If there is one image of Henry VIII that endures in the popular imagination, it is that of a portly ruler with a bushy red beard, covered in furs and jewelry and eating a giant turkey leg. (If we remember anything else about him, it’s probably because he had six wives and ordered their heads cut off.)

In fact, biographers tell us that Henry was a remarkable athlete in his 16e– century, follower of archery, jousting, bowling and, above all, wrestling. “In his youth, the King was always ready for a wrestling match,” writes Alison Weir in her 2001 biography. Henry VIII: the king and his court, “even if it was not, strictly speaking, a gentlemen’s sport”.

Henry’s passion for wrestling would lead to one of the most embarrassing episodes of his career. If, that is to say, it really happened; some historians have doubts.

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Le Champ du Drap d’Or: Royal Feasts

‘Meeting between Francis I and Henry VIII at the field of cloth of gold on June 7, 1520’, a painting by Friedrich August Bouterwek. 1845. Castles of Versailles and Trianon, France

The scene was a huge sporting tournament in June 1520 at a location near Calais, in what is now northern France. The event is known as the Champ du Drap d’Or, in honor of the elaborate and expensive venue built for the occasion. “There were false castles, temporary chapels, fountains pouring wine, large cellars full of free wine like water to all, silk tents, lace and gold paper, golden lions and that endless stuff, ”Charles Dickens wrote in his documentary column. A History of childhood in England. An estimated 12,000 people attended.

The purpose of the tournament was to cement relations between Henry and his French counterpart, Francis I, to prevent further wars between the two nations and to ally against Charles V, another powerful ruler whose titles included the King of Germany, the King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. Shakespeare, writing in the early 1600s, considered the meeting of the two kings important enough to open Act 1, scene 1 of his play Henry VIII with that.

Days of jousting, archery, wrestling, and other sports ensued, with the two kings often dressing and personally joining the fray, though usually not against each other. Feast and drink filled the evening hours.


Henry VIII

One day, as the story goes, an enthusiastic and possibly drunk Henry challenged Francis, often quoted as: “Brother, let’s fight! Henry was 28 years old and then François 25.

It didn’t go well. As historian Glenn Richardson writes in The field of cloth of gold (2014), “They struggled briefly before Francis knocked down the Englishman with a blow called the ‘Bretayne turn’, a kind of hip throw executed quickly… The Bretons were considered the best wrestlers in France and Henry doesn’t seem to have appreciated how much Francis, as Duke, had mastered their skills.

Once he rose from the ground, Richardson wrote: “Henry seems to have regained his dignity somehow, but it must have been a rather embarrassing moment for a man so confident in his own strength. and male dexterity. ” After that, the two kings would have gone to dinner together.

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The political fallout

Detail of a tapestry showing wrestling at the Field of Cloth of Gold 1520, on display at Hampton Court Palace in London, May 17, 2021.

Detail of a tapestry showing wrestling at the Field of Cloth of Gold 1520, on display at Hampton Court Palace in London, May 17, 2021.

Some writers believe this tale to be apocryphal, especially since there are no contemporary English accounts about it. (Perhaps some Englishmen witnessed their king’s humiliation, but preferred to keep their necks away from his chopping block.) The main source from which all later accounts seem to derive was a memoir published posthumously by Robert III de La Marck, Lord of Florange, whose name offers a clue as to where his sympathies might lie.

Whether Henry XIII was gracious in defeat or whether he launched a royal crisis seems not to have been recorded even by the French, leaving historians free to use their imaginations. Francis Hackett, in a biography of Henry in 1929, writes that the king “rose up in rage”. The famous 19eCentury French historian Jules Michelet suggests that Henry may have held a grudge, especially after being humiliated in front of the women present. Michelet called the brief wrestling match a “small fatal event that had incalculable consequences”. More recent historians, including Richardson, wonder if it was ultimately so important, if it happened.

However, barely 23 months after the tournament, Henry XIII declared war on France, joining the sworn enemy of François Charles V and sending English troops into battle.

As Dickens ironically summed up the field of cloth of gold in his children’s story: very seriously about harming each other.

Hackett put it more clearly: “It never occurred to the thousands and thousands of excited spectators that this magnificent spectacle was the prelude to a European war that would last 38 years and cost a half. million men.