In medieval times only the very wealthy could afford beds. Most people simply slept on the floor on anything remotely soft and huddled around the fire for warmth. Beds were only for the nobility and were a definite sign of wealth and success. The more money people had, the bigger and grander the beds they owned. The pinnacle was, of course, the four-posters, which were introduced to this country during the fifteenth century. The four-poster bed was, and still is, referred to as ‘the bed of kings and the king of beds’.
The earliest beds were usually built against a wall with wooden panelling and curtains surrounding the sleeping area to protect the lucky occupants from cold draughts during the winter and to keep the early morning light out during the summer. Bedding would consist of thick quilts and, of course, animal furs. The mattress was made up of straw (called a matted-truss), which, although preferable to sleeping on the floor, wouldn’t actually be the ideal material to sleep on. The incredibly wealthy would therefore import a feather topper from France to sit on top of the straw mattress, but with a piece of cloth or hessian separating the two. The British at that time hadn’t mastered the art of preserving or dressing feathers, so the French feather imports were the only ones available.
Four-poster beds were such a status symbol that when lords went about their business, visiting manors around the country, they would have their beds dismantled, packed up, and carted off ahead of them, so they could be re-assembled, made up, warmed up, and found waiting for the weary lord on his arrival. As well as impressing the hosts with the grand bed, the lord would also be sure to get a good night’s sleep, as not all manors could afford such luxuries for visitors.
Beds were held in such esteem and were of such great value that they were often mentioned as individual items in wills. It was the custom for a bed to be left to the widow as a sentimental heirloom. After all, the bed was the place where she gave birth to many children and, more than likely, the place where the old husband took his last breath.
Interestingly, disgraced aristocrats or bankrupt merchants would have their assets sent to auction to pay off their debts. One of the highlights of these sales was the unlucky owners’ beds. The wondrous wooden carvings, rich tapestries, and feather mattresses were therefore eagerly fought over by aspiring private bidders, or antique dealers with a waiting list of clients keen to upgrade their bedrooms – for less money than buying new.
It was also common to receive a bed as a wedding present. More often than not, wedding beds are dated and inscribed with the couples’ initials carved deeply into the thick framework, and are incredibly desirable.
Bedrooms, or bedchambers as they were once known, were the favourite places for medieval ladies to receive visitors and to entertain their friends. All-day and all-night gatherings would take place in these rooms, and obviously, to do it right, a great four-poster bed would be needed. This custom of bedroom socialising also brought about the introduction of the day-bed or couch – perfect for the lady who just couldn’t manage to stay in bed all day, or maybe just more convenient than the bed for visitors to use.
Ancient four-poster beds are so rare that they hardly ever come on the market, and when they do you’ll need deep pockets to buy one. Some fabulous examples can be seen in stately homes and museums around the country, though. A wonderful example is The Great Bed of Ware, which is truly massive and can be seen at the Victoria and Albert museum.
A favourite four-poster bed of all time has to be the one that once belonged to King Richard III.
In August 1485, Richard arrived at the Boar’s Head in Leicester. The day before he arrived at the inn, his entourage had set up the king’s fabulous wardrobe and four-poster bed in the best chamber of the inn. The bed was a ponderous four-poster, richly carved, gilded, and decorated with amazing finery. It was noted that it was horrendously heavy and had a double-thick slatted base.
Here Richard slept happily on his luxurious bed – sadly not for long though bearing in mind soon after Richard was killed just down the road at the battle of Bosworth Field. After the battle, Richard’s staff hurriedly cleared his rooms and took with them all the rich hangings, the mattress, and the decorations, but left the massive and cumbersome four-poster with the landlord. The bed, as you might imagine, became quite a feature at the inn and a great attraction for visitors for many years to come.
Landlords at the Blue Boar, as the inn became known, came and went, and each time a new one took over the tenancy, the king’s bed was passed on as part of the fixtures and fittings. Over 100 years after Richard had left his bed to the inn, the then-landlord’s wife was shaking the royal bed and getting it ready for another visitor when an ancient gold coin rolled from underneath and across the floor. Surprised and excited, the lady of the inn carefully examined the old king’s bed. She soon discovered the strange double-thickness bed boards, and after some pulling and prising of the old timbers found to her amazement that the interior was filled full with gold coins and treasure – just what dreams are made of!