And So to Bed

Forbidden_350Nicola here. 

“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. Elizabeth of Bohemia's bed
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!


Servant's bedroomIn 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 Mary Queen of Scots bedroom
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

The great bed of wareOne 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 Ashdown bedroom 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?  


Desired - USNicola here. My latest book, Desired, is officially out tomorrow although it has been sighted on the shelves a whole two weeks early. Desired is book 5 in my Scandalous Women of the Ton series and the heroine, Tess Darent, continues the tradition of doing something rather unusual for a woman in Regency England. Tess is an artist and cartoonist who secretly uses her skill to caricature the government and make the case for political reform. Tess's work brings her into serious conflict with the British government, which at the time sought to repress the radical reformers and philanthropists who called for changes in society. I based Tess's drawings on the work of real artists of the period so today I thought I would talk a little about satirical cartoons in the Regency.

A window onto society

The satirical and humorous prints of the Georgian and Regency era give a fascinating insight into thePitt and Napoleon attitudes and opinions of the time. Many of them addressed political issues including the wars with America and France and later the profligacy of the Regency period itself. Others show contemporary attitudes to sex and scandal, fashion and even the pleasures of London life. Over the 60 years from 1770 to 1830, more and more of the literate middle classes as well as the upper classes would be influenced by the debates raised in the satirical prints. At first their influence was felt mainly in London but as the 19th century moved on there was an insatiable appetite to follow what was happening in the capital and in government so the popularity of the satirical prints also spread to the provinces.

An interesting fact about the London prints was that until the 1820s they were largely focussed on life in the capital and did not reflect the wider issues of the Industrial Revolution such as conditions in the northern factories. They commented on the Napoleonic Wars at great length (the cartoon above shows William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte dividing up Europe between them) but seldom on the cost in terms of the numbers of men injured or killed. They were not particularly concerned with culture; few comments were made on the literature of the day or developments in science. The Prince of Wales’s patronage of the arts was generally seen as a something to be mocked as were most things about him. During the time that parliament sat, political prints were the most popular. Outside the parliamentary season the cartoonists tended to concentrate on social satire. The feud between George IV and Queen Caroline generated 601 prints in 1820 alone. 

Selling like hot cakes

There were various methods by which the cartoons were reproduced though most were engraved ontoGeorge IV copper plates. Print runs also varied. The most successful prints sold up to a couple of thousand sheets. The first caricature of the Prince of Wales’s marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert sold so well that Fore’s print shop was “crowded with servants of the beau monde for several days, demanding impressions faster than they could be printed.” (The Prince and his excesses were a prime target for the satirists, as seen in the picture on the right) If a shop was first with the latest news or gossip it could charge more, so Fore’s charged the high price of two shillings and sixpence for that particular exclusive. James Gillray’s Political-dreamings, published in 1801 was considered so sensational that it sold out in days. Sometimes demand was so high that the copperplate wore out and a new engraving had to be made. William Hogarth's pictures were constantly re-engraved and reissued and in the 1810s the print seller Thomas Tegg reprinted cartoons by Rowlandson and others.

It was the practice for print shops to display their wares in their windows and these often drew the crowds. It was also popular for purchasers to paste cartoons onto screens; Byron had a screen printed with famous boxers on one side and famous actresses on the other! There was an entire room devoted to framed caricatures at Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and a room wallpapered with prints at Rokeby Park in Durham.

Politics and scandal

Gillray - Charles James FoxThe upper classes perused the cartoons as avidly as other men and women but seldom went to purchase them themselves. Instead they would send a servant or have a standing order with a certain printmaker. Politicians frequently collected the cartoons in which they featured. Charles James Fox, one of the most caricatured politicians of the 1780s and 1790s had a special bound collection made of all the prints in which he had featured and invited his visitors to browse through them. (The cartoon above is by James Gillray and shows a political gathering at the house of Charles James Fox.) The Prince of Wales had the biggest collection; he was obsessed with keeping an eye on society’s opinion of him despite the fact that few of the cartoons were kind.

The idea of Tess Darent being a female cartoonist is based on fact. Women both consumed and drewPeterloo some of the popular cartoons, and many were print collectors. Surviving collections show a preference for gossip; like contemporary magazines the prints featured fashion and scandal, including cartoons about the Prince of Wales’s romantic entanglements and several high society marital scandals, but politics also featured as well. Drawing was a skill that many young ladies learned and some of them designed their own satires. This was a pleasing way for them to make fun of men; their pride, arrogance and absurdity. Tess is unusual as a female caricaturist in focussing entirely on domestic political issues but this was not unknown; after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 there was a great deal of criticism of government policy, including the cartoon above.

As well as a caricaturist for a herione, Desired also features an American sea captain hero and a tour through some of the less well known parts of London from the Dulwich Picture Gallery to the Greenwich docks! I absolutely loved writing Tess's story and I hope anyone who picks it up will enjoy both her unusual talent for satire and her love story.

Are you artistic? What sort of creative talents do you have for drawing or music or designing things? Or what talent would you like to have? I have a print copy of Desired to give away to one commenter between now and midnight tomorrow.