img_0025This week’s post comes from Dr Lesley Mickel, Lecturer in Literature at the University of the Highlands and Islands and is part of her contribution to Theatralisierung (Heidelberg: Universitätsverlag Winter, forthcoming 2015), edited by Professor Sabine Coelsch-Foisner.



Cloth of Gold

Painting of The Field of Cloth of Gold, c. 1545, The Royal Collection.

As a scholar of the early modern period I have been fascinated by the role of material culture in the construction of national identity, and this stems right back to when I learnt about The Field of Cloth of Gold at Primary School, that dazzling diplomatic entente between Henry VIII of England and François I of France in 1520. Recently, I have been looking more closely at this carnival of chivalry, and at how the event was recorded by both English and French chroniclers, and what this tells is about perceptions of national identity at home and abroad. At Ardres, in 1520, national identity was most obviously expressed through the materiality of clothing, and the presence or absence of uniforms. The English man Edward Hall reads sartorial consistency as symptomatic of English discipline, whereas the French nobility’s license to wear what they liked, a freedom specifically required by François for his court, meant that “thei were not knowen from the braggery” (lxxvii), thus jeopardising social distinctions and structure.[i] By implication, England’s strength resided in the fact that all knew and materially exhibited their place in society through their clothes, achieving national cohesion and adherence to the Tudor social model. Thus, the English all sported uniform clothing of one kind or another, and the discipline dictating their costumes also had a disciplining effect on their deportment: “This battaill of footemen conducteth themselves so in ordre, that from the firste to the laste, never a person of the footemen brake his place or arraie, but kept themselves so well, that never serving men themselves better demeaned” (lxxv), meanwhile ‘the French gard’ were riding up and down and “slily marked the conveighaunce of the people of England”. Hall’s language is, of course, loaded with anti-French sentiment and his description of the opening stages of the summit associates French volatility of movement and moral slipperiness: they “slily marked” the English rather than looking at them face on.

Throughout the long first meeting between Francois and Henry, the English footmen and nobles kept their ranks, a harsh physical discipline difficult to maintain in the hot weather. Hall relates that “The English officers went and ranne with great pots of Wyne, and Bolles to the French menne, and them chered the best that might bee, all this season stoode still the noble men of the English partie, and all other, and from theyr places moved nothing that thei were appointed unto. And the serving men in likewise, not once moved from their ground or standyng, but the Frenchemen sodainly brake, and many of them came into the English partie, speaking faire, but for all that, the court of Englande and the lords, kept their arraie” (lxxvii). In terms of the Tudor construction of national identity, here Hall identifies a physical and moral fortitude that is peculiarly English regardless of rank – for nobles, serving men and all others observed this strict discipline of movement and behaviour. Such resilience is again juxtaposed with French volatility, as the French either would not or could not maintain their “arraie” for this length of time. With this account Hall provides evidence for the view that he articulates elsewhere, that although fewer in numbers than the French, the discipline and resilience of the English made them feared. The only English movement to be remarked upon is when the English officers “ranne” with pots and bowls of wine to the French men. This was to “chere” them, and the implication is that the French needed refreshment, and were struggling to keep their ranks in the hot weather. Doling out wine in these circumstances could be read as an act of hospitality, but bearing in mind the common English opinion that the consumption of wine and garlic caused unruly behaviour we are left wondering if the English officers deliberately encouraged the French to break their lines in this way, undermining French group identity and discipline as they tempted individual appetites.

Recent experience had taught the English military how wine could lead to the breakdown of discipline, for in 1511, English soldiers ran riot through the Spanish port of Cadiz, after “drinking of hot wines”, and the dysentery that afflicted English soldiers camped in France in 1512 was attributed to their enforced continental diet: “their vittels were much parte garlike, & they eating thereof with all their meats, and drinking hot wines, & feeding also on hot fruits, procured their blood to boile within their bellies, that there fell sicke three thousand of the flix: & thereof died an eighteen hundred persons”.[ii] Holinshed’s medical analysis suggests that French food and drink heats the naturally phlegmatic and orderly English soldiers, not only causing the collapse of military discipline, but even the break-down of physical discipline, resulting in a body struck down by flux, or overflow of humours, that needed to be regulated to ensure good health. At the meeting between the two nations at Ardres, it is conceivable that the English officers deployed what they viewed as the evils of the French diet against the French themselves, with what must have seemed to be predictable effects. Hall makes an explicit link between a toxic continental diet and random violent behaviour, between sartorial freedom and potential social chaos; English strength by contrast is inherent in the regulated apparel and physical discipline which confirms group identity and uniformity of purpose. National identity, it seems, is constructed through what we wear and what we eat.

[i] Edward Hall, The Union of the two noble and Illustre families of Lancastre & Yorke   . . . (London,1559), fol. Lxxiii – fol.lxxxiiii.


[ii] Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland in six volumes, (1587); this edition printed for J. Johnstone, (London, 1807-1808).