And so to bed – February 19, 2017

And so to bed – February 19, 2017


And so to bed….

…. but to what type of bed?  Inventories often detail the number and sort of bed within the dwelling of the testator, and beds often form part of legacies within wills.  The most common appear to be feather and flock, but what about a turn-up bed or a French bed?

Well what you slept on depended very much on your status in the world.  Poor peasants and lowly servants would perhaps have a pile of straw, leaves or peat moss on the floor on which to lie, with some sort of blanket to cover themselves, literally ‘hitting the hay’.  Those a little higher up the social scale might have the straw stuffed into a linen bag, making a rudimentary mattress, which would be far more comfortable than lying on the prickly straw.

Those who could save enough money, or had the wood working skills would have a simple bed frame, with ropes strung back and forth on which to lay their mattress.  These ropes would need to be tightened frequently, as they had a tendency to sag, from which derives the expression ‘sleep tight’.  A thick strong bedmat would be laid over the bedlines and under the mattress or feather bed.


As we climb further up the social rungs your linen bag may be stuffed with other things.  Grass was better than straw (less prickly), and a plant (Galium – a member of the madder family) was widely gathered for stuffing beds throughout Europe and is still known as ‘bedstraw’.10-bedstraw

Better than these was wool (a flock bed), with feathers being the best and most comfortable of all.  The best beds had a canvas mattress or two filled with wool or straw and then a featherbed to go on top.

Lice, fleas and bed bugs were part of life.  Tightly woven mattress covers called ‘ticking’ would help prevent the spread of these insects.  Henry VIII had a straw mattress that was changed every day, however most mattresses were only changed once a year.

Through the centuries the bed frame became more substantial, and those of the wealthy were hung with rich materials.  The four poster bed, also known as a tester bed, appeared in the 14th century, which offered privacy, forming a room within a room, and protecting the occupant from the inevitable draughts.  The Great Bed of Ware, mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, was a monumental thing, over 325 cm wide, and reputed to sleep 15.  Sharing beds was not unusual, and was expected by those staying in inns when breaking a journey.

6-the-great-bed-of-ware-2006al3614_2500Bed settees are not a modern invention, with one appearing in an inventory of 1592 as a ‘bedsettle’, a bench that could be converted to a bed each night.

A boarded bed was generally a lesser quality bed, with boards rather than bedlines to support the bed, and usually without a tester or canopy.

A wooden or cloth canopy over a posted bed would be called a ceiling, though a ‘ceiled’ bed would mean a panelled bedstead, with or without canopy.

The dower bed was one that was part of the wife’s dowry, and the field bed could be dismantled to make it portable and was often used by officers in the field.  A Flanders bed is a panelled bedstead with curtains and tester, and a folding bed, also known as a turn-up bed could do ‘what it says on the box’, i.e. fold down into a box.  A French bed is a simple wooden frame covered with material and curtains to form a plain rectangular box.  A half-headed bed has a canopy covering only the top half of the bed, supported only by the posts of the bedhead.


The posted bed was the general name for a bed with either four posts or two foot-posts and a high bedhead, with a canopy or ceiling, sometimes called a tester, or cloth or wood.  The posted bed arrived early in the 16th century, before that curtains and canopies would be suspended from the ceiling above the bed.  These suspended canopies continued in use, known as tent beds.

The trendle/trickle/truckle bed was a low bed on wheels which could be stored under the main bed, and was usually used for children or servants.



Close/closet beds were frequently to be found in cottages, particularly in Breton, where the bed was built into a cupboard, which could be closed up during the day, and which kept the occupants cosy during the night.  Sometimes double decker versions would provide a separate sleeping area for children above the parents.