“Margery slipped from the vast bed – it had almost engulfed her and the mattress was so soft…”
Last night as I was lying in my bed with soft feather pillows but a very hard mattress, I thought about beds in general and beds in historical romances in particular. I almost always model the beds in my stories on ones I’ve seen in stately homes so they are usually grand testers or fourposters with embroidered hangings. I tend to make them huge as well, which isn’t strictly accurate since the beds I’ve seen in the majority of grand houses are pretty small, possibly too small to share comfortably and so high you might roll out if you indulged in any strenuous activity!
Margery, the heroine of my new book Forbidden, out later this month, is a former maidservant. As such she has been accustomed to sleeping in a narrow bed in an attic room shared with other maids.
When she was promoted to be a lady’s maid she had her own small bedroom near that of her mistress. It is only when Margery goes to her grandfather’s stately home, Templemore, that she is given an entire suite of rooms of her own, and a bed like a huge galleon that she, a small woman, almost gets lost in. I used the suite of rooms that I stayed in at Coombe Abbey to inspire me. This was the bed (in the photo on the right) and I didn't get a wink of sleep because I fully expected the ghosts of previous occupants of the house to waft past at any moment!
In contrast, I’ve seen servants’ bedrooms at Ashdown House and they were tiny. In fact they weren’t really bedrooms at all, just narrow strips of space partitioned off from one large open attic. There was little privacy, but then no one expected it. This servant's bedroom in another National Trust house is palatial in comparison.
The Tudor Bed
In Medieval and Tudor times the bed was one of the most valuable items in a household so when
Shakespeare left his best bed to his daughter and heir and only his second best bed to his wife that would have been totally understandable to his contemporaries. Beds from this period were usually “box beds” with rope stretchers that supported boards on which the mattress would lie. They had to be tightened regularly (from which we get the saying “sleep tight” and the bed itself was too complicated a contraption to move so it remained in the chamber whilst all the movable pieces – hangings, mattresses, pillows, bed linen – travelled around with the family. Servants tended to have pallet to sleep on in the same room or a truckle bed that pulled out from beneath the main bed. The hangings started off separate from the bed, hanging from hooks on the ceiling, but soon became a part of the bed structure. This is a picture of Mary Queen of Scots' bedroom from my recent visit to Holyroodhouse Palace. (Incidentally the "state bed" of a monarch was not a functional bed as such, but a representation of royalty. No one, whatever their rank, was allowed to lean on Henry’s VIII’s bedpost because it represented the royal person. The state bed was used for the ritual of going to bed in the evening and rising in the morning, but then the monarch would often slip away to a smaller, more comfortable bed elsewhere!)
The best mattresses were sacks of wool that were stuffed with down and feathers, although other stuffings including straw, gorse, seaweed and wigs (yes, really) have all been found in medieval mattresses. I’ve tried straw mattresses and found them very prickly. Gorse, I imagine would be unbearably scratchy and I can’t imagine anyone wanting to lie on it and even the best feather mattresses I have sampled from this period were very lumpy but then I am like the Princess and the Pea, a very poor sleeper.
Of course the average person had only a pallet on the floor of a cottage to sleep on. Babies slept in drawers and people shared beds not from choice but because they had no choice. I do wonder if I had been a medieval peasant whether I would have got used to sleeping in very cramped conditions. I suspect I would probably have been so tired all the time that I would have been able to sleep anywhere!
The Great Bed of Ware
One of my favourite beds is the "great bed of Ware", which was built in the Elizabethan period. It is almost ten feet wide and was probably built not to sleep in but as a tourist attraction for an inn in Ware, Hertfordshire. Shakespeare used is as a byword for hugeness in Twelfth Night and 26 butchers and their wives allegedy spent the night in it for a bet in 1689. It was made of oak and was therefore considered only "middling grand" because the best beds of the time were made of walnut.
The Regency Experience
In a previous blog post I noted how surprised I was that when I visited the Georgian House in Edinburgh the main bedchamber was on the ground floor and also doubled up as a parlour for receiving guests. I also visited Newhailes, a Georgian country house on the outskirts of the city where the "best bedroom" was also on the ground floor in a room off the drawing room. By the Regency period, however, most houses had all their bedrooms upstairs and had moved away from the idea of bedrooms as public spaces to ideas of privacy. (The photo shows one of the interconnecting bedrooms at Ashdown, built in the 17th century when you would still expect someone to wander through your room on their way somewhere else!) Regency beds tended to be high because of the very fat mattresses and feather bolsters, and steps were provided to help you climb in.
A word about marriage beds (most appropriately for a historical romance blog.) The colour green was associated with Venus, the goddess of love, and therefore many bridal beds were hung with green. I also love the tradition of decorating the marriage bed with violets and jasmine. That would have smelled beautiful.
The last word on bedchambers goes to Margery, who is driven out of her bedchamber at Templemore when her bed hangings catch fire after she falls asleep reading in bed. The terrifying Dowager Lady Wardeaux offers her a new bedchamber:
"Eventually Margery was installed in the North Tower room, a circular chamber with walls covered in yet more family portraits and a spiral stair leading down to the ground.
“I wanted something smaller,” she wailed, feeling like a marble rattling around in a huge box.
“I’ve explained that there is nothing smaller,” Lady Wardeaux said with barely concealed exasperation. “We do not have small rooms here at Templemore.”
I hope I am not being too personal when I enquire into your sleep preferences! Do you sleep like a log or catnap lightly? Are you a feather mattress sort of person or would you like to try gorse (perfect for Scottish heroes and heroines?) Do you prefer Victorian brass or wooden fourposters?