History of Four Poster Beds

About in the middle of the century the four poster bed posts at the head were discarded, the wainscot being sufficiently solid to carry that end of the tester, which in later examples was often extremely heavy. This departure is seen in the remarkable bedstead (Fig. 8) from Crackenthorpe Hall, near Appleby, the seat of the Machells, an ancient North Country family it probably dates from about 1530, and the decoration is of transitional character-a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance detail. Here the panels of the celour are carved with doves and conventional flowers, while the upper row bear the inscription in burnt Gothic lettering "Drede God", "Love God", "1'rayes God". A crocketed cornice surmounts a carved frieze, but there is no indication that originally the bedstead possessed a wooden tester.

The octagonal 4 poster posts merge into square plinths and are intersected by shield­shaped bosses, one bearing the Agnus Dei, the other the Sacred Monogram. The "four poster bed stock", which has the frame­work carved with leaf patterns and trails of foliage, stands clear of the end posts, but there are indications that its length has been reduced. In another 4 poster bed stead, probably a few years later in date, the panelled tester for the first time appears, marking the final stage in this evolution.

As the Elizabethan type of four poster bed was slowly evolved, many composite structures are found exhibiting features of several dates. In the four poster bed from Melford Hall, Suffolk, a paneled head and tester have been added to a Renaissance 4 post bed soon after the date of its construction, the frame and posts alone representing the original design. The trefoil­headed flutings in the plinths and the character of the 4 poster bed columns, notably the blocks carved with profiles in early Tudor head-dress, suggest a date twenty years earlier than that of the round-headed arches, terminal figures, and band of ornament below the shelf-rail.

In the four poster bed tester the coved panels and the mouldings are a further indication that its owners adapted the 4 poster bed to their requirements at a time when testers of drapery were being gradually discarded. But the carving on the wide surface of the four poster bed, although inferior to that of the posts, is still half-Gothic in feeling and notably refined in scale; while the panels in the four poster bed head are filled with an arabesque inlay of surprising delicacy for so early a date. It is noticeable that the bulbous form of the posts develops in size, arriving at its maximum girth early in the seventeenth century, after which time it tends to diminish.

The four poster bed in Anne Hathaway's house (of the immortal bard William Shakespeare) at Shottery is a more simple Elizabethan type. It has not the massive pedestals that lend such an air of permanence to more ornate four poster beds; but has escaped Victorian renova­tions. The proportions are falsified, for the posts have been cut down while the tester has been raised by nearly a foot. The height of an oak four poster bed is seldom more than 7 feet 6 inches, unless the original design has been modified.

In the early years of Elizabeth carved beds appear to have been confined to the wealthy, but within the next twenty-five years a higher standard of domestic comfort had brought them within the reach of the yeoman class. William Harrison writes, in a familiar passage, that in his time three things are "marvelously altered", one of them being the great improvement in beds and bedding amongst country folk, who had hitherto been content to lie on a straw pallet with a sack of chaff for a pillow. "As for Servants", he adds, "if they formerly had any sheet above them it was well, for seldom had they any under their bodies to keepe them from the pricking straw which ran oft through the canvass and rased their hardened hides" (Description of England. 1580). Inventories of this period bear out Harrison's account and show that even in great houses a mattress and a single sheet was the customary allowance of bedding for servants. In 1585 the chamber over the kitchen set apart for their use at Sir W. Ingilby's house contained "five evill beddes with evill furniture", valued at 6s. 8d.

Tudor and Jacobean oak and walnut four poster beds were sometimes varnished soon after they were made; while an entry in the Grafton Accounts early in Elizabeth's reign records that a workman was set to stain a four poster bed of inferior wood to resemble walnut. In 1569, "of Worcester" was employed to paint "my Mr's armes in coulours" on “a walnut tree four poster bed."

Although the "four poster bed" of the sixteenth century was no longer like the structure of Gothic days (for the sides were reduced almost to a level with the mattress) some lateral support was still necessary to retain the mountainous pile of bed-clothes in position. This support was afforded by bed-staves or wooden pegs . The vertical holes found in the sides of the Hathaway four poster bed and many other examples were provided, no doubt, to contain these staves, and were not primarily intended to form sockets for corpse candles which long after the Reformation were set around the body before burial.

The sides and ends of the "four poster bed" also continued to be pierced horizontally, and on the ropes as a foundation was laid a mattress of plaited rushes (see CARPETS). In Warwickshire inventories of Shakespeare's time these "mattes of flagges" are a common item. The mat still preserved on the Hathaway four poster bed is in excellent condition, and may well be contemporary with the bed. That such mats were commonly used for this purpose is proved by the sepulchral monuments of the age. Carved in marble or alabaster, they figure on many elaborate tombs. In the Beauchamp Chapel at Warwick, Ambrose Dudley is lying on a mat of this kind, and they are found on the monuments of the Dukes of Norfolk in Framlingham Church.

The Hathaway example was the property of substantial yeomen, who, like the owner of Grafton, would look for their four poster bed stead to the local joiner, but the four poster bed from Great Fulford (Fig. 13) is of higher quality. 1t is said to have belonged to the second Sir John Fulford, who owned the house from 1546 to 1580; and the ruff worn by the figures on the stiles, which is in the fashion of the last decade of his ownership, supports the tradition. The studied propor­tions and well-applied ornament are characteristic of the finer work of this period. The bulbous supports to the four poster bed columns are admirably modelled, and the carving on the pedestals carefully thought out in relation to the space it fills.

In most of these four poster bed panelled backs the arches start from a ledge or shelf-rail. On these, rushlights were placed, and the marks of burning are often visible on specimens that have survived this dangerous practice. Mrs. Alice Thornton relates in her autobiography in 1661 that the house "had a great preservation from being burned by fire in the night time, Nan Welburne (her maid) having carelessly stuck the candle at her bed head of her 4 poster bed, and fell asleepe, soe it fell downe on the pillow and her head, and burned her clothes, and being stifled by the smell it pleased God she awaked and put it out". Such carelessness with candles, and the danger arising from placing a warming pan in the four poster bed, is alluded to in a Bill, which a few years earlier the Lord Mayor of London ordered to be printed and hung up in every house, entitled Seasonable Advice for Preventing the Mischief of Fire. Below the shelf-rail the panels were generally left plain, as the bolster and pillows would have covered any carving.

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