An impressive bed fit for a king will be unveiled as the centrepiece of a treasure-laden new exhibition opening at Auckland Castle tomorrow.
Debate still rages - or perhaps murmurs - over the so-called Paradise State Bed but there are those who swear it belonged to Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings, and his wife, Elizabeth of York.
Among them is Ian Coulson, from Northumberland, who bought the bed at an auction in Cheshire in 2010 when it was catalogued as Victorian.
He insists samples of paint taken from below the dark 19th Century varnish prove that the bed, going on public show here for the first time, is Tudor.
Its carved imagery plus archival research establish in his mind that it was a royal bed and may have been where Henry VIII was conceived.
This is the way it is presented in the exhibition, The Power and The Gory: How Religious Art Made Tudor England, which signals the ambition of the Auckland Castle Trust to make the former home of the Prince Bishops of Durham a major visitor attraction.
The exhibition is the brainchild of Dr Chris Ferguson who, after working at Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, returned to his native North East last summer to take charge at Auckland Castle and its collection.
He said he was excited to be opening the new season with such a high profile exhibition.
“The things we have been lent from national collections have never been seen in the North East before and we have a lot of items that have never been on public display at all,” he said.
“The exhibition takes us right back to the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. Henry VII established himself as King after the Wars of the Roses and cemented his position by marrying Elizabeth of York who had a stronger claim to the throne than he did.”
With the Planagenet monarch Richard III defeated and the rival houses of York and Lancaster united, Henry VII and his bride set about ensuring their faces were recognised throughout the land as rightful rulers of the nation.
According to Dr Ferguson, many of the objects in the exhibition result from their use of religious artwork and imagery to achieve that aim. This is why the Paradise State Bed features carved images of Adam and Eve supposedly in the likeness of the royal couple.
The bed went everywhere with them which is why it comes apart and ended up in a hotel in Cheshire centuries after playing its important role in English history.
“There is still a little bit of argument about the bed,” ackowledged Dr Ferguson, “but the evidence in favour outweighs the evidence against. As with so many of these things, it’s all a case of provenance and academic debate.”
Also in the exhibition are portraits of Henry VIII and his mother, Elizabeth of York, and funeral effigies of the latter amd Margaret Beaufort, Henry VII’s mother, all from the National Portrait Gallery.
In a glass case is a ‘book of hours’ once owned by Elizabeth of York who was the niece of Richard III but had been disinherited by him. It was signed “Elizabeth Plantagenet” and later, defiantly perhaps, “The Queen”.
Also highlighted iis the power-playing role of Bishop Richard Fox, one of the Prince Bishops and Henry VII’s Lord Privy Seal.
After its purchase by financier and philanthropist Jonathan Ruffer, the Auckland Castle Trust was established to turn the historic property in Bishop Auckland into a major heritage attration.
The Heritage Lottery Fund has pledged £10m towards the long-term £50m project.
Reopening tomorrow, Auckland Castle will be open to the public every day except Tuesday from 10.30am to 4pm. The new exhibition runs until September 30.