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Cloth of Gold

( Originally Published 1930 )

Cloth of gold spread its glittering surface over all countries of Europe in the time of the Renaissance, and even prior to that. One cannot think of Persia with-out it, and Asia Minor and Turkey were sources of supply in the years before the Renaissance. To Cyprus and Lucca are attributed the cloth of gold supplied to kings of Europe from the Fourteenth to Sixteenth Centuries.

It seems to have been regarded as inseparable from events of State. Kings and queens were dressed in cloth of gold, and returning victors had their horses enveloped in it. A king of England, even before the Tudors, must use it lavishly at his coronation to be appropriately impressive, and the richer nobles must follow suit.

An English king in those days must blazen with gold and bright color. Before the ceremony he must find himself in the Tower, where a ritual bath was taken in preparation in a room made elegant by this same cloth of gold, even the carved stone bath being draped with it. The king himself was burdened with as many golden robes as his youthful frame could well support, and then he began a royal progress from the Tower to the Abbey at Westminster. Ten yards of cloth of gold might dress the king, and ten more were required for the flowing cover of the horse he rode. The king's garments were of purple, the "trappour" of his horse were crimson, mingled with the gold. The queen chose white brocaded on the gold, and reclined on cushions of the same, while her maids and their carriages were draped in crimson and gold. Everywhere along the way were banners waving and draperies hung from windows, and many of these were of this same rich cloth of gold.

The Abbey itself at a coronation shone with gorgeousness. Even the tombs of kings were made gay by a covering of cloth of gold. A high stage was built for the new king's chair, canopied and draped with cloth of gold, and the chair of the archbishop was similarly decorated. After the coronation the king and queen proceeded to Westminster Hall for the banquet, and there the same gorgeous cloth of gold was draped against the wall to make a dorser or back to the royal seats. Such pageantry must be recalled to dress the Abbey and the Great Hall of Westminster as they were dressed in other days. If nowadays the informal behavior and dress of ministers and members in the Hall offend, let the mind glow with remembrance of former customs there—forgetting perhaps that men in those other more gorgeous days rode in among the august company if the fancy led them. And if the dreary crowd of monuments in the Abbey press too hard upon the spirits, forget their artistic failure and see in their place the glowing canopies and drapings of the past.

England was not making stuffs of such richness at that time. It all came to her from outside, and much of it from the Near East, from Turkey, for example. The designs show this, the ornament being the over-sized floral motives that have ever characterized that district. As soon as Italy had acquired knowledge and practise of the silk industry; she, too, wove cloth of gold and supplied in great part the almost barbaric display which was the weakness of kings and the demand of the populace.

The cloth of gold of the Fourteenth Century and immediately after was not always one glittering sheet of woven metal as the name implies, but was brocaded in showy figures of silk or velvet which added enormously to the beauty of the material. The designs were the same as those large ones used in silken fabrics which originated in the Near East. The pomegranate, the artichoke, the undulating band of ornament which, crossing with its mate, formed a frame for a central floral motive. These same fabrics were made during the Renaissance with but little change, and some of these are still beautifying rich interiors. And if we may not drape them over beds or cover with them a prancing steed, we may at least revel in their beauty and in memory of their halcyon days.

One of the historic pictures which seems to depend on textiles for its fame, however much man himself may exceed in value the product of his hands, is the celebrated meeting of the three superlative monarchs of France, England and Austria—Francis I, Henry VIII, Charles V, on the Field of the Cloth of Gold. It may be a shock to the romantic department of one's mind to read on the pamphlet of the "Golden Arrow" train to Paris from London that the historic golden country was the countryside just south of Calais, which now seems utterly lacking in interest and beauty. But here it was that the monarchs met, all young and hand-some, to form (ostensibly) a fraternity which should smooth the path to glory and not redden it with blood as was the usual way. Yet for all their kingly honor, there was trouble within a year, when Charles the young emperor, who had inherited much and had married into Spain, thought it polite to pursue the gay young Francis of artistic cultivation that Charles might include France in his ever widening empire.

It was a gorgeous meeting, for no matter how simple a spot had been chosen for convenience sake, the scene was made indescribably brilliant by the display of cloth of gold used in every possible way as decoration, in banners, in canopies, in drapings wherever draping was possible.

Manufacture has half spoiled such scenes for us. Cloth of gold is now as common as silken fabrics. We know how to weave it by machine; we know how to substitute baser metals for the precious ones, so that every woman may have many golden dresses in her wardrobe, and may hang golden cloths at her windows. And thus it comes that the cheaper products have made us think of such display as crudely theatric.

But then it was almost solid metal unalloyed, skilfully wound on a core of silk or cotton to make a thread which it was possible to weave. Does not one hear of old hangings or clothing being burned that the gold metal woven into them might be regained to use again? And the weaving, too, was done on hand looms, adding great expense of labor to expense of material.

The Middle Ages gave free use of color, and bright color was carried over into the Renaissance, and the times favored the cloth of gold for its pageantry—for what else but pageantry were the ceremonies of the Doge of Venice, or the visit of a Medici to a Sforza, or the crowning of a king, or a significant meeting of three monarchs?

Spain, oddly enough, sought gold in the new world to spend it on goods imported from Genoa and Venice, the gold-woven fabrics with which to dazzle her friends and enemies. Her industries at home were all neglected while she drew on the supply of gold and silver which had been discovered in the new world of America. All the merchant adventurers of Europe knew Spain as a market for the rich stuffs of Italy and the East, and thither they sailed with full ships, taking in return the gold which was more scarce in their lands than in Spain. Even England worked up a tremendous commerce with her cloths, which she skilfully unloaded in all the Spanish ports.

Masters of vessels were given royal commands to dispose, each voyage, of a given number of pieces of cloth in Spain, even though their cargo was of raw materials. And thus early the coffers of England received the benefit of gold drawn from the Americas by Spain.

The textiles of England were mainly of wool. As she absorbed the culture of the Renaissance, she began to make the silken fabrics, and the later cotton weaves, but the foundation of her ancient trade was wool, and in this matter she came in close touch with Flanders. And here again appears more history. Many of the weavers of France were of the Protestant faith in the Sixteenth Century, Huguenots. In the religious conflicts they fled to Flanders for protection and there pursued their craft. When in 1598 the King, Henri IV, issued the Edict of Nantes, giving protection to Protestants, many refused to return to France, and later settled in England. Thus England became the wool-weaving center of the world. And this industry formed the base on which Queen Elizabeth built up her nation's commerce.

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