That sly creature to the left is Barbara Villiers Palmer, Countess of Castlemaine and Duchess of Cleveland (1640-1709). Barbara was the mistress of King Charles II for nearly fifteen years, and as this portrait indicates, life was never dull when Barbara was around. She’s the heroine of the book I just finished last month (Royal Harlot, to be released in July). Considering how every other novel and history shows Barbara in a negative light, if not as the out-and-out villainess, I figure she owes me a bit of blog-inspiration in return.
And so, with Barbara in mind, I’ll write about beds.
I write on my bed. I don’t even own a desk, let alone an office or a study. I write on a laptop, either in my car or on the bed. Scattered round me I’ll have open research books and sleeping cats, Diet Pepsi, and perhaps a bag of M&Ms. I know, I know, this breaks every ergonomic rule for writers, and orthopedists everywhere would look away in horror.
Yet no one would have looked askance if I were an English lady from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, (Especially not orthopedists, because they hadn’t been invented yet.) Those ladies loved their beds. Not only for the obvious reasons that Lady Castlemaine did –– her bed was her fortune, so to speak –– but because ladies did a great many other things there, too. They read, and wrote letters, and took tea, and read lessons and prayers with children, and received friends while in their beds.
A lady’s bed was like the throne of a king or queen, a splendid, costly, decorative piece of furniture to reinforce their social status. Beds could be a cozy refuge in a drafty chamber that depended on a distant fireplace for heat. They could display not only the lady herself, in her beribboned bed-cap, but also her skill with a needle, if she’d been the one to embroider the bed’s hangings. A lady could be “brought to bed of a fine son”, a popular 18th century expression for childbirth, but she’d be mystified by “going to bed” as a twenty-first century euphemism for sex.
Our lady’s bed would be more properly called a high bedstead –– the wooden frame itself, standing about two feet high or higher. Tall posts, often elaborately carved or painted, stood at each corner of the bedstead, and supported the flat frame, or tester. Curtains hung on horn or metal rings from a rail in the tester, and could be drawn close for warmth and privacy. Over the curtains hung a narrow decorative valance, with a headcloth hanging down at the head of the bedstead. The bedsteads and curtains grew more complicated with each generation, until a noble lady’s bedstead could have gilded woodwork, crests or shields, heavy silk tassels and swagged fringe along the valences, spangled silk curtains, carved urns on the posts, and plumes on the headboard. (Bedsteads with curving high canopies that today we think of as vaguely “colonial” would have been called called field bedsteads –– a descendant of the folding beds used by army officers on campaigns, with the arching canopies inspired by their tents.)
The bed itself was what we’d call the mattress: a giant, flat pillow, stuffed with feathers and down. The casing was called a bed tick, made of sturdy linen to prevent the feathers from escaping. Beneath the feather-bed would be a mattress stuffed with hair or wool, with a straw-stuffed paliasse beneath this for additional height. These layers rested on rope “springs”, a loosely woven criss-cross inside the bedstead that needed frequent tightening with a crank-like device called a bed-jack (the forgotten meaning behind “sleep tight”.) On the bed were sheets, a long pillow called a bolster that supported the pillows in their pillow-biers (cases), linen sheets, a woolen rug or blanket, and a coverlet. With so many expensive components, it’s easy to see why the best bedchamber’s bedstead and “furnishings” are often among the first items listed in inventories, and why they’re specifically mentioned in wills, left from one generation to the next.
Bedsteads look short to modern eyes, leading to the incorrect conclusion that people used to be much shorter. (Some were, true, but for the record, George Washington, Charles II, Peter the Great, and Thomas Jefferson were all over six feet tall; Princess Mary of Orange was 5’10”.) Instead people slept in a sloping, half-sitting position, their heads and shoulders supported by the bolsters and pillows. This was considered healthier, and probably was, too, in a time when nearly everyone suffered from chronic bronchitis from wood smoke.
So were these old beds comfortable? I’ve tried out a few, and to my contemporary bones, I’m afraid I’d have to answer a resounding NO. They’re lumpy and unresiliant and creaky and sink down into a perilous valley in the middle. I doubt most of us would sleep at all, let alone enjoy all the other activities that our characters do. As evocative as the experience would be, I don’t think I’d find much happiness writing on one with my laptop, either.
But for the Countess of Castlemaine and her king –– ahh, her smile says it all, doesn’t it?
What about you? Do you make your bed the minute you jump from it, or do you use it as a respite throughout the day? Or do you have any "bed-lore" of your own that you’d like to share?