If there’s one image of Henry VIII that lives on in the popular imagination it’s of a portly ruler with a bushy red beard, covered in furs and jewels and chowing down on a king-size turkey leg. (If we remember anything else about him, it’s probably that he had six wives and ordered two of their heads chopped off.)
In fact, biographers tell us that Henry was a remarkable athlete in his 16th-century day, adept at archery, jousting, bowling and, especially, wrestling. “In his youth, the King was always game for a wrestling match,” Alison Weir writes in her 2001 biography Henry VIII: The King and His Court, “even though this was not, strictly speaking, a sport for gentlemen.”
Henry’s passion for wrestling would lead to one of the most embarrassing episodes of his career. If, that is, it actually happened; some historians have their doubts.
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The Field of Cloth of Gold: Royal Revelry
The scene was a huge sporting tournament in June 1520 at a location near Calais, in what is now northern France. The event has come to be known as the Field of Cloth of Gold, in honor of the elaborate and expensive venue constructed for the occasion. “There were sham castles, temporary chapels, fountains running wine, great cellars full of wine free as water to all comers, silk tents, gold lace and foil, gilt lions and such things without end,” Charles Dickens wrote in his nonfiction chronicle A Child’s History of England. An estimated 12,000 people attended.
The purpose of the tournament was to cement relations between Henry and his French counterpart, Francis the First, to avert further wars between the two nations and to ally themselves against Charles V, another powerful ruler whose titles included King of Germany, King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor. Shakespeare, writing in the early 1600s, considered the meeting of the two kings significant enough to open Act 1, Scene 1 of his play Henry VIII with it.
Days of jousting, archery, wrestling and other sports ensued, with both kings often suiting up and joining the fray personally—although usually not against each other. Feasting and drinking filled the evening hours.
One day, as the story goes, an enthusiastic and possibly intoxicated Henry issued a challenge to Francis, often quoted as: “Brother, let us wrestle!” Henry was 28 and the time, Francis 25.
It did not go well. As historian Glenn Richardson writes in The Field of Cloth of Gold (2014), “They grappled briefly before Francis overthrew the Englishman with a move called the ‘tour de Bretayne,’ a sort of rapidly executed hip throw… The Bretons were regarded as the best wrestlers in France and Henry does not seem to have appreciated just how well Francis, as their duke, had mastered their skills.”
Once he got up off the ground, Richardson writes, “Henry seems to have recovered his dignity somehow, but it must have been a rather embarrassing moment for a man so confident of his own masculine strength and dexterity.” After that, the two kings were said to have gone off to dinner together.
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The Political Fallout
Some writers believe this tale to be apocryphal, especially since there are no contemporary English accounts of it. (Perhaps some Englishmen did witness their king’s humiliation, but preferred to keep their necks off his chopping block.) The primary source from which all later accounts seem to derive was a posthumously published memoir by Robert III de La Marck, seigneur de Florange, whose name offers some clue as to where his sympathies might lie.
Whether Henry VIII was gracious in defeat or pitched a royal fit seems to have gone unrecorded even by the French, leaving historians free to use their imaginations. Francis Hackett in a 1929 biography of Henry writes that the king “rose purple with rage.” The famous 19th-century French historian Jules Michelet suggests that Henry may have borne 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, question whether it was ultimately that important, if it occurred at all.
Nonetheless, just 23 months after the tournament, Henry VIII declared war on France, joining sides with Francis’s nemesis Charles V and sending English troops into battle.
As Dickens wryly summed up the Field of Cloth of Gold in his children’s history, “Of course, nothing came of all these fine doings but a speedy renewal of the war between England and France, in which the two Royal companions and brothers in arms longed very earnestly to damage one another.”
Hackett put it in starker terms: “It never occurred to the thousands and thousands of excited spectators that this gorgeous show was the prelude of a European war which would last 38 years and cost half a million men.”