Skip to main content

A royal agreement

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.

Related stories

Load more