Two great powers were emerging in continental Europe at this time: France, under Francis I, and the Habsburg Empire, under Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. The Kingdom of England, still a lesser power, was being courted as an ally by the two major powers. The 1518 Treaty of London, a non-aggression pact between major European powers to help resist the Ottoman expansion into southeastern Europe, had just been signed. Henry also held less spectacular meetings with Charles V a month before the Field of Cloth of Gold in the Netherlands and again afterwards at Calais, Henry's only possession in the Continent.
Both Henry and Francis wished to be seen as Renaissance princes. Renaissance thinking held that a strong prince could choose peace from a place of strength. The meeting was designed to show how magnificent each court was and how this could be a basis for mutual respect and peace between nations who were traditional enemies. Henry and Francis were also similar figures of similar age and dashing reputations, so there was almost certainly a mutual curiosity.
Everything was arranged to provide equality between the two sides. The meeting place was at the very edge of the English territory around Calais. The valley where the first meeting took place was landscaped to provide areas of equal elevation for the two national parties. The whole event was planned and executed by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, a charismatic, eloquent master diplomat who as a papal legate had immense power in the name of the pope (Leo X at the time of the meeting).
Each king tried to outshine the other, with dazzling tents and clothes, huge feasts, music, jousting, and games. The tents and the costumes displayed so much cloth of gold, an expensive fabric woven with silk and gold thread, that the site of the meeting was named after it.
The most elaborate arrangements were made for the accommodation of the two monarchs and their large retinues; and on Henry's part especially no efforts were spared to make a great impression in Europe with this meeting. Before the castle of Guides, a temporary palace covering an area of nearly 12,000 square yards (about 10,000 square metres), was erected for the reception of the English king. The palace was in four blocks with a central courtyard; each side was about 300 feet (91 metres) long. The only solid part was the brick base about 8 feet (2½ metres) high. Above the brickwork, the 30-foot- (10-meter-) high walls were made of cloth or canvas on timber frames, painted to look like stone or brick. The slanting roof was made of oiled cloth painted to give the colour of lead and the illusion of slates. Contemporaries commented especially on the huge expanse of glass, which made visitors feel they were in the open air. It was decorated in the most sumptuous fashion and was furnished with a profusion of golden ornaments. Red wine flowed from the two fountains outside. The chapel was served by 35 priests. Composer Jean Mouton was most likely in charge of the musical production by Francis I; the French royal chapel had one of the finest choirs in Europe, and contemporary accounts indicated that they "delighted their hearers. The wooden ceiling for one of the tents may later have been installed in the New Chapel at Ightham Mote where, with its colours faded, one with appropriate features can still be seen.
Some idea of the size of Henry's following may be gathered from the fact that in one month 2200 sheep and other viands in a similar proportion were consumed. In the fields beyond the castle, tents to the number of 2800 were erected for less distinguished visitors, and the whole scene was one of the greatest animation. Ladies gorgeously clad, and knights, showing by their dress and bearing their anxiety to revive the glories and the follies of the age of chivalry, jostled mountebanks, mendicants and vendors of all kinds.
Journeying from Calais Henry reached his headquarters at Guînes on 4 June 1520, and Francis took up his residence at Ardres. After Cardinal Wolsey, with a splendid train, had visited the French king, the two monarchs met at the Val d'Or, a spot midway between the two places, on the 7th.
The following days were taken up with tournaments, in which both kings took part. There were banquets in which the kings entertained each other's queens. The many other entertainments included archery displays and wrestling between Breton and English wrestlers.
Wolsey said Mass and the two sovereigns separated on 24 June, Corpus Christi. The Mass itself was interrupted by a mysterious event in which a flying dragon or salamander flew over the congregation. The superstitious saw this as a great portent, but it was probably a firework accidentally or deliberately set off. The sermon was read by Richard Pace, an intimate friend of Erasmus. Wolsey gave a general indulgence for the forgiveness of the sins of all present.
Relations between the two countries worsened soon after the event when Cardinal Wolsey arranged an alliance with Charles V, who declared war on France later that year commencing the Italian War of 1521–1526.