Leeds Castle is celebrating the 500th anniversary of The Field of Cloth of Gold – a renowned festival that took place in 1520 near Calais as part of a summit between King Henry VIII of England and King François I of France. A recent study of historical records into this meeting of Kings, has raised a big question over one of the most famous events in the Castle’s history. Did King Henry VIII actually stay at Leeds Castle on his way to Dover 500 years ago today on the 22nd May 1520, as has always been thought?
The painting ‘The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover’, which hangs proudly in the Castle’s Henry VIII Banqueting Hall, shows the king and his entourage leaving Dover Castle and crossing the narrow sea. Henry is shown resplendent in gold on a ship with golden sails, a precursor to the golden tents at The Field of Cloth of Gold. The painting is a dramatic depiction of the scale of the event and the power of the English fleet.
Henry’s entourage of nearly 6,000 consisted of not only the Royal Household, including Queen Catherine of Aragon, but also peers, barons, knights, bishops, musicians and physicians, all of whom had their own attendants.
In 1520, the year of The Field of Cloth of Gold, Leeds Castle was a royal Castle owned by Henry VIII and used by both him and Catherine of Aragon. Its close proximity to London and its large estate and hunting grounds made the Castle an attractive draw for the royal couple.
Henry VIII inherited Leeds Castle and came to the throne in 1509. He appointed his close friend and ally, Sir Henry Guildford, as Constable of Leeds Castle in 1512. Sir Henry remained in post until his death in 1532 and the King trusted him to undertake a series of major renovations and repairs at the Castle, which had fallen into neglect.
Over twenty years, Sir Henry oversaw improvements, as directed by Henry VIII. Records show that the Constable of the Castle received regular funds firstly for the renovation of the Castle and then for its upkeep. Between 1517 and 1523 Henry spent vast sums on transforming the Norman stronghold into a palace fit for him and Catherine to enjoy. £200 was allocated in 1517; £300 in 1518; £200 in 1519 and £226 in 1520, the year of The Field of Cloth of Gold (combined total of £583,000 in today’s money).
In 1520 Sir Henry received an additional payment of £66 (£41,500 in today’s money), which has been seen as evidence that on 22nd May that year Leeds Castle was used as a stopping off point for the royal party journeying from London to The Field of Cloth of Gold in France.
Were these extra funds allocated to help prepare Leeds Castle for the arrival of Henry’s entourage of nearly 6,000 people and over 3,000 horses to the estate? Certainly, they would have needed somewhere appropriate in Maidstone to stay and significant funds were required to host the large number of people involved. After all, Leeds Castle had been previously used by the English court during this type of progress.
The entourage of thousands of courtiers and their servants, included the event’s chief orchestrator, Cardinal Wolsey, who was accompanied by 300 servants and 50 gentlemen with horses. Catherine of Aragon alone had a retinue of more than 1,250 people. Thomas More was listed among the people in attendance at the tournament, which also included Thomas Boleyn (Ann Boleyn’s father and English Ambassador to France), Sir Nicholas Carew and Sir Henry Guildford himself.
Until now, it has been thought that Henry and Catherine stayed one night at Leeds Castle on 22nd May 1520 before reaching Charing the following day. The royal progress, which began in Greenwich on 21st May, journeyed through Kent to reach Dover on 30th May.
However recent investigation into surviving Castle accounts has brought this into question, due to the lack of surviving accounts that Henry VIII and his party did actually stay overnight at Leeds Castle on their way to the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520. It is possible that the royal entourage were hosted at the Archbishop’s Palace in Maidstone on their way to the Palace in Charing the following day. Both Leeds Castle and the Archbishop’s Palace were conveniently situated along the route from London to Dover.
When Leeds Castle reopens to the public a series of new displays will explore the Castle’s connections to The Field of Cloth of Gold. Although the original oil painting of this monumental event rests with the Royal Collection, visitors will be able to get up close to an exact replica in the Castle’s Banqueting Hall during 2020 which will sit proudly alongside Leeds Castle’s loan painting of ‘The Embarkation of Henry VIII at Dover’.
Whilst the Castle is temporarily closed you can enjoy a ‘taster’ online version of the display, please visit: leeds-castle.com/FOCOG