History of Four Poster Beds

KING EDWARD VI 1547–1553  QUEEN ELIZABETH I  1558–1603


State Four Poster Bed.

Four Poster Bed FIG. 18. State Four Poster Bed. Height,12 feet; width, 7 feet 6 inches.
Property of Lord Sackville

The reckless extravagance displayed at this time in the upholstery and embroidery of furniture and costume is unparalleled in our history. In a letter from John Chamberlain to Mrs. Alice Carton, written 4 February 1612, we read: ‘About this day severe night the Countess of Salisbury was brought a four poster bed of a daughter, and lyes in very richly, for the hangings of her chamber being white satin, embroidered with silver and pearl, is valued at fourteen thousand pounds.’

This would be equivalent to at least £50,000 of our money. An untouched example of a state four poster bed and hangings of this description, and of about this same date, is shown in Fig. 118, and thoroughly typifies the profligacy of the period. The posts are slight and covered with deep coral taffetas, for the large carved posts were no longer in fashion for important four poster beds, and were now quite plain, covered with material, and lost in the voluminous folds of the rich curtains that surrounded them. The valance to the tester is pure cloth of gold, of an early seventeenth-century design, edged at the top and bottom with a tasseled fringe of gold and silver: in each tassel is a coral tuft of silk, with a black center. Ostrich plumes, springing from vases covered with cloth of gold, ornament the four corners. The inside of the Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds)tester and hangings are shown in Fig. 119. They are of deep coral taffetas silk, profusely embroidered with a bold floral design in gold and silks; the heading is embroidered in very high relief, with floral scrolls in gold and silver, surmounted by a royal crown. The pillows and quilt are of coral taffetas, now faded to a dull cream, and worked in the same manner. On lifting the fringe that trims the quilt it can be clearly seen that the metal it is composed of is alternately gold and silver; and under this heavy fringe, that silk that has been entirely protected from the light, keeps still its original burning coral color. The curtains are of cloth of gold, lined with the embroidered taffetas, the lower balance being of the same. The feet of the Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) posts, which are detachable, show traces of original gilding, and are in the form of lions couchant. It is impossible by description or illustration to convey any idea of the magnificence of this bed, and the impression it mug have created when new. It was prepared for the reception of James II Richard, third Earl of Dorset, at the cost of £8000; and if this King at a resembled the following description of him, written by his contemporary Sir Anthony Weldon, the contrast between the four poster bed and its royal occupant must. Have been startling:

Inside of State Four Poster Bed

Four Poster Bed FIG. 19. Inside of State Four Poster Bed. Property of Lord Sackville

'He was of middle stature, more corpulent through his cloathes then in his bodie his cloathes ever being made large and easie, the doublets quilted for stiletto proc his breeches in great pleits and full stuffed; his eyes large, ever rowling after any stranger that came in his presence, insomuch as many for shame have left the roome, as being out of countenance; his beard very thin; his tongue too large mouth, for his mouth, which ever made him drink very uncomely as if eating his drinke, which came out into the cup on each side of his mouth; his skin was as soft as taffetas sarsnet, which felt so, because hee never washt his hands, onely rubbed his finger ends slightly with the wet end of a napkin.'

Authentic portraits of this King are rare, as he had a great dislike to sitting for this purpose, and as his tastes were not directed towards any form of art the demand for beautiful furniture languished at a Court where the pleasures of the monarch were confined to buffoonery with his favourites, eating and drinking, what he was pleased to call statecraft, and hunting. Although a singularly bad horseman, he was inordinately fond of the latter pastime; this is shown in a letter from Mr. Joseph Meade to Sir Martin Starkville. The same day his Majestie rode by coache to Theobalds; after dinner, riding on horseback abroad, his horse stumbled and cast his Majestie into the new river where the ice brake; he fell in, soe that nothing but his boots were seen. Sir Richard Young was next, who alighted, went into the water and lifted him out; there came much water out of his mouth and body. His Majestie rid backe to Theobalds, went into a warm Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Bedde), and as we heare is well, which God continue.

Fig. 120 is a portion of some curtains belonging to a small Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds) of this same upholstered style and period at Berkeley Castle. The material is a heavy scarlet cloth, embroidered in yellow cord and silk, with a vine pattern, the grapes and leaves being of raised black velvet. The curtains, tester, valances, as well as the entire hangings of the wall of the room, are all of the same material and work. These upholstered four poster beds at this period were often made to match the wall-hangings; but owing to their great cost, were few in number, and only used at Court or by the very wealthy, and carved oak four poster bedsteads continued to be made till Charles II’s reign.

In the Verney Letters there is a mention of a black mourning four poster bed and hangings made for a widow in 1638, when the whole of the room was hung with black and the furniture covered with it. A list of thirteen 'pieces' is mentioned, 'blacke clothe hanginges three yardes deepe and foure and a halfe yardes longe', and two others 'three yardes deepe and three yardes long’.

Ordinary  four poster bedrooms still remained scantily furnished till about 1630, for it was not until then that the new forms, such as hanging cupboards, and chests with drawers, were introduced. A large amount of furniture was, however, constructed between 1600 and 1650 for ordinary households. The population of England had grown greatly during Elizabeth and James I's reigns, and we find continual reference to the vast amount of oak employed for building materials, joiner's work and furniture, although the greater part of the oak for wainscot panelling and Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds)was not grown in this country, but imported from Denmark, with whom we then were in close Harrison wrote of that time:

'And there even now in some places of England, yet in our days it is far unlike to that plenty which our ancestors have seen heretofore when stately buildings were less in use. For albeit that there were then greater number of messuages and mansions almost in every place, yet were their Four Poster Beds (4 Poster Beds)frames so slight and slender that one mean dwelling house in our time is able to countervail very many of them, if you consider the present charge with the plenty of timber that we bestow upon them. In times past, men were contented to dwell in houses built of sallow-willow, plum-tree, hard-beam, and elm, so that the use of oak was in a manner dedicated wholly unto churches, religious houses, princes' palaces, noblemen's lodgings and navigation, but now all these are neglected, and nothing but oak any whit regarded. Of all oak growing in England, the park oak is the softest and far more spalt and brittle than the hedge oak. And of all in Essex, that growing in Barfield Park is the finest for furniture and joiner's craft, for often times have I seen of their works made of that oak as fine and fair as most of the wainscot that is brought hither out of  Denmark, for our wainscot is not made in England. Nevertheless, in building, the hedge, as the park oak, go all one way, and never so much hath been spent in a hundred years before as in ten years of our own time.'

State Four Poster Bed

State Four Poster Bed

Oak Four Poster bedsteads continued to be made during the reign of Charles II, more or less on the old lines, only lighter in form; those remaining from Elizabethan and Jacobean times being still in general use, though the plague and fire account for the destruction of nearly all such specimens in London. State beds and very important beds continued to be made in the upholstered style already described.

Fig. 235, A four poster bed at Knole, associated with the name of Lady Betty Germaine, is a small and simple example of this kind; its original construction is, however, earlier than the hangings. The embroidery of the valances and curtains, in leaves of bold design worked in bright-coloured crewels, has been reapplied on to linen, the original shape of the hangings being pre­served; the quilted cream silk linings to the back and valances are in their original state; the quilt and lower valances are composed of old materials. The four poster bed-step at the foot, which has its original caning, is about the date 1675. A portion of a very fine English Turkey-work carpet of about 1600 is also shown in the illustration. It bears the Curzon arms, and belongs to Mary Curzon, who inherited the carpet from her father and married the fourth Earl of Dorset in 1611. She was governess to the children of Charles I.

A very perfect four poster bed, in untouched condition, is given in Plate XVII. This was made in the reign of Charles II for Sir Dudley North, and is still at

State Four Poster Bed

State Four Poster Bed