Two World Leaders

In June 1520, two young European monarchs, King Henry VIII of England (1492–1547) and King Francis I of France (1494–1547) met at the Field of the Cloth of Gold, an area between English and French territory on the Continent. The summit was largely orchestrated by King Henry’s close advisor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey (1478–1530), and it was one of the early attempts to create a political European brotherhood to ensure peace and prosperity to all parties.

This was a stately affair. The two monarchs were rising European Renaissance princes, known for their learnedness and art as well as skills in both diplomacy and combat. Wherever a king went, on progress or for a political encounter, streets were closed, houses were taken over by the royal entourage, people gathered by the road cheering, some protested – and it was always an honour to be associated with the king, in one way or another.

William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) play King Henry VIII (1613) gives us an account of the events in the words of the Duke of Norfolk, who refers to the encounter as a “view of earthly glory” continuing that:

“… The two kings,
Equal in lustre, were now best, now worst,
As presence did present them; him in eye,
Still him in praise: and, being present both
‘Twas said they saw but one; and no discerner
Durst wag his tongue in censure. When these suns—
For so they phrase ’em—by their heralds challenged
The noble spirits to arms, they did perform
Beyond thought’s compass; …”

(Act I, scene i)

The two glorious monarchs were later known for other things than youth and splendour. (Francis suffered a number of military setbacks, and Henry carried his duty to fulfil his Tudor legacy to the verge of tyranny.) But the meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was a significant signpost for European policy and political mind-set at the time. Different accounts and interpretations of the final outcomes of the meeting have been presented in chronicles and histories, and the attempt for further European liaison, and even for world peace, has been an endeavour ever since the days of King Henry and King Francis. Each age will decide the significance of each individual encounter. So also, eventually, of the Helsinki Summit of today.

I wonder, though, how much we have learned from the past, and how history will eventually report this latest meeting. Watching the black carcades drive towards the summit venue under a warm Helsinki sun today, nearly five-hundred years after the event in France, I recall the words of the Duke of Norfolk/Shakespeare on the first encounter of the two Renaissance princes:

“I … saw them salute on horseback;
Beheld them, when they lighted, how they clung
In their embracement, as they grew together;
Which had they, what four throned ones could have weigh’d
Such a compounded one?”

Two leaders, in their unity worthier than four kings. Quite a challenge.

King Henry VIII, by an unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist (c. 1535–40), painting possibly originally in the possession of Henry’s personal chaplain Anthony de Bellasis, displayed to show loyalty to the monarch in times of religious and political turmoil. National Portrait Gallery, London.

Royal Trains and Helicopters

Last night I was listening to the distant sound of passing helicopters in the cool Finnish summer night. These were part of the national army equipment assigned to escort the President of Russia, now returning to his home country after a visit of political meetings and cultural exchange. Only two months earlier, I was listening to similar sounds from another set of helicopters outside a lecture room at Hebrew University on a hot afternoon in Jerusalem, when the President of the United States was finishing his visit to the Middle East after his talk at the Israel Museum just next door to the university campus. And it strikes me now how the at times seemingly superficial, yet perhaps eventually potentially crucial political events coincide and sometimes intertwine with the lives of ordinary people.  

In much the same way William Shakespeare (1564–1616) describes a scene in his play King Henry VIII (1613), where two gentlemen discuss the passing “royal train” taking Queen Anne to her coronation in Westminster in May 1533 (act IV, scene i). This day, the first gentleman states, is one of “general joy”, and the second gentleman concurs:  

[T]he citizens,
I am sure, have shown at full their royal minds—
As, let ‘
em have their rights, they are ever forward—
In celebration of this day with shows,
Pageants and sights of honour.

To this the first gentleman answers:

Never greater,
Nor, I’ll assure you, better taken, sir.

We know, however, that also other voices were heard at this time in the streets of London. Contemporary accounts include references to violent and rude language and even mockery when the royal train was passing in the street. Many people were in favour of the recently dismissed Queen Catherine of Aragon, and they would not accept the new wife of the King easily. 

Yet, when Shakespeare was writing his play eighty years after the event, he knew that at the time of her coronation Queen Anne had already been pregnant with her only child, Princess Elizabeth. Although a male heir was what King Henry really wanted, Shakespeare had also seen that this future Queen Elizabeth I was to carry the Tudor legacy and make England greater than ever before. (So perhaps we can understand his artistic liberties of focussing on the positive acclamations…) Furthermore, now almost five centuries later, we can see how that child of Queen Anne became the first of remarkable English female monarchs with a long reign and a significant role in international politics and world peace.  

Like the royal train in Shakespeare’s play passes over the stage and gives way for a new theatrical scene, so too has the sound of the helicopters receded outside my bedroom window and other news topics top today’s headlines. Only time will tell which of these current scenes will be remembered in the future, how they will be retold, and what role they will play in international politics and world peace.     


Queen Elizabeth I (“The Ditchley portrait”) by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (circa 1592), National Portrait Gallery, London.