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The Fourth Of The Cloth of Gold

July 4, 2012

The Field of the Cloth of Gold (which is technically the “Field of Cloth of Gold” but you can see why the extra article was added, the rhythm is much smoother) may have been the young Anne Boleyn’s first experience of fireworks; certainly many writeups refer confidently to a dragon-shaped firework being set off, possibly accidentally, on June 23, 1520, just before or during the Mass celebrated by Cardinal Wolsey. The incident is supposed to explain the dragon depicted floating in the sky in this painting, but the identification is far from certain — I’ve also seen explanations of the dragon ranging from its being a kite to being purely symbolic (Henry having used the symbol of a Welsh dragon on flags and so forth previously) or even its being a French salamander and not a dragon at all. There’s no mention of any incident in Hall’s Chronicle, and while that’s hardly a final verdict it does seem like a strange thing to omit. (However, Anne certainly witnessed some pyrotechnics thirteen years later at her coronation, when, according to Hall’s account, one barge featured “a great Dragon continually mouyng, & castyng wyldfyer, and round about the sayd Foyst stode terrible monsters and wylde men castyng fyer, and makyng hideous noyses.”)

But even if the assembled throng didn’t get to see any fireworks, they were compensated by feasts which would put the most ambitious cookout party entirely in the shade. The list of the “iij principall messes” in the Rutland Papers comprise about ten different dishes per “mess”, including standbys like “Leche” and “Frutour”, crowd-pleasers like “cremytours or orenges” and “pyes of pares”, and a truly astounding list of meats, including among many others “Storkes, Fesantes, Egrettes, Chekyns, Gulles.” The third mess also featured the wonderfully named “hagges of Almayn” which for a moment I thought was some unholy Scottish-German hybrid but which turns out to be an inoffensive omelette made with parsley. I have yet to figure out what “Roo reuersed” and “carpett of Venison” were, though sadly, the former is unlikely to have been kangaroo meat (though it seems like they had almost everything else).

Happy fourth of July to everyone who celebrates it, even if we’re unlikely to see pyrotechnical dragons or dine on grilled stork. I herewith give you a seasonally-appropriate selection from Robin Maxwell’s Mademoiselle Boleyn (2007), which gives us Anne’s account of the Cloth of Gold fireworks, designed by Leonardo da Vinci (he died the year previously but had the show designed by then, let’s not quibble), and viewed by her in the company of a certain new acquaintance named Henry Percy:

All eyes were tipped skyward, as the fireworks display seemed a celestial conversation with the maestro beyond the grave. There were spinning suns and moons, and twinkling constellations, and the appearance of whole armies marching across the sky. But when in a burst of red, blue, green, and gold, a dragon breathing fire appeared above our heads, it moved past delighting the crowd to terrifying them. Some ladies shrieked and fainted at the sight. Clerics knelt and crossed themselves.

Even the two great kings on their viewing platforms seemed cowed by what they well knew was naught but a clever arrangement of gunpowder and sulfur. Mayhap, I thought, they were not so sophisticated as they were superstitious. Not so learned as they were fearful of God’s wrath for their many sins, both past and yet to come.

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From → Essays

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