Renaissance Frenemies

On the 7th of June, 1520 in a green valley called the Val Dore not far from English Calais, two great kings galloped across a grassy meadow and embraced as brothers.

Vast and elaborate tented camps had been set up close by outside Ardres in France and Guines which was held by the English for what was to be known as The Field of Cloth of Gold - a meeting of two of the most illustrious monarchs of the Renaissance – King Francois I of France and King Henry VIII of England. Each king was accompanied by 5,000 of his greatest noble houses and clergy and the extensive camps erected to house such fine blood were a testament to luxury, magnificence and ingenuity.

In the French camp the king’s tent was some 120 feet tall, a pavilion supported by huge masts and draped in cloth of gold striped with blue velvet and spangled with gold fleur-de-lys. Atop the structure was a statue of St Michael slaying a dragon and displaying the royal arms of France. This vast tented pavilion was lined in blue velvet and divided into various rooms. Alongside were erected three smaller tents all elaborately decorated that served as the king’s chapel, council chamber and dressing room. Queen Claude was lodged in a magnificent structure of cloth of gold and silver and violet satin. Close to 400 tents sprung up around these royal masterpieces to house the great nobles of France.

King Henry VIII had prepared his accommodation outside the ruined castle of Guines as a three-story temporary palace made from wood and canvas that had been painted with a pattern of bricks and stone. It was erected complete with towers, embattlements and large glass windows. The sumptuous lodgings inside were lavishly decorated and housed the king’s immediate household.

Across these hundreds of acres of tents the French and English nobility feted, banqueted and held tournaments for a month. Trying to outshine each other, the king’s wore fabulous costumes studded with diamonds, rubies, emeralds and pearls. They jousted, wrestled, dined and danced, forming a lasting respect and friendship.

This was an exhibition of alliance built on chivalric virtues – each king displayed their magnificence but the underlying message was that they both needed each other. On the one hand King Francois feared the growing power of the Hapsburg Empire of Charles V and on the other King Henry most feared isolation from European alliance. The betrothal of King Henry’s daughter Mary Tudor to King Francois’ son, the Dauphin Francois, sealed the agreement, although ultimately the marriage never came to pass.

These two great kings of Christendom were friends, rivals, allies and enemies until the end in the complex game of Renaissance politics and power.

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