History of Four Poster Beds


We have already seen the flat-bottomed wicker cradle or bassinet (Figure 2:33) which was intended to sit flat upon the floor, but mothers have always found it advantageous to be able to rock the cradle whilst engaged in more productive tasks. If the mother is occupied with knitting or spinning, she is easily able to maintain the momentum of the cradle with a nudge from her elbow or foot. Two methods of mounting cradles were commonly used: they might be suspended between Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds)two posts, so that the cradle is free to swing (Figures 3:470-472); or they might be mounted on wooden rockers (Figures 2:32, 3:473 and 474). In both types the movement is intended to pacify the infant and help it sleep contentedly.

Both types were known in the Middle Ages, but the swinging cradle in Figure 3:470 is probably the only English medieval example in existence. As with later versions, it consists essentially of a pair of upright posts mounted on trestle feet. The uprights are supported by heavy Gothic brackets, and the body of the cradle is a simple box of heavily moulded boards. This famous cradle has been much discussed,56 and was long the object of various fanciful legends. The most persistent of these declared it to be the cradle used by the infant Henry V (born 1388), though its actual date must be circa 1500. It is known to have come from Courtfield, near Monmouth, in the eighteenth century. The young Henry V was sent here from his birthplace at Monmouth Castle to be nursed, which accounts for the romantic attribution of the cradle. From various collections in West Gloucestershire, it passed to a series of Bristol collectors which included George Weare Braikenridge. In 1908 it was sold at Christie's to Edward VII, and has since 1911 been on loan to the London Museum.

Hanging cradle.

Four Poster Bed Figure 3:470. Hanging cradle. English. Oak, originally painted and gilded circa 1500.

Hanging cradle.

Four Poster Bed Figure 3:471. Hanging cradle. Welsh. Oak, circa 1700.

Hanging cradle.

Four Poster Bed Figure 3:472. Hanging cradle. American; New England. Pine and maple, painted reddish-brown,
early eighteeth century.

Rocking cradles survive in quite large numbers from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, and their decoration is very similar to contemporary chairs and chests. Late seventeenth century joined examples are often highly decorated, and are usually inscribed with dates and initials, but later examples tend to be much plainer, with the usual fielded panels of their time (Figure 3:474). Cradles of different sorts were made by all the major furniture-making trades, including joiners, carpenters, coffermakers, and even turners; as well as the ubiquitous basket makers, whose wares are found at all periods. Like their armchairs, the coffermakers' cradles were entirely covered with leather or fabrics, nailed and fringed; and a solitary example survives from the early seventeenth century at Badminton House, still with its original crimson velvet and trimmings.

Joined rocking cradle.

Four Poster Bed Figure 3:473. Joined rocking cradle. English. Oak, dated 1685.

Joined rocking cradle.

Four Poster Bed Figure 3:474. Joined rocking cradle. English or Welsh. Oak, 1680-1740.


Tudor Period

KING HENRY  IV 1399 –1413 


Four corners to my four poster bed,
Four angels at my head,
Matthew, Mark, Luke and John
Bless the four poster bed that I lie on.

As you make your four poster bed, so you must lie in it. -Proverb

For  this important piece of furniture we have retained one name only, unchanged from Anglo-Saxon times. It is a contraction of Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds)bedstead, the place of the four poster bed, just as  “stead” 'or "sted occurs in so many place-names to-day, as in Hampstead, Plumstead, Thaxted, farmstead, homestead, etc. The four poster bed really is, the mattress and bed-clothes. It is one of the two necessities of life, which are " four poster bed and board." In olden days' it was often regarded as the most valuable piece of furniture.

With regard to the antique world we read, "Their four poster bedsteads were made of wood, which usually came from the Sudan; and con­sisted of a strong rectangular framework, about 15 to 20 inches high across which was stretched plaited palm fibre, or rope and the pillow was a support made of wood, or ivory, more or less ornamented, with a curved top for the neck to fit into ("A Guide to the Egyptian Collections in the British Museum" ). The hardy Norseman, however, knew little of such a luxury, and slept on straw.

So far as craftsmanship in wood goes, we are not concerned with beds until about 1500. Before that time the very wealthy had "trussing" four poster beds that could be folded (trussed) when they went on their travels. There were "state" four poster beds on which the bedding was supported on a wooden framework. These were so high that a step or long stool was necessary to climb up on to them. The stool was used as a seat by day. There were trundle " beds that could'' be trundled under the state bed by day.. These were all rare. Poorer people slept on straw or on wooden benches built in recesses, like bunks or berths in 'ships. , There were no separate bedrooms and scarcely any of the privacy, we consider to be so necessary today.

The draughts of the mediaeval dwelling made some form of screen to the four poster bed a necessity. Curtains were suspended from the rafters, or, if the height was too great, from a sort of canopy called a Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds)" tester." Tester comes from the Latin "testa", a skull, through a French form meaning a " headpiece," tete " is French for head. From a tent­like form the tester came to be a rectangular roof slightly larger than the bed. It was in Henry VII's time that the tester was supported by four posts, instead of being hung from the Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) ceiling. Except for the very early beds, " four-poster " is no more than a name, as most of the so-called four-poster beds have but two posts.

The "Four-Poster" Bed

The "Four-Poster" Bed. 1 and 3. Corner posts, (1) early and (2) late sixteenth century.
2. Part of a Bed-head. 4. Complete bed.

The steps followed in the story of the four-poster seem to have been these ; (a) the four corner posts of a simple frame were run up to support a cloth tester and curtains ; (b) the bed-head was half ­filled with panelling ; (c) the whole of the Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) bed-head was filled with framed panelling. This four poster bed-head supported the tester at one end and did away with the back pair of posts. The tester was made of wood ; (d) the front pair of  Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) posts stood independent of the bed­ frame, which was called the four poster bed-stock.

These great four poster beds were mainly made when the Renaissance was at its height, and posts, four poster bed-heads and tester were most elaborately carved or inlaid with decoration that copied from Italian work, that, in its turn, was copied from old Roman and Greek work. The two main panels at the bed-head are almost always filled with the round­ headed Roman arch. The upper part of the Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) posts is invariably supported by the Tudor bulb, which, in the case of the bed-post seems to have started as a split pomegranate or just a decorated boss, and then to have settled down in the large chalice and lid type.

Although these canopied four poster beds continued to be made until 1800, after Elizabeth's reign the woodwork became mainly the framework upon which curtains were draped. These beds were all made for the very well-to-do, and examples have been preserved because of their magnificence, because they were really quite comfortable to use, and in some cases because of sentimental reasons. There were no such reasons for the preservation of the beds of the poorer people and they were removed and destroyed so soon as more suitable and less cumbersome beds could be had. Finally, the iron and brass four poster bedstead came, and only with recent years have furniture-makers begun to give thought again to wooden four poster bed-heads and feet.