In the early 16th century the balance of power in Western Europe was a precarious one; the major players being Francis I of France and Charles, Holy Roman Emperor. Each monarch tried to build a set of alliances to swing the balance in their favour. Into the mix came England, under Henry VIII. Henry's chief advisor, Thomas, Cardinal Wolsey, favoured an alliance with France. Henry's queen, Catherine, favoured the Empire (the Emperor Charles was her nephew). Yet Henry and Catherine's daughter Mary was affianced to Francis's son, the Dauphin.
Henry himself was undecided as to which alliance offered him the best chance of personal and national gain. He played a waiting game in an attempt to stay on good terms with both Charles and Francis, hoping perhaps that no matter which monarch gained the ascendancy, England would benefit.
In 1520 Henry was persuaded to forge an alliance with France. A meeting was arranged between the two monarchs at a location just outside Calais, a bit of unremarkable countryside between the villages of Ardres and Guines. Francis and Henry were personal as well as political rivals, and each king prided himself on the magnificence of his court. Henry brought with him virtually his entire court, and he was determined to impress his host with the size and splendour of his retinue.
When it was determined that the castles of both villages were in too great a state of disrepair to house the courts, they camped in fields, Francis at Ardres and Henry at Guines. This was no ordinary camping expedition, however; huge pavilions were erected to serve as halls and chapels, and great silken tents decorated with gems and cloth of gold.
Cloth of Gold was a fabric woven with thin strands of gold interspersed with more traditional materials, often silk. It might be used for clothing or for a ceremonial cloth used as a canopy for thrones.
It is this ostentatious display of wealth and power that earned the meeting-place between Francis and Henry the sobriquet "The Field of the Cloth of Gold". The meeting lasted for three weeks (June 7-June 24, 1520), during which time each court strove to outdo the other in offering splendid entertainments and making grandiose gestures. Feasts and jousts were held, including a tilt between Henry and Francis themselves. Balls, masques, fireworks, and military sports were just some of the activities on offer. The expense incurred by both monarchs was enormous, and put tremendous strain on the finances of each country.
Yet for all the trouble they went to, the results of the meeting were negligible. Though Henry and Francis agreed in principle to an alliance, it was just two weeks later that Henry met with Charles himself in England. By the terms of this new treaty between England and the Empire, each agreed to not sign any new treaties with France for two years, and the betrothal of Mary to the Dauphin was broken in favour of a new betrothal to Charles himself (this alliance would later be broken also). Over the next several years the three monarchs formed, broke, and reformed alliances in an ever-shifting attempt to gain ascendance in Europe, with no-one gaining any permanent advantage.
Tudor Britain - from 'A History of the British Nation' (1912)
Tudor attractions in Britain (places to see tagged with 'Tudor')