History of Four Poster Beds

From the fourteenth century onwards, "four poster bed testers " and " celours " are enumerated in an infinite variety of woven and embroidered magnificence, the valances and curtains being of the richest velvets, satins, silks, and even cloth of gold. The " pieces of Imagery " may be set down as "the heads of leopards of gold with boughs and leaves issuing out of their mouths"; or, again, the hangings are worked with flowers or the" Evangelists." Hunting and hawking were favorite subjects. To the Duke of Exeter, Henry V bequeathed a complete and costly "4 poster bed of hawkying" with the figures worked in gold. Tapestry was also employed for the hangings, and was occasionally the product of English looms, "4 poster beds of Norfolk" (i.e. Lynn or Norwich) being mentioned in early inventories.

The curtains were frequently suspended by rings from the "four poster bed tester", and that they might be drawn backwards and forwards "poles or belts of Yarn" were provided. But, perhaps because the four poster bed tester was ill adapted to resist a hasty jerk, it was a common practice to raise and lower them from the ceiling by cords. The draperies of a four poster bed suspended in this manner are implied by the bequest of John Baret, a wealthy citizen of Bury, to his niece in 1463 of "my green hanged four post bed stained with my army's that hanged in the chamber over kitchen with the Greene keveryng belonging thereto". The sides and end of the oak-framed 4 post bed "bedstock" were perforated and ropes drawn through them to support the mattress. Records of the time show that the bedding usually consisted of a straw or wool pallet, two feather-beds, sheets (sometimes of silk), blankets, another feather-bed, and over all an embroidered quilt, often trimmed with fur. For Henry III mattresses were made by one William Joyner, who later became Lord Mayor of London: this mercer was ordered to cover the King's four poster bed mattresses with silk, velvet, and other costly materials. In Norman illuminated manuscripts the occupant of the bed is represented wearing night attire, but by the thirteenth century the practice appears to have been discontinued, and until. the close of the medieval period people generally slept unclothed. Some cynical lines of the Reliquirr Antigua inveigh against the pomp and vanity of dress in women, who are told that, however gay may be their raiment during the day, they know well they must lie in bed as naked as they were born.

On their periodical progresses from house to house, great magnates carried their valuable bedding, curtains and valances with them, leaving the common wood. This type of 4 poster bed was in use until the beginning of the sixteenth century. Within the next fifty years three new features were introduced, which transformed the bed, and gave it the familiar Elizabethan aspect. The change may be summarized as the substitution of wood for fabric in the principal parts. At the four corners carved four poster bed posts were now placed, while the head was filled with panelling. Later a tester was added, but the evidence afforded by the few sur­viving early Tudor beds indicates that this member was not introduced until about the middle of the century.

It is impossible to draw up a precise chronology of the successive stages in the evolution of oak four poster bed stead's. The advance towards Elizabethan solidity was slowly achieved, and in this connection four poster bed posts now used to support the West Gallery of St. Mary's Church, Broughton, Cheshire, are of particular interest. An illustrated monograph pub­lished in the transactions of the Cheshire Archeological Association gives good reasons for dating these 4 poster beds design between 1461 and 1483, the strongest evidence being afforded by the heraldic escutcheons with which they are decorated on the fascia of the 4 poster beds.

The arms and badges suggest that the four poster bed belonged to Henry VII, being made about the time of his marriage to Elizabeth of York. They are an important example of the early use of carved framings; for so scarce was furniture in the Middle Ages that even the windows and locks were made to take Out and accompany their owners This type of bed was in use until the beginning of the sixteenth century. Within the next fifty years three new features were introduced, which transformed the bed, and gave it the familiar Elizabethan aspect. The change may be summarised as the substitution of wood for fabric in the principal parts. At the four corners carved posts were now placed, while the head was filled with panelling. Later a tester was added, but the evidence afforded by the few sur­viving early Tudor beds indicates that this member was not introduced until about the middle of the century.

It is impossible to draw up a precise chronology of the successive stages in the evolution of oak bedsteads. The advance towards Elizabethan solidity was slowly achieved, and in this connection four bedposts now used to support the West Gallery of St. Mary's Church, Broughton, Cheshire, are of particular interest. An illustrated monograph pub­lished in the Transactions of the Cheshire Archeological Association gives good reasons for dating them between 1461 and 1483, the strongest evidence being afforded by the heraldic escutcheons with which they are decorated.

The arms and badges suggest that the bed belonged to King Henry VII, being made about the time of his marriage to Elizabeth of York. They are an important example of the early use of four carved bedposts in a four poster Bed with " waggon-tilt " canopies as were known in the fifteenth century, the description implying a tent shape.

Inventories of that date abound in references to "stand 4 post Beddes", an indication that a more stable form of construction was already taking shape, and although every wealthy householder possessed a four poster bed hung with fabric Of posts which are all of slender proportions, but show various types of ornament including profile heads.

The four peen from a time when "a corded 4 poster bedstead carved" is of frequent occurrence in inventories. Those at the head are treated respond fashion and were clearly designed to frame panels of wainscoting, for they are grooved throughout their length, and at the level of the bosses the lots that housed a horizontal bar are perforated for wooden fixings.

These posts may be dated prior to Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1533, for the bosses are split pomegranates, realistically rendered, and the posts, though corresponding to his means, smaller beds with a low panelled heading were also used and are to be found in manuscripts (Fig. 3) and block books.

The Speculum Humanre Salrationis of 1474 contains a representation of a four poster bed of this type without the overhead draperies, and one represented in Durer's well-known woodcut of the Death of the Virgin has a back of late Gothic panelling and a four poster bed wooden tester hung from the ceiling in the ancient manner. But with the exception of the Broughton posts, there is no English set in existence which may be dated before 1500.

In the Victoria and Albert Museum there is a collection of Renaissance contour, have bases diapered with Gothic foliage of traditional type a pair of  four poster bed posts of about the same date, and in this case they represent the head of a 4 poster bed flanking linen-pattern panels of simple character; the posts are transitional in ornament, foreshadowing the Renaissance bulb that later in the century attained such large dimensions in four poster beds and tables.

At each of the four corners once stood symbols of the Evangelists, though only the eagle of St. John now remains, and from this type of ornament no doubt originated the adage "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless the bed that I lie on". Four poster Beds of this date in which the framework has survived are exceedingly rare and the majority are freely restored. the Saffron Walden Museum, has examples of finely carved 4 poster bed posts, those at the foot having deep flutes with cusps of Gothic character.

Inventories prove that in the opening years of the century the wainscot head was coming into general use. A "sillour del waynscot" is included among the goods of Master Martin Colyns, Treasurer of York in 1508, and the Vyne Inventory of 1541 mentions "i trussing four poster bed of wynscot with pillars carved". As the furniture is often described as being "sore worn", the bed was probably old and dated from the first quarter of the century. At Hedingham Castle a four poster bed panelled head and side-posts bearing the Royal Arms and initials of Edward VI has been converted into an overmantel (Fig. 7).

It is probable that in many of these early Tudor four poster beds the suspended canopy with its valance and curtains had not yet given place to a panelled ceiling and a carved frieze. This view gains some support from the inventories and account books of the age. The "well carved 4 post beds teade" of Henry Fitzroy, created Duke of Richmond in 1525, was adorned with a tester of cloth of gold, while a few years later the mistress of Grafton was buying "xii yards and a half of russet greye fustyon to lyne the four poster bed tester" of her best bedstead. At Mendham Hall, Suffolk, in 1548, the "joyned"4 poster beds in the principal chambers had testers and celours of fabric, 39 I'Mr implying that only the frame and carved posts were of wood. Thus, in the Chapel Chamber there was "a 4 poster bedde of joyn worke turned, lute colored, with teystor and four poster bed of cloth of golde and crymsyn velvit valence of blacke sylke . . , iii blewe curtaynes of sarsenet......".

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