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In Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, Act III, Sir Toby Belch uses the Great Bed of Ware in England as a measuring stick for something that is impossibly large. The Great Bed of Ware is a real bed, as it was in Shakespeare’s lifetime, that was made for travellers to use when staying at an inn. The bed itself is, as Sir Toby suggests, impossibly large, with sleeping capacity for up to 9 people! Here today to tell us about the history and importance of The Great Bed of Ware, is our guest and Curator, Furniture and Woodwork 1300-1700 at the Victoria and Albert Museum where the Great Bed of Ware is part of the collections, Nick Humphrey.
Nick Humphrey is Curator, Furniture and Woodwork 1300-1700 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Before joining the V&A in 1994 he worked for the National Trust and at Burghley House, Lincolnshire. He has published various articles and papers in relation to his contributions to the V&A’s galleries. He serves as Bursary Secretary for the Regional Furniture Society, and as a member of the Furniture History Society Editorial Committee. He has published various articles and papers in relation to his contributions to the V&A’s galleries covering Britain 1500-1900 (2001) for which he was the Tudor and Stuart curatorial lead, Medieval and Renaissance (2009), Europe 1600-1815 (2015) and the Dr Susan Weber Gallery of Furniture (2012), of which he was co-curator.
I’ll be asking Nick Humphrey about:
- Who built the Great Bed of Ware, and why did he build it?
- Where was the Great Bed of Ware originally located?
- Today, the bed is dark brown, but would the bed have been dark brown when it was originally installed at the White Hart Inn, or was it painted?
- …and more!
Resources Recommended by Our Guest
A chapter about the bed in V&A “Lives of the Objects” which takes 10 of the museum’s most celebrated treasures and explores them in great depth.
For those interested in British furniture of the period, the best introductory survey is Victor Chinnery Oak Furniture the British Tradition (1979, revised 2016). 📚 Earlier editions are cheaper.
Tara Hamling A Day in Early Modern England, Material Culture 1500-1700 📚
Did Shakespeare Have a Canopy Bed?
To find out how long the canopy bed held in fashion for England, and exactly why it was that sleepers of times past started putting drapes over their beds in the first place, we are asking: Did Shakespeare Have a Canopy Bed?
Who built the Great Bed of Ware?
The Great Bed of Ware was popular in the 16th century, and has survived as a popular novelty since then. Despite the popularity of the bed itself, little is known about who made it, or why. It is known that the bed was made around 1590, a date which can be firmly dated by comparing the design of the bed to other known pieces of the period.
The bed has always been associated with Ware, England, in Hertfordshire. The distance between Ware and London, a day’s journey by coach or by horse, indicates that there must have been a workshop in London that produced the bed, and that of substantial size.
To make the Great Bed of Ware would have involved wood turners, carvers, inlayers, painters, and varnishers, just to name a few craftsmen. The bed would have been made in sections that would have then been assembled on site. All tester beds of this period were made in sections in order that the bed could be taken through the narrow doorways between rooms. The Great Bed of Ware, being much bigger than any standard bed, would have absolutely needed to be constructed via sections that could be fitted through the door. Nick explains this was true for all big beds, “which is why you can find bed bolts very early in history.”
The decorative and practical furnishings, called soft furnishings, for the bed–things like sheets and coverlets–would have been purchased separately by the bed’s owner. In the early modern period, these linens would have been ordered by the clients, who would have hired mercers, seamstresses, and others to complete the project. The sheer number of people involved in constructed a bed at all, much less one as large as The Great Bed of Ware, also contributes to the difficulty of saying that any one person made the bed. It is not known who the original person was that conceived of the bed’s design, though there’s some theories that it must have been an inn owner looking to maximize his sleeping capacity.
As you might expect about a large fixture in popular culture, there are legends surrounding the bed. One legend says that The Great Bed of Ware was made in 15th century by Jonas Fosbrook, but that was a story created in 1849, concocted entirely for a Christmas pantomime, titled “The Great Bed of Ware”, performed at the Theater Royal Covent Garden. The story in that performance told that the bed was made as a present for the royal family. After the death of the royal patriarch, Fosbrook’s spirit came back to torment commoners that dared to sleep in a royal bed. Supposedly, the ghost would pinch or scratch occupants and only a true lover could endure a night of pinching in this bed. Unfortunately that tale was repeated as factual and misled many 19th century authors. Turns out the tale was excellent marketing for the bed, however, as the story encouraged travelers who wanted to test their mettle (and their status as true lovers) by sleeping in the bed. Nick points out that the tale itself could have been circulated by the inn owner to explain away bed bugs.
“if thou thou’st him some thrice, it shall not be amiss; and as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough— Sir Toby Belch, Twelfth Night (III.2)r
for the bed of Ware in England…”
How many people can sleep in the Great Bed of Ware?
Physically, the bed is imposing and massive. It is nearly 9 feet high, 11 feet wide, and another 11 feet deep. All together, it is almost three times the size of a standard King Size bed.
If you sandwich people into the bed, alternating them laying head-to-feet, and side by side, you can fit up to 12 people into the bed at one time (no promises on how comfortable that might be to accomplish). Nick shares that over the centuries, the size of the bed is the most talked about attribute. There’s one story from 1596 when four couples slept in the bed simultaneously. Later, there’s a story from the 1700s when six couples slept in the bed together. By 1728, there’s a record of twelve butchers and their wives (no clear indication about why butchers, specifically), and then in 1732, supposedly the bed was big enough to sleep 20 couples. Eventually, that record moves up even further to 26. Nick jokes that it is on the project list for a future display at the V&A to measure out the size of the bed and let school children see how many can fit into the given space.
Where is Ware, England?
The first recorded mention of this enormous bed is in 1596, when it is recorded in Ware, England, in Hertfordshire. The town itself is known as a traveler’s town and accordingly, there are several inns in Ware to accommodate them.
Back in 1596, one famous traveler, Prince Ludwig of Anhalt-Köthen, slept in what must have been the Great Bed of Ware. He was so impressed with the experience, that Ludwig wrote about his visit in verse, which has been translated: ‘At Ware was a bed of dimensions so wide, Four couples might cosily lie side by side, And thus without touching each other abide.’
By 1610, the bed’s location is recorded as The White Hart Inn. Read more about the Inns of Ware.
For a long time, it was assumed that such a grand bed as this must have come from a great country house in the vicinity, the assumption was made because nobody assumed it would have been made for an inn, despite lack of important corroborating evidence—no family heraldry on the bed, no reference to it in the official papers, and no convenient explanation for why it would have been moved to an inn so soon after it’s creation…
The lack of the heraldry and other tell tale signs of having been commissioned by a wealthy family is among the reasons why experts at the V&A believe The Great Bed of Ware was built as a curiosity to attract customers. Such a practice would be fitting with Tudor practice of showing distinguished guests royal beds after the death of the monarch. No one famous is thought to have died in the Great Bed of Ware, but the associated ghost stories and competitive atmosphere of being able to sleep in it, as well as how many people could be crammed into it, all represent clever marketing efforts that fit with popular traditions in early modern England.
The original color of the bed
The original wood of the bed would have been quite different than what you see today when you view it inside the V&A museum. Originally, the wood was fresh oak and would have had a pale or honey color, made lustrous with a beeswax or linseed oil polish.
Over time, wood and varnish darken with oxidation and dirt [as well as other environmental elements]. On the headstock as it survives today, there’s numerous traces of paint in bright colors: yellow, green, blue, orange, as well as brown and black, along with some gilding – persuasive evidence the oak was originally picked out in bright colors, [which is] not uncommon for 16th century furniture.
The patterns carved into the headboard of the bed would have been much more visible then than they are now. You could have expected to see strong black and white contrast, and the visual elements like the lions heads, male and female sentinels, were all included on the bed for their figurative value. They are still visible today, but would have been much bolder and clearer originally.
The Great Bed of Ware Linens
While the color of the wood and decorations found in the carvings are elaborate, Nick explains that
“to A Tudor viewer what counted was the textile coverings, which were much more valuable than the woodwork. The hangings would have been very brightly colored…”
Bedding was crucial to the overall effect of the bed and represented the greatest financial investment of the whole ensemble. Bedrooms were less private than the are today, which meant that quite often guests were invited into the sleeping quarters, and the bed worked as a kind of theater presentation.
The original bedding for the Great Bed of Ware is long gone, but what is used for the display at the V&A Museum is historically accurate bedding for middling quality houses in Southern England. As such the display not only beautifies the Great Bed of Ware, but demonstrates for visitors how smart beds were furnished in Southern England around 1600.
On one side the bedding is folded back layer by layer and you can see how it’s made up. In order from bottom to top, the bedding layers are:
- Hemp Chords are threaded through the holes of the bed rails. This is where the phrase “sleep tight” comes from, because originally what we think of as box springs on a bed were chords that had to be tightened.
- Rush Matting – over the chords is rush matting
- Mattresses- this layer was known as a “bed” in the 16th century, and for a prestigious bed, there would have been multiple layers of beds. Height matters on a bed like the Great Bed of Ware, and each mattress would have gotten progressively softer. Mattress layers include wool, straw, feathers, and even down feathers right on top.
- Linen Sheets. -over the mattresses were linen sheets. These would have been bleached and white. Some travelers wanted to be so certain they had clean sheets, they would even bring their own.
- Bolster- over the sheets was a bolster, which is something like a pillow, but designed to prop your body up in a raised position. It was considered unhealthy to sleep lying flat. Instead, it was thought you needed to sleep with your head raised to help digestion.
- Woolen Blanket — a wool blanket would come next, to keep you warm. Given the size of the Great Bed of Ware, it would have had multiple blankets sewn together.
- Quilt – after the wool blanket, would have been a quilt, possibly covered in silk, a luxurious fabric of this period.
- Coverlet- the final layer of the bed was the coverlet on top. The V&A copied a fabric known as dornix, woven in pink and green (popular color combination of the Tudor period).
- Drapes/Valances – were be hung around the bed, and could be drawn to enclose the occupant, for warmth and privacy.
- Oak Bed Staves — these look like long baseball bats, and were thrust in vertically along the edges of the bed to keep the bedding from falling off. Nick points out they were also good for flattening lumps out of the mattress.
The bedding at the V&A Museum was chosen in a bold red and yellow, which is the most popular combination in Southern England at that time. Further North, red and green was more popular.
“Sixteenth-century beds were often provided with a quilt as a major showpiece of textile. The Great Bed of Ware’s is in ‘shot sarcenet’, a taffeta type of silk with the warp and weft in different colours so that it shows different colours as the light falls from different directions. This kind of silk is often mentioned in inventories for beds in the 16th-and 17th-centuries. The silk for this quilt was woven in Castle Headingham, Suffolk. The pattern for the embroidery of the quilt was taken from a 16th-century quilt in the Museum’s collection. The two colours of the silk are ‘carnation and green’ (pink and green), one of the most recorded colour combinations. The silk was dyed with traditional vegetable-based dyes. The wadding should be woollen flocks but, as with other items on the bed, we have used inert modern fillings.”
The counterpane of a bed was always an area for display of luxury. The counterpane for the Great Bed of Ware is in a patterned fabric, woven in wool with linen and gold thread. This has been re-woven, in Montrose, Scotland, following the pattern of a 16th-century textile in the V&A’s collection. We do not know whether the V&A fragment was made in Britain or on the Continent, but we do know that it is similar to fabrics that were woven in this country. Inventories of the time list ‘dornix’ for counterpanes. We know that dornix was a fabric of mixed fibres, often wool and linen and sometimes with gold thread added, so it is likely that what is here is the fabric our ancestors knew as ‘dornix’. The new fabric is woven in brick red with natural-coloured, unbleached linen and an alternate weft in gold thread. The pattern shows a large flower-head. The dyeing of all the red wool for this project was undertaken on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, using dyes based on the plant madder. The cloth is reversible and is not lined. This is very important to the Museum as it leaves less space for insects to settle and makes the cleaning and housekeeping of a woollen textile much easier.
Washing the Bed Linens
Unlike modern inns. and hotels, the linens at an inn were not laundered after every guest. (Makes sense now why travelers brought their own!) Instead of going to the extensive work of laundering the larger linens, things like the coverlet and quilt would have been taken out for an airing. The mattresses were highly prone to bug infestations, so to prevent those, as well as mitigate any outbreaks, the stuffing would either be emptied and washed, or entirely replaced.
According to Pamela Sambrook, in her book The Country House Servant, laundry was done about four times a year, and there was some evidence to suggest it could be done more frequently if the household had the money to supply it. Whether it was a monthly clean, supplemented by a large wash quarterly, there. was traditionally a major cleaning that happened in August/September where all a households laundry was done, because the weather in that time of the year helped the material to dry quickly.
he actual task of washing linens was laborious, involving steeping the sheets in a vegetable based lye, made by wood ash and water to extract the salts, and make an alkaline cleanser. Water was added to lye and stale urine collected from the household, and maybe water steeped with bird dung from chickens or pigeons. Soak the linen in that, then rinse it and to reduce the stale smell you might add an herbal infusion afterwards, and then you finish it—this is called Blueing, by adding a blue tint (indigo or wode twigs) instead of the yellow you might otherwise get. Bleaching it was achieved by spreading it out in long grass in the wind and the sun, making sure it was not where the animals would wander. Bleaching was best done in frosty air in wintertime, and then if it wasn’t dry by that point, it was spread out on grass or bushes.
Shakespeare mentions the Great Bed of Ware in Twelfth Night and his contemporary, Ben Jonson mentions the Great Bed of Ware in his play, Epicine. Nick explains that the bed was an iconic piece of popular culture for the 16-17th century.
“Specific pieces of furniture rarely get talked about in it’s own right… yet the Bed [of Ware] itself was famous from the beginning and clearly so well known that audiences at the London theater knew all about it and didn’t have to have it explained to them. There are two things that stand out about the bed; how huge it is, and the other is sex. The bed always had a bawdy reputation, which isn’t surprising at an inn with a mix of guests. All those butchers and their wives [piled up in the bed makes it] all the more likely that touching starts and that leads to more exciting things, or to put it bluntly, as various playwrights did, communal love parties.”
The bed’s saucy reputation was well known and certainly Jacobean playwrights play on that image, but other references from the period suggest the bed was also known as a patriotic symbol. One of the most appealing literary references to the Great Bed of Ware is a printed ballad published after the Great Fire of London 1666, which describes how the bed was used to provide bedding to those in need during a national emergency.
“The iconic status, the full iconic aspect, took longer to develop than the Jacobean period but evolved into something rich and complex, wide enough to accommodate Shakespeare as well as toilet humor, patriotism, innuendo, antiquarians, tipsy tourists, and immigrants coming to London. There’s a slight risk in the elegant galleries that the bed comes across as a bit better behaved than it really was, but if you look closely you can see how the bed frame has been covered in graffiti, and red spots of sealing wax left by those that spent the night in it and wanted to commemorate their time. The earliest date is 1653. It’s vandalism in one sense, which is perhaps why the V&A turned down the opportunity to buy the bed in the 1890s, but in another sense, all that graffiti is a kind of veneration shown by people for a national relic.”
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That’s it for this week! Thank you for listening. I’m Cassidy Cash, and I hope you learn something new about the bard. I’ll see you next time!