Which Big Tent Cost More: #GBBO or Henry VIII’s Field of Cloth of Gold?


I saw BBC sports journalist Dan Walker tweet this lovely joke about the Great British Bake Off this morning, and it instantly got me thinking.


In terms of very expensive tents, history is full of them – Genghis Khan had one, and so did King Xerxes of Persia (it was captured by the enemy, thank you Tom Holland for that nugget of trivia). But the most expensive tent of 2016 is that lovely white marquee acquired by Channel 4 for a reported £75m, spread over three years. And one which will come without Mel, Sue and Mary (Paul Hollywood is living up to his big bucks surname).

But is that the most amount of money ever spent on a tent-based spectacle? If we forgive the technicalities, and forget that there were many tents and pavilions at Henry VIII’s Field of Cloth of Gold diplomatic shindig with his frenemy Francis I of France in 1520, then let’s have some fun by putting this political extravaganza up against BBC One’s primetime cake TV behemoth.

Is it possible to work out which cost more?


The Field of Cloth of Gold was a dual-funded endeavour, with both France and England throwing cash at it with extraordinary lavishness (and some might say recklessness). King Francis I spent 400,000 livres (£40,000 in Tudor money) on this 2-week spectacle. But the crown later sold off lots of the fabric and accoutrements in 1543, recouping 125,000 livres.  So, let’s be generous and say he only spent £27,000 / 275,000 livres. The annual royal expenditure in running the court, in 1523, was 543,800 livres. But, in terms of the wider French economy, the field of Cloth of Gold cost about 1/8 of the state’s annual budget. That is a huge amount.

King Henry VIII, never one for modesty, spent £36,000 on the festivities – more than his royal household’s entire annual expenditure, and more than 1/3 of England’s total annual income of £90,000. By Tudor standards, that is CRAZY MONEY.

In summary, the Field of Cloth of Gold – with all its trappings (including wine fountain and gold-encrusted monkeys, obviously) – cost £63,000 in Tudor money. But now for the really hard bit. Trying to measure equivalent value across the centuries is an almost impossible task, there really is no accurate way to do it. There are loads of different techniques, and they all give hugely varying results, so please forgive this next section in its crudeness. I’m not an economic historian, and this is a very blunt calculation hastily cobbled together on a wet Thursday morning.

In modern money, a RPI currency converter that measures inflation on the National Archives website converts £63,000 in Tudor money into £32.3m (it only goes up to 2005, so I then calculated the inflation over the last decade and added it on) – but this is a very confusing measure that does little to represent the buying power in an economy. These days £32.3m will buy you a large mansion in London, or a pretty good premier league striker. But in Tudor times, £63,000 (or £32.3m if we trust the National Archives) would have equated to enough cash to hire 2.1m labourers for a day, or buy 165,000 cows or 45,000 horses.

By contrast, with a modern labourer earning £100 per day, Channel 4 could now only afford to pay 750,000 labourers for a day with their 3 year £75m GBBO budget. I’m not sure what the going rate is for a cow. Sorry. {UPDATE: apparently it’s £1100 per cow on average, according to Twitter’s own @LeahFHardy}

Right, then. Though it’s impossible to accurately measure like-for-like with historical price conversion (not least because there was a big spike in food prices in the mid-1500s), in terms of wage comparison then we could tent-atively say GBBO’s tent is three times less expensive than the Field of Cloth of Gold.

But this is pretty misleading. In terms of the total economy, and ignoring much more useful measures like GDP, the Field of Cloth of Gold cost the proportion of government revenue equivalent to what our respective governments spend now on Welfare and the NHS. More than a third of all its cash went on a 2-week festival.  Basically, if we held it again today, it would cost hundreds of billions. It would even cost way more than the Millennium Dome (which looks like a tent but is, in fact, a permanent structure). Now, obviously, it wouldn’t actually cost anything like those projects, and that’s the annoying problem of measuring money across the centuries, but you know what I mean.

{UPDATE:} Here’s a very useful contribution from BBC Newnight’s Policy Editor Chris Cook (@xtophercook on twitter) that shows just how many ways there are to compare historical monetary values, all of them bafflingly different in their outcome. But, basically, Henry VIII’s tent cost a lot of cash.  cs9vreyweaekuik

So, at £25m per year, the Great British Bake Off is a bargain! Sort of…