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Battle Royal: When England's Henry VIII Wrestled France's King Francis

Fightland Blog

By L.A. Jennings

​Field of the Cloth of Gold, 1545​ (Wikimedia Commons)

Wrestling, even more than boxing, became a source of entertainment and spectacle in Britain and in the United States in the twentieth century, but it had a rather grand history. In 1520, the twenty-nine-year-old King Henry the VIII of England challenged fellow monarch King Francis the first of France to a wrestling match at the historic “Field of the Cloth of Gold” meeting. Although Francis was able to throw the older and larger Henry to win the match, the two were said to have left the meeting as friends, despite Henry’s historic bad temper and the ever-present enmity between England and France.

Europe was run by three young men in 1520: Henry VIII of England, Charles V of Spain, and Francis of France. Two years earlier, Henry, Charles, Francis, and other princes of major European countries signed a peace treaty in which they agreed to join each other to battle the growing Ottoman-Turkish empire and end fighting in the constantly waring European nations. In 1519, nineteen-year-old Charles was elected Holy Roman Emperor, and in an effort to maintain a balance of power in Europe, Henry (29 years old), and Francis (23 years old) agreed to meet in a neutral location to pledge their friendship and brotherhood, as only young, ludicrously rich men knew how.

The illustrious meeting, organized by the ever-conniving Cardinal Wolsley, was to be a spectacle of epic proportions, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Universal Peace two years prior. Charles lingered in the background, conferring with Wolsley, who assured the new Holy Roman Emperor that the event was more a show of friendship than an alliance against Spain. Meanwhile, Henry and Francis worked to outdo each other, each demonstrating his own power, wealth, and virility.

The event nearly bankrupted the two countries, unsurprising given that Henry commissioned a temporary palace built for him, ostentatiously filled with the trappings of a royal Christian court. Golden statues of the saints stood next to a crucifix festooned with pearls. Henry, still married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, ensured that his quarters were suitable to his queen, with real glass in the windows and fully-outfitted kitchens to cook decadent feasts. Francis quarters were as luxurious as his fellow monarch’s, with rich blue velvet walls embroidered with France’s gold fleur-de-lis.

Throughout the meeting of the monarchs, which took place over three weeks, tents of gold fabric populated the area, thus engendering the name “The Field of the Cloth of Gold;” a rather clunky moniker for what was essentially a royal pissing contest. Fountains erupted in wine and servants scrambled everywhere to serve the royals, their noble constituents, and sizable armies. According to Historian Glenn Richard, over 3,000 sheep and lambs, 800 calves, and 300 oxen were slaughtered by the engorged horde.

At the heart of the Field of the Cloth of Gold was an attempt, by both men, to simultaneously express their kingly kinship and to more implicitly demonstrate to the other the might of his fighting force. Ten days of sporting events ensued and knights competed for both country and honor. Not to be eclipsed by their men, Francis and Henry also participated in the games, culminating in the wrestling match that was no mere kerfuffle, for it was not just a bout between two men, but rather, a harbinger of hostility between England and France.  

Henry was a huge man—in the 16th century, the average height of European men was 5’4 and Henry stood a towering 6’1. Although he is often portrayed as fleshy and even obese by popular culture, it was only near the end of his life that Henry became corpulent and sickly. An avid athlete, Henry Tudor jousted and hunted, threw the javelin and excelled in archery. He was skilled at double-axe fighting and played bowls. And Henry practiced, and apparently excelled, in a style of wrestling indigenous to the Cornwall region of England, known as Cornish Wrestling. The practitioners wear short jackets, which can be grabbed, held, and manipulated by their opponents in an attempt to throw each other to the ground, where the match ends. There is no ground work, only a series of highly dynamic flips, sweeps, wrenches, and trips to take an opponent off his or her feet.

Francis, like Henry, was highly-educated in a wide range of academic disciplines, and showed particular skill in the military strategy and combat. He hunted, played tennis, and wrestled in his country’s style, known as Breton Wrestling. Breton Wrestling (sometimes known as Gouren Wrestling) is similar in approach to Cornish wrestling—according to Martial Arts Historian Thomas Green, the primary difference between the two styles is how tight the jacket is worn. The Breton wrestler wears a tight jacket and the Cornish wrestler wears it loose. 

Accounts of the actual match vary, but it seems definitive that the match did indeed take place and was not just apocryphal. The Field of the Cloth of Gold contained elements of bromance, as each king gave the other a bracelet, and declarations of undying love and fealty. The event, held under the auspices of peace and friendship, focused on the efforts of the French and English knights as they sought to best each other in the numerous tournaments and contests. On the third day, Henry defeated Francis in an archery contest, and by all accounts, Francis good-naturedly congratulated him. As the day (and the drinks) wore on, Henry challenged Francis to a wrestling match—a true hand-to-hand competition.

Again, by all accounts, Francis initially demurred, not wanting to risk his friendship with Henry, who was an egoist at best and a narcissist at his worst. But Henry persuaded Francis and the two men set out to a flat, grassy area for the match to endure.

Wrestling, unlike boxing, has a reputation as being the provincial fighting sport. Mostly practiced in rural areas, wrestling was the activity of farm-workers and day-laborers, who, after a hard day in the fields, may unwind by attempting to throw each other to the ground. Boxing would not have been a viable option for many of these groups simply because they needed to be able to wake up and work the next day without dealing with the aftermath of a boxing match. Henry and Francis, while the epitome of aristocratic upbringing and epicurean style, also embraced the more ‘country’ pursuits of falconing, hunting, and wrestling. Thus these two men, reportedly outfitted in rich velvets and silks, faced each other on the Field of the Cloth of Gold, determined to add grass-stains to the sumptuous garments of his rival.

Details of the bout are not available, and those sources that claim specifics read as spurious imaginings of Victorian fan-boys. What is known is that Francis eventually managed to out maneuver Henry and using a technique known as the Breton trip, the King of France tossed the King of England to the ground.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold was a monumental display of wealth and power that, in the years that followed, appeared to have accomplished nothing. Within two years of the event, Henry and the Holy Roman Emperor joined forces and declared war on Francis. Years later, Francis and Henry would again align when the French monarch agreed to support Henry’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. And yet again, France and England would go to war, this perpetual machine of war and peace, treaties and broken promises.

The wrestling between the two men signified a larger, enduring struggle between the monarch’s ceaseless struggle for power. So many things were at stake for France and England in the 16th century—territory, wealth, power, and religion. On the Field of the Cloth of Gold, when Henry and Francis grappled to take each other to the ground, a microcosm of that tension revealed itself in that skirmish. There never was a rematch for Francis and Henry—at least, not as wrestlers. Instead, the two men continued to fight for dominance, in royal chambers, in sealed letters, and in public displays of aggression. Would Francis have been able to best Henry twice on that grass field? Perhaps Henry would have been the winner in a second match. Regardless, the Field of the Cloth of Gold provided the monarchs, and history, with the opportunity to do something that, otherwise, would never have occurred in the gilded chambers of imperial palaces. 

 

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