Hampton Court Palace is re-opening its exalted doors with Gold and Glory, an exhibition celebrating the legendary coming together of Henry VIII and Francois I at the Field of Cloth of Gold. The exhibition showcases the extraordinary savoir-faire of Tudor England and Valois France with a priceless and astonishing collection of tapestry and textile, artwork and metalwork.
Originally scheduled to open in 2020, Gold and Glory is exhibiting in the spectacular rooms built for Cardinal Wolsey, one of the masterminds behind the Field of Cloth of Gold.
Field of Cloth of Gold
Picture this: it’s the summer of 1520, and rivals Henry VIII of England and François I of France meet up for a diplomatic rapprochement in Balinghem, near Calais. Over 12,000 courtiers pitch up for an ostentatious 18 days of feasting, tournaments, masquerades, drinking and religious services. Pop-up palaces made of brick, timber and canvas are erected together with tents and banqueting houses – all gleaming and glistening in the sun.
Courtiers wear velvets woven with silk and gold foil. This moveable feast includes hundreds of tents, covered in more gold and topped with heraldic beasts and royal banners.
There is so much bling on show that when the two kings first meet, there is a near diplomatic incident. The blinding sheen coming from the English side disarms the French who think the English army are wearing armour. Are they in fact suited and booted for war? An envoy is sent to the English side and on his return, reports that the “armour” is only a sea of cloth of gold.
Henry VIII and François I are both in their twenties and consider themselves Renaissance kings: well-educated, cultured and athletic. François is at the helm of one of the richest and most powerful countries in Europe, whilst Henry’s England is smaller and less influential. It is therefore essential that Henry is dressed to impress for this meeting of minds and rival nations. The result is one-upmanship on a scale never to be seen again.
Henry sends Cardinal Wosley ahead with 300 servants. England’s entire nobility follow with only a handful left to run the country. The who’s who of Tudor England is there. They have strict instructions that they are to wear their finest of finest and to make England proud.
The French have a tent which is 120 feet tall (with a large central post and two ship masts to support it). The structure is covered in cloth of gold with possibly more inside (it eventually blows down during the event due to the poor weather).
Henry, on the other hand, erects a mini Hampton Court, although not so mini. It is built in only two and a half months. He doesn’t like the idea of glamping though and stays in a nearby castle instead.
This dazzling event would become known as the Field of Cloth of Gold.
Gold and Glory Exhibition Highlights
Henry and François made a pact that they would not shave their beards until they met at the Field of Cloth of Gold. Henry broke his promise and Wolsey was sent out to France to prevent a diplomatic incident. When pressed by François’ mother for an explanation, Wolsey’s excuse was that Katherine of Aragon preferred him clean shaven. She replied that “love is “not in their beards but in their hearts,” and the day was saved.
A rare example of Renaissance fashion, this hat possibly belonged to Henry VIII. He would later gift it to Nicholas Bristowe, clerk of the Royal Wardrobe.
Katherine of Aragon and her French counterpart, Claude de Bretagne, were the main hosts. They were responsible for the gifting and both entertained with lavish banquets. Rivalry existed between these queens: poor Katherine had only sired one daughter and had suffered miscarriages; whilst Claude had already given Francois four children and was pregnant with her fifth child. She was also 20 to Katherine’s 35 – and prettier.
Henry Guildford was one of Henry’s close friends and trusted courtiers. As Master of the Horse, he was responsible for organising the king’s stables, kennels and coach houses. Guildford is dressed in velvet, fur and cloth of gold.
The finest ecclesiastical vestments in the country, the magnificent Stonyhurst vestments are woven from luxurious cloth of gold. On the 23 June at the Field of Cloth of Gold, Woseley led a celebratory mass attended by both kings. These vestments were probably worn during the final mass and possibly by Wosley himself. Originally, there would have been 29 vestments, but only three survive. These were commissioned in Florence around 1500 by Henry VII – he would later bequeath them to Westminster Abbey.
This richly woven tapestry has never before been seen in public. Manufactured in Tournai in the 1520s, it depicts a round of wrestling at the Field of Cloth of Gold. During inclement weather (apparently it rained cats and dogs during the get-together), Tudor health and safety would cancel jousting in favour of wrestling. At one point, Henry and François wrestled against each other and Henry lost, not realising that François was rather good at the sport. French accounts talk of this infamous match, but strangely, it does not appear in any English records.
This glorious painting of Nicolas Carew was recently restored. Carew was a childhood friend of Henry’s and one of the world’s finest jousters. Henry would later have him executed for his part in the Exeter Conspiracy.
The highlight of the exhibition, The Field of Cloth of Gold, is on loan from the Royal Collection. Visual trickery picks out key events, people and places in the painting and brings them to life. Henry and his entourage make an appearance, the Hampton Court wine fountain is spilling over, tents tower over the courtiers, and a dragon flies across the sky.
It is thought that a dragon did indeed fly over the festivities on the penultimate day, during the final mass. Accounts mention how the crowds gasped at the sight of the dragon roaring and glowing. It seems this was in fact a kite with some nifty internal pyrotechnics. Gosh, the Tudors were a clever bunch, weren’t they?
About Gold and Glory
Gold and Glory is on at Hampton Court Palace until 5 September. Entry to the exhibition is included with the ticket to the palace. Adult tickets: £25.30. Children: £12.60 (under 5s go free). More on the exhibition here.