For centuries, the bed has been a sign of wealth, the richer the nobleman, the better the bed, which is probably why many people still aspire to owning a four poster bed, the bed of kings, and the king of beds.
Saxon and Norman furniture would have been basic in quantity and quality. The two essentials in their lives were “bed and board,” a phrase still used today, the ‘board’ was literally a board or boards, set up on trestles or tree stumps used for a table and a bed.
The bed clothes would consisted of pillows, quilts and fur rugs, and would have only been for the wealthy, everyone else would have slept on the floor of the hall, around the fire.
The Saxon bed was usually made up against a wall, as a type of bunk or cabin, sometimes in a recess, with a rough mattress placed on boards, together with covers, and curtains suspended from above. The curtains could be drawn to keep draughts and light out, but warmth and illness in. The bedstead referred to the place (stead) where the bed was made, but when the bench developed into more elegant furniture, it still kept the name.
In the later Saxon period, some bedsteads were wooden platforms with bedding placed on them. The Norman bedstead was similar, but sometimes had curtains drawn at the sides, hung from horizontal iron rails, which were attached to and projected from the wall.
The truckle bed was progress from the rough plank. It was a plain, low framed bedstead, ( later used for many years as a bedstead in the basic servant’s quarters). A lady’s maid would sleep on the floor beneath the bedstead of her mistress, and the trenchor chaplain would “lie upon the truckle, whilst his young master lieth o’er his head.” (Hall’s Byting Satyres, 1599)
In the 13th century, a canopy or tester was introduced, suspended by cords from the beams above, on which curtains were hung. This developed into a bed chamber which was becoming more common by the 14th century. Then came an elegant bedstead, called the Arabian, and perhaps first found by our ancestors during the crusade, with bed curtains hung from wooden or metal rails.
The four post or great standing bed was introduced in the 15th century, and was probably brought from Austria, they developed into an enormous size. The Great Bed of Ware (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum), filled half the chamber, which measured 11 feet square, this was however an exceptional size, and not the norm.
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.
Queen Elizabeth’s Bed
Of all of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth had the ultimate bed. A wardrobe warrant dated 1581, orders the delivery of the Queen’s bedstead made from walnut, richly carved, painted, and gilded. The selour, tester and vallance were of cloth of silver, figured with velvet, lined with a changeable taffetta, and deeply fringed with Venice gold, silver, and silk. The curtains were made from elaborate and expensive, tapestry with every seam and border laid with gold and silver lace, caught up with long loops and buttons of bullion. The head piece was of crimson satin of Bruges, edged with passamayne of crimson silk, and decorated with six ample plumes, containing seven dozen ostrich feathers of various colours, garnished with golden spangles. The counterpoint was of orange-coloured satins of every imaginable tint, and embroidered with Venice gold, silver spangles and coloured silks, fringed to correspond, and lined with orange sarcenet.
Oak continued to be the dominent timber used, particularly with furniture made in England. Walnut was used rarely, and was only seen in palaces and homes of the rich. Jacobean furniture was heavily carved, with Renaissance motifs, and inlay gave colour to the work, with the use of fruitwoods, bog oak, and later ivory and mother-of-pearl. Legs were turned, bulbous on tables and buffets during the reign of James I., then later came the vase shapes in the turning, followed by bobbin turning and the barley-sugar twist legs.
In the 17th century, another type of bedstead was introduced from France, and most of the larger houses had one or two of these. The frames and posts were made all in one from beechwood, and they were much taller than the Tudor oak bedsteads. The tall, slender posts, the tester, the cornice and the ceilings were upholstered with the same material as the curtains, quilt and valance, as were the pair of stools at the foot of the bed, and these were often gorgeous.
We read of a green and gold bed of a “parcelgilt bed with hangings and quilt of tawny taffety,” and velvet and satin were quite everyday materials. The most magnificent is that occupied by James I. at Knole, which was hung with gold and silver tissue.
The best bed would usually be left to the widow, a sentimental heirloom, where shegave birth to many children and where her husband probably died.
The Jacobean’s also had simple oak bedsteads without posts or ceilings, just neatly panelled low backs, which would have been far colder than the nobleman’s four poster bed. The truckle bed, now used by servants, could be packed for travelling, or pushed under a larger bed during the day.
The mourning bed, present during the seventeenth century, was entirely draped in black, the widow would not have had white sheets or pillow cases, and the rest of the bedroom would have been draped in the same way.
In Tudor and earlier Stuart times, the bedstead was the most important piece of furniture in the home, whether of rich or poor status. The Restoration Stuart bedstead was of medium height, wood, carved, with a valance below the cornice, and the hangings over the wooden headboard, with curtains that could be drawn at night. Rooms became taller with small fire-places, making bedchambers cold and draughty.
Colour co-ordination began with drapes and curtains being made in the same cloth. The bed and bedding varied according to wealth, from plain to ornately carved, from flock or straw, to feather mattresses.
In the reign of William and Mary, the bedsteads became very tall but narrower, in keeping with their taller rooms. The carved wooden cornice or tester was now being covered with the velvet or brocade material from which the hangings were made. It was glued to the carving to hold the decorative carving together, the drapes become more elaborate, especially around the headboard. During the reign of Queen Anne, the bedsteads had returned to a more sensible height.
Now, we have to follow on the development of the four poster bedstead into the new millenium, using new materials, ideas and technology. We can also take ideas from the past, and develop them to the products that the public are familiar with, and happy to have in their homes. Using modern and traditional methods hand in hand, we can produce something of high quality at an affordable price, thus allowing everyone to climb the ladder of ‘wealth’ and own a four poster bed.
I hope that you find this accurate, factual and informative, but please feel free to write or send an e-mail with any further information about the history of the four poster bed.
We have a great deal of information to collect and compile regarding four poster beds, and as yet I have only mentioned the English influences. We plan to build a database of photographs, drawing, stories and information on an international level, but this is difficult without your help, so please email anything that you consider helpful and we will do our best to include it on our site.
Yarwood, D, 1979, The English Home, UK, Batesford.
Parker, L H, Parker, J A S, 1861, The English Home: Its Early History and Progress, Oxford & London.
Bradley, R M, 1912, The English Housewife in the 17th & 18th Centuries, UK
All the plates were taken from the referenced works, principally: Yarwood, D, 1979, The English Home, UK, Batesford.
Compiled by Stephen Edwards.