Footboards, Film Props and Fragments: Exploring English Medieval Furniture

What do Charles Edward Stuart, members of the Mosley family, and Sid James have in common? At some point they all, most likely, occupied the Henry VII and Elizabeth of York Marriage Bed. The bed was rediscovered in 2010 and is widely considered to be one of the most important pieces of furniture in Medieval society, offering an unprecedented insight into the elite society, design, and craftsmanship of the period.

In this blog, Peter Lindfield, editor of The Marriage Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, talks readers through Tudor furnishings and provides a sneak peek between the covers of his new book, highlighting the significance of this fascinating piece of furniture.

By Peter N. Lindfield | 5 min read

The study of furniture: a brief history

The study of furniture is still in its infancy, and much knowledge is yet to be uncovered, recorded, and interpreted. Britain’s leading scholarly society for the study of furniture, The Furniture History Society, publishes an academic peer-reviewed journal, Furniture History, and in 2022 the 58th volume appeared: its excellent articles reveal that the field is still in a documentary rather than (re)conceptual phase, and that much work remains to be done to understand historical furniture.

In 1977, Penelope Eames’ ground-breaking survey of medieval furniture was published by The Furniture History Society as Furniture in England, France and the Netherlands From the Twelfth to The Fifteenth Century; its appearance was simultaneous with that of volume 13 of Furniture History. In it, she presented an unparalleled and rigorously academic account of medieval furniture drawn from numerous sources, including extant furniture, archival accounts, and illuminated manuscript miniatures. It responded to ‘the need for a major study of medieval furniture which combines the documentary sources with a knowledge of technical advances in the woodworking trades and an art-historian’s vision has long been felt’.

Understanding the medieval bed, therefore, offers a peerless insight into the most refined levels of society, design, and craftsmanship.

When read in parallel with other works, such as Victor Chinnery’s Oak Furniture: The British Tradition (1986), Charles Tracy’s work on medieval and Tudor choir-stalls, and Chris Pickvance’s extensive investigation of medieval chests, Eames’ study offers an undeniable point of reference for all subsequent work on ancient English furniture. In it, she offered an extensive commentary on medieval beds, but little work has been done since 1977 to further understand or assess the constructional and visual characteristics of medieval beds, nor understand surviving examples. This lack of progress is notable given that, in medieval and Tudor England, the bed was the most important piece of furniture, and that it was designed to indicate status (or estate), as well as wealth and identity. Understanding the medieval bed, therefore, offers a peerless insight into the most refined levels of society, design, and craftsmanship.

Turning to the Tudor period

Little Tudor furniture survives. Indeed, until recently, the only extant piece of royal Tudor furniture of a domestic nature (rather than ecclesiastical), was thought to be the headboard from the Henry VIII and Anne of Cleaves marriage bed, which is now at the Burrell Collection in Glasgow.

Oak Ceremonial Bedhead Made for the Marriage of Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves, 1539. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow. © CSG CIC, CC-BY-NC 4.0.

Most pieces of such domestic furniture were destroyed during the Civil War. The Glasgow fragment is incredibly important, but, frankly, also underwhelming and it can hardly offer a full picture of what this piece of royal Tudor furniture of estate would have looked like.

The Thomas Stanley Bed

The Thomas Stanley bed seen after restoration in the mid twentieth century. c.1490–1500. Image courtesy of Victor Chinnery.

The supposedly complete Thomas Stanley bed, now in a private collection, is the closest example we have to a piece of surviving royal Tudor bed.

A recently discovered photograph of the Thomas Stanley bed in 1913 demonstrates that it was once far more ornate than it appeared to be for most the twentieth century: the 1913 photograph notably depicts a now lost double-register footboard and hipped tester (or canopy).

The Thomas Stanley bed as seen in 1913. Max 107. Image courtesy of Rochdale Archives (Touchstones).

It is impossible to determine the age and authenticity of these lost parts, but the bed examined in this book, and the illuminated miniatures assessed in The Marriage Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York: A Masterpiece of Tudor Craftsmanship, indicate that our assumptions about medieval and Tudor beds, including the absence of a footboard, are plainly wrong. We can, for example, see a footboard on the c.1130 miniature The Nightmares of Henry I: the footboard, unlike recently reiterated assumptions elsewhere, was certainly not a Victorian invention. The Thomas Stanley bed is also tremendously important because it offers us an insight into what medieval furniture could look like within the orbit of court and the royal family: Thomas Stanley, first Earl of Derby, married Lady Margaret Beaufort: the mother of Henry Tudor (Henry VII).

The Marriage Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York

The subject of The Marriage Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York is a bed that, when purchased at auction in 2010 from a former hotel in Chester, was assumed to be Victorian.

Detail of the varnish that covers over earlier woodworm. © Ian Coulson

Ian Coulson discovered it, and the bed struck him, much in the same way as myself, as uncharacteristic of Victorian ‘cut and shut’ or ‘Frankenstein’ furniture, and it could well be an a genuine example from Tudor England.

The Marriage Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York records Ian’s initial assessments of the bed and the decisions taken to stabilise it and understand its construction and physicality. Notable physical characteristics include the patently recorded use, assembly, disassembly, reuse, modification, restoration, and a Victorian varnish that flows into pre-existing woodworm channels.

The volume brings together subject specialists in history, art history, iconography, and the scientific analysis of paint, tree-ring growth patterns (dendrochronology), and DNA, to offer the most comprehensive and interdisciplinary published study of any single piece of furniture ever undertaken. It is a truly interdisciplinary work that reveals brand new and unparalleled understandings of medieval furniture, Tudor identity, and Henry VII’s aims and objectives when marrying Elizabeth of York for which this bed was specifically crafted in late 1485 for the January 1486 wedding.

Detail of the bed’s headboard depicting Adam and Eve represented Christ and the Virgin and Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. © Ian Coulson.

[T]he most comprehensive and interdisciplinary published study of any single piece of furniture ever undertaken.

We discover in the book that the bed was covered in a paint scheme matching the materials, preparation, and layering typical of the medieval (rather than Victorian) period, that the bed is made almost entirely from one tree, and that its iconography tells of Henry VII’s and Elizabeth of York’s presentation as Christ and Virgin, and as redeemers of mankind (or England).

Its highly specific iconography is representative of the late-fifteenth century, and it speaks of unification, rebirth, and rejuvenation: all highly appropriate given the destructive and divisive Wars of the Roses that preceded their marriage.

The book also traces the bed’s provenance, including its gifting by Elizabeth I to Sir Nicholas Mosley in 1599/1600 whereupon it passed down through the family in Manchester (where it was almost certainly occupied by Charles Edward Stuart, ‘the Young Pretender’), before its translation to the Mosley’s new family seat: Rolleston Hall in Staffordshire. From Rolleston it was offered as a gift in 1944 to Hough End Hall in Manchester by the fascist politician Sir Oswald Mosley; it remained in family possession until disposal whereupon, unvalued as a heavy and ornate piece of unfashionable dark oak furniture, it appeared as a film prop featuring in Carry On Dick with Sid James sat in the bed, and in other TV dramas and films.

About the Editor:

Dr Peter N. Lindfield FSA is a lecturer in History at The Manchester Metropolitan University and a lecturer in Architectural History and Humanities at The University of Liverpool. He is a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and has worked extensively on Gothic architecture, woodwork, furniture and heraldry from medieval Britain through to the Victorian period.

The Marriage Bed of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York is available now from Oxbow Books at a special pre-publication price for a limited time.

RRP: £35.00 | Special Price: £28.00

Click here to order

Featured Image: Double Portrait of Elizabeth of York and Henry VII Holding The White Rose of York. c.1825