In June 1520, the rulers of France and England declared their friendship with an over-the-top display of wealth and power. Known as the Field of Cloth of Gold, the two-and-a-half-week summit featured feasts, jousts, wrestling matches, masques and an endless stream of entertainment. Neither France’s Francis I nor England’s Henry VIII spared any expense on the celebration, which cost the equivalent of around $19 million today.
Publicly, the Field of Cloth of Gold’s goal was diplomacy, marking an alliance between the two kingdoms. But the event had an underlying purpose: allowing each monarch “to outdo the other in splendor and military prowess,” as historian Tracy Borman told Smithsonian magazine in 2020. The kings’ personal “rivalry … was so intense that it almost blinded them to the expense involved,” she said. “They were desperate to prove their superiority over each other, no matter the cost.”
Few traces of the summit survive today. Designed to be ephemeral, the traveling courts’ temporary palaces were disassembled as quickly as they’d been constructed. But a rare find recently made in England’s West Midlands may offer a glimpse into the Field of Cloth of Gold—or at least help convey the majesty on display during the event and others like it.
In 2019, Charlie Clarke, a 34-year-old café owner who had recently taken up metal detecting as a hobby, discovered a gold pendant and chain in a field in Warwickshire. The heart-shaped pendant was emblazoned with the intertwined initials “H” and “K,” as well as a red-and-white Tudor rose and pomegranate bush—imagery associated with Henry and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (also known as Katherine). Both sides bore the inscription “toujours,” a play on the French word for “always.”
When Clarke realized that he’d literally struck gold, he screamed “like a little schoolgirl, to be honest. My voice went pretty high-pitched,” he says to the Guardian’s Esther Addley.
Curators at the British Museum, which manages archaeological finds made by the English public through the government-run Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS), were similarly surprised, with some suggesting the pendant was a 19th-century fake rather than a genuine Tudor artifact.
“The majority of people who saw this at the museum felt it was almost too good to be true,” curator Rachel King tells the Financial Times’ James Pickford. “At the British Museum, we have the largest collection of objects in precious metal from the early Tudor period. None of them are anything like this—they tend to be smaller. Things like this haven’t really survived.” (The pendant measures almost 2 and a half inches in length, while the chain stretches to just over 17 inches.)
Careful analysis of the pendant’s iconography soon dispelled any doubts about its authenticity. According to the artifact’s record in the PAS database, it likely dates to between 1509, when Henry and Catherine married, and 1533, when their marriage was annulled. The database record offers a “reasonable” suggested date of around 1521, the year that a similar design was embroidered on equine body armor used during jousts at English court. 1521 was far from the first time Henry commissioned metalwork celebrating his marriage; ahead of a joust and banquet in July 1517, for example, artisans produced metalwork featuring “H” and “K” and other royal emblems to adorn the clothing of more than 100 guests and horses.
The 1517 record “suggests a huge amount of metalwork [was] being hastily prepared with visual impact in mind, none of which was intended to have longevity,” the database states. “[The pendant] could have been made in similar circumstances,” whether for the Field of Cloth of Gold or another extravagant event. Per a statement, it may have served as a prize won at a jousting tournament or a token worn by an attendee.
The British Museum team has found no evidence that the pendant personally belonged to either Henry or Catherine. But King tells the Guardian that “its quality is such that it was certainly either commissioned by or somehow related to a member of the higher nobility or a high-ranking courtier.” How the accessory eventually landed in a field in Warwickshire is unclear, but it will likely end up in a museum collection.
“Previously unknown potentially royal artifacts from the 16th century are very rare—and can give us important new insights into life at the top of Tudor society,” Lucy Wooding, a historian at the University of Oxford and the author of Tudor England: A History, tells the Independent’s David Keys.
Henry famously tried to divorce Catherine after becoming besotted with one of her ladies-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn, in the mid-1520s. But the queen refused to agree that the union was invalid, remaining steadfast in her belief that she was the king’s one true wife until her death in January 1536, a full three years after Henry had their marriage annulled so he could finally wed Anne. As Catherine wrote in her purported deathbed letter to Henry, “Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.”