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Royal Moments: When Henry VIII Wrestled the King of France

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Wrestling today is very much seen as a sport for the masses, but in the 16th century – during the reign of King Henry the VIII of England – there was one spectacularly royal wrestling match that became an unexpected and highly extravagant focal point of international diplomacy.

Between 7th and 24th June 1520, Henry VIII and King Francis of France held a summit to celebrate and strengthen Anglo-French relations in the wake of the Treaty of London non-aggression pact two years earlier, and to ally the two countries more closely in light of the growing power of Charles V of Spain, who had in 1519 been elected Holy Roman Emperor.

The summit took place in Balinghem – then considered a part of England, but now in France – and became known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold; the meeting was intended to demonstrate the magnificence of each King’s court, and the valley was transformed into a sea of luxurious tents fashioned from expensive fabrics weaved with gold and silk threads.

The organiser, Cardinal Wolsey, orchestrated the entire summit in a way designed to place both countries on an inarguably equal footing; the meeting place was chosen to be equidistant between French and British borders, and on land that would provide equal elevation to both parties.

Henry commissioned a 12,000 square foot palace to be built at the summit, and fitted it with real glass windows, a fully-equipped kitchen, gold statues of his favourite saints, and a pair of live, gold-plated monkeys he had been gifted by Ottoman Sultan Selim I – monkeys which, by all accounts, the King of France found absolutely delightful. King Francis, too, spared no expense, erecting a structure notable for its blue velvet walls adorned with the royal arms of France: the fleur-de-lis.

The stage was then set for three weeks of what essentially amounted to royal partying:  jousting tournaments, games, music and banqueting, to which end historian Glenn Richard calculates more than 4,100 animals were slaughtered over the course of the summit to feed the combined forces the two kings had brought with them – approximately 3,000 foot soldiers and 500 horsemen each.

All this in the name of friendly competition and camaraderie, yet there was nevertheless a distinct sense of one-upmanship built into the proceedings. Entering the field to joust with the French King on June 15th, Henry and his horse wore ostentatious outfits decorated to impress; an armour skirt and caparison respectively, encrusted with 2,000 ounces of gold and 1,100 giant pearls.  

The kings competed against each other in a number of events, though the sense of a burgeoning ‘bromance’ between the two Royals was ever-present, as they exchanged gifts of bracelets and made declarations of their undying love and loyalty to one another. Their rivalry came to a head, however, when, having beaten Francis in an archery contest – and, presumably, consumed a considerable amount of booze – Henry felt moved to challenge the King of France to a wrestling match.

Both kings were keen wrestlers; Henry was a student of the Cornish school, while Francis subscribed to the Breton style – both approaches to wrestling which involve wearing a short jacket that can be gripped, wrenched and flung in an attempt to throw your opponent to the ground. Despite their shared enthusiasm, Francis initially demurred, concerned that a victory on his part could upset the notoriously egotistical Henry to the point of undermining their recently deepened friendship. Henry, however, was insistent.

Dressed in all their fineries, the two kings headed out in search of a suitably flat piece of land to serve as a wrestling ring, their silk and velvet costumes standing in stark contrast to the distinctly earthy competition that was about to take place. Historical accounts of the fight itself are thin on the ground – presumably no detailed notes were taken amid the excitement – but what is recorded is that King Francis was finally able to bring down all six feet of Henry VIII to win the match, the King of England took his defeat graciously, and the pair’s blossoming relationship maintained intact.

Such friendships are fickle, however. Within two years, all sense of camaraderie would be forgotten as Henry VIII sided with Charles V of Spain in order to declare war on King Francis, and the cumbersomely-named Field of The Cloth and Gold became indicative of little more than the lengths Henry would go to in his relentless pursuit of political dominance.

It was a staggering display of wealth and power – one that, according to historian Greg Jenner cost a total of one third of England’s wealth; a proportion equivalent to what the UK government spends today on the NHS and welfare.

The Royal Rumble, meanwhile, marked a moment in history when Henry and Francis were quite literally closer than they had ever been before – and closer than they ever would be again.


Find out more about Henry VIII on True Royalty and watch The Tudors:

From the ashes of the War of the Roses grew the mighty House of Tudor. Founded by Henry Tudor, the dynasty produced some of our most notorious Monarchs; from the infamous tyrant that was Henry VIII to Bloody Mary’s horrific campaign against the protestants culminating in the shining reign of one of our greatest Queens, Elizabeth I. Watch here

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