This ancient, much-repaired but beautifully crafted bed frame discovered at auction in Chester in 2010 is an exceptional national treasure that will revolutionize the way we understand later medieval monarchs and their environment. When the owner invited me to inspect it, I had assumed like many others reasonably would, that this varnished, pre-Renaissance styled object must be a late Victorian revival, just too improbable a survivor for its five royal arms and six single roses to really represent Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Two years of collaborative research, throwing every scenario at it to find the correct explanation for its identity, has completely undermined that surface impression that it’s too good to be true. Exceptional quality is the obvious reality of a royal bed. We’ve just had nothing to compare it to. Until recently, anyway.
The first clue to its age is quite straightforward. Beneath the first layer of Victorian varnish are extinct chambers of woodworm that had once channelled beneath an original painted surface. 200 samples have been analyzed that together identify that paintwork as a specifically medieval type of decoration, a coal primer beneath a warm red-brown graining, and a white on the panels which is probably marbling. Over this, vivid colours once illuminated its impeccable fifteenth-century symbolism including optimally expensive lapis lazuli. The coal primer is comparable to that on late medieval panel paintings, and murals in buildings in places including Coventry and Bristol, and Herefordshire. ‘Sea coal’ fell out of favour in the late seventeenth century. There are no paint materials of post-medieval origin. To avoid all industrially-produced pigments would take modern forensic and scholarly expertise, but to leave the effect of long-aged traces would remain impossible.
The carving shows portrait profiles apparently of Adam and Eve, but their downfall is being answered by their secondary, new Testament ‘types’, Christ and the Virgin. This concept reaches back into the royal literature of the mid fifteenth century. Through their mystical marriage (they are making the gesture of a pledge) they together crush the three evil beasts – the cockatrice, young lion and dragon – of Psalm 91:13, which was recited at compline, or night-prayers. I discovered that French kings used the same theme of crushing evil from Psalm 91:13 at this time, in manuscript imagery but especially on gateways, and am yet to break the news that at least two misunderstood English medieval gateways did the same. The seven stars are those of the Seven Gifts of the Holy Ghost, thought to be divinely imbued at the point of coronation. They are correctly set out in the medieval way divided into four and three, as described in Moralia in Job to further represent the four Cardinal Virtues and the Trinity. It’s very entertaining to see that Adam/ Christ has an aquiline nose, and thin lips just like profiles of Henry VII; Elizabeth’s straight nose is similarly shown on Eve/ Mary. So they are impeccably presented as biblical saviours, playing Christological and Marian roles, as scholarship has only recently recognized to be correct, and with aspects that are yet to be published.
With the symbols of roses, royal arms, the cross of St George in the shields of the side crests – and, crucially, fertility with an acorn by the male loins- this mystical royal union can only be the marriage bed made for Henry and Elizabeth by 18 January 1486. The use of a daisy for Christ and a marigold for Mary, flanking the tree trunk, is also found to clearly refer to the king and queen in the sole-surviving book relating to their marriage- the epithalamium written by Giovanni Gigli. This observation has also never been published before.
The moment the bed’s origin was truly demonstrated, was when a scaled elevation showed that its whole structure closely conforms to the design of the recorded thirteenth-century mural of the Painted Chamber in Westminster Palace, where the royal state beds were set until a fire in 1512. (The surviving state apartments were burned completely in 1834.) This also explained the reason it has no provision for drapes, as since c.1263, the state bed in the Painted Chamber had an external frame, somewhat like a hospital bed. The remains of holes for hooks and eyes suggest the frame was designed to travel.
Though damaged, and incomplete, the bed escaped destruction because it was taken to Lancashire after nine years and four children, when the Lord Chamberlain William Stanley was executed for treason. The evidence of a cruder copy of its posts and rails for an identically sized bedframe made c.1500 for Thomas Stanley at Lathom House, which also survives, suggests that it was kept at Lathom after Henry and Elizabeth visited there in 1495. Thomas Stanley had married Henry’s mother Lady Margaret Beaufort, so this was the house of extended royal family that twenty years later bragged of its ability to host kings, and in the Elizabethan era kept a room to display Bosworth-era relics. These included not one but two state beds of unequal value in 1592-3.
By that time, the original probably painted script of this bed’s banderole that wraps around the figures had been replaced with an incised quotation from the 1537 and 1549 bibles. The point of this alteration is clear: the owner had to obscure the intensely Catholic themes of Christological and Marian monarchy with a statement of sin, death and law, one palatable to the Protestant age. In the reign of Edward VI after 1547, the Stanleys indeed prosecuted Catholic recusants. The antiquarian John Speed visited Lancashire to make a county map in 1610, and a visit to Lathom’s treasure-room is suggested by the fact he adopted the imagery of the bedhead and its very specific secondary script (which he updated to the Geneva Bible spelling) as the basis of the Adam and Eve in his genealogies for the King James Bible.
Having survived the civil war, almost certainly via the long-gone Jacobean Wentworth Woodhouse, it was discovered in 1842 near Huddersfield in a dilapidated state by George Shaw (tellingly, he sent there by the owner of the Thomas Stanley bed which was at Rochdale Manor by 1829). Most of the remains of its medieval paint were then scraped off and varnished over, and repairs were made. What happened next is truly amazing. Without understanding what it was, clumsy copies of it were created by Shaw’s workshop, his versions passed off as the rediscovered family heirlooms of gullible aristocrats – including matching accessories such as Tudor-style towel rails! The differences between the original bed and Shaw’s smaller Victorian copies are very obvious, intellectually, physically and forensically (they were not painted, but given a simple dark varnish). Shaw’s diaires reveal a young man immersed in the medieval romanticism of Sir Walter Scott. But he was no scholar, being lampooned by archaeologists of his own day for his fake mausoleum at St Chad’s Rochdale, and his ignorance in describing a recently rebuilt castle as authentically medieval. Remarkably, the original royal crest of the bed remains cut down and nailed over his parlour door in Uppermill, Lancashire. He seems to have considered it a decent pediment.
Frustratingly, research on the bed found no immediate comparators from Henry VII’s workshop, as the royal palace fittings were stripped out, and furniture destroyed, during the Commonwealth. There were photographs of the derivative Thomas Stanley bed to go by after its discovery 40 years ago, and imagery like the strikingly similar columns shown in the stained glass portrayal of Edward IV at Canterbury Cathedral, but these were not enough in themselves. Then, amazingly, in March 2014, four salvaged late-medieval, pre-Renaissance, wainscot (wall-panelling) posts were presented on the website of an early antiques dealer. Estimated at c.1520, they matched the finely-carved details of the bed’s posts precisely, with traces of the same coal-based paint, and with ‘h R’ and also a royal fleur-de-lys very similar to those on the bed. One even has an iron pin, much as the lions were attached to the bed posts. They were clearly made by the same royal workshop, the origin of which was further confirmed by an apotropaic scorch-mark typical of late medieval joinery. These posts had been cut down, and held a hidden second life as structural studs, hence their royal identity was unknown to previous generations.
Not all the scientific research was straightforward, but this sometimes happens. For example, the bronze ‘Wolsey Angels’ which are now accepted as genuinely early sixteenth century and were recently obtained as such by the V&A, were originally dated by thermoluminescence to the nineteenth century until their genuineness was demonstrated. Four years ago, the bed’s present owner commissioned a dendrochronology survey which eventually claimed the rings were those of American white oak growing in a pattern that represented the climate around New York or Massachusetts before being felled some time after 1756. This result was widely shared, which somewhat tainted the bed’s reputation. This was unfortunate, as it made no sense, even before the matching fifteenth-century posts were discovered. Even if a Georgian could have produced it with intellectual and technical perfection, any scenario that this uncelebrated masterpiece of preternaturally correct deception should be found unattributed, dilapidated and in need of repair near Huddersfield in 1842 ready for George Shaw to misunderstand would conspire to blunt Occam’s razor.
This is where modern DNA identification came in, a legally valid proof of the precise species and origins of timber worldwide. Double Helix based in Singapore had the valuable experience of identifying the DNA of the timbers of the Mary Rose. All their results from samples including the post subjected to dendrochronology, proved the bed was not made of American white oak, but the same subspecies of native European oak, ‘DNA Haplotype 7′. 98% of this comes from the Continent, its origin mapped between the Pyrenees and modern Latvia. This demonstration was historically significant, as Edward III imported the oak for his beds from Riga a century before Henry VII. The bed bears every sign that its timber was cut by water-powered sawmills typical of the Continent, but unknown in medieval England. However, it seems very possibly of south German origin, as the frame and carved details betray some German features, and one of the King’s earliest joiners was German.
The great burden of proof for identifying an object of this immense importance has involved rich collaborations, and long, often frustrating hours of research, but it has led to a much more profound understanding of the court arts of the period which will emerge in exhibitions and publications. I encourage everyone to examine the bed closely for themselves, and the posts by the same hands, and rediscover the rich language of late medieval royal mysticism at Hever Castle. We are blessed indeed that it remains to teach us so much.
‘A Bed of Roses’ exhibition is at Hever Castle until 22 November.