In a corner of Kensington Palace, home to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and little Prince George, there is a steep, narrow stairway. “Only think,” says Lucy Worsley, skipping ahead, “Princess Victoria walked down these stairs on the morning she became queen.”
Worsley, presenter of BBC4 documentary Tales from the Royal Bedchamber, has a gift for bringing excitement and immediacy to past lives. As chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces, an independent charity looking after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace and the Palace of Kensington State Apartments, she is keen on snipping the forbidding ropes that keep the public at a respectful remove from history. You wouldn’t be entirely surprised if she were to suggest sliding down the banister.
The arrival of a new royal baby in the private wing of Kensington Palace and the media frenzy surrounding the birth of Prince George has Worsley firing on all cylinders. The birth of a future monarch, she points out, has always been a major public event.
“Obviously there’s a huge amount of interest today, but in a sense the stakes are lower,” she says. “Because until relatively recently in the history of the monarchy, a royal baby would have been viewed as the physical embodiment of the nation.”
It sounds weird to say it given the amount of surveillance and scrutiny by the press, especially in the last few weeks, but the royal family have more privacy now than they did in the past.
“Any details about the royal birth have been either sneaked or leaked out into the public domain,” says Worsley. “In the 17th century, the mother of an heir to the throne was required to give birth in front of an enormous number of witnesses – there might be 40 dignitaries invited into the bedchamber to watch!”
This principle of public accouchement – a brutally effective way of protecting the bloodline by ensuring the right baby makes it to the royal cradle – persisted for centuries.
“The birth of the current Queen in 1926 was the last remnant of that tradition. The infant Elizabeth was only third in line to the throne, but the home secretary still had to come to the house for the birth. I don’t believe he was in the bedchamber, but he had to set eyes on the baby before he could formally inform Parliament that she had been born. The tradition was only broken when the Queen herself gave birth to Prince Charles. Her father, George V, said, ‘It’s not going to be witnessed. The tradition is barbaric and unnecessary.’”
Worsley, who holds a PhD in 17th-century architecture, is an emphatically hands-on historian. “It’s because I’m a curator,” she says. “I think the reason curators are curators is because they get to touch things. Sometimes you can almost smell the past off them. It’s always such a pleasure to look at something and try to work out what it says.”
Royal beds, she explains, speak eloquently, not just of their owners but of subtle shifts in royalty’s relationship with the nation. The BBC4 documentary is linked to the current exhibition of beds belonging to kings and queens at Hampton Court Palace; there are show beds, political beds, private beds, beds that sheltered lovers and beds that changed the course of history. Worsley’s story starts, however, with an altogether different piece of furniture, the “travelling bed” that belonged to Edward I.
“Medieval kings like Edward were itinerant,” she explains. “They had to be, partly to frighten their nobles into behaving themselves and partly so they could ‘eat their taxes’. Royal visitors were like a plague of locusts. Once they’d used up one palace – made it all dirty and eaten all the food – they’d move on to the next.
“Most castles wouldn’t have room set aside for sleeping so the king’s ‘demountable’ bed was really more like a tent – quite a luxurious tent – which would be taken down at the end of each visit, packed up into custom-made leather bags and sent ahead to the next place. You still see this pattern of movement in the royal family today. They go to Buckingham Palace for the week, Windsor for the weekend, Balmoral in summer and Sandringham in winter. They still have this itinerant lifestyle, even if it’s not as extensive as the medieval one.”
The end of the Wars of the Roses marked a new period of stability for the monarchy. The Tudors no longer had to seize power by violence but, as Worsley points out, the establishment of a secure dynasty threw new emphasis on the bedchamber. Beds were not salubrious – Henry VIII kept a piece of fur in his to draw the lice from the royal person – but, for the first time, it was what went on in the king’s bed that engaged the public imagination and the powers of state. The ratio of male heirs to wives was not encouraging. Positive “spin” on the king’s virility was urgently required.
“There is the most extraordinary public deposition from Henry’s physician, Dr Butts,” adds Worsley. “It details the king’s ‘nocturnal emissions’ as a way of proving to the people that he was still capable of fathering a child.”
The much-married monarch was, she believes, at heart “a serial monogamist. All this attention on Henry VIII’s sex life! People do think of him as this consumer of women, a kind of Bluebeard ogre-adulterer. But really, he didn’t have all that many mistresses – not, for example, compared to his contemporary, Francis I of France. I think that each time Henry really wanted to devote himself to one woman, but it just didn’t work out that way. And the children issue was a large part of that. If Catherine of Aragon had given him a son, he would probably have been happy.”
Without the all-important son, however, the Spanish princess Catherine was forced, in the course of her divorce proceedings, to swear that she had not had sex with her first husband, Henry’s older brother Arthur. “Witnesses recalled the young Arthur staggering out of the bed chamber on his marriage night saying, ‘I have been in the midst of Spain and it is a hot region,’” says Worsley, giving a full measure of nudge and wink to the allusion.
Post-English civil war, the less secure the monarch, the more the bedchamber seemed to matter. “As we move into the Baroque period the state beds get fancier and more grandiose – explosions of ostrich feathers everywhere. All these ceremonies unfold around the dressing and undressing of the king and queen and the bedchamber becomes a political space, with courtiers vying for intimacy with the royal person [the job of “gentleman of the stool” was exactly as glamorous as it sounds but came with enormous prestige].
“Actually,” Worsley goes on, “this is just pretending. I think that in some sense they knew they weren’t absolute monarchs, but were desperate to make the right impression. Roy Hattersley puts it very well. He says, ‘If you can’t fight, wear a big hat.’ Which is sort of true of the whole Baroque age and Baroque culture.” Increasingly, the “state bed” becomes the “statement bed”, a vestigial appurtenance of royalty, divorced from function.
With the reign of Queen Victoria, the door swings gently closed on the royal bedchamber. “Victoria was brought up here, in Kensington Palace, in quite a low-key way, with just her mother and her governess. So she wasn’t really used to living in public the way her predecessors were. The bed she shared with her beloved Albert in Osborne House [on the Isle of Wight] is touching precisely because it is such a personal space; she even had plaques put up commemorating the first and last nights she spent with Albert – no words, just the dates, so clearly these were meant for her eyes alone.”
While the sleeping arrangements of our own royal family are a private matter, the occasional glimpse is allowed: “You can see a bed in which the Queen slept on the royal yacht Britannia. It’s just a low, white, single bed,” says Worsley. “And pictures were recently released of the dormitory bunk where Prince William sleeps when he’s on helicopter duties on Anglesey.”
Frankly, her tone suggests, they could do better. “Part of me thinks it’s quite clever, keeping pace with the lives of your subjects, fitting in with what people might experience in their own lives. But then,” she sighs, “you look at the great state beds of the past and you think ‘How are the mighty fallen.’”
Tales from the Royal Bedchamber is on tonight at 9:00pm on BBC4
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