Book Corner: 1520 by Amy Licence

1520 explores the characters of two larger-than-life kings, whose rivalry and love-hate relations added a feisty edge to European relations in the early sixteenth century. What propelled them to meet, and how did each vie to outdo the other in feats of strength and yards of gold cloth? Everyone who was anyone in 1520 was there. But why was the flower of England’s nobility transported across the Channel, and how were they catered for? What did this temporary, fairy-tale village erected in a French field look like, feel like and smell like? This book explores not only the political dimension of their meeting and the difficult triangle they established with Emperor Charles V, but also the material culture behind the scenes. While the courtiers attended masques, dances, feasts and jousts, an army of servants toiled in the temporary village created specially for that summer. Who were the men and women behind the scenes? What made Henry rush back into the arms of the Emperor immediately after the most expensive two weeks of his entire reign? And what was the long-term result of the meeting, of that sea of golden tents and fountains spouting wine? This quinquecentenary analysis explores the extraordinary event in unprecedented detail. Based on primary documents, plans, letters and records of provisions and with a new focus on material culture, food, textiles, planning and organisation.

There are some books that are just a pleasure to review and I have been looking forward to reviewing 1520: The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Amy Licence since about the second chapter in. It was a pure pleasure to read and is a pleasure to review.

1520: The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Amy Licence was a wonderful insight into the magnificence of the Field of the Cloth of Gold

There is so much information in its 288 pages!

Told in a beautiful, colourful narrative, Amy Licence brings the Field of the Cloth of Gold to vivid life. Providing an in-depth analysis of the sources material, from letters of the participants to diplomatic dispatches, lists of attendees, lists of entertainments, lists of building materials, lists of supplies from food, to cloth, to wine, 1520: The Field of the Cloth of Gold presents the spectacle to the reader as if they were actually there, amidst these two tented towns, created so that two monarchs could meet without either insulting the other’s dignity.

The first thing to mention has to be the colossal amount of research that must have gone into writing this book. Amy Licence has looked into every aspect of the the Field of the Cloth of Gold, from every angle, and produced a comprehensive, informative study of this remarkable event in Tudor history. Every facet of the meeting of Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France is covered in wonderful detail; from the political implications of the gathering, to the vast amount of supplies, people and organisation needed to pull off this unique event.

The year 2020 marks the 500th anniversary of the meeting between Henry VIII, King of England and Francis I, King of France. They came face to face in a French valley midway between the towns of Guines and Ardres in the modern Pas-de-Calais department of northern France. Today, a minimalist stone plinth marks the spot where thousands of attendees feasted, danced and jousted. Dressed in cloth of gold, crimson satin and yellow velvet, or in the servants’ livery clothes of Tudor white and green, and Valois black, white and tawny, they converged in the ‘golden valley’ between 7 and 24 June 1520. Due to the quantities of glittering material used in their costumes and tents, it would go down in history as The Field of the Cloth of Gold.

Modern retellings of the period have tended to relegate the events to the status of a glorious party. Undoubtedly there was a party atmosphere, with fabulous costumes, temporary palaces and tents, dazzling props, masked dancers and chivalric feats. At a distance, these epitomise the glamour of the Tudor period, condense it into a short summer’s lease, and present it as a glittering historic bauble. In many ways, the Field of the Cloth of Gold represents the perfect simulacrum of the Tudor experience. It was the long-awaited meeting between two European giants, alike in dignity and ambition; it was the height of Tudor spectacle and pageantry, and it was the most expensive display of magnificence of which either king would ever conceive. It shines across five centuries as a stand-alone moment amid the turbulence of international politics, reformation and national redefinition. As such, it makes for a full and rewarding micro study of Anglo-French spectacle. But it was also far more than this.

Amy Licence manages to get over to the reader the great significance of the Field of Cloth of Gold, not just for the participants, but for Europe as a whole. This was a meeting of two kings from countries who had traditionally been enemies for centuries. And they were two of the three great European powers of the time. The Holy Roman Emperor was watching, along with the rest of Europe, to ensure his own interests were not affected by this new amity.

1520: The Field of the Cloth of Gold is also a tale of the people and personalities involved in the ruling of early modern Europe. The organisation of the event was not just logistical but also political; egos had to be stroked, etiquette observed and there was a delicate balancing act to ensure that neither king felt snubbed or received more precedence that the other. Amy Licence clearly demonstrates how the personalities involved shaped and styled the event; from the diplomatic discussions, to the sumptuous meals and feasting, to the jousting and lavish entertainments. The sheer amount of organisation involved in putting together an event like this – when everything had to be arranged via correspondence and couriers, is mind-boggling.

As ever with Amy Licence, the prose flows wonderfully, making this book a thoroughly absorbing, engaging and enjoyable read. I have always marveled at how she can make a non-fiction book as easy to read as a novel. It makes the pages fly by and you are at the end of the book long before you are ready to finish it. Amy Licence leaves you with mental images of the magnificent spectacle of the Field of the Cloth of Gold that will take a while to fade.

1520: The Field of the Cloth of Gold is a truly remarkable study of a unique event in English, French and European history. It is a must-read for anyone interested in the splendour, pageantry and politics of the Tudor era.

1520: The Field of the Cloth of Gold is now available in hardcover from Amazon UK

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About the author:

Amy Licence is an historian of women’s lives in the medieval and early modern period, from Queens to commoners. Her particular interest lies in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, in gender relations, Queenship and identity, rites of passage, pilgrimage, female orthodoxy and rebellion, superstition, magic, fertility and childbirth. She is also interested in Modernism, specifically Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, Picasso and Post-Impressionism.

Amy has written for The Guardian, The TLS, The New Statesman, BBC History, The English Review, The Huffington Post, The London Magazine and other places. She has been interviewed regularly for BBC radio, including Woman’s Hour, and made her TV debut in “The Real White Queen and her Rivals” documentary, for BBC2, in 2013. She also writes historical and literary fiction and has been shortlisted twice for the Asham Award.

Her website can be found at amylicence.weebly.com

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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