing its immense scale, from the many back-and-forths in scheduling to the detail of how many strawberries were purchased. The lead-up and each day of the festivities are considered in depth, and through the intricacy of the picture that Licence paints the reader comes away with the feeling that they were themselves present at the meeting.
The third and final section considers the aftermath. On the surface, the Field of the Cloth of Gold was a joyous affair, full of feting and feasting, but, by pulling back the curtain, the complex political game that was actually being played is revealed. This is highlighted in Licence’s detailing of the meetings between Henry VIII and the newly appointed Holy Roman Emperor Charles, which occurred both before and after the Field of the Cloth of Gold – very eyebrow-raising events in terms of whether this meant that Henry’s attempt to forge a relationship with the French was genuine. But, when it comes to the political motivations behind the behaviour of the three rulers involved, Licence tends to give them the benefit of the doubt. Given that we will never know their true thoughts, this is perhaps the right choice, but other historians might not choose to be so beneficent.
Licence is also generous in her interpretation of the success of the meeting. While other historians have claimed that the Field of the Cloth of Gold served no major function in terms of diplomacy, she vehemently disagrees, citing evidence for the continued relations between Henry and Francis, as well as Henry’s success in preventing some aggression on Charles’ side. It was actually quite refreshing to read an interpretation that did not assume the worst in people, as too often this viewpoint is either not considered at all or easily brushed to the side as an unlikely explanation.
Licence’s review of the primary literature is considered, and she is upfront with readers about why certain historical accounts may be biased in particular ways. But, while equal space is given to both the England and French monarchs, it did still feel as if more detail was given on the English side. This may be because many of the surviving documents record Henry’s planning and expenditures and not those of Francis, but it did leave me wanting to know more about the role of the French faction.
Overall, there are more academic accounts of the event out there, but Licence does a brilliant job of considering the primary documents and relaying them in an engaging and easily digested way. So, while not a book for the most-fastidious of historians, it is perfect for the lay reader who has a keen interest in Tudor history.
1502: the Field of the Cloth of Gold, Amy Licence, Amberley Publishing, £20, IBSN 978-1398100466.
Review by KK.