‘The couch of the Rose of Scotland’: The red damask bed at the Palace of Holyroodhouse and its association with Mary, Queen of Scots

In this blog Deborah Clarke (Senior Curator – Palace of Holyroodhouse) looks at an iconic piece of furniture that has had a long and spurious association with Mary Queen of Scots – the famed ‘Red Bed’ at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

The 'Red Bed' of Mary Queen of Scots
Fig. 1 The King’s Bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, showing the seventeenth-century tester bed hung with red damask in the centre of the room (RCIN 27918)
Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

The large seventeenth-century tester bed, with ornate carved and pierced cresting, a headboard decorated with a scallop shell and hung with red damask embellished with silk fringe, is currently on display in the King’s Bedchamber at the Palace of Holyroodhouse (fig. 1), but for over two centuries it was the centrepiece of Mary, Queen of Scots’ Bedchamber, part of the Scottish queen’s apartments at the palace where she resided between 1561 and 1567 (fig. 2). The Bedchamber, and the bed in particular, which was presented as the very bed that Mary had slept in, exerted a special fascination for the many visitors who went to see the queen’s apartments. The romantic association of the bed with Mary captured the imagination of a number of writers, including Sir Walter Scott, who described it poetically in the Fair Maid of Perth of 1828 as ‘the couch of the Rose of Scotland’.

The 'Red Bed' of Mary Queen of Scots
Fig. 2 Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck, Mary Queen of Scots Bedchamber, Holyroodhouse, 1861, oil on canvas (RCIN 403228)
Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

The connection of the red damask bed with Mary, Queen of Scots, although fortuitous, was largely accidental. The sixteenth-century James V tower, in which Mary’s apartments were located, remained largely unchanged after the reconstruction of the palace in the seventeenth century and was used by the Duke of Hamilton, who had been granted accommodation in the palace due to his position as Hereditary Keeper of Holyroodhouse. The first Duke of Hamilton’s daughter, Anne, who was Duchess of Hamilton in her own right, probably commissioned the red damask bed for these rooms in the 1670s. It is first recorded in an inventory of the Hamilton apartments in 1684 as a ‘bed with reid Damas courtines & feather bed’ and noted in successive inventories. The Hamiltons furnished their rooms on the first floor of the tower in lavish style but Mary, Queen of Scots’ apartments on the second floor were used to store much of their outmoded furniture. By 1761, after a new and fashionable bed had been ordered for the Duchess, the red damask bed had been moved upstairs to ‘Queen Mary’s Room’ and by 1784 it was being described as Mary, Queen of Scots’ bed and other furniture in the room was also ascribed to Mary.  

The apartments themselves, due to their historic association with the Scottish queen, were increasingly shown to visitors and soon developed into a destination for travellers and tourists. The Duke of Hamilton’s housekeeper acted as guide, developing a story that the apartments had remained untouched since Mary’s time and were complete with their original furniture. The bed was the centrepiece and repeatedly described by visitors, including Scottish writer Hugo Arnot, who noted in his History of Edinburgh of 1779, ‘In the second floor are Queen Mary’s apartments, in one of which her own bed still remains. It is of crimson damask, bordered with green silk tassels and fringes, and is now almost in tatters’. One of the earliest depictions of the rooms is an oil painting of 1861 by the Scottish topographical artist Samuel Dukinfield Swarbreck (fig. 2), which was believed to be an accurate portrayal of the bedchamber when Mary was in residence, and shows the red damask bed in the centre. By this time the apartments had been relinquished by the Duke of Hamilton and were opened to visitors on a daily basis to visitors and presented as unchanged since Mary’s day. The combined effect of the magnificent bed complete with dilapidated hangings, heraldic ceilings, and ancient tapestries gave a sense of theatrical display to the rooms which made them increasingly popular and a source of inspiration throughout the nineteenth century. Early in the twentieth century the Edinburgh-born artist James Pryde painted a series of dark and brooding studies in which the towering red damask four-poster bed dominates each composition (for example The Red Bed, 1916, City Art Centre, Edinburgh). These were inspired by the painter’s childhood memory of visiting Mary, Queen of Scots’ Bedchamber.

The 'Red Bed' of Mary Queen of Scots
Fig. 3 Francis C. Inglis & Son, Bedchamber of Mary, Queen of Scots, 1930-40, gelatin silver print (RCIN 2850037)
Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

During the 1920s the decayed hangings were replaced and the canopy conserved but the bed continued to be associated with Mary and remained in her bedchamber (fig. 3). As studies of furniture and history improved the bed was re-assessed but it was not until 1980 that it was moved to the seventeenth century part of the palace and presented in the correct context. Mary, Queen of Scots’ Bedchamber has since been re-presented and a bed is shown hung with Scottish embroidered crewel-work hangings. (fig. 4)

Fig. 4 Mary, Queen of Scots’ Bedchamber today
Royal Collection Trust/ © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

You can find more information about further information about Holyroodhouse and Mary, Queen of Scots’ apartments at the Royal Collections Trust website and here:

https://www.rct.uk/visit/palace-of-holyroodhouse

https://www.rct.uk/collection/themes/trails/mary-queen-of-scots-1542-1587

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