WHEN ENGLISH ANTIQUE dealer Ian Coulson went to pick up the bed frame he’d bought online for £2,200 (AUD $3,964), he expected to find a “profusely carved Victorian four-poster bed with armorial shields,” just as described in the catalogue.
“At that stage I thought it was a supreme example of the Arts and Craft movement,” recalls Coulson, referring to a design aesthetic popular in Victorian England during the late 19th century. But when he arrived home and began examining his new purchase more closely, he quickly realised it was far older than Victorian.
The elaborately carved bed is rich in the iconography of late-15th century England: royal crests and shields, the heraldic roses of Lancashire and York, and symbols of fertility such as acorns and fruit.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY THE LANGLEY COLLECTION
The bed showed signs of having been repaired a good many times, something unusual in an otherwise well-kept antique barely 150 years old. Marks in the timber indicated that it had been hewn with medieval hand tools, not the mechanised saws of the industrial age. And those “armorial shields” mentioned in the catalogue were in fact the English royal coat of arms.
Believing he’d stumbled onto something extraordinary, Coulson embarked on what has turned out to be a nine-year (and counting) odyssey of painstaking research. Over the years he, and several esteemed experts, have become convinced that the age-blackened antique is the long-lost bed commissioned for the marriage of King Henry VII, the first Tudor king, and Elizabeth of York. Their union in 1486 ended the Wars of Roses, the series of bloody civil wars that pitted the House of Lancaster—a red rose on its coat of arms—against the House of York and its heraldic white rose.
If true, it would be an astonishing discovery. No royal furnishings from the Tudor era are known to have survived the English Civil War. The anti-royalist Parliamentarians are understood to have destroyed it all.
“This has to be the most important piece of furniture in England, arguably the most important royal artifact,” says Jonathan Foyle, a renowned Tudor historian and former curator at Historic Royal Palaces who’s convinced of the bed’s authenticity. “Even the Westminster Coronation Chair has less to say than this.”
The sumptuousness of the bed, its late-15th-century styling, and the iconography in the carving are consistent with its belonging to Henry VII, says Foyle.
“You have the royal coats of arms, the cross of Saint George, the roses of the houses of Lancashire and York, fertility symbols such as the acorn. Whoever carved this had a deep understanding of the iconography of the time. It’s hard to imagine anyone coming along later, carving this headboard and just happening to get everything right.”
Even more compelling are the microscopic traces of medieval paint found in crevices in the wood. They include specks of ultramarine, an extremely rare and costly pigment made from lapis lazuli imported from Afghanistan via Venice.
“This is highly significant,” says Helen Hughes, an architectural paint researcher and expert in pigment analysis, who’s also convinced of the bed’s authenticity. “Ultramarine was an incredibly expensive pigment. You rarely see it even in paintings in England, let alone decorating a bed. It would literally have been cheaper to have used gold. Its use here indicates this bed was of extremely high status.”
But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Given the received wisdom that no royal furniture survived the English Civil War, as well as century-long gaps in the provenance of this particular bed, sceptics remain unconvinced.
The bed’s oak timbers have defied attempts to date them scientifically. Varnishes used on the wood have rendered it unsuitable for carbon dating, while attempts to date it using dendrochronology—tree ring patterns—have been inconclusive. One outlier result from a test by an American firm in 2012 indicated that the bed was made of North American oak cut sometime around 1756. But state-of-the-art technology for extracting DNA from wood samples, developed by Germany's Thünen Institute of Forest Genetics to counter illegal logging, has since conclusively shown that the wood belongs to Haplotype-7 from European oaks.
Whether those oaks were felled in the 15th century and crafted by medieval hands into the bridal bed of Henry and Elizabeth remains tantalisingly unproven. But, as Coulson says, “If this isn't the royal bed, what else can it be? So far nobody has come up with any convincing possibilities.”