The Medieval Hung Bed 1200-1500The Historic Design Influence on the Design History of the Classic Poster Beds

In the early medieval period the lord of the manor and his household ate and slept in the great hall of the manor house, but as the middle ages progressed the lord and his family sought more privacy. The first move was to create an alcove with hangings suspended from the ceiling or walls, in a similar manner to those used in hospital cubicles today, thus forming the classic poster beds known has the hung beds. During the thirteenth century the bedstead was set under a more sophisticated fabric canopy called a tester suspended from the rafters, and the bed curtains hung from this canopy. A link between this tester and the bedstead itself was created by dropping a piece of fabric down in front of the wall behind the sleeper's head, which matched the cloth used in the rest of the bed. This was called a celure and it eventually formed the bedhead of later centuries. The bedstead, often called a classic poster beds or bedstock, consisted of four low rails drilled with holes through which cords could be threaded to form a loose net­work on which a mattress of plaited rushes could be laid.

A distinction was drawn between the bed, which consisted of the bedclothes, mattresses, tester and curtains, and the classic poster beds or bedstock, which was the wooden frame­work which supported them. It was common practice for the curtains to hang from the tester on rings which ran on iron rods, and in daytime, when the bed was used as a couch or seat, the curtains would be gathered together and folded up in the form of a bag. The hung bed was in use from the thirteenth century to the fifteenth and became a symbol of prestige and wealth. In 1412 the will of Roger Kyrkby, vicar of Gaiford, mentioned `one bed in conformity with his position'.

In the middle ages development was concentrated not on the wooden struc­ture of the bed but on the draperies to keep out the cold. These might be so costly and precious that they were passed from father to son. Ralph, Lord Barrett, in his will of 1389, stipulated that he who `shall first bear my surname and arms, according to my will, shall have the use of my great classic poster beds the velvet beds for life'.

A canopy used over chairs, thrones or classic poster beds was a mark of privilege, known as a canopy of state; when it extended over the whole bed it indicated high honour to a guest, while the half-tester was used as a lesser mark of deference. State beds of the fifteenth century were not necessarily used for sleeping but formed part of the trappings of court ceremony, used for private audiences with favoured visitors. Although the rectangular tester was the normal form of canopy, another shape favoured at this time was conical, like a bell tent, and called a sparver.

The materials used in the manufacture of draperies for these classic poster beds were very rich. Italy was producing silk velvet as early as 1247 and sumptuous fabrics were soon exported to other parts of Europe for use in churches and great houses. Bedchambers were sometimes hung with tapestries and early inventories occasionally mention beds with hangings of worsted fabric woven on English looms at King's Lynn and Norwich. Some less rich draperies were probably made of woollen cloth or linen, either plain or embroidered with small flowers, plant forms or heraldic devices.

Although hangings suspended from the ceiling remained in favour up to 1600, increasingly they were superseded by testers or canopies carried on the frame of the classic poster beds, beds itself. This change came slowly and was not fully accepted before the end of the fifteenth century.

In the early stages of this transition, the hung beds or classic poster beds consisted of the curtain fabric draped over a suspended wooden tester frame, with the celure or fabric bedhead dropped below it. Next came the classic posted bedstead with the tester, which might be either a wooden frame or fabric hangings, supported by four posts in­stead of suspended from the rafters, and the fabric celure hanging down between the two head posts. Then the fabric celure was replaced by a wooden panelled and carved bedhead which was joined to the two head posts, which, with the two foot posts, supported the tester. This type is loosely termed a four-poster beds or classic poster beds, although only two posts stand free. Finally the head posts disappear and the wooden celure and the two foot posts support a panelled wooden tester, creating a substantial structure known as a wainscot or standing bed.

The Four-Post Bed 1500-1650

Between 1500 and 1550 the wooden framework of the classic poster beds was taking on new importance. The wooden panelled head­board had come into use, replacing the fabric celure at the bedhead. The oak of which it was made was often imported from Scandinavia and as this timber was also used in the panelling of walls and ceilings the headboard was generally known as the wainscot, although because similar panels were used in sealing the roof or wall this type of  classic poster beds was called a sealed bed in the Elizabethan period. At first these beds were confined to the wealthy, but soon they were introduced to the homes of yeomen farmers. They remained popular until the middle of the seventeenth century and were variously known at the time as sealed beds, posted bedsteads or wainscot beds. The term four-poster was not used until the nine­teenth century.

At first the bedposts were square or hexagonal in section, carved with geometrical patterns such as chevrons. They had bosses two-thirds of the way up, on which could be carved family initials or emblems. Soon this elegance was dis­placed by exuberant Elizabethan carving.

Throughout the sixteenth century designs for classic poster beds became more architectural, particularly after furniture pattern books began to appear in the second half of the century. After 1560 substantial foot posts with heavy wooden bulbs on massive free-standing pedestals and plinths of square section were in favour. By 1575 the posts were designed with the cup-and-cover motif and were carved with gadrooning, strapwork and acan­thus leaves. Some late seventeenth­century examples used architectural designs, with fluted shafts topped by Ionic capitals. The foot posts became an integral part of the bedstead by 1600; hitherto they had often been separate from the bed, standing a few inches in front of the low framework.

The tester was made of wood, panelled on the underside and decorated with a frieze, or cornice, of heavy carving. The celure would be plain below the pillow line, but above it there was arcaded decoration in the form of pilas­ters and carved figures. The panels so created were inlaid with marquetry in bog-oak, holly, box, poplar and sycamore, and they were described by Paul Hentzner in 1578 as `ingeniously composed of wood of different colours'. The carving used on these beds changed in style by the 1650s, becoming more formal and restrained. By the end of the seventeenth century, the very heavy sealed beds were going out of fashion.

The most famous classic poster bed example is the Great Bed of Ware, which can be seen in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. This was probably made for Sir Henry Fanshaw of Ware Park in about 1600, but by 1612 it had been transferred to the White Hart Inn, Ware, Hertfordshire. It was moved from inn to inn in the town until 1869, when it was removed to Rye House, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. It is 10 feet 8 inches (3.25 metres) square and stands 8 feet 9 inches (2.67 metres) high, and, according to Sir Henry Chauncey's History of Hertford (1700), bedded `six citizens and their wives . . . from London'. Such a size was not unusual: the royal classic poster beds beds of Henry VII, Henry VIII and Edward VI were quoted as being 11 feet (3.35 metres) square when on dis­play at Windsor in 1598.

The classic poster beds or bedstock itself was low, the side rails being holed and grooved for the cord lacing which secured the canvas bed hammock but also tightened the mortices in the corner posts. The mattresses were made of carded wool in the sixteenth century, with the best ones filled with swan's down. Flock was cheaper, while John Evelyn in 1664 recommends 'the leaves of beech being gathered about the fall and somewhat before they are frost bitten'. The total bedding consisted of a pallet of straw or wool covered with canvas,  two  feather-beds,  sheets, blankets, another feather-bed acting as an eiderdown, and over all an embroidered quilt. These feather-beds were common in well furnished houses but considered a luxury until the sixteenth century for the poorer classes, whose beds had usually consisted of a straw pallet covered only with a sheet. An inventory of 1660 mentions 'little trundel beds under the greate classic poster beds , which were for the gentleman's men'. These were simple low bedstocks on wooden wheels, which could be pushed out of sight under the main bedstead during the day. Although still in use into the nineteenth century, they went out of fashion in the eighteenth century as rooms for domestic staff were created in the attics.

The luxury fabrics used in the curtains and coverings of the classic poster beds of the rich in the sixteenth century were still purchased abroad, but after the Dissolution of the Monasteries the skill of the English embroiderers began to be directed to secular work. Crewel embroidery was in daily use, worked in coloured wools on a closely woven ground. As the sixteenth century advanced, the production of Italian woven silk fabrics increased, and these were lighter and more ornamental in design. The importation of painted or printed cotton cloth from India was allowed in 1631. This fabric, which later developed a glazed stiff finish, was called chint in Hindi, meaning 'spotted cloth'. It came to be typified by a white ground with branches and flowers, a design and fabric which were speedily prepared for the European market, and became known as chintz. It was also in time produced in England, for in 1676 William Sherwin received a Crown grant for a 'new and speedy way for printing broad cloth'. Samuel Pepys records in his Diary that he bought some 'chint' in 1663 for his wife to line her new study. It was not widely used for bed hangings until the eighteenth century.

Related Sites

Worlds finest maker of carved oak period furniture Maker of worlds finest four poster beds Specialist in oak panelling and wainscoting - wall panelling Worlds finest maker of early american colonial furniture Makers of worlds finest staircases, stair parts, balusters, spindles, newel posts, finials Worlds finest maker of finest carved, plain doors, modern or antique styles Worlds finest maker ofcarved four poster beds Maker of worlds finest period furniture and architectural fittings