The History of Four Poster Beds
The four-poster bed is a classic, romantic bed that still graces bedrooms. First gaining popularity in 15th-century England, the four-poster was a heavy, ornate oak bed with drapes and a ceiling. Noblemen prized their luxurious four posters, often adorning them with precious stones and silk drapes. The four-poster bed evolved through several different styles before becoming the understated, elegant version we see today.
The four-poster bed originated in the 15th century, and is thought to have come from Austria. It was a bedroom fixture during Tudor England. A feather bed was placed on a layer of canvas on top of a straw mat, which then rested on the bed frame. The frame often was made of heavy oak, intricately carved, and decorated with precious metals and gemstones. Noblemen had extremely ornate beds. The bedding was richly embroidered with silver and gold thread, and tapestries hung from the canopy.
The traditional four-poster bed had four posts, one on each corner, connecting to a rectangular top panel or canopy, known as a tester. The English often called the tester the "roof" of the bed. The posts stood away from the bed and went all the way to the floor rather than being attached to its mattress frame. Some posts were 18 inches in diameter.
Tudor era beds were very large and heavy. The bed frequently was attached to the wall paneling to support its massive weight. Curtains hung from the tester and draped around the bed, giving the sleeper privacy and protecting him from insects and drafts. As house heating and cooling methods developed, the tester disappeared. There now are four-posters that connect to an open frame rather than a solid rectangular tester, and there are four posters with neither tester nor frame.
As time progressed, four-poster beds became lighter and less ornate. In the 17th century, slimmer beds made from beechwood came into fashion. When King William III and Queen Mary II ruled England and Scotland, the fashion in bedposts was to make them very tall, because ceilings had become higher. The posts shrank back down to normal height by the time Queen Anne took the throne in 1702.
In Tudor households, ladies often used their bedrooms as living rooms, hosting social gatherings and receiving friends. When a nobleman died, he usually left his best bed to his widow. She had a lot of memories attached to the bed, as it was her husband's deathbed, and she probably gave birth to his children in it. The bed was worth a great deal of money, and so was more than just a sentimental inheritance.
The carvings on the posts and tester of a Tudor nobleman's four-poster bed often featured his and his wife's families' coats of arms, as well as hunting scenes, monsters and knights. Four-poster beds usually were made of oak, but Queen Elizabeth I had a walnut four poster, which only royalty and the rich could afford.
The Great Bed of Ware
The Great Bed of Ware arguably is the most famous four-poster bed. It is on display in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. It dates back to the 16th century and comes from an inn in Ware, Hertfordshire, England. It's thought that the innkeeper had it built to attract business. It is an enormous bed, measuring 11 feet wide, 9 feet high and 10 feet long. It's twice the size of the usual beds of the period and features in writings by Shakespeare and Byron.
Kate Wharmby Seldman is a writer, ghostwriter and editor. She writes about subjects including electronic music, jewelry making, baby and child care, and ecologically friendly building construction. Originally from London, England, she now lives in Los Angeles, Calif., with her husband and son.