Saturday, July 26, 2014

And So To Bed ..

by Anne O'Brien

How important was a bed?

A bed was perhaps the most important item in a medieval royal and noble household, not only for sleeping but as the principal seating throughout the day for most activities within the lord's private chamber. In fact it might be the only piece of furniture in the room other than a chair or stool. The term bed included all the hangings, cushions, mattresses - stuffed with wool or feathers - sheets, pillows and covering.

We know of the importance of beds because they frequently figure in household accounts, they were items of major importance in wills, and, fortunately for us today, often figure in illuminated manuscripts and illuminated letters showing births, marriages and deaths, so that we are able to see what splendid items of furniture they were and how much work went into their creation. Great pride was taken in the possession of a bed, particularly by those who aspired to move up the social ranks.

The state bed of Henry III in the Painted Chamber at Westminster is recorded as having posts coloured green, powdered with gold stars with a canopy over it. We have no image of it, but this is a superb replica of the bed of Edward I in the royal apartments in the Tower of London.

The bed of Joan de Valence was made to be transported within its own bag by a sumpter horse. In August 1297 eighty rings and cords for curtains were purchased, as well as a pavilion to be erected over the bed, and set up in Joan's chamber, with a cresset light that burned each night. This might have been suspended within the canopy of the bed itself.

The bedding made for Bogo de Clare in 1285 included a quilt embroidered with red-haired sirens ( now there's an image!), with a mattress of lined red sindon (fine linen) stuffed with wool.

In 1348 amongst the items prepared for Princess Joan's intended marriage to Pedro of Castile, a bed was produced from the royal household collection. It was of red sindon worked with fighting dragons, embroidered in silk, powdered with gold besants and with a vine leaf decoration in the border. Obviously a bed fit for a queen.

The letters and accounts of the ubiquitous Paston family are an excellent source for beds and their furnishings. The family before it rose in the social scale used blue buckram and worsted for canopies and curtains. Of a more superior nature, at Caister Castle there were sets of tapestry for a bed showing a 'lady crowned, and a great roll about her head, the first letter N.' Also tapestries with a fringe of red, green and white silk with a tester of the same colours. In her will, Dame Elizabeth Browne left to her heirs no less than seven feather beds, most of them described as 'overworn.'

Sir John Fastolf possessed a silk coverlet lined with buckram, another made of green and blue silk, a third of pale green and white with leaves of gold. And for another of the bedrooms a magnificent green coverlet decorated with spots and ostrich feathers. Even Sir John's cook had a coverlet covered with roses and blood-hounds' heads - a comment on his value in the household.

Nor were bishops immune from such items of value. No poverty embraced here. Richard Gravesend, Bishop f London 1280 - 1303, owned a coverlet of scarlet, furred with miniver valued at £5. Thomas Bitton, Bishop of Exeter 1292-1307 owned two beds, one with covers of fox fur and silk and fifteen sheets of fine linen. John de Sandale, Bishop of Winchester 1316 - 19 owned a mattress, cover, curtains and canopy in blue samite, a rich silk, valued at over £6.

As for the value of a bed to be willed to one's heirs:

Joan, the Fair maid of Kent, mother of Richard II died in 1385, leaving in her will three magnificent beds.

- To my dear son the King, my new bed of red velvet, embroidered with ostrich feathers of silver, and heads of leopards of gold with boughs and leaves issuing out of their mouths.

- To my dear son Thomas Earl of Kent, my bed of red camak (silk) paled with red and rays of gold.

- To my dear son John Holland, a bed of red camak.

John, Duke of Lancaster, who died in 1399 left his beds to Katherine Swynford who was by this time in their relationship his Duchess.

- also my large bed of black velvet, embroidered with a circle of fetter-locks, and garters

- and all the beds made for my body called in England 'trussing beds' (which were beds used when travelling.)

Thus the importance of the medieval bedchamber, for sleeping, for begetting an heir, for carrying out the business of the day, for luxurious comfort and, last but by no means least, for making an impression on your guests, both peers and inferiors.


Visit my website for news of my new historical novel, THE KING'S SISTER, the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and Elizabeth of Lancaster.


  1. Not just a bed... Fascinating article!

  2. Fascinating as always. Thank you Anne for bringing history to life for us.

  3. I wonder if there are plans for construction of any of these beds that have survived..


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