February 8, 2013 7:26 pm

Fit for a king

The extraordinary story behind a very special ‘pile of timber’
Detail of the bed owned by Ian Coulson

Detail of the bed owned by Ian Coulson

What would be your ultimate bed on Valentine’s night? For me – and I understand this is a long shot – a four-poster carved from the Tree of Knowledge would be such a coup that I wouldn’t care how comfortable it is. Just being in it would be enough, yet another original sinner engulfed by the eternal duvet of turpitude.

Let’s recap: once upon a time in Eden, the Tree of Knowledge was guarded by a talking serpent whose legs were confiscated by the creator after the snake persuaded Adam and Eve to eat a “knowledge-apple” type of thing. Their banishment from this troubled paradise took mankind into the realm of worldly experience and guilty conscience.

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Such thoughts raced through my mind on a morning in wintry Northumberland in northeast England, as I stared at the poster children of original sin carved into the oak of an ancient bed.

Its owner, Ian Coulson, inhabits a two-room Wesleyan chapel of 1862 in the village of Humshaugh, close to Hadrian’s Wall. He shares it with a dozen magnificent canopied beds. For beds are his life: over 27 years, he has bought, restored and sold the wooden frames where people have rested their bones. But this bed is different, he says. He’s clearly in awe of it. I wonder if his claim is too good to be true.

Historically, beds have been for the wealthy – 500 years ago, even dedicated bedchambers were for the grandiose, as commoners slept on the floor in halls where trestles had been cleared away. The peasantry didn’t leave us the phrase “hit the hay” for nothing.

Smarter, canopied beds with hangings achieved several things: protection from falling creatures and cold draughts, and an opportunity to display rich textiles that marked success. By 1500, four-poster beds were at the extreme end of the wealth spectrum. Anne Boleyn’s brother George slept on a soft feather mattress with down pillows on a gilded bedstead draped in cloth of gold with white satin, with embellishments in tawny cloth of gold, fringed in white and yellow silk.

Coulson thinks his bed was even more richly dressed – and that it is even older. “I believe this one was made for Henry VII [1485-1509], which makes it the only Tudor royal bed in existence.” Now, if this bed were to have belonged to Henry VII then it would be a considerably more comfortable resting place than that of the king he deposed, Richard III, whose remains were uncovered recently under a car park in Leicester, central England.

Coulson found what he calls “The Paradise Bed” on a Chester auctioneer’s website in 2010, where it was listed as 19th-century gothic revival. The photographs were impressive, at odds with its recent provenance: it had been languishing in the attics of the city’s Redland House Hotel, a 19th-century industrialist’s house that had been converted into apartments in the 1950s before it became a hotel. The builders charged with refurbishing the place and dispatching its bric-à-brac dismantled the old bed themselves and left the components in the car park for the auctioneers to collect. Coulson bought the intact pile of timber over the phone on the strength of what looked to be virtuoso carved panels in the headboard. When he unpacked it, he was astonished.

The varnished oak frame is rich and crisply carved. Closer inspection reveals the oxidisation of the timbers is deep, with shrinkage cracks, which shows the wood to be centuries old. And the lozenge-carved columns were whittled with blades rather than the lathe-turning you would expect from the 17th century onwards. The posts all match, as do the ornamented rails, which peg into their chiselled slots: this frame is no cobbling of salvaged pieces. And flecks of paint in the corners show it was once coloured, as you would expect from the chromoholic Tudor age. But how come the royal arms – the lions of England, the fleurs-de-lys of France over which the Tudors held a claim – are on this bed?

A clue may lie in the match of its dimensions: 5ft 6in wide and 6ft 6in long, with the pattern of carving on its posts and rails, which are identical to the famous Thomas Stanley bed described in Country Life in 1985 as “quite simply the most important and finest English medieval bed in existence and the culminating gothic period work of art in timber”. Did they come from the same family house?

The Stanleys were relatives of Henry VII. Thomas Stanley, first Earl of Derby, was the king’s stepfather. In 1495 the king visited their seat of Lathom House in Cheshire and the hunting lodge of Knowsley, where lodgings were newly built for him and his queen, Elizabeth of York. Several surviving fragments of bedposts with the initials “TS” suggest there were a number of fine beds at Knowsley and Lathom. (By comparison, a 1520 inventory of royal favourite Lord Darcy’s household included 34 beds.)

Elizabeth of York and Henry VII©Getty Images

Portrait of Elizabeth of York and Henry VII (1825)

Say a workshop created a number of similar beds for the Stanleys: what happened to this one with the royal arms? Lathom House was destroyed in the civil war, but Knowsley survived, and was renowned for its furniture. Some old pieces may well have been sold on when in 1820 the Tudor royal apartments were refurbished. By 1840, Coulson’s bed was in the possession of a new owner, George Shaw of Saddleworth; even so, in the 1860s Knowsley retained “elaborately-carved oak cupboards, one of which bears the date 1501, and has several Scripture-pieces carved on its panels … ” as documented by Peter Draper in The House of Stanley in 1864.

Research reveals that scripture is where the problems start for the Paradise Bed. Adam and Eve are enveloped by a scroll with an inscription from I Corinthians 15:56, reading: “The Stinge of death is Sinne: The Strength of Sinne is the Lawe”. Henry VII would have believed in descent from Adam and Eve, but why would a host burden the monarch’s slumber with a script powerfully reminding him of sexual sin and death? More problematic is that the bible text is in English. All bible translations into English after 1408 until the late 1530s were officially banned. Would a king have slept soundly in a bed that courted heresy?

The spelling is the real bombshell: it matches the Matthew Bible of 1537, published by the heretical translator William Tyndale with John Rogers, 40 years too late for Coulson’s claim of 1495. Could Tyndale have inherited a popularly accepted spelling of underground English texts that might also have been known to the carver of the bed in the 1490s? Apparently not: in his earlier 1525 bible, Tyndale printed the passage with three differences. So, the probability is that the Matthew Bible was the carver’s reference.

As to how long after 1537 this headboard script might have been carved, that’s tough. Might the sharp and intact condition of the headboard panels have been made when the bed was sold in the early 19th century and inserted within the original frame where, perhaps, very damaged panels provided a precise model for a restorer? But if this is correct, it has to be argued that there existed a genius craftsman barely out of the Georgian age of elegance who had old tools and whose folksy restoration can fool many today.

The script remains a problem. “I can’t explain it,” says Coulson. “Maybe it was cut into what were painted scrolls, after 1537.” Hmmm. And then these panels somehow survived in perfect condition? He admits the problems and vows to establish the truth one way or another, as he wants thousands to see it. At this point, we stand in knotted silence, asking ourselves just how original are the original sinners. What am I to think?

Days later, it strikes me. The inscription was made after 1537 because by 1547 the family faced a Protestant monarch, Edward VI (1547-53). Suddenly, Catholics were being burned at the stake, and the Stanleys were prominent Catholics. The natural thing to do would be to update the biblical passages in the furniture to English-spelled Protestant moralising, especially the piece the king might use on a visit, which could avoid charges of popery. When things settled down, they would want to forget the bed and put it into storage, which is why it was so improbable a survivor.

That may be right, may be wrong. But it’s my best guess and seems to meet all the evidence: I now have to concur that this is indeed the rarest of pieces of furniture, once the bed of King Henry VII. And after that I need a good lie-down.

Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain

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