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The History of the Four Poster Bed

Page Two

A Tradition of a Royal Bedstead

Roger Twysden relates an anecdote illustrating the introduction of the four post bed. (Notes and Queries, Second series, vi. 102)

On the 21st of August, 1485, Richard III arrived at Leicester. The charioteers had proceeded him with the running wardrobe, and in the best chamber of the "Boar's Head" a ponderous four-post bedstead was set up: it was richly carved, gilded and decorated, and had a double bottom of boards. Richard slept on it at night. After his defeat at Bosworth field, it was striped of its rich hangings: but the heavy and cumbersome bedstead was left with the landlord, and continued to be an attraction for years to come and the glory of the "Blue Boar," being transmitted from tenant to tenant as a fixture. In the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the "Blue Boar" was kept by one Clark, who's wife one day, while shaking the bed, noticed an ancient gold coin roll on the floor; this led to careful examination, the double bottom was discovered, lifted up, and the interior was found to be filled with gold, partly coins of Richard III., and the rest from earlier times. This bedstead with its old tradition long continued to be one of the sights of Leicester.

Mediaeval beds and bedding

It was difficult to display flamboyancy on a simple bedstead, but gradually counterpanes (bed covers) became more elaborate, with gold cloth, decorated with a fringe. At the head of the bed was hung a dorsar, as rich and costly as on the state chair in the hall.

The bedding in Henry III's palaces were magnificent, but by the 14th century barons had beds made with rich Eastern silk fabrics, fairly common with French nobility, however rarer in England. Isabella, wife of Sir William Fitz-William left, in 1348, "a bed from India with carpets." (Test. Ebor.,p.50)

The romantics speak of beds of extraordinary splendour, smothered in bars of gold, precious stones, fine silver, golden embroidery, and silk sheets. When a noble was defrocked, his household contents were taken too, and the bed was often the great prize, and therefore sometimes documented, as well as in wills. They speak of beds of green tarteran, or Chinese cloth of Tars, embroidered with ships and birds; red velvet, embroidered with ostrich feathers in silver, and heads of leopards in gold or another bed of tapestry embroidered with scenes of hunting and hawking.

As lords moved from one manor to another, their valuable bed went with them. Within large households, officers (yeoman hangers, and yeomen bedgoers) were appointed to put the beds in sacks or hides, and organise the frequent bed removal. Portable beds were known as "trussing" beds, and the hangings were termed 'the portable chamber.'

In 1398, the Duc d'Orleans paid 800 francs for un chambre portative, that consisted of a set of hangings, a seler, dorsar curtains and the counterpoint (the bed cover, usually the most expensive part of the bed). In 1381 a bed cover in the palace of the Duke of Lancaster, was estimated to be worth 1000 marks.

These written extracts give us an idea of the splendor of mediaeval bedding, but dig deeper into royal household record books and you will find payments for straw for the nobleman's bed. The wealthiest households had a feather bed placed onto the matted truss (mattress) of straw, with a layer of canvas in between.

Feather beds were introduced into English homes in the early 14th century, imported from France as the English had not mastered the art of dressing and preserving feathers.

The woolen blanket was said to have been introduced in the fourteenth century. Beds had to be warm as well as comfortable. As they had no fireplace, artificial heating in beds and chambers were used including warm bricks, bed pans and more elaborate warm air systems.

In mediaeval homes the lady of the house would entertain her friends in the bed chamber, a place where romantic and chivalrous courtship took place, in fact it became the private reception room of the Tudor house. This custom may have encouraged the introduction of the "day-bed," or couch, which was more appropriate and convenient than the bed.

As the standard of living improved, within the middle classes, then commerce placed "lodging" within the means of people, "We ourselves have lain full oft upon straw pallets covered only with a sheet, or rought mats, and a good rounde log under our head instead of a bolster."

The feather bed became common place, a wedding present, and the best bed in the great chamber was generally "a brissel tick" filled with feathers. In the days of Elizabeth and James, tradesmen often had two or three feather beds in the house.

The elaborately carved back was sometimes fastened to the panelling of the wall behind, and its low, heavy ceiling was supported by the massive carved posts actually standing away from the bed.

The Tudor four poster bed was enormous, with massive, richly carved pillars, sometimes 18" in diameter, taking the huge weight of the wooden panelled tester, and drapes displaying Cupids, the family coat of arms of the husband and wife in metal-work, moth eaten tapestries, grotesque carvings of Griffins, monsters, frantic knights, distressed damsels and wild creations of mediaeval fancy, smothering the head-board, posts and around the deep cornices of the bedstead.

The bed itself had a wooden board or rope mesh foundation with the mattresses on top.

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