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Lavish tents in a field with processions of of horses and knights

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The Field of Cloth of Gold was one of the most amazing political and sporting events ever staged.

The story of the event is told here through the Royal Armouries collection, including items belonging to and worn by King Henry VIII, images, animation, articles and loans from institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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Held in the summer of 1520, the Field of Cloth of Gold aimed to cement the recent peace between Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France. For Henry VIII it was a chance to make his mark in Europe, but careful planning was necessary to make sure that neither king would outshine the other.

In the 1500s rulers across Europe began to view peace-making as a new way of establishing power, but bringing nations together after centuries of warfare was a difficult task. Years of diplomacy and months of preparation went into two weeks of friendly jousting, tourneys, foot combat and banquets between the former enemy nations.

Curator’s view of a very special helmet.

Tudor Power and Glory: The Field of Cloth of Gold was to include several impressive loans from institutions such as the Musée de L’Armée in Paris and the French National Archives.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York also agreed to loan us a very special object. Curator Keith Dowen tells us more about it.

The Capel Helm on stand

This highly unusual helmet, known as a ‘great bascinet’, is one of the finest examples of its type to have survived and may have been worn at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Dating to c.1510 it was probably made in Flanders, which was home to numerous armourer’s workshops producing helmets of this type. One such helmet, now in the Imperial Armouries in Vienna, was made in Flanders by an unknown armourer either for the emperor Maximilian (1459-1519) or his son Philip I of Castile (1478-1506). Although the Capel helmet is unmarked and therefore the identity of the maker is not known, the conspicuous sculptural quality of the helmet indicates the armourer was a master craftsman.

For hundreds of years the helmet had been suspended on an iron bar above the tomb of Sir Giles Capel (1485-1556) at All Saints Church in Rayne, Essex. A veteran of the 1513 war against France and a member of Henry’s retinue at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, the helmet is likely to be Capel’s ‘beste helmett’ which he instructed was to be hung over his tomb, along with his sword, as a funerary achievement. This relatively common practice among the knightly class was designed to signify the chivalrous and honourable nature of the deceased.

Following the demolition of the church’s nave in the mid-19th century, the helmet had initially been discarded by the builders. However, in 1880 it came into the possession of an antiquarian and arms and armour historian, Baron Alexander de Cosson (1846 – 1929), before being sold on and eventually purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1904; where it still resides today.

As a close friend of Henry VIII, Sir Giles Capel was chosen to be one of the seven ‘gentlemen of renown and noble blood’ who accompanied the king as one of his fellow ‘challengers’ in the joust at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Unfortunately, it is not known whether he participated in the foot combat, however, given his position in Henry’s retinue and the existence of his great bascinet it is certainly possible he did. Having taken part in numerous prestigious tournaments, Capel was undoubtedly highly skilled in all forms of knightly combat, including fighting on foot. Six years earlier he had numbered among the challengers at the tournament in Paris held to celebrate the marriage of Henry’s sister Mary to Louis XII of France. As at the Field of Cloth of Gold the foot combat was fought over a barrier with spears and swords in tonlets and bascinets.

According to the original rules, competitors at the Field of Cloth of Gold were instructed to wear (battle)field armour with reinforcing pieces known as ‘pieces of advantage’, rather than more specialised tournament armour. In part this was probably to ensure as many as possible could participate. However, at the last minute the French made a significant change to the rules. Instead of fighting in field armours, competitors in the foot combat were to wear tonlets, special foot combat armours fitted with a long steel skirt to protect as much of the lower body as possible. The armour would have looked similar to the one worn by Henry VIII at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Whilst this may have prevented some from taking part, others, including Capel, already owned the correct equipment. Although his great bascinet may have been commissioned for the Field of Cloth of Gold, it is just as likely it was re-used from an earlier event.

Henry VIII's Tonlet Armour

The Capel helmet is designed for the foot-combat; a sporting event which involved armoured competitors fighting inside an enclosure equipped with a variety of weapons such as swords, pollaxes and daggers. Although fought according to a set of rules designed to ensure a certain level of safety, the foot-combat was still a dangerous event and injuries were not uncommon. In a combat fought at Smithfield, London, in 1467 between Anthony Woodville and Anthony of Burgundy, king Edward IV had to personally intervene and stop the contest in order to avert serious injury. Even the introduction of a barrier between the competitors in the late 15th did not always make the foot combat any safer. At Noseroy, just one year before the Field of Cloth of Gold, men were still being severely wounded by cuts to the head and hands.

With these risks in mind, the Capel helmet was skilfully crafted to provide maximum protection without compromising its functionality. Incorporating smooth curved surfaces designed to deflect blows, the numerous small slots in the visor ensured there were no large gaps for bladed weapons to penetrate; whilst still providing adequate ventilation and a relatively good field of vision. The visor was originally secured in place by a sprung stud (now missing) located to the right of the chin. This was an important feature as it ensured the visor was not accidentally knocked open by a blow.

The Capel Helm forward view


In order to prevent serious neck injury caused by a sudden impact to the head, the entire helmet was secured to the back and breastplate of the armour by bolts which passed through the two holes at the base of the neck plate at the front and the single hole at the rear.

The Capel Helm rear view

An additional hole located at the top of the helmet along the pronounced medial keel, the ridge running over the top of the head, was designed to secure a heraldic crest or plume.

Originally the helmet would have been fitted with a padded lining. This not only made the helmet more comfortable to wear but was also designed to absorb some of the concussive force generated by weapon strikes. The lining was secured to the interior of the helmet by ties which passed through pairs of brass-rimmed holes located behind the visor.

Apart from the tonlet armour of Henry VIII, this helmet may be the only other piece of armour to have survived from the Field of Cloth of Gold. To have been chosen to serve as a lasting memorial of his life’s achievements, it clearly retained some special significance for Sir Giles Capel. Far more than simply a piece of armour, the helmet is a tangible link to a colourful period in the shared history of England and France.

Royal Armouries commissioned two video stories from Extra Credits to tell the story of the Field of Cloth of Gold.

  1. Universal Peace
  2. Royal Frenemies

When people think of the age of knights and kings, there’s one image that comes forward as readily as shining armour and that’s the tournament! And this particular tournament will go down in history as one of the most lavish and expansive affairs as a way to broker peace between Henry the VIII of England and Francis I of France. The two kings were locked in a bitter rivalry and were determined to outshine (and outspend) the other.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold - Universal Peace - Extra History - #1


Dr Sean Cunningham, Head of Medieval Records team at the National Archive explains more about two very important documents and their relationship to the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Tudor Power and Glory: The Field of Cloth of Gold was to include several impressive loans from institutions such as the Musée de L’Armée in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  Closer to home, the National Archives agreed to loan us a very special document, Dr Sean Cunningham, Head of Medieval Records tells us more about it and its sister document, loaned from the French National Archives.

Two old handwritten documents

These documents, signed in 1520 by Henry VIII and Francis I, ratify the agreement to meet for a summit of peace. © The National Archives / Archives Nationales de France

Thomas Wolsey drew up two treaties in March 1520. The documents set out details of the arrangements, companions and entourages on both sides to be present at the Field of Cloth of Gold.

Despite the peaceful ambition behind the meeting, the document and other similar ones reflect the competitiveness, rivalry and suspicion that both kings and courts demonstrated in the organisation and conduct of the Field. Everyone seems to have been quite worried that such a large scale but precariously balanced chivalric event could spill over into a real military confrontation. Wolsey therefore insisted on the exchange of detailed plans, or memoranda, which established the basis and some of the etiquette for the gathering – especially on the numbers of soldiers to be present.

It took a great deal of negotiation before the French agreed to meet within English territory. Every concession was balanced against perceived slights to the dignity and honour of both rulers; so only a master tactician like Wolsey, backed by the efforts of the English ambassador at Francis I’s court, Sir Richard Wingfield, could navigate the many pitfalls. Wolsey’s individual status as Pope Leo X’s personal legate allowed him to play a double role when the occasion suited – both as a semi-independent arbiter between the demands of both kings but also an English subject – and that gave him a bit of leeway to navigate the dangers of appearing too partisan while at the same time promoting Henry’s status and right whenever he could.

Planning was also complicated by Charles V deciding to travel from Spain to Flanders at the same time as the final arrangements were underway, so that he could place himself and his court near to the Field within his own Burgundian lands. Henry insisted on meeting Charles, his nephew by marriage, at Dover as he waited to travel to Calais in late May. So, setting the basis for what might unfold at the Field was complicated further by the looming presence (and additional rivalry) of the Hapsburg ruler, even though he was not involved at the proceedings in June 1520.

A painting of a man in a red and white gown.

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey was Henry’s most trusted advisor © Trinity College Cambridge

The treaties were evidence of how deeply Wolsey thought about the opportunities and dangers that such high-stakes diplomacy presented. Having kings, queens, nobles, courtiers and small armies, in one place to go through the motions of warfare without actually fighting, left so much scope for accident, misunderstanding or insult. Wolsey tried to set out contingencies and limit eventualities through his careful planning and negotiation, but there was only so much he could organise before Henry and Francis met in person. Once the kings were together, the Field would gain its own unique momentum, which required new rules as everyone reacted to unfolding events. If anyone could make a success of that process, it was Wolsey.

Olivier Renaudeau, a curator from the Musée de l’Armée in Paris, presents two objects from their collection, connected to the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

The Musée de l’Armée had agreed to loan these objects to feature in the Royal Armouries physical exhibition in Leeds, which has been delayed due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Now instead they have created a film for each object so we can enjoy them virtually.

Five episodes will be published over the next few weeks:

Thanks to our colleagues and friends at the Musée de l’Armée for making these films. Be sure to check out their website and explore the rest of their amazing collection.

Queen Claude of France played an important role at the Field of Cloth of Gold, she hosted Henry VIII several times and appeared next to his wife Katherine of Aragon. Read more about this extraordinary young woman.

Queen Claude drawn on to canvas

Credit: RMN-Grand Palais (musée du Louvre) / Michèle Bellot

Claude of France (1499-1524), was a beloved queen and played an important role at the Field of Cloth of Gold. While being well known as the dutiful wife of King Francis I (1494-1547), and subject to his many mistresses, there is much more to her role in history. Claude was very well educated, politically savvy, and personally invested in French Catholic religious reform.

Queen Claude in public

Queen Claude was known for hosting a cultured court and often made political appearances without her husband, she regularly appeared side by side with her mother-in-law Louise de Savoie. To allow her to make these frequent appearances Claude would travel extensively and widely, often whilst pregnant. She was present at the public acceptance of the political engagement of their ten-month-old son Francis to Mary I of England, the daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon, in Paris in 1518.

Perhaps Claude’s most notable public appearances was at the Field of Cloth of Gold where she fulfilled her political duties hosting feasts, dances, and theatrical shows to entertain the royal guests. Most notably these duties saw her individually hosting King Henry VIII for a banquet in the French camp whilst her husband was hosted by the English Queen, Katherine of Aragorn, in the English camp.

Whilst the Queens held limited formal political power they could influence their husbands and, at the Field of Cloth of Gold, also had direct contact with their rival kings. Their prominence was also used to highlight the positive new relationship between England and France so Katherine and Claude appeared side by side at the joust. Beyond her political activities at the Field of Cloth of Gold Claude was known to wield great influence and respect with a number of notable Venetian ambassadors and within the higher echelons of the Roman Catholic Church.

During this period the main role of the Queen was to produce a male heir, or even better, several male children. As such Claude spent much of her short life in a cycle of annual pregnancies, at the time of the Field of Cloth of Gold Claude had already given birth to two sons and was nine months pregnant with her third child, whereas Katherine had not delivered a male heir. So, whilst Katherine was known to be an experienced diplomat and had excelled in her role as consort, in many ways her skills in mediation and political nuances would have been overshadowed by this.

A painting of a joust with two kings and two queens watching riders with a large crowd

Credit: Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

Claude’s early life

Claude and her sister Renée were the only children of Louis XII, King of France and Anne of Brittany’s  who survived to adulthood (Anne was pregnant 14 times). Despite being female, the sisters were groomed from a very young age for marriages that would create political alliances. Claude and Renée were surrounded by women employed specifically to prepare them for a life in politics and at court.

In 1505, when Claude was just 5 years old, a series of 24 letters were produced in light of her engagement to Francis I. These letters not only demonstrate Claude’s natural intellect, but also how close the young princesses were to this group of staff, particularly their advisor Michelle de Saubonne.  Most notably a letter between Queen Anne’s Treasurer, Jacques de Beaune and Michelle de Saubonne in 1505 notes:

‘You would never believe how much she has learnt since you left and how she has grown in strength and confidence’.

Compliments of Claude’s grace, intelligence and kind nature are a common theme throughout her life. However, they unfortunately come at the expense of her appearance. Other letters from this series in reference to the Princess note:

Her ‘grace in speaking greatly made up for her want of beauty’ and

‘though small in stature and badly lame in both hips, [the young Princess] is said to be very cultivated, generous and pious’.

Education and marriage

There is no doubt Claude’s education helped her assume the role of a beloved queen. It is believed that her mother, Queen Anne, who was literate in Greek, wanted to empower her children through education. Anne was influenced by ancient Greek literature in her day to day life as evidenced by her reading of an ancient Grecian story which denotes a scenario in which the goddess Juno counsels her husband Jupiter, further highlighting the importance of the wife of a king. Some academics believe the subject of Claude’s readings were intentional to highlight to her how much agency was possible as a woman in politics.

Claude was only five years old when it was decided that she would marry her second cousin Francis, who then became the heir to the French throne. Her mother was unhappy as she did not trust Francis’s mother, Louise de Savoie, who she believed would attempt to overpower Claude, despite her being sole heir to the French throne. Anne, as Duchess of Brittany, also wanted independence for the province by keeping Brittany separate from the French crown.

In 1514 Claude lost her mother, not only a very personal blow, but a devastating loss for France whose people mourned her very publicly. One year later in 1515 her father died and, at the age of 15, Claude married Francis I and became Queen of France.

Queen Claude

Having recently lost both of her parents Claude found herself in a difficult dynamic amongst Francis’ family. He quickly appointed his mother Louise to his council, where she twice acted as regent, and formed a very close governing team, his older sister Marguerite also intervened in politics. This created a challenging three against one dynamic which the fifteen-year-old Claude found difficult to manage. However reports expedited by Venetian ambassadors to France during this time suggest a rather different story, with little doubt being shed on the dominance of Louise at court but suggesting that Claude’s physical presence at court proved dogged enough to sway some influence. She also found her way by prioritising her presence in the political spaces she inherited from her mother, including the territories included Brittany, Blois, Montfort, Étampes, Soissons and Vertus.

Alongside a difficult familial dynamic, Claude’s marriage to Francis I itself was challenging.  Their marriage was purely political and was used to cement Francis’ claim to the throne. There was no chemistry between the two and Francis has been quoted saying of Claude that ‘nothing about her person seduces,’ illustrating his lack of respect for Claude herself. Whilst some researchers have suggested this quote is fictional, it is reinforced by Francis’ pursuit of mistresses immediately after his wedding to Claude.

Whilst this was not unusual for the time, as most royal marriages were purely political, Francis was particularly prolific and has been described as a ‘hunter of deer and women’ and his romantic pursuits are well known and documented. Even worse for Claude, many of her husband’s mistresses were often women she knew from the royal court. Despite this she still relentlessly prioritised her political position alongside Francis and with the people of the territories which she ruled over whilst furthering her own religious agenda.

Religious reform

An old Book with illustration around the edge and script in the middle

Credit: Photography by Schecter Lee

After the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520, Claude turned her attention to focus on the Catholic religious reformation of France, something that would become her most important piece of work. Despite naturally become involved in politics the Queen had always favoured religion, which is most obviously highlighted through her wearing of a tiny girdle book on her waist, a Book of Hours. This book acted as her prayer book and demonstrates her deep relationship with religion, a physical indication that as she always kept prayer by her side.

Arguably her two main contributions to French religious reform include overseeing the reconstruction of the parish church of Saint-Solenne (today the Cathedral of Blois) and the rebuilding of the Augustinian convent of Saint Jean of Blois for nuns known as the ‘Véroniques’, known for the good education they gave to their boarders.

Although Claude’s life was short, dying at the young age of twenty-four, she still had a large impact as Queen of France and was sure to exercise whatever agency she had. Beloved by her people she prioritised improving their lives, choosing religious reform over a pursuit of power. Despite the power struggles within her family and being subject to her husband’s mistresses, she still fulfilled the important roles, fostering learning and the traditional queenly domains of justice, peace, piety and culture, as well as providing Francis with three male heirs and a solid foundation for his succession.



Queen Katherine of England, played an important role at the Field of Cloth of Gold, she hosted King Francis I at banquets and dances and appeared next to his wife Queen Claude. Read more about this extraordinary woman.

A painting of a woman wearing an ornate headdress and jewelry

Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

Katherine of Aragon (1485-1536), the first wife of Henry VIII (and a survivor of this union), is probably most famous for unsuspectingly bringing about the separation of the Catholic church from the state, religious reformation in England and eventually the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. However, whilst she is largely remembered for being unable to produce a male heir for the Tudor dynasty, most people forget that she and Henry were married for 24 years, much of it quite happily. Katherine was very well educated, beloved by her people, and talented in her role as queen, acting as regent in 1513, with the title of Governor of the Realm and Captain General, whilst Henry made war in France.

Queen Katherine in public

Born in 1485 as the youngest child of Ferdinand I of Aragon and Isabela I of Castile, Katherine was soon groomed for her life in politics. The young princess received an elite education including philosophy, embroidery and became literate in Latin and French and in 1501 was married to Prince Arthur, the son of Henry VII and heir to the English throne.

Unfortunately, only one year later in 1502 Arthur died leaving Katherine a widow at just sixteen. After a feud between Spain and England over Katherine’s dowry, during which time Katherine became the first female ambassador in European history, she married Arthur’s brother, Henry VIII, in 1509. Henry was a young monarch with grand ambitions and an education and intellect to match, the two became a true renaissance couple.

Just three years into her marriage with Henry, Katherine served as regent of England while he campaigned in France from 1512-1514. Henry and a pregnant Katherine rode from London to Dover at the head of 11,000 men. Henry officially named Katherine regent at Dover Castle upon his departure and named William Warham (Archbishop of Canterbury) and Thomas Howard (Earl of Surrey) her advisors.

By July 1513 the Scots were planning an attack on England, likely assuming they could easily defeat England with Henry away in France. On the 22nd August 1513 Scottish King James IV had an army of 80,000 men that crossed the border to England, presenting Katherine with her first major responsibility as regent. A clear demonstration of Katherine’s power and political clout came that year in September when Katherine travelled north, making a rousing speech to the troops, urging them to fight for England’s just cause against the Scots. However, in light of the English victory against the Scots at the Battle of Flodden on 9th September, a particularly bloody battle where ten thousand Scottish soldiers and their King, James IV perished, no further battles were fought.

After the battle the Queen was sent the Scottish banner and the coat in which James had died as trophies by her advisor the Earl of Surrey who won the victory.

Unfortunately, Katherine’s involvement at the battle of Flodden exhausted her and caused the premature birth of her son, who would shortly pass away.

Having originally counselled Henry VIII against an alliance with Francis I, it is testament to her character and diplomatic skills that she would play an important role in the peace and reconciliation between the two nations at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. Katherine used her status as Queen and skills as a diplomat to good use through the event hosting dignitaries, dances and theatrical entertainments and individually hosting the French King Francis I in the French camp for a lavish banquet. She also appeared side by side with French Queen Claude de France, signifying the new union between the countries.

Before the summit had even begun, Katherine demonstrated her political skill and diplomatic savvy. On the journey there when the Royal entourage stopped at Canterbury, they hosted a banquet for the new Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a key player in European politics and Katherine’s nephew. Again she put her hosting skills to use however this meeting would later cause tension between Henry VIII and Francis I.

Unfortunately, as with most medieval Queens, often their successes, skills and politically ability are overlooked and their success is measured by their ability to bear children and produce heirs and spares for the king, securing the of their dynasty. Katherine actually gave birth to six children, but only one child, the future Mary Tudor, survived to adulthood. Only having a daughter was problematic for Henry VIII which triggered his desire for a divorce.

In 1527 the king requested a divorce from Pope Clement VII on the grounds that his marriage to Katherine was not valid due to her previous marriage to his brother. Katherine refuted this claim standing by the fact that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated, so was not valid under the eyes of the Catholic church. Pope Clement VII was also reluctant to dissolve Katherine’s marriage as her nephew was the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, so did not want to cause any tension. However, this eventually led to the separation of the church from state as a result of Henry’s pursuit of a marriage to another woman. In 1533 Henry secretly married Anne Boleyn in a ceremony performed by Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury.

The king made several attempts to force Katherine to go along with the annulment, including separating her from their daughter Mary. However, Katherine never acknowledged the legitimacy of the annulment of her own marriage, or the legitimacy of Henry’s second marriage. This resulted in consequences for Mary’s future. Their daughter had previously been named sole heir to the throne of England. Although, soon after Anne Boleyn gave birth to their first daughter, Elizabeth, Mary was illegitimated with Elizabeth becoming the new heir to the throne.

Katherine still saw herself as queen of England, so refused to give her crown to jewels to Anne Boleyn after she was asked. Katherine remained separated from her daughter on Henry’s orders until her death at the age of 50. Katherine died at Kimbolton Castle in Huntingdonshire, Cambridgeshire, England 1536, and is currently buried at Peterborough Cathedral.



We’re delighted to present this article exploring the types of horses that might have been at the Field of Cloth of Gold. It’s been written by the Warhorse Project, a multidisciplinary research collaboration between the Universities of Exeter and East Anglia.

All the King’s horses

Horses were visible symbols of wealth and power in medieval England. Henry VIII was particularly invested in horses and brought over 3,000 with him to France in 1520 for his legendary meeting with Francis I at the Field of the Cloth of Gold. These horses were part of the extravagant display of enormous wealth and opulence which Henry organised to impress Francis and the people of France. While many monarchs took a close interest in horse breeding, Henry VIII in particular was anxious that English horseflesh reflected the power of the Tudor dynasty.

A map of the UK showing important sites

Major royal horse breeding sites in the mid-Tudor period. 1.Eltham Palace 2. Hampton Court 3. Malmesbury 4. Warwick 5. Tutbury 6. ‘Eskermayne’ 7. Unknown

Breeding a weapon

Since at least the 12th century, English kings maintained a network of horse studs for specialised breeding, chiefly located in the deer parks close to royal residences. During Henry’s reign, royal horse breeding was focused in a small number of places around the country. Documents tell us that these studs were truly international in character, with horses imported from the Low Countries, Italy, Spain, and Turkey in order to improve English bloodstock. Many of the horses taken by Henry VIII to the Field of the Cloth of Gold would have either been born into, or otherwise passed through, the Tudor stud network.

An old book with handwritten script.

Part of an account book of Queen Catherine Howard and the expenses of some of the horses of her household.

Henry VIII saw himself in the mould of his illustrious royal predecessors, especially warrior kings like his hero Henry V, and dreamed of restarting the Hundred Years War against France. To that end he believed in ensuring England had an excellent stock of warhorses. The problem, as Henry saw it, was not a lack of horses (the English had at least 3,217 horses at the Field of Cloth of Gold), but that there were insufficient numbers of ‘Great Horses’ which the English could ride in battle. It was a problem Henry grappled with throughout his reign, leading to several Acts of Parliament designed to protect and improve the quality of English horseflesh.

In the 1530s, Acts were passed forbidding the export of horses overseas and to Scotland without special licence. Two further Acts intended to improve the realm’s stock, and in particular their size. The Breed of Horses Act (1535) sought to improve the situation by requiring owners of deer parks to possess at least two mares no less than 13 hands high (hh), and not allow them to breed with stallions less than 14hh. An Act of 1540 went even further, stating that ‘any mare filly foole [foal] or gelding that then shalbe thought not to be able to growe to be able to beare fooles of reasonnable stature … [are] to be killed’. Fortunately, this harsh provision was later repealed by Elizabeth I.

Investigating the physical remains of horses recovered during archaeological excavations can further elaborate on the size and conformation of medieval horses. By the 16th century, warhorses were becoming lighter and swifter, while jousting tournaments continued to favour sturdier destrier-type medieval chargers. The latter were ideal for jousting as they had been carefully bred and trained for mêlée-style combat. Contrary to common belief, these horses were relatively small, rarely reaching more than 14hh or 15hh at the shoulder, more similar to a sturdy pony than the heavy draft horses depicted in modern media.

A piece of horse armour being measured by someone wearing gloves.

A shaffron of Henry VIII’s reign being measured in the collections of the Royal Armouries (Photograph: O. Creighton).

The custom-made armour for these horses can also provide an indirect indication of their size. While armour was often made to fit a specific animal, individual pieces varied greatly in design, making it difficult to reconstruct the animal beneath. An exception, however, is the shaffron, which was fitted closely to the horse’s face and therefore gives an idea of its size and shape (Fig 3). The Royal Armouries house a large number of the shaffrons Henry VIII bought for his horses, most of which were for pony-sized animals, with only a small number made to fit much larger horses.

A symbol of Tudor power and glory

An intricate horse bit

Curb bit, c. 1520, probably for King Henry VIII. Royal Armouries VI.200

Horses were not just fitted with armour, but with a wide variety of functional and decorative ornamentation. Whether at the lists where the jousts took place, or processing around the Field of the Cloth of Gold, horses provided a canvas for display. Ornaments such as swaged fabric and leather straps of harnesses and trappers do not survive today, but are depicted on the famous painted panorama The Field of the Cloth of Gold (c. 1545), while written accounts reference the sound of the gold bells that decorated Henry VIII’s horse. Contemporary objects that do survive suggest that metal elements were increasingly exploited for their visual impact. The engraving and gilding of a 16th-century curb bit shows that every inch was being utilised for display, while other functional pieces were adapted to provide a new canvas for engraved and openwork decoration, such as the widening of the stirrup’s arm.

An ornate horse stirrup

Stirrup, c. 1520, probably for a Knight of the Garter. British Museum SLMisc.1451 (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

Equally impressive as the dazzling pieces which adorned the horses, were the arenas they performed in. From their origins in the 12th century, tournaments were chivalric playgrounds for entertainment and military training. In 1194, King Richard I restricted tournaments to five locations in England, mostly in broad, open countryside at visible points in the landscape. Urban commons outside city walls were other popular locations for tournaments, such as the renowned site at Smithfield, London. The facilities — barriers around the arena, scaffolding for spectators and tents for participants — were temporary, but the same sites were frequently reused. By the reign of Henry VIII, these tournaments had become more theatrical and much more exclusive, with the greatest tournament facilities now in the grounds of palaces. A 16th-century tiltyard at Kenilworth Castle occupied a narrow causeway across the castle moat, while at Hampton Court Palace, bespoke tiltyards flanked by viewing towers resembling miniature artillery fortresses were built from 1537 but were never actually used by Henry, seeing their first use in Elizabeth I’s reign.

A riding yard flanked by three and a castle in the background

The site of the tiltyard at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, comprising a flat platform on top of a dam holding back the castle moat. (Photograph: O. Creighton)

As symbols of the wealth and power of the English monarchs, the horses which accompanied Henry VIII 500 years ago at the Field of the Cloth of Gold represented the image of majesty and authority that Henry wished to project to his European rivals. Henry’s obsession with the ‘Great Horse’ has endured through the years, and today the warhorse remains a familiar symbol of chivalric culture during the Middle Ages.

To learn more about the Warhorse Project visit @AHRC_Warhorse on Twitter or

Exactly 500 years ago Armouries staff were sent to what is now Belgium to buy weapons for the Field of Cloth of Gold. Inspired by a single archive that details their names and expenditure, this is their story.

Over eight episodes, “Richard Pellande” will regale us with their adventures.

Episode 1: Bruges, 10th April 1520
Episode 2: Brussels, 17th April 1520
Episode 3: ‘Swords & States’, Antwerp, 24th April 1520
Episode 4: ‘Rivets & Rebels’, Mechelin, 1st May 1520
Episode 5: ‘Mules and Monarchs’, Brussels, 8th May 1520
Episode 6: ‘Mills and Miracles’. Oudenburgh,
Episode 7: ‘Stores and Seas’. Calais, 22nd May 1520
Episode 8: ‘Deadlines and Destinies’ Calais, 29th May 1520

The Field of Cloth of Gold was a diplomatic summit between the Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France between the 7th – 24th June 1520. The summit was an extravagant display of royal magnificence which was expected to consolidate the peace between England and France after decades of warfare. The event was a grand tournament involving jousting, tourneys and foot combat. Immortalised in works of art and eye-witness accounts The Field of Cloth of Gold was one of the most opulent diplomatic and sporting events ever staged.




Royal Armouries commissioned two video stories from Extra Credits to tell the story of the Field of Cloth of Gold.

  1. Universal Peace
  2. Royal Frenemies

When people think of the age of knights and kings, there’s one image that comes forward as readily as shining armour and that’s the tournament! And this particular tournament will go down in history as one of the most lavish and expansive affairs as a way to broker peace between Henry the VIII of England and Francis I of France. The two kings were locked in a bitter rivalry and were determined to outshine (and outspend) the other.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold - Royal Frenemies - Extra History - #2