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Royal Beds and the Bed that helped change British history?

The royal bed was a symbol of power as well as being a powerful symbol. Almost like a throne, it ultimately stood for status and royal authority, providing the background for such ceremonies as the monarch’s ‘lever’ and ‘coucher’ rituals – the public “rising”, waking and “dressing” of the monarch down to the “putting to bed”, retiring and “undressing”. We would imagine a bedchamber as a private space – and today’s royal bedrooms certainly are – but this is also due to the fact that privacy was more the exception and not the rule. Most of the monarch’s life was played out in public, so that in order to attain privacy, a separate space had to often be the place where this was possible, next to the one which officially had this function. This is why there were often two bedchambers – the King could be ‘put to bed’ in the great bedchamber, the actual man in the other. One of the most important British historic beds to survive is that thought to be the so-called ‘Mary of Modena’ bed.

The state bedchamber formed the setting for these important functions, the King often using a state bed only rarely, preferring to retreat in fact to a smaller bedchamber to actually sleep, once these public rituals were completed. The reason for these ceremonies was quite simple – like the series of rooms which led to the bedchamber itself, so designed as to emphasise the privilege of those courtiers, statesmen and guests who measured the royal favour by how far they were allowed to penetrate this series – it all served to underline the power of the monarch through the intimate personal access that was allowed to him. These ceremonies emphasised the importance of the King’s presence and the privilege could be shown through simply the access that had been granted to witness the event, or the tasks allotted to those who were allowed to attend. Everything was meant to illustrate the route of access to the King, even the rooms themselves which led to him  – from the privy chamber through to the “holy of holies” itself – something which is well illustrated in the series of rooms in the King William III apartments at Hampton Court, for example. Henry VIII had his great state bedchamber but normally slept in a second privy bedchamber reached through it, preferring not to sleep in his bed of state – a pallet or a truckle bed could be pulled out of his actual bed for the use of the Groom of the Privy Chamber who attended him. These ceremonies themselves, of course, had older origins – Henry VIII used his beds of estate for formally rising and retiring – they arguably became their most formalised at the court of Louis XIV, where these public functions became an integral part of Versailles’s ceremonial code – the ‘lever’ itself leading to a ‘grande’ and ‘premiere’ entry, the ‘lever’ being attended by the more privileged few, in the King’s actual bedchamber. The balustrade surrounding the bed served to symbolise the public/private divide, which the monarch would pass between. Again like a throne, the bed seemed to be where the monarch literally ruled from. Louis XIV converted the central room at Versailles from the State Drawing Room into the King’s Bedchamber and died there in 1715. Louis XV slept in a smaller bedchamber but continued to use the King’s Bedchamber for the established rituals of the ‘lever’ and ‘coucher’.

In medieval periods, monarchs often had beds that could travel with them – an example of this is the bed of Edward I which has been recreated in the St. Thomas’s Tower at the Tower of London, which is a splendid replica of “11 shillings and a penny for timber, boards and sawn panels for a bed for the Lord King and for transporting it through England.” The apartments of the King and Queen were divided so that the King’s bed was separate to that of his queen. The more intimate aspects of the royal bedchamber became the obvious focus of understandable interest both at court and beyond, because the matter of the succession was, after all, one of immense national importance and a very public concern. The dynastic consequences meant that even this most intimate act could never be properly private until court rituals relaxed. In this instance, Henry VIII summoned his Grooms of the Chamber who had to formally escort him to the bedchamber of the queen for this purpose, carrying torches to light the way, where the escort waited until the King was ready to return to his own apartments. Ceremonial ritual attended even this most private of acts, which attempted to ensure that the heirs of the monarch were begotten legitimately and also serves to show that a state marriage meant that this act especially was an affair of state, whatever the intimacy involved.

The royal bedchamber was also a space where other events of national importance were supposed to happen – natural events in royal life, such as births, consummation of marriages, the childbirths that followed from these marriages in the next generation, illnesses, deaths. Indeed, the state bed was something of a symbol for royal life, because so many crucial life moments happened in it – although childbirth often took place in special ‘birthing beds’ set up separately in the room for this purpose. Henry VIII’s queens had to undergo the formal ceremony known as ‘taking to her chamber’ – where royal wives retreated to give birth. This is how stories of immense importance have come to be focused around the royal bed, because of the powerful symbol that it became and of what took place in and around it. This was brilliantly illustrated in the 2013 landmark exhibition at Hampton Court Palace by Historic Royal Palaces entitled “Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber”, where six royal historic beds were showcased, and their stories told.

One of these beds is thought to be the extraordinary Mary of Modena Bed – a bed which in many ways, helped to change British history. The Catholic second wife of James II, Mary of Modena, gave birth to a son at St. James’s Palace on 10 June 1688, James Francis Edward Stuart, better known to history as the ‘Old Pretender’. The Catholic James II was not popular, and the rumour was put about by English Protestants that the healthy baby boy had been smuggled as a ‘changeling’ into the palace inside a warming pan, to take the place of a stillborn son. The fact that there was a shred of doubt in the matter meant that despite the witnesses who had attended the birth, the doubts were believed by some and could not be shaken off. The rumour’s initial impact was telling because its effects stuck. The story – almost certainly false – surely serves more to illustrate just how much the Protestants conveniently wanted to believe that it was true, desiring an end to James’s Catholic regime. To accept the baby as the rightful heir would have meant to have accepted a continuation of James’s regime and the firm establishing of a Catholic dynasty in England.

James II’s daughter Mary II had helped in her own father’s overthrow, being invited by the Convention Parliament to accept the throne as a joint monarch together with her Protestant Dutch husband William of Orange (William III) in what became known as the ‘Glorious Revolution’, confirmed in the Bill of Rights in 1689. As Mary of Modena’s sole surviving son, James Francis Edward Stuart became the Jacobite claimant to the British throne – Jacobite comes from the Latin ‘Jacobus’ for James. James Francis Edward Stuart would become the father of Charles Edward Stuart, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ – who carried on the Jacobite claim, was born in exile in Rome and whose campaign most famously came to a head at the Battle of Culloden in 1746, the final quashing of the Jacobite uprising of the previous year. This claim began literally, in this bed.

Today, the unique ‘Mary of Modena’ bed in which this momentous birth is said to have occurred, is kept at Kensington Palace and stands in the Queen’s Bedchamber, within the Queen’s State Apartments. It is a masterpiece of a royal bed and a foremost item of luxury by the standards of the time, particularly in terms of its design and materials. The Queen’s State Apartments were first occupied by Mary II, when she and William moved to Kensington Palace and made it their home. Mary II would relax and entertain friends in this room. Most poignantly though, the room itself is a sad one – Mary II would later die, mourned by a grief-stricken William, in this room – of smallpox in 1694.

Other important historic beds to survive include that of Queen Caroline at Hampton Court and the bed that belonged to Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, the ‘travelling’ bed of George II and the beautiful velvet bed that Queen Anne commissioned as her death bed.

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. An expert in royal studies as an academic subject, she speaks as an independent scholar on matters royal historical for both TV and radio, including the BBC. She specializes in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty and is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna (1872-1918). She was selected as an historical advisor for the first-time translation from English to Russian of the classic biography by Baroness Buxhoeveden (Moscow, 2012). She was elected a member of the Royal Historical Society in 2017. She also specializes in Empress Elisabeth of Austria and has written a series of academic articles on her life for Royalty Digest Quarterly, based on original research in Vienna and Geneva. Elizabeth is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical and genealogical journal Royalty Digest Quarterly and currently writes for the Tudor Society's magazine, Tudor Life. She is a former contributor to the European Royal History Journal and Jane Austen's Regency World Magazine and was History Writer for the world's leading independent royal news site, Royal Central. Her research interests include royal correspondence, royal servants and royal weddings, speaking on BBC Radio Berkshire's coverage on historic weddings at Windsor prior to the marriage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (2018). She is particularly interested in royal architecture and contributed to the TV Yesterday Channel series, World's Greatest Palaces (2019). She has researched and written on the life of W. A. Mozart, writing a mini-series for the Czech Republic's sole English language newspaper, the Prague Post (2017-2019). Her two-part article on Mozart in London was published in the USA for the Newsletter of the Friends of Mozart Society (New York, Summer/Fall 2016). Elizabeth worked in the heritage sector for over ten years and has been an active supporter of numerous cultural heritage organizations including The Georgian Group, Historic Royal Palaces, Berliner Dombau-Verein e.V, Förderverein Berliner Schloss e.V, Verein Potsdamer Stadtschloss e. V, and Freunde der Preußischen Schlösser und Gärten e.V. Also a poet, Elizabeth's poetry has been published in various literary journals, including The Oxonian Review, Coldnoon and Allegro Poetry. Her first mini-collection of ten poems is forthcoming in the Edinburgh-based quarterly journal Trafika Europe, Issue TE18 All Poetry. Her debut pamphlet of poems is forthcoming with the Welsh-based publisher Marble Poetry in 2020.