The bed that symbolized the denouement of medieval England’s Wars of the Roses—a series of bloody conflicts that pitted factions of the royal Plantagenet family against one another in a three-decade battle for the the throne—nearly ended up in the trash after spending 15 years masquerading as a Victorian poster bed in a Chester hotel’s wood-paneled honeymoon suite.
Luckily, Mindy Weisberger reports for Live Science, an antique dealer spotted the imposing oak creation before it could be discarded, and in 2010, he sold it to another specialist named Ian Coulson. After purchasing the bed online for £2,200, Coulson soon recognized its true significance: Not only does the bed likely date to the nuptials of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, founders of the country’s Tudor dynasty, but if authenticated, it would also represent only the second royal Tudor furnishing known to survive the mid-17th century English Civil War.
The Wars of the Roses drew to an abrupt close on August 22, 1485, when upstart Lancastrian claimant Henry Tudor, soon-to-be crowned Henry VII, defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. But it was Henry’s impending union with Elizabeth of York, daughter of Richard’s brother Edward IV, that truly secured the new king’s hold on the crown: As Thomas Penn writes for the Guardian, the coupling represented the reconciliation of two warring houses, joining the red rose of Lancaster with the white rose of York to form the enduring symbol of a red-and-white Tudor rose.
Until recently, historians believed that few furnishings belonging to the pair, as well as the powerhouse dynasty they founded, remained in existence. Most furniture attributed to the Tudors was destroyed by anti-royalist Parliamentarians during the English Civil War, National Geographic’s Roff Smith explains. The one other known piece, Helen Compson writes for the Hexham Courant, is a fragment of a headboard belonging to Henry VIII and his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves.
In an interview with Smith, Coulson notes that he first suspected the bed in question was not, as the seller’s catalogue suggested, a “profusely carved Victorian four poster bed with armorial shields,” but actually the Tudor couple’s 15th-century wedding bed, after observing signs of extensive repairs unusual for a relatively recent creation. Marks on the frame looked as if they had been made with medieval hand tools rather than mechanized saws, while carvings associated with Tudor iconography further spoke to the bed’s unexpected provenance.
According to Live Science’s Weisberger, Coulson has spent the last nine years tracking down evidence to support his theory. The bevy of data collected—presented to the public for the first time at a Victoria & Albert Museum symposium held in January of this year—constitutes a convincing case: DNA analysis of the oak frame reveals that the wood originated from a single tree felled in central Europe, while microscopic traces of ultramarine paint retrieved from the headboard speak to the high status of the bed’s former owners. (As Helen Hughes, an architectural paint expert who conducted testing on the bed, tells National Geographic’s Smith, the rare pigment would’ve been more expensive to use than gold.)
Jonathan Foyle, a Tudor historian and former curator at Historic Royal Palaces who produced a 2013 BBC documentary detailing the find, offered further analysis of the bed’s symbolism in a 2015 pamphlet: Both the red rose of Lancaster and white rose of York appear in the carvings, dating the bed’s commission to the first months of Henry’s rule, when the red-and-white Tudor rose had yet to make its official debut. Depictions of Adam and Eve in the headboard’s central panel mirror early portraits of the royal couple, and fertility symbols surrounding the biblical first man and woman speak to the urgency of securing the Tudors’ dynastic legacy by producing a rapid succession of male heirs.
In 2013, Coulson told Helen Compson of the Hexham-Courant that in addition to signaling its owners’ political status, the bed’s “other key purpose would have been a means of appeal to Christ for childbirth, for issue.”
Coulson continued, “Henry won the crown of England on the battlefield, but he needed a son and heir to cement his reign and for the dynasty to survive.”
If the bed did in fact belong to Henry and Elizabeth, it’s likely the spot where they conceived their first child, Arthur, Prince of Wales, and his better-known younger brother, the future Henry VIII. Arthur, the presumptive heir, died at age 15, leaving Henry to inherit both the throne and, famously, his deceased brother’s young widow, Catherine of Aragon.
Significantly, Compson writes, beds represented a significant locus of power during the Tudor era, as “birth, death, marriage and meetings … all took place in or and around” them. In some cases, royals even brought their beds on annual progresses across the kingdom: As the Langley Collection, current owner of the bed, notes on its website, such was the case with with a 1495 visit to Lancashire, home of Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and stepfather, Sir Thomas Stanley.
At the time, Stanley’s brother William had just been executed for treason, leaving his position as one of the king’s favorites vulnerable. To demonstrate his belief in his stepfather’s loyalty, however, Henry gifted the bed to Stanley. It likely remained at the Stanleys’ Lancashire stronghold for the next century or so, then vanished from the historical record until 1842, when an architect named George Shaw discovered it in a dilapidated state. Writing for the History Vault, Foyle suggests that Shaw and his workshop created inferior copies of the Tudor bed, selling them to British aristocrats as “rediscovered” family heirlooms. Although Shaw kept the front crest of the original bed in his home library, the remainder of the frame eventually ended up in the Chester hotel honeymoon suite, enabling unsuspecting guests to sleep like royalty—literally—for just £95 a night.
Although the evidence surrounding the bed’s potentially storied past has proven strong enough to persuade some experts of its authenticity, others remain unswayed. Still, as Coulson asks National Geographic’s Smith, “If this isn’t the royal bed, what else can it be? So far nobody has come up with any convincing possibilities.”
(Smithsonian.com, February 13, 2019)