Thursday, April 02, 2015

Can't get enough of those late medieval kings? Henry VII's bed

Jonathan Foyle with his royal bed

After the hoopla about Richard III's putative bones (hmm, he was a blue-eyed blonde, was he, and his DNA also indicates a break in the male Plantagenet line? - but surely there's another possible explanation for those awkward details) comes another instance of our insatiable need for relics (but as we have been a Protestant nation, royal relics rather than saintly ones).

Making a stir today is Jonathan Foyle, with his highly authentic looking Tudor bed, and the pamphlet presenting his research and iconographic deductions generously posted at:

And the press adores it, with the Daily Mail, always keen on anything royal with a procreative aspect to it, giving one of the more substantial accounts.

The pdf is slightly difficult to read (not as a fault of Foyle's prose, I mean that it doesn't display well, and on my PC it's slow to scroll through). This is a snip of the page that I find most worrying:

Now what I would like him to be clearer about is how that banderole that folds across Adam and Eve's genitals acquired its inscription. It is clearly part of the original design to have the scroll there for text. These are among the best images, from Foyle and others:

Now, I haven't seen the bed at all, I am passing judgement from photographs: such is the dubious wonder of the internet. Foyle argues that this bed design is from 1486, and in it, Adam and Eve are meant to be somehow both recognisable as a younger Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and, at another level of symbolism, be understood as Christ and his mother trampling on sin. 

Foyle apparently wants one to believe that the scroll had been left un-incised in 1486, and the later Protestant owner took advantage of that: "the carved band on the headboard was inscribed with the 1537-49 Bible text he [Stanley] used: "The Stinge of Death is Sinne; the Strengthe of Sinne is the Lawe (I Corinthians 15: 56)". I suppose this could have been done, if the bed were taken apart and this section laid flat, for carving into such a lattice unsupported would have been risky.

*** To update, I have just found this further image on Jonathan Foyle's Twitter account: it gives his argument about the text:

As Foyle perhaps knows, but opts not to mention, that seems to be a text from Tyndale's 1534 translation (no point, of course, in looking for an earlier vernacular version). Now, that's making it very Protestant indeed, from such a classic passage in his New Testament that it seems amazing that the banderole accommodated it so nicely - almost as if it had been designed to do so. Foyle merely remarks that this later addition of text "simplified the subject as Adam and Eve sinning, as acceptable to Protestants".

But is it 'simplifying' to quote from this passage: "When this corruptible hath put on incorruptibilite & this mortall hath put on immortalite: then shalbe brought to passe the sayinge that is written. Deeth is consumed in to victory. Deeth where is thy stynge? Hell where is thy victory? The stynge of deeth is synne: and the strength of synne is the lawe. But thanks be unto God which hath geven us victory thorow oure Lorde Jesus Christ"?

The message on the bed head recollects in its universally familiar iconography that the first marriage led to original sin. Such disobedience should not be repeated. This, with Tyndale's knotty verse makes for some bracing sentiments for a matrimonial bed. The passage cited went from Tyndale into Coverdale's Bible, and thence into the Book of Common Prayer, in the service for the Burial of the Dead. I take it to mean something along the lines of 'sin makes us know the sting of death; what is strong over death is observance of God's law' - so far, so very Protestant, and then the redemption itself mentioned in the next sentence.

In short, there's one major objection to Foyle's interesting and elaborate interpretation that "Henry and Elizabeth are shown as Christ and the Virgin, saviours who rescued mankind from evil", and that's the text incised on the banderole. Foyle notes the similarity to Speed's frontispiece in his Genealogies of Holy Scriptures, 1611. Protestants just loved Adam and Eve. The design seems made to incorporate the inscription and to give it central importance, and so it's hard to imagine the banderole was ever blank.

[A SECOND UPDATE: Jonathan Foyle, vigilant about his splendid find, has visited this now rather intermittent and obscure blog, and posted the explanatory comment below - the banderole would have had a painted text. I simply hadn't thought of that. I leave my final paragraph below, which imputed too much eagerness to believe, but I should say that I too am now ready to believe.]

It's a wonderful object, convincingly Tudor. But I think it looks more Protestant Tudor than Catholic, and that Foyle has used great scholarly skill to over-interpret the bed design as proving it was made for Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. The Daily Mail is delighted with it, Hever Castle has a new royal attraction, and every newspaper account I have read about it so far accepts Foyle's scholarship as proof of something we perhaps want to believe too much.


Jonathan Foyle said...


Your response reminds me of where I began two years ago- with an article in the Financial Times where I pondered the problem of the Protestant text.

It's not the Tyndale spelling actually, but the 1537 Matthew's Bible, used as the basis for the 1549 Edwardian bible as I'm sure you're aware.

First, if the bed were made several decades into the sixteenth century, it would be covered in Renaissance ornament. The style precisely fits the arts and royal culture of the 1480s with the only Renaissance motif fishscale (based on Roman Dacian armour) as you see in contemporary German parade shields.

To the main point- the same type of banderole is on the crests. And they are not incised. The presence of a complete early paint treatment would suggest that the normal presentation of black text on a white banderole (as seen in H VII era manuscripts) was the original appearance of the headboard. If that painted Latin text related to the well-understood Christological theme of monarchs undoing the fall of man (which stems from C15 writers like Lydgate and Capgrave) it would become rather awkward to have that as a trophy in your house.

The incised text reverting simply to Adam and Eve and protestant ideas of sin fundamentally undermined its original Catholic mysticism. The owner of the bed in the mid C16 was a persecutor of recusant Catholics.

Helen Hughes found a finer pigment in the graining painted into incised letters which suggested a secondary treatment.

This object has taught us so much beyond current published scholarship that I can understand if it seems to come from nowhere. Circumspection is normal and healthy, and I don't take umbrage from your comments. But I would suggest going to look at it and observe how it was made to fit against the mural of the Painted Chamber, abandoned after the fire of 1512, and much else, before making a final judgment on it.

Every good wish,

Jonathan Foyle

DrRoy said...

Dear Jonathan, Many thanks for this extra level of explanation. I doubt I'd have put you to all this trouble had these extra details been in the pamphlet (while your article in the FT was never on my radar at all). I was thinking too narrowly along the lines of incised letters on a carved object, and just didn't consider a (lost) painted inscription on the main banderole, and was of course unaware of the un-incised banderoles (that would also once have been painted) in the crests.

How interesting that the bed could have been re-purposed or made over so economically, with a bit of Bible in English. Up in bi-partisan Lancashire, that would have made it unimpeachably Protestant, blotting out all the earlier meanings. I had it down as centrally Protestant, strongly loyal, and slightly archaic later Tudor. My chief interest was really in Adam and Eve, as I collect (among other things) images of domestic uses of the Adam and Eve motif in the obedient (Lutheran) household, and this led me to my interpretative bias.
Many thanks for saying more, and as you indicate, a trip over to Hever Castle seems appropriate (just when your pictures of Wells had settled me on riding westwards).
My best wishes,
Roy Booth