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The History Of The Four Poster Bed

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

The term 'bed' once embraced not only what we know as the bed, but the curtains, hangings, tester, celour and all necessary appendages. The simple form of the earlier bedsteads did not allow much scope for displaying such trimmings, but the ancient coverlids, or counterpoints, were exceedingly handsome made with gold cloth, adorned with a fringe. At the head of the bed was hung a dorsar, as rich and costly as any that distinguished the state chair in the hall. The bedding in Henry III's palaces were magnificent, but fourteenth century barons surpassed these with beds made with rich silk fabrics from the East, 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 arras (tapestry) embroidered with scenes of hunting and hawking.

As lords moved from one manor to another, their valuable bed usually went as well. Within large households, officers were appointed as yeoman hangers, and yeomen bedgoers, whose duty it was to truss the beds in sacks or hides, and organise the frequent bed removal. Portable beds were known as "trussing" beds, while 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 (usually the most expensive part of the bed). In 1381 a coverlid in the palace of the Duke of Lancaster, was estimated to be worth 1000 marks.

Such extracts allow us to form an idea of the splendor of mediaeval bedding, however as you dig deeper into the ways of the middle ages, you can discover that under the rich golden counterpane, lay sacks of straw. Payments for litter for beds were frequently recorded in books of the royal household.

Feather beds were introduced into English homes in the early fourteenth century, imported from France as the English had not mastered the art of dressing and preserving feathers. The wealthiest households had a feather bed placed onto the matted truss (mattress) of straw, with a layer of canvas in between.

The woolen blanket was said to have been introduced in the fourteenth century, the problem they had was to keep warm as well as comfortable. As they had no fireplace various forms of artificial heating of the bed and chamber were contrived, such as warmed 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 post bedstead was enormous, with massive pillars, bulges of rich carving sometimes 18" in diameter, towering to the ceiling with a huge weight of selours, testers, vallances and hangings casting gloom and shadows over the bed, the top of each post ornamented with Cupids, the family coat of arms of the husband and wife in metal-work, or with gilded vanes. Fly-bitten tapestries and grotesque carvings of Griffins, monsters, frantic knights and distressed damsels in needlework, satyrs, "anticke boys," and wild creations of mediaeval fancy, grinning hideously were laden in frantic confusion over the head-board, up the pillars 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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