Friday, July 6, 2018

16th Century British Furniture Primer

by K.M. Pohlkamp

My character hears approaching footsteps, and she knows she mustn’t be discovered with the poison in her hand. Rushing to her intended victim’s bed chamber, she hides behind the...

Uh… What does she hide behind? What furniture would have existed in a 16th century noble bedroom?

Such plot questions often send me into a consuming spiral of research, and this one was no different. But I vehemently maintain perusing Tudor history websites counts as writing - it’s for research! And at least it’s more easily justified than scanning my Twitter feed.

Unfortunately, however, as the prominent British woodwork journalist, Charles Hayward, truthfully writes of England:

“...[T]he troublous times through which this country went in the Middle Ages certainly enabled destruction to carry out its work of waste. An army marching through an enemy country would spare little that came its way, and even in peaceful times the outbreak of fire must have been an ever-present source of danger. Domestic houses are invariably built of timber and, as the fire on the open hearth is almost never allowed to go out, being just fanned to a flame every morning, the chances of the building catching fire is high.”

In addition to the likelihood that furniture was destroyed, few pieces existed to begin with. During the medieval period, furniture was sparse and a symbol of status and wealth resulting from the scarcity of wood and skilled artisans.

However, Henry VIII began to change this. The King benefited from the frugality of his predecessor, Henry VII, and used the Crown’s amassed financial reserves to outfit his palaces with luxurious furniture. Cardinal Wolsey shared the King’s fondness for lavish spending and an inventory of Hampton Court records once listed 280 beds.

During Tudor England, a well-off master bedroom contained a bed, a chest to hold clothes, and possibly a cupboard. Beyond the bedroom, homes of nobility usually also contained a large table, a chair for the owner of the house, benches and stools for the rest of the household, a cupboard, and a chest. Poorer souls often only had a mattress and stools or benches. It was not until later in Queen Elizabeth’s reign that wealth and prosperity became more commonplace and yeomen famers were able to purchase additional pieces of furniture. But what did Tudor furniture look like? As with most historical questions, the few surviving pieces, writings, and artwork can help us piece together the past.

Cupboards, Aumbrys and Chests

From 1300-1550, the armoire or aumbry served the equivalent purpose of today’s cupboard. In English, the term armoire evolved to aumbry, then ambry and almery, which derives from a term for hutch, which was a box storing meat and bread scraps to be given to the poor. It is not until later in the reign of Henry VIII that the word “cupboard” is found, but in this time period, both terms are appropriate. John Smythe (1490-1544) of Blackmore Priory referred to a “fine almery with four dores for breade” in his 1543 will, and a 1527 inventory of Cardinal Wolsey’s possessions included 21 “cupboardes of waynescotte whereof V be close cupboards.”

Regardless of its name, this piece of furniture was used to store food. The first aumbrys were simple boxes with shelves and doors, but later, “Gothic tracery” was added to the front to provide ventilation for the purposes of food preservation.

A press cupboard from 16101

Depiction of late-16th-century three drawer chest1

Tudor-style cabinet5

The “court cupboard,” or set of shelves, first appeared in Britain during the Tudor period and is believed to have come from Italy or France. These pieces sometimes included hidden drawers used by aristocracy to store plates, eating utensils, wine, and other things. The top was often covered with cloth.

Example of a court cupboard and its hidden drawers1


While chairs became more common in Tudor England, they were still expensive. The use of chairs was often restricted to high-ranking persons. Consider the platforms at the end of great halls featuring an imposing throne chair. Even in an upper-class home, children and servants used stools and only the head of the house had a chair. Everyone else was left to settle with benches, stools, and even sit on chests. The poor only had stools and benches.

The transition from sitting on chests to chairs is evident in 16th century chair design which was inspired by the six-board chest. This can be seen by comparing the depicted chair’s construction with the chest above.

Box chair 10th-16th century1


In the late 16th century, the “tester” (or canopy) above beds of the privileged were no longer suspended from the ceiling, giving rise to the “four-posted bed.” Curtains were still hung from the tester to reduce draft and contain warmth.

Sketch of a "four-posted bed" from the late 16th century1

In a middle-class home, the mattress was often stuffed with flock (a type of rough wool). The poor, however, slept on mattresses stuffed with stray or thistledown that were laid upon ropes strung across a wooden frame.

To explore some design terminology evident in the depicted bed, the two foot posts of the piece are elaborately decorated with vertical lines known as flutes which are topped with ionic capitals. The large turned shapes of the posts are called bulbs and note how thick they are. These shapes would diminish in breadth in later Jacobian furniture. The frieze, or central area under the bed’s tester, could have been inlayed with an emblem, a family crest, or another decorative motif. Common themes for bed decor was for each post to represent one of The Four Evangelists, or angels.

Wood Paneling

In affluent houses, walls might be lined with oak paneling to keep out drafts if they were not already lined with tapestries for the same purpose. The earliest wood panels in Britain were made from riven oak, smoothed with an adze. Three common designs for wood paneling appeared in Tudor homes: the linenfold, the parchemin or vine pattern, and more Renaissance inspired carved panels.

Linenfold Wood Panel7
Rare pair of early 16th century parchemin panels8


Wait… Huh? 

In the 15th century a small minority of people could afford glass windows, however, in the 16th century they became more common – but again, they were still expensive. Thus if you moved to a new house, the windows moved with you along with the furniture. Period windows were made of small pieces of glass held together by strips of lead, known as “lattice windows.”

Technique and Decoration

16th century furniture was made by guilds that specialized in the trades of upholstery, turning, joinery, and carpentry. Guilds determined who was allowed to practice the trade in order to maintain standards and regulate prices. This also controlled how much furniture was produced and resulted in common designs. For example, members of carpentry guilds were not allowed to use mortice and tenon joints and "joiner” guilds were not allowed to use nails.

Amongst woodworkers, early 16th century to ~1650 is known as “The Period of Oak” until England’s native oak wood was replaced with walnut and mahogany. Hinges at this time were made of iron.

As far as design, British oak furniture falls into three distinct eras: Gothic, Renaissance, and the Jacobean/Commonwealth periods.

During Tudor England, Gothic motifs fell out of fashion and were deemed too crowded with detail, however, the painted ornate styles hung around in England more so than the rest of Europe. This may have been influenced by Henry VIII’s separation from the Roman Catholic Church that delayed the spread of Italian Renaissance styling to the country.

Tudor furniture décor was dominated by turning, painting, and inlays (where wood is set into recessed areas), especially of floral and geometric designs. As mentioned above, to our modern eyes Tudor furniture had large turnings and coarse design not found in the finer craftsmanship of later periods that reduced the size of design elements. It looks “heavy” or “massive” and consequently was not terribly comfortable – though I would rather sit in a straight-back chair then on a stool or the floor. But the “massive” quality may have contributed to the durability of furniture. Furniture was expected to last for generations and be passed to children and grandchildren.

Panels, such as on chests, cabinets, or beds, were often decorated with biblical or mythological subjects. Round-headed arches and semi-circular fan patters were used along with animal forms (dolphin or lion head) and of course the Tudor rose, carnation, or a vine.

However by 1530, the impact of Italian Renaissance design begins to appear in English furniture. These new motifs of symmetry, classical antiquity, and humanism coordinated well with the old linen-fold designs. The design transition was accelerated by Elizabeth I who opened England to Italian aesthetics.

(Lastly for the curious reader, my assassin crouches behind a tall, oak chest as the door creaks open in her wake, but TBD if the cover proves sufficient...)

References and For Further Reading:
[1] McInnis, Raymond. A History of Woodworking: Narratives of Woodworking Ephocs in America and Britain. Accessed 6/27/18:

[2] Symbols of Status in 16th Century and 17th Century England. Accessed 6/30/18:

[3] Muscato, Christopher. 16th Century English Furniture: History & Styles. Accessed 6/30/18:

[4] The Red List. Furniture Design: English Tudor & Elizabethan (second half of the 16th century). Accessed 6/30/18.

[5] European Furniture Styles Handbook: Tudor Furniture. Accessed 6/30/18.

[6] Lambert, Tim. A World History Encyclopedia: Life in 16th Century England. Accessed 6/30/18.

[7] Panel-Linen Fold. Heartwood Carving Design, Fabrication, Restoration and Customization. Accessed 6/30/18.

[8] Rare pair of 16th century parchemin panels. Woodcock Antiques. Accessed 6/30/18.


K.M. Pohlkampis the author of the Readers’ Favorite 5-star novel Apricots and Wolfsbane, which follows the career of a female poison assassin in Tudor England. The historic thriller was short listed for the 2018 International Chaucer Historical Fiction Awards and received a 2018 Best Book Award – Historical/Tudor from the Texas Association of Authors. K.M. is a proud mother of two, a blessed wife to the love of her life, and a Mission Control flight controller at NASA. Originally from Wisconsin, she now resides in Houston, Texas.

Twitter: @KMPohlkamp
Google Play: (Helps out the author at no additional cost to you!)

1 comment:

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.