History of Four Poster Beds

The four poster bed posts are remarkable for the variety in the cup and cover enlargements, the lower portion being of columnar form. Lion masks figure prominently in the decoration, and arc even introduced on the posts. Another specimen with the smaller bulbs now ° coming into vogue their decoration is in low relief, posts and plinths carrying out the small flat scale of ornament. The back still possesses some dignity, and the ingeniously interlaced strapwork framed in wide pilasters is a clear indication of its date. 

This interesting four poster bed was until recently covered with coats of paint, and its original surface has been damaged. Though in all the illustrated examples of Tudor four poster beds and the hangings are lacking, originally they were draped in a variety of materials such as velvets, silks, tapestry or embroidered linen. Even cloth of gold contributed to the splendour of the most costly specimens, while owners of a humble class formed their hangings of fustian or "steyned" cloth .

In 1779 Fanny Burney records a visit to Knole, and gives a description of three State-rooms. The first, she says, "was fitted up by an ` Earle of Dorsete,' for the bedchamber with a 4 poster bed for King James I it had all the gloomy grandeur and solemn finery of those times". This may be identified with the "Spangle Bedroom", and it contains a 4 post bed (Fig. 25) of which the hangings and quilt are of the same material-red satin with an applique pattern of silver tissue--as that on a set of early Jacobean stools and the armchair with X-shaped underframing, with which, on the evidence of this material, it may confidently be regarded as contemporary, and therefore the only State four post bed stead of the type known to survive from that time.

The cornice of the four poster bed is straight and surmounts a frieze with an ogee moulding: the head­board has a lunette-shaped top. The second, or Venetian Room, in which the bed bears the crowned cypher of James 11, is also described by Fanny Burney, who adds, " but the third state-room (the King's Bedroom) was magnificence itself: it was fitted up for King William. The state four poster bed with its bed-curtains, tester, quilt, and valance were all of gold flowers, worked upon a silver ground: its value, even in those days, was £7,000. Since her time tradition has associated James II name with this magnificent four poster bed instead of with the one in the "Spangled Room," which actually dates from his time. It represents the type which came into fashion after the Restoration, and is one of the most extravagant ever made in England. The four post bed curtains, valances, tester and bases are composed of cloth of gold lined with brilliant coral taffeta, now much faded, all closely embroidered in a floral design in gold, silver and coloured silks. The pillows and quilt are embroidered in the same manner, trimmed with many rows of elaborate fringe, made of Bold, silver, coral silk and black tassels, which, like the floral scrolls of the heading in very high relief, are in a style characteristic of Restoration taste.

A four poster bed of comparable magnificence was formerly at Glemham Hall, Suffolk (Fig. 28), having been made about 1685 for the richly furnished town house of Sir Dudley North in Basin-hall Street. He died is 1691, and subse­quently some of his finest furniture, including this bed, was moved by his eldest son to C Glemham. The four poster straight moulded cornice is covered with crimson velvet, lavishly trimmed with tawny and brown tasselled fringe: the ceiling of the four post bed tester, back and bedspread being of cream satin embroidered in a delicate floral design. The slender octagonal posts finish in removable bases, painted and carved with gilt cherubs seated on scrolls. In the illustration are shown two of the armchairs from the remarkable set which were made to match Sir Dudley's bed. The trimming of the counterpane closely resembles that of the Late Stuart bed at Knole.

Until well into the next century the four corners of the four poster bed tester were generally surmounted by vase-shaped finials covered with the material of the valances and holding large bunches of ostrich plumes, a fashion which dates back to early in Elizabeth's reign. In the Ingatestone inventory of 1600, " fow•er guilt topps for the 3 corners of ye bed feaster " are mentioned, and among the items delivered by Svmondes at Knole in 1624 were a large number of these " cups " or finials, nine cups of '- crimson damask laid with silver parchment lace " being packed in a bag with a gilded set " for my lords couch bed." In the bills for furnishing the Royal Palaces under Charles 11 and William III, there are many entries of sums paid to Richard Chase and Robert Crofts, "Feather Dressers," "for scowering a set of Bedd Plumes for his mat". Chase in 1675 is also found charg­ing "for fixing up a suite of ffeathers for the Kings Bed, for adding new cherry coloured downe to all the spriggs, for adding nevv feathers in the roome of some decayed".

These ornaments were also fashionable in France at this time. Evelyn, in his account of that country written in 1652, to shove the magnificence of the nobility and gentry there, mentions that in the palace of the Duchess of Chaulmes, near the Place Royale in Paris, "the pennaches or tufts of plumes belonging to one of her four poster beds only, are estimated worth fourteen thousand livers, which amount to near a thousand pounds sterling of our money". More ordinary four poster beds of this type were hung with cloth, moreen, plain silk taffeta or linen.

In the great houses of the seventeenth century a mourning bed was commonly provided. In 1624 a bedstead of black velvet with taffeta curtains is listed among the contents of the Black Chamber at Walton, and at Claydon, twenty years later, Sir Ralph Verney is continually lending his great "blake 4 post bedde" when a death occurs in the family for the widow to receive the condolences of her relatives and friends. On these occasions the passages and mourning chamber were hung with black and the furniture covered in the same sombre hue. Evelyn records that on March 5, 1685, "there came over divers envoyes and greate persons to condole the death of the late king (Charles II) who were receiv'd by the Queen Dowager on a four posterbed of mourning, the whole chamber, cieling and floore hung with black, and tapers were lighted, so as nothing could be more lugubrous and solemne". We learn from Celia Fiennes that when Queen Mary died, purple was substituted for black in the mourning chamber at Whitehall.

The four poster bed was of purple velvet, the canopy with "ye armes of England curiously painted and gilt" in the middle had a rich gold fringe, and the head piece was embroidered with the crown and cypher of the Queen. Rails were placed about the bed, a fashion also sometimes adopted by great nobles and noted by Celia Fiennes in the Presence Chamber at Nottingham Castle. After the death of Wriothesley, second Duke of Bedford, in 1711 two bedrooms at Southampton House (besides the staircase, hall and Great Parlour) were "furnished" com­pletely in black, the contents being hired at a total cost of £95. One four poster bed in a bedroom was to be left in this state for a year, the other four poster bed probably that of the Duchess, for two. Each contained "a black cloth four post bed complete", hangings, carpet and window curtains. These mourning observances were continued until a much later date, and in The Funeral, one of Gay's Town Eclogues, we are told of Sabina that:

Their absent Lord her rooms in sable mourn, And all the day the glimmering tapers burn: Stretch'd on the couch of state she pensive lies, While oft the snowy cambric wipes her eyes.

The four poster bed and hangings of the lying-in chambers were like­wise objects of special attention, and sometimes great sums were spent upon its decoration, for the birth of an heir was regarded as a very important event, and receptions and even card parties in the richly furnished bedchamber were considered conducive to the mother's convalescence.

After the Restoration, the height of standing four poster bedsteads gradually increased, in some cases reaching the ceiling of the loftiest room. A carved wooden cornice was also intro­duced which was covered with the same material as the valances and curtains.

This type of four poster bed stead is excellently represented at Hampton Court Palace, and others of equal magnificence were for­merly at Glemham, Kimbolton, Drayton and Dyrham Park. Catherine of Braganza's 4 poster bed has disappeared from Hamp­ton Court, but Evelyn saw it there in 1662 and writes that it was "an embroidery of silver on crimson velvet and cost £8,000, being a present made by the States of Holland when his Majesty returned". It had been given by them to Charles II's sister, the Princess of Orange, and was brought back for presentation to the King. At Ham House in the Queen's Bed-chamber, prepared for the reception of Catherine of Braganza, there was, according to the inventory of 1683, a "Portugall four poster bed stead garnished with brasse", having-­

Six curtaines and foure Cantones valens and bases of cloath of gould with flowers of blew velvet lined with skie colour satten with a gould embroidered fringe, tester head Cloath and Counterpane embroidered with gould, Four cups covered with the same of ye curtaines, and white feathers at the top of them.

» back to top