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May 26, 1520 – Henry VIII and Charles V Meet at Dover Castle

Henry and Charles with Pope Leo c.1520, by an anonymous painter

This was about the most brilliantly timed visit ever.

England and France were getting ready for the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which would take place from June 7 to June 24 – an over-the-top celebration that ate way more than it should of Henry’s treasury. The meeting was supposed to cement England’s friendship with France but when you think about it, the compulsion each king felt to outdo the other in this exceedingly public celebration pretty much guaranteed that no bonds would be created. Their advisors tried to address this – they hammered out extensive “rules of engagement” to make sure the two kings didn’t end up hating each other (Henry flouted one of the rules, and came to regret it: he tried to jump Francis to wrestle with him, and ended up getting thrown).

Contrast this with the Charles meeting. Charles came to visit Henry (a gesture of respect), and they met at Dover because that was where Henry would pause on his way to France (more accommodation). The visit was a simple, private one. No competition, no ill feelings, no stress. Which of the two experiences would be more likely to sit well with Henry VIII?

I give Thomas Wolsey credit for suggesting this visit: the man knew how to play off the two countries against each other, navigating between them like he was riding a wave. I feel so bad for him, caught unawares when Henry asked him to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon – naïve in believing this was solely about the succession and assuming that Henry would agree to taking a French princess as the inevitable price of his deepest desire…

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