The History of the Four Poster Bed

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An imposing oak four-poster bed is a centrepiece of any bedroom and is a feature in many English castles. So naturally, it would be safe to assume that it is a traditional English piece of furniture. However, historians tend to think that it was first made in Austria. Before they discovered a four-poster bed, English aristocrats had slept on boards set to trestles, with mattresses placed on top of the boards.

The early four-poster beds were very simple in design. Originally, all beds comprised of hard boards covered in fur or quilts. The canopy was added to the bed around the 13th century. This was not attached to the bed but suspended from the ceiling. The four-poster bed was born when the side curtains supported by beams were added to the bed frame. The reason behind this was purely practical – warmth. We know that the castles were not exactly warm, and the bedchambers were often draughty. In addition, the curtains added privacy as the servants often slept in the masters’ bedrooms.

Once the four-poster bed established itself as a piece of bedroom furniture, the design began to play a significant part and we can see a difference depending on the class and country of origin.

The Four-Poster Comes to England

So, when the four-poster arrived in England, the royals and other nobility were keen to adopt it. Tudor four-poster beds were grandiose, with thick carved pillars up to 18-inches in diameter.  They were heavily carved with the family coat of arms, knights, floral and other symbols.

The beds of nobility were ornately carved and skillfully painted. They were decorated in the coats of arms of the family. The bed frame increased in weight and size. The motto was: If you’ve got it, flaunt it. The larger and heavier the bed, the higher the status of its owner in society. Additionally, silk and other luxurious fabrics decorated the beds.

Originally, all beds were made in oak or walnut. Later on, the four-poster bed evolved in style. Under French influence, it becomes lighter and more elegant, using other woods, such as mahogany. In more modern times the makers started to use iron instead of the traditional English oak or walnut.

Queen Elizabeth’s Bed

The Virgin Queen had the ultimate four poster bed. A warrant was dated 1581 and it specified the delivery of a bedstead made from walnut, with rich carving. In addition, it was gilded and painted.

As befits the queen, the bed was the epitome of opulence. The tester and valance were made from silver fabric, figured with velvet and lined with taffeta. It had a fringe of Venetian gold, silver, and silk. The head-piece was of crimson satin of Bruges, decorated with six plumes, containing seven dozen ostrich feathers of various colours, garnished with golden spangles. The counterpoint was of orange-coloured satin and embroidered with Venice gold, silver spangles and coloured silks. A royal patchwork indeed!

Four Poster Bed – Berkeley Castle

Berkeley Castle Four Poster Bed (Image: PA)
Berkeley Castle Four Poster Bed (Image: PA)

Several antique four-poster beds compete for the title of Britain’s oldest bed.

One of the most famous is 400 years old and has been slept in by 15 generations at Berkeley Castle. It claims to be the oldest bed to remain in continuous use by the same family. It has been used by the owners of the Berkeley Castle estate in Gloucestershire since 1608. The Castle itself is the oldest to be continuously owned and occupied by the same family, since the late 12th century.

Furniture historians say the style of the posts dates the bed to the period 1560-1640. The coat of arms in the middle of the headboard relates to the Stuart monarchy, dating the bed more specifically to the period after 1603. The bed is listed on an inventory taken in 1608.

The antique dark oak four-poster has an ornate, heavily carved headboard and square pillars. The pillars are a combination of floral motives typical of Jacobean furniture, and carved figures. The male and female figures in the pedestals portray Henry Berkeley, 7th Baron Berkeley, and his second wife, Jane.

What makes the Berkeley bed so unique is that it is still used by the same family and its time of creation can be accurately dated. Berkeley Castle bed confirms that British furniture craftsmanship is the best in the world for its craftsmanship, quality and strength.

Four Poster Bed – Ordsall Hall

Ordsall Hall Four Poster Bed
Ordsall Hall Four Poster Bed (Image: Manchester Evening News)

The second contestant to the title of the oldest four-poster bed is the so-called Radclyffe bed of Ordsall Hall in Salford. This Tudor bed was originally made as the wedding bed for Sir John Radclyffe, the owner of the Hall, approximately in the 1570s. It is the only surviving piece of original furniture in Ordsall Hall. One can only imagine the glorious pieces of English oak furniture that used to grace the bedrooms of Ordsall Hall.

It is a stunning dark oak four poster bed with heavy carving. These carvings depict the stories of intermarriage and the dynasty striving to secure their fortunes and their future. Interestingly, the carvings not only relate directly to the Radclyffe coat of arms but also carry the Royal Arms used by Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary I.

The bed disappeared from view sometime around 1650, when the Hall passed from the family ownership. Although it is difficult to imagine how a bed of this size can get lost, this imposing four-poster oak bed was “lost” for centuries. It unexpectedly turned up at auction by Bonhams of London in 2014 following a mysterious journey over several centuries. It was bought by a wealthy businessman and is now on a long-term loan in its original home.

Traditional Dark Oak Bed at the V&A

The Great Bed of Ware (Image: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
The Great Bed of Ware (Image: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

The Great Bed of Ware is one of the most popular exhibits at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

This is a traditional Tudor bed with heavy carving with anglicised Renaissance patterns, acanthus leaves and strapwork. There are traces of paint on the headboard and the underside of the tester, which means that parts of this bed would originally have been brightly coloured. The bed today shows many signs of alteration, particularly to the columns, which have been cut down at some time.

Constructed sometime in the 1590s, the Great Bed was probably one of the earliest examples of PR in tourism. A resourceful owner of an inn in Ware, Hertfordshire, asked a skilled carpenter to make it as a way to attract visitors on their way from Cambridge to London. Visitors often carved their initials on the bed, which are still visible on the bedposts and headboard today.

This Elizabethan oak bed became very famous. In fact, Sir Toby Belch describes a sheet of paper as ‘big enough for the bed of Ware’ in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

This sensational four-poster bed is over three metres wide, the only known example of a bed of this size made at that time. However, these days, for a skilled furniture manufacturer, making a piece of reproduction dark oak furniture of this size will be challenging, but not an impossible task.

Luxurious Four-Poster Bed

Throughout history, rich and prosperous kings, queens and empresses had the habit of adorning their rooms with accumulated riches. Nowadays, rich and famous go to extreme lengths to obtain something exclusive and spare no expense to surround themselves with pure luxury. They take the words “bespoke furniture” to a completely new level.

The most expensive bed of modern times was created by a renowned designer and is called the Baldacchino Supreme. This is a hand-made bed, constructed from 107 kg of solid 24-carat gold. The structure of this luxurious wooden bed is from chestnut, ash and cherry.

Baldacchino Supreme – the world most exclusive bed
Baldacchino Supreme – the world most exclusive bed (Image: Stuart Hughes)

Fit for royalty and costing a whopping £4 million, this handmade bed is fully tailored to the customer’s requirements.

Despite its exclusivity and the price tag, this bed is not to everyone’s taste. Many people would prefer a reproduction four poster bed with heavy carving, just like the one in our Tudor collection of English oak bedroom furniture.

Take your time and browse our collections of bedroom furniture. If a four-poster bed is not to your taste, we have several designs, which would suit any interior style. And, of course, we have other solid oak bedroom furniture to match.

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