Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber

Hampton Court Palace

A postcard of the West Front of Hampton Court Palace dating from 1904. HRP/

Historic Royal Palaces have announced a new exhibition running at Hampton Court Palace from 27 March until 3 November 2013.

Historic Royal Palaces will transform Hampton Court’s Baroque Palace with a special exhibition full of intrigue, drama and surprise – at its heart will be six magnificent royal beds. For the first time ever the world’s largest and rarest collection of early State Beds will be presented in one dramatic display which tells the story of how and why the bedchamber became the most public and important destination in the Palace. The exhibition will also offer a rare glimpse into architect John Vanbrugh’s Prince of Wales’s Apartments – opened for the first time in 20 years.

Through the stories of their royal owners and servants, visitors will be able to explore the elaborate, sometimes bizarre bedchamber rituals, unusual sleeping arrangements and enjoy the luxurious excesses of the Stuart and Hanoverian courts.  Discover what really took place in the royal bedchamber where heirs were born, marriages consummated, monarchs were struck down and died, and all the while important affairs of state were conducted in this most personal of rooms. Most strange of all, these events took place before an audience of courtiers, politicians and family members, who turned everyday life for the monarch into a grand performance.

Inspired by the French fashion of the lever, the monarch would meet courtiers and ministers during an elaborate morning ceremony, during which the most privileged of his servants, woke, washed and dressed the King before the business of the day began. Discover how courtiers would fight for the illustrious and intimate positions to serve the bedchamber to get close to the monarch, such as the ‘groom of the stool’ or the ‘necessary woman’. For an extraordinary century, the State Bedchamber became the most sought after room in the palace for the rich and the powerful, where privileged access brought honour or the king’s favour. At its heart was the great, State Bed, from where the monarch could conduct affairs of State.

These remarkable State Beds have undergone extensive conservation and restoration over some fifty years.  Each bed has a dramatic, and often tragic, story to tell.  For the first time the tragic story behind Queen Anne’s magnificent velvet State Bed will be revealed – ordered by a dying queen in her final year, childless after many sad losses, she faced the prospect of her dynasty ending with her death. Left unused and forgotten, it was described by the thrifty George III as a ‘venerable old relic’. Another splendid bed featured is the infamous ‘Warming Pan Bed’, the State Bed of James II’s Queen, Mary of Modena, and was the scene of the royal birth that sparked the quiet revolution that led to the end of the Stuart line.

A rare but modest survivor is the unique ‘travelling bed’ of George II which comes apart into 54 pieces and is testament to a time when the King and his court were often on the move.  This particular king took his bed as far afield as his second home in Hanover and even to the battlefields of Europe!  Each state bed reveals the intense competition between monarchs, and their courtiers, who expressed their taste and magnificence through their beds – the largest and most costly objects in their homes.  These beds could cost the price of a London town house and yet, incredibly, might never have been slept in!

The new exhibition will create an experience which takes a contemporary twist on the distinctive Baroque style of the palace. Through pioneering interpretation, visitors will be plunged into an immersive, interactive world of the Stuart Court, showcasing rare and amazing objects from the Royal Collection and other important collections, all in the backdrop of the beautiful architecture of the State Apartments to create an experience unlike anything seen at a royal palace before.

Historic Royal Palaces’ exhibition curator, Sebastian Edwards, said:
‘Visitors to the exhibition will discover that, far from being restful places of privacy, the State Bedchamber was the seat of power – the equivalent of the modern day boardroom, from which the business of the Kingdom was conducted.  Events which took place in and around these beds had enormous consequences for society, politics and history. Courtiers were Knighted, wars were brokered, marriages consummated and mistresses wooed all in the shadow of the royal bed.  These are extraordinary beds – but not as we know them today.’