Interview with Glenn Richardson

Dr Glenn Richardson is Professor of Early Modern History at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, London. His work concentrates on monarchy as a form of government, ideals of princely rule, the royal court and international political and cultural relations between monarchs. He is the foremost expert on the Field of Cloth of Gold, having studied every aspect of the event for decades.

Glenn is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and is an Honorary Fellow of the Historical Association.

Glenn's publications include The Field of Cloth of Gold and Renaissance Monarchy: the reigns of Henry VIII, Francis I and Charles V. He was the editor of ‘Contending Kingdoms’ France and England, 1420-1700 and co-editor, with Susan Doran, of Tudor England and its Neighbours.

His next book, on Thomas Wolsey, will be published later in 2020.

TT: Do you remember what first sparked your interest in history, and particularly Tudor history?

I always liked history at school, and studied it at university, first in Sydney, where I did mediaeval history, but I became more and more interested in what I see as the transitional sixteenth century. It’s as much late mediaeval as early modern, lots of it seems ancient, weird, and different, but other parts are recognisable. I became even more interested when I met David Starkey, and came to do my doctorate with him at the LSE. Initially, I was interested in Anglo-Italian relations in the sixteenth century, but at his suggestion, I focused on Anglo-French.

TT: You hold the position of Professor of Early Modern History at St Mary University, London – can you tell us a bit about this, and how you can integrate being a leading academic with the time-consuming task of writing.

I still teach undergraduate and MA students, as well as doing research and writing. I have to try to get the balance right - which means my new book on Wolsey has taken longer than I wanted. What I try to bring to teaching, and to writing, is new interpretations of research. I want to communicate with people about what it was like to live in the past, and to understand how they thought, and their world view. That is what I am interested in primarily and research is a means to that end. For me, research for its own sake or which doesn’t serve these aims has never really been something I have been into.

TT: Similarly, what is the fascination of the Field of Cloth of Gold? Are French historians equally interested in it?

I became interested in it as part of my doctoral thesis on Anglo-French relations in the sixteenth century. At that time, there had been no new analysis since Russell’s book in 1969 – which took the view that it was a colossal waste of time and money. I questioned that. Surely there was more to it? I wanted to know what was really going on here. I think it did have meaning and purpose, when we look at it in the light of how people saw kingship – what it meant to Henry and to François to be a king. As for French interest – there is some work being done on it, but I am not sure that they are not as interested as we are – I think they are bit bemused by it. For French historians, the great monarchs of the past are Napoleon, Louis XIV, maybe Henri IV, and only then François I.

What interested me about it was finding out more about Wolsey’s ideas for peace, and the whole idea of a Universal Peace, since the Field of Cloth of Gold was to celebrate the Universal Peace signed in 1518. Researching it became a way of understanding how they thought, how they saw kingship, and what it meant to be a king. The more I looked, the more fascinated I became by the details and what it said about cultural and political values. It helps to explain the concept of ‘magnificence’, and gift-giving as intimidation. It takes you into their mentality, and opens a window on their attitudes and beliefs.

TT: What were the protagonists hoping to achieve at the Field of Cloth of Gold – was it worth it for them?

Both of them were saying ‘look at who I am, look at what I can do’. There’s a lot of rhetoric that compares it to the Olympic Games, and in a way it is similar – it is all about the resources – see what I can do, see what men, money and materials I can command. For François, it was a way of showing Henry that, if he wanted England to count in Europe, he had to be allied to France. For Henry, it was a way of putting England into the middle of a European power-struggle between François and Charles [Emperor Charles V]. He was saying to François, ‘if you don’t work with me, I’ll ally with someone else who you really don’t like. Take me seriously, respect me, or you will be outflanked’.

TT: How genuine do you think their intentions were for a permanent peace – did Henry really mean to accept that his claim to the kingdom of France was no more than wishful thinking?

I tend to think they did not really expect a perpetual peace. Despite all the rhetoric, it was more of an experiment. An effort at taking a different course from war. Even Wolsey [the architect of the Universal Peace Treaty of 1518] did not really expect a permanent peace. In a way, the Field of Cloth of Gold was used to glamorise peace, as an alternative to war. The original peace treaty looked good for England, approaching the European wars in a new way. For François, he had nothing to lose, and even got Tournai back, so it worked for him. The Field of Cloth of Gold also had many of the benefits of war – showing power and resources, but in the mock-war of the tournament, which was glamorous and itself expressed ideals of princely/knightly honour but which was far less dangerous, and far less expensive than real war.

TT: Whom do you think gained most from the Field of Cloth of Gold – Henry, François, Wolsey, or perhaps the Emperor Charles?

I don’t think you can see it in terms of winners and losers. It was different over time. In the short-term, probably Henry benefited most as it showed England on the European stage. It also changed Anglo-French relations – it made it possible for them to take another approach than war. For the next twenty years, apart from the brief episode in 1523, Henry and François maintained some sort of peace. It was in part due to their personal relationship. If they did not exactly like each other, they could at least get on together. François could never get on with Charles. And at the time of the annulment, François was Henry’s only friend in Europe. Anglo-French relations could be recast as at least potentially co-operative. It changed the dynamic and showed that the alliance could be a durable axis.

TT: Is there any information about what the common people of France or England thought about the Field of Cloth of Gold? Did they know about it? Presumably, they were taxed to pay for it.

At the time, the French were far more interested than the English. There were several tracts and proclamations on the French side, but there was nothing comparable in England. Hall wrote about it, but not until later. There were no official placards beyond Wolsey’s publication in 1520, unlike the 1518 publication by the King’s Printer, Richard Pynson, of Richard Pace’s sermon about the peace treaty itself. As for taxes, nothing was directly levied to pay for it. No parliamentary subsidies were asked for. It cost Henry about a year’s worth of royal revenues, but he had already received two annual payments from François of 50,000 écus under the treaty – so, in a way, François paid for some substantial part of the thing. For François, who had an income about five times the size of Henry’s, it was not too much of an issue. The idea that its cost was a crushing burden, and that it achieved nothing, dates from later.

TT: You have a new book coming out shortly, on Cardinal Wolsey. What can you tell us about that? Did your view on Wolsey change whilst researching it? What do you think was the secret of his incredible success?

I’ve always been interested in royal ministers – and cardinals, too, for that matter. Scarisbrick credits Wolsey with imagination and perspicacity, and I wanted to understand what it took to work so consistently and successfully with Henry. You cannot understand Henry’s reign – at least the first half - without understanding his relationship with Wolsey. The cardinal was pivotal. Henry saw Wolsey as his friend – Wolsey and Anne Boleyn are the only two people whom Henry directly calls ‘friend’ in his own letters. And while the letter to Wolsey using the word – the one about the Abbess of Wilton - uses it sarcastically, it still shows that Henry thought of Wolsey in those terms. My views changed a bit. He’s a flawed character, but on the whole, I like him. A lot of criticism of Wolsey calls him arrogant and pompous – the carrying about of his cardinal’s hat, and the crosses and pillars in his processions, but I think that covered insecurity about his origins. All of his splendid show was about his offices, not himself. For example, so far as we know, there is no contemporary real portrait of him – unlike More, Erasmus, Carew, Rochester and other men in the king’s circle.

TT: When researching for your books, are you attempting to uncover as yet hidden information (perhaps rather hard with regard to the Tudors) or are you looking at interpreting what is known in different ways?

As I said, I am most interested in communicating new interpretations even while digging for unknown material – which is difficult in the sixteenth century. I like making sense of things that, on the surface, don’t seem to make sense. So, for example, seeing Wolsey’s display as a symptom of something other than arrogance, or seeing the Field of Cloth of Gold as a way of changing the way Anglo-French relations were conducted over the long term, not just the event itself.

One element of looking at the whole thing from a different angle, to see how people thought, is the comparison of the lives of the 5,000 workers who put the display together, with the 5,000 who attended it. A workman might be paid £1 a year, whilst Henry spent 50,60,70 times that on gifts of horses for François – the disparity is incredible.

TT: What is it like researching in archives abroad? Do you use a translator – what about the nuances of language?

My French is pretty good, and my Italian is reasonable, while I can get by in Latin. I spent eighteen months in France, so had a pretty good grasp of the archival material – although the handwriting took some getting used to. French secretary hand is very different from English – when I saw it the first time, I struggled to tell which way up the document should go, as it was all up and down lines! But I got used to it.

TT: How do you combine the different aspects of writing? Do you prefer to do all your research first, then write the whole book, or do you prefer to research a section, then write it up?

I do research, then consolidate it by writing it. I learnt from David Starkey that you have to keep writing it – because you don’t know what you know until you write it down. Then, if you still don’t know, or can’t explain it, you need to do more research. But I do sometimes spend too much time redrafting what I have already done, rather than moving on.

TT: Do you have a favourite place and time to write?

Not really. I’m a lark, rather than an owl, but I don’t have a particular routine. For Wolsey, I just had to allocate enough time to get it done. I can write at home or at work.

TT: Now, we are all on lock-down at the moment, and, of course, the Field of Cloth of Gold celebrations at Hampton Court have had to be rearranged – but are you planning to speak at any events later in the year, or online, where our readers might be able to hear you?

I’ll be taking part in the Tudor Travel Guide Field of Cloth of Gold summit, alongside my French counterpart. I was invited to give a Gresham Lecture and that was delivered on-line on 7 May 2020. And the Leeds Royal Armouries is hoping to go ahead with some events in July to mark the anniversary but these, too, are now likely to be online.

TT: And finally, what is your next project?

I have been asked by Oxford University Press to do a new study of the Court of Henry VIII, which is exciting, but daunting.

TT: I am sure we will all look forward to that! In the meantime, can you remind us of the date of publication for Wolsey? And thank you very much for taking the time to talk to Tudor Times.

At this stage, Wolsey is due to appear in September or at any rate the early autumn of this year. I am doing some talks and public lectures (assuming we are in any way back to ‘normal’ by then).