A re-post, on royal bedrooms of the past…

In honour of ‘Tales from the Royal Bedchamber’ being shown on PBS in America at the moment (you can also watch it through their website here) I’m re-posting an article from a couple of years ago, about royal beds…

Rife through any archive of note and, should it contain ambassadors’ letters and courtiers’ memoirs, you’ll often find mention of the regal bedchamber and its stately bed. It is also likely that the archive will contain an intense, seemingly prurient interest in the sex life of the monarch of the day. The monarch’s job was to provide peace and stability, and this meant giving their subjects an heir (and a spare) to ensure a smooth succession. So the royal reproductive health was, in fact, the health of the nation. And the royal bed, naturally enough, had a key role to play.

Because everyone felt they had a stake in it, then, the process of creating royal babies took place in a semi-public context.  Take, for instance, the occasion of the Spanish Catherine of Aragon’s first marriage to Prince Arthur, elder brother of her future spouse, Henry. Witnesses recalled her being led front he wedding feast, undressed and ‘reverently’ being placed in the royal bed. Arthur entered her bedchamber, accompanied by courtiers and musicians and wearing only his shirt. The couple were blessed before being left alone. The next morning, it was said, Arthur called for wine, saying he needed to refresh himself after his ‘long journey into Spain and back’. We’ll never actually know whether this marriage had indeed been consummated for, years later, when fighting for the survival of her second marriage, Catherine was famously to deny that anything had taken place. What a story that stately bed could have told.

A century later, another English princess named Mary, aged only 10, endured the ritual public bedding with her new husband, the 14-year-old Prince of Orange. Her father, Charles I, ‘had some difficulty in conducting’ the Prince through the thick throng of spectators gathered around Mary’s bed.  The children sat in bed together for forty-five minutes, ‘in presence of all the great lords and ladies’.  After this, their duty was considered done – at least until Mary reached the age for menstruation.

It wasn’t just sex which had a surprisingly public dimension.  Royal childbirths were attended by a crowd of witnesses in order to verify the baby’s gender and health.  In 1717, Queen Caroline had to endure a labour with her husband, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and twelve other people in the room. Their job was to reassure the world that the baby was born safely, and not replaced by a smuggled-in imposter. Similarly, after a royal death, members of the household would troop in to view the corpse.  Sometimes special black beds were borrowed or made: in 1685, John Evelyn visited the bereaved Queen Catherine of Braganza as she sat receiving guests in a purple velvet bed ‘bed of mourning, the whole chamber, ceiling and floor hung with black, and tapers were lighted … nothing could be more lugubrious and solemn’.

Splendid beds such as Catherine’s were common, of course, in royal residences, but what about those for a kind in the homes of prominent and noble courtiers? When the royal summer tour took place (essential, at one time, for physically keeping the peace, but later more of a public relations stunt), aristocrats hoped for the honour of a visit. The well-advised courtier would ensure that his house had a special ‘state’ bedchamber intended purely for royal occupation, equipped with a state bed. No mere place to lay the regal head, this was a statement about the wealth, reliability and generosity of the owner. Who but the very solidly rich could afford to tie up so much liquidity in the form of an amazing bed that was hardly ever used?  The surviving beds themselves, chiefly from the eighteenth century, form a mini-history of British design, going through Baroque, Rococo, Neo-Classical and Regency.  All have in common the use of sumptuous materials.

Sometimes, though, a nobleman was wasting his time and money by investing in a state bed.  The king might never have actually showed up – as happened to Lord Scarsdale, of Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire. Sir Harry Featherstonhaugh of Uppark fell out with his sovereign over a game of cards, and his royal visits abruptly ceased.  Sir Henry Harpur and his wife (Calke Abbey) simply didn’t get round to unpacking their wonderful bed of 1734.  It was discovered untouched in its original packing crates and erected for the first time in 1985. If you visit, look out for the real peacock feathers, tightly rolled, used in the embroidery for the knots of tree trunks and the markings of butterfly wings.

With the decline in the powers of Britain’s monarchy, there’s also been a decline in the splendour and stateliness of royal beds.  No longer was the bed treated with the reverence of, say, Henry VIII’s, who famously slept upon eight mattresses, rolled upon daily by his bed-makers to ensure that assassins had hidden no dangerous daggers inside.  When the bed was made, his servants had to make the sign of the Cross over it, kiss the places where they’d touched it, and sprinkle it with holy water.

In contrast, if you visit the Royal Yacht Britannia, now moored in Edinburgh, you’ll see that our present Queen spent many a night touring her realm … in a very narrow and Spartan single.  The age of the state bed is definitively over, but visit some of the grand houses in Trust care and you’ll glean a glimpse of the sheer extravagance of past royal bedtimes.

4 thoughts on “A re-post, on royal bedrooms of the past…

  1. Nick van V.

    Wonderful show last night, a real treat for those of us on this side of the water. Thanks, Dr. Worsley!

  2. Jim Chapman

    Dear Dr. Lucy Worsley,

    At last, one of your programs finally aired on our PBS television network in America. A very informative and entertaining program! You look lovely in red, by the way. I applaud your devoted “undercover” work in making this production possible.

    Your admirer in North Carolina

  3. Brian Hapeman

    The only thing better than reading history is seeing it presented by the delightful Dr. Worsley. The gleam in her eyes is the sign that the enthusiastic presentation is heartfelt.

  4. Karen Lett

    I had a great time watching this on my local PBS channel WNTP Nashville. It would be lovely to see more “Tales From the Royal…” episodes. Maybe Kitchens, (With)Drawing Room, Gardens, etc. Yes!


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