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Medieval royal oak bed identity corroborated by DNA tests

Genetics testing used to prove authenticity of 500 year old medieval royal oak bed frame

A richly-ornamented bed frame is finally unveiled to the public with its identity confirmed to be an authentic survival of Tudor royal furniture, with a bit of help from modern technology. Discovered at auction in 2010, research on its provenance, structure and symbolism narrowed it down as the bed made for the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York on 18 January 1486.

Mr. Jonathan Foyle unveiling the bed to the public at Hever Castle in Kent, United Kingdom, where it will be on display until November 2015.

Mr. Jonathan Foyle unveiling the bed to the public at Hever Castle in Kent, United Kingdom, where it will be on display until November 2015.

It was unveiled to the public at Hever Castle in Kent as part of the ‘A Bed of Roses’ exhibition, opened by renowned TV historian, archaeologist and author Dr Jonathan Foyle, who played a major role in the research into the bed’s true identity.

Real Tudor or Victorian fake?

If it were correct, it would be England’s only surviving medieval royal state bed, and one of the most significant artefacts of early Tudor history. But there were many sceptics, especially after a tree-ring dating claimed a match to American white oak growing in the region around New York or Massachusetts after 1756 - but the history and character of the bed did not agree with that claim.

So DNA tests were commissioned by its owner Ian Coulson, a well-established collector of English furniture. As a specialist in using cutting-edge technology to counter illegal logging, Double Helix Tracking Technologies (DoubleHelix) was a natural choice. Its scientific team was able to extract and analyse the DNA from the wood of the same post whose tree rings were analysed, and other sections to check for uniformity. One would expect it were made afresh rather than an assembly of salvaged woods.

Eight letters – all that is needed to tell the tale

Using a DNA marker that is just 8 basepairs long, North American and Eurasian white oak can be differentiated. “Short DNA reference markers that are found even in fragmented DNA were used to identify the species of oak in samples,” explains Professor Andrew Lowe, Chief Scientific Officer of DoubleHelix, referencing the unique DNA extraction protocol developed by DoubleHelix.

And Prof. Lowe would know this well, as one of the world’s leading forest geneticists. Back in 2004, he was part of a team that successfully extracted DNA from the oak timbers of King Henry VIII’s Flagship, Mary Rose, which sank in 1545 and was salvaged in 1982.

All samples from the bed had this unique marker present, showing that the oak used was not from North America as previously suspected. Further testing strongly suggested that the samples are in fact continental European oak, instead of from the British Isles. It was typical for English medieval elites to import the finest, slow-grown oak for their royal beds.

Extraction of core plugs from the bedpost lionheads for genetic testing

Extraction of core plugs from the bedpost lionheads for genetic testing

Judging a bed’s age by its paint

The age of the bed was confirmed by its historic paintwork. An analysis of over 200 surface samples by Helen Hughes, a leading forensic archaeologist on decorative interiors, showed a uniform, typically medieval paint scheme throughout. A coal primer similar to that found in panel paintings and murals was used, as was the bed’s original combination of pigments and binders, commonly used before c.1650. Further proof of its age arrived in March 2014 in the shape of four identically-made late medieval wall-panelling posts, with the same coal-based paint and letterform carvings consistent with the 1480s-90s.

Lionheads that adorn the top of the bedposts

Lionheads that adorn the top of the bedposts

Case closed

The scientific evidence coupled with the extensive analysis of the bed’s richly symbolic carving presents a new, precise and colourful understanding of the greatest royal furnishing from 500 years ago when just a few years ago, none were suspected to exist. The genetic analysis by DoubleHelix was a breakthrough in establishing the origins of this historic timber. “This is a great showing for DNA as a reliable tool for archaeologists,” says Dr. Foyle. “And what a story for its debut!”