'Venerable relics': state beds and the conservation of monarchical memories

Fryman, Olivia (2009) 'Venerable relics': state beds and the conservation of monarchical memories. In: Living in the Past: Histories, Heritage and the Interior: 6th Modern Interiors Research Conference; 14 - 15 May 2009, Kingston upon Thames, U.K.. (Unpublished)


During the 1770s George III embarked on an extensive and impressive refurbishment of Windsor Castle. Yet, amidst the lavish and fashionable furnishing of his new state apartments he placed Queen Anne’s ancient state bed. As William Pyne wrote in his volume on royal residences, ‘he would not displace the venerable relic for the most splendid bed in the universe’. As this paper will explore, George’s apparent veneration of his ancestor’s bed is suggestive of the way in which monarchical objects, and in particular state beds, can function as manifestations of monarchical history and memory. Since the reign of the Tudors state beds have been revered, presented and conserved as symbols of monarchy. Today they are some of the most impressive and prolific survivals housed in English royal residences. Focussing on the late seventeenth and eighteenth century furnishings of Hampton Court Palace this paper will discuss the ways in which state beds and bedchambers have been presented and conserved. Taking an object based approach, the techniques, products and practices employed in both the day to day care of beds by royal servants, and more occasional work by those such as upholsters will be explored. Building on this, the practical elements of care will be considered in relation to the use and symbolic meaning of state beds. It will be argued that during a period in which lineage and the royal succession were hotly contested, the conservation and display of royal ancestral objects served at once to glorify the monarchical past and ratify the present. Moreover, drawing on the political theorist Ernst Kantorowicz’s theory of the ‘King’s two bodies’, it will be posited that state beds in particular fulfilled this. As both the site of royal births, marriages and deaths, and as symbols of status and political might, state beds embodied both ‘mortal’- the human, personal and intimate, and ‘immortal’-the political and legal, royal history and memories of monarchy.

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