Dr. Lucy Worsley is the narrator of this fascinating PBS documentary entitled “Tales from the Royal Bedchamber.”
Today, we no longer get to see inside the bedrooms of the royal families even though no detail of their lives is too tiny to be intriguing. But in the 17th and 18th centuries, the future of the Monarchy and the nation were played out in the bedroom. The rise and fall of the beds reflected the rise and fall of the Monarchy.
Royal Bedchamber - Wikimedia
In Medieval times, Geoffrey Chaucer, author of the Canterbury Tales, had several different jobs with the royal family, chief of which was Yeoman Valet to the King’s chamber. He helped to make the King’s own bed. This would be a highly prized position because it would give access to the King’s ear.
Contrary to public thinking, early Kings and Queens had their own bedchambers, and came together just for conjugal relations. This arrangement saved King Henry III in 1238 when an assassination was attempted on his life. He was not in his own bedchamber at the time but was in the bed of his wife.
Dr. Lucy Worsley, the narrator, showed us the bed of Edward I who reigned from 1272 to 1307. The bed is quite high and the walls are a rich, red color. The coverlets and quilts are covered on the inside with white fur from the bellies of squirrels to keep one warm.
St. Andrew by the Wardrobe Church - Wikimedia
Kings also had portable beds because they were constantly on the move; therefore, their beds traveled with them. Huge warehouses existed for storing the beds. They had to be set up each time the King moved. A church in London is called “St. Andrew by the Wardrobe” because it stood next to the King’s Wardrobe which contained his clothing and furniture. The Wardrobe was actually a complex of buildings. Initially, these items were kept in the Tower of London until the Wardrobes were built.
Business Conducted in the Bedchamber
It is strange for us to fathom, but the King conducted business from his bed. The Lord Chamberlain was thus named because he was in charge of the King’s bedchamber.
Of the last seven medieval Kings, four had seized the throne through violence. Henry Tudor (soon to be King Henry VII) ended the War of the Roses, bringing stability to the country, and ushering in the rule of the House of Tudor.
Henry VIII had 60 palaces, each with its own specialized bedchamber. There was no need for him to have a portable bed during his travels. No Tudor bed has survived to this day.
Hever Castle in Kent was the home of Anne Boleyn and her family before she became the second wife of Henry VIII. It is where Henry courted Anne. Henry acquired the Castle upon the death of Anne’s father, Thomas Boleyn.
The Master of the house was required to give up his bed to a Monarch who was visiting. Even royal beds were infected with fleas. The Chamberlain had to check to make sure that an assassin had not concealed a dagger in the bedclothes.
King Henry VIII - Portrait by Hans Holbein - Wikimedia
Prince Arthur Married Catherine of Aragon
When Henry VII seized the throne from Richard III after the Battle of Bosworth, he had a son, Prince Arthur, who married Catherine of Aragon, Spain who was eventually widowed. Most people are aware that Catherine then married King Henry VIII, who was her former husband Arthur’s brother. The Royal bed is a theater or stage. Catherine’s bedchamber became the topic of conversation when it was clear that King Henry wished to marry her since the Bible stated that a man must never lie with the widow of his brother. Catherine insisted that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, so she was free to marry Henry. Her claim was disputed at one point because Arthur had bragged to his courtiers upon leaving the marriage bedroom.
Catherine suffered greatly from the investigation into her marriage with Arthur when Henry VIII wanted to divorce her. Henry needed proof that she had consummated her marriage with Arthur, thus making Catherine’s marriage to Henry invalid. Pope Paul refused to nullify their marriage, which led to England’s break with Rome and the beginning of the Church of England.
Queen Anne Boleyn
The status of the Monarchy was always centered in the Royal bed. The Queen’s crown passed to Anne Boleyn. It was incumbent upon her to produce a male heir. The nation’s fate would once again be decided in the bedchamber. Anne’s health was closely monitored when she became pregnant. She was confined to her bedchamber as a protection for the baby. She was trapped in a stuffy, warm cocoon. Once again, the King was disappointed when the baby proved to be a girl. This personal tragedy led ultimately to her execution.
Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, presented Henry with a boy, but the toll on her was so great she passed away less than two weeks after giving birth to the son who would eventually become King Edward VI.
Henry was coerced by his advisors into marrying Anne of Cleves, his fourth wife, whom he considered too ugly and he refused to consummate the marriage. This brought on the necessity of having his personal physician, Dr. Butts, make an announcement to Parliament that the King was still capable of fathering a child. The inability to produce a male heir caused the divorce and downfall of four of Henry’s six queens.
The Warming Pan Incident
When the Stuart Kings were in power, royal wedding nights were actually witnessed. When James II was married to Mary of Modena, she had given birth to a son. This would normally be a cause for celebration except that James II was unpopular because he had converted to Catholicism. Something had to be done by the Protestants who created what became known as the Warming Pan incident. They insisted that the baby had died and that a changeling had been introduced into the palace, and into the Queen’s bedchamber. Supposedly the baby had been smuggled in through the use of a metal warming pan which was used to warm the sheets. It was a good story and a lot of people believed it. The smear campaign worked although there were forty witnesses to the birth of their baby. James was forced to flee the country. The crown was passed to his daughter Mary and William of Orange, who had to agree to be answerable to the people and to Parliament.
William of Orange and Mary - Wikimedia
William of Orange and Mary
William and Mary lived at Hampton Court and refurbished it with a baroque layout which cost one million pounds in today’s money. Access to the King was always sought in order to exert influence on him. The King’s bedchamber was a semi-public room. His advisors and visitors watched him being dressed and then undressed for bed. It was a ceremonial space; the King actually slept in the next room. To see or to be seen with the King was an ambitious goal. Little parties were held in the private rooms which were sometimes packed with courtiers looking at the King in his underwear.
Several servants attended the King in his bedchamber. They had titles such as Gentleman of the Robes, Barber, or Groom of the Stool. This last servant went into the stool closet, or toilet, with the King. He held his clothes and passed him a towel. It was a very important role; everyone wanted the job. The Groom could ask for a favor, or even a promotion for a friend. He could influence public policy. The Groom of the Bedchamber was in charge of the King’s underwear. These jobs were at the top of the hierarchy. The Groom of the Stool had a private key to the King’s apartment. There was one room in the whole palace where the King could be on his own, without even the Groom of the Stool. That was the King’s Private Room.
There was a service entrance to the King’s chamber, up the Back Stairs. It was guarded to keep out the riff-raff. Some important people came up through the Back Stairs, going through the Page of the Back Stairs. King George II had a mistress named Henrietta Howard who was always ushered up the Back Stairs. She received a salary and a pension. Everyone knew who his mistress was; it was an official position. She really had no influence, but because people believed she had influence, she held an important position.
Queen Anne’s Bed
Extraordinary beds were made for the Royal bedchambers. The Stuart Queen Anne commissioned a magnificent bed. She intended to die in it, but died before it was finished. One hundred years later, King George III called it the most splendid bed in the universe. The fabric alone cost 78,000 pounds. She was making a political statement by using the best British fabrics instead of the usual French, because of the war between England and France at that time.
The lust for luxury trickled down to the people. Beds were what everyone wanted to boast about. The noted Samuel Pepys had a goose down mattress. “I have a spare bed for my friends,” he boasted. He rubbed shoulders with royalty. It was a common ambition to have a State bed fit for a King or Queen. Some courtiers wanted the King or Queen to visit them in their own home. Sometime the visiting royalty did not show up. Some people just liked owning a State bed. That was enough.
Business was no longer conducted in the bedchamber. It fell into decline. Politics moved from the bedchamber to the House of Parliament. The beds were no longer required. Some courtiers were richer than the King himself and did not bother to compete for access to the King. By the 19th century the Monarchy was a national figurehead. The power was in Parliament and the Prime Minister.
Queen Victoria - Wikimedia
Queen Victoria’s Bedchamber
In 1839, the young inexperienced Queen Victoria had a problem with her bedchamber. Her advisor Lord Melbourne fell from power and Robert Peel refused to succeed him unless the Queen sacked the Ladies of the Bedchamber. He wanted Tories there. Victoria needed her friends, not Tory leaders. It was a constitutional crisis since there was no Prime Minister. Victoria said “No, I will not sack my Ladies.” She had to back down. She was a servant of the people. She ended up with no political friends in her bedchamber.
Victoria and Albert removed politics from their bedroom. It suited their sensibilities. Their private life was private. Their bedroom was strictly off limits. Victoria was a lusty woman with a very strong sexual appetite. A royal pregnancy was not announced until the birth. It was called accouchement, indisposition, or unwell. Victoria did not like women going out in public during pregnancy. She felt that matters of the body should be kept private - pregnancy and what went on in bed. Some women were indelicate with their confidences to other ladies.
Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight was an escape in Ireland for Victoria and Albert. Victoria’s bedroom suite was private; it had royal gates. With Queen Victoria, the bedroom had become a private domain. The power of the Monarch waned after 1955. The significance of the bedchamber waned also.
Even today though, marriage, childbirth, and renewal are still essential to the story of Great Britain.
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