Everything you need to know about the four-poster bed
Ever dream of owning a fairytale bed? Raft’s teak four-poster bed is our stylish take on the concept – and behind it is over 500 years of bedroom history. Here’s everything you need to know about the classic four-poster...
Few would disagree that there is something magical about a four-poster bed – and it’s a magic that has endured for centuries, despite major changes in the way we live and sleep. When we think about four-posters, what comes to mind? They feature frequently in some of the world’s grandest hotels and, closer to home, as a popular element of English country house style. So, we’re most likely to associate them with a sense of luxury and opulence, not to mention a touch of romance. But what are the origins of the four-poster, where can you find some of the finest historic or most memorable examples, and what should you look for in a modern four-poster?
What is a traditional four-poster bed?
The most striking aspect of a four-poster bed is the columns that rise from each corner and which are approximately 190 centimetres in height (or six feet, as we are being traditional). The earliest versions were made of wood, usually oak, and were designed to support a rectangular wooden panel, known as a tester. The posts, headboard and tester would be elaborately carved and rails attached the tester, from which hung heavy, often embroidered draperies, made of wool, silk or damask, depending on the budget and status of the owner.
When were the earliest four-poster beds made?
Perhaps it’s the cinema and TV effect but, in the UK at least, we tend to think of four-poster beds in the context of the Tudor and Elizabethan periods. The Laird’s bed at Crathes Castle in Scotland is a fine example:
[caption id="attachment_3530" align="alignnone" width="700"] Image: Oleg Krylov[/caption]
However, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that they featured much earlier in medieval castles and grand homes, where they served a dual purpose: first, a four poster, with its curtain tightly drawn offered some privacy at a time when servants often slept in the same room as their masters and mistresses. Second, castles were notoriously cold and the same heavy curtains were highly effective at keeping out night chills and draughts. The tester wasn’t simply for ornament either: it acted as a buffer for spiders and other creepy crawlies and protected the sleepers beneath from unwelcome nighttime visitors.
One of world’s most famous four-posters is the Great Bed of Ware, the V&A Museum’s best-known object, attracting many thousands of visitors each year.[caption id="attachment_3525" align="alignnone" width="700"] Image: Victoria and Albert Museum[/caption]
Dating from 1590, it was made in Ware, Hertfordshire, probably for an inn, where it would have become an immediate talking point. An early tourist attraction perhaps? The bed is over three metres wide and can accommodate at least four couples, many of whom carved their initials on the bed or left their mark in the form of red wax seals on the headboard or bedposts. By the time Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night in 1601, the Great Bed of Ware’s fame had spread sufficiently to warrant a mention by Sir Toby Belch.
[caption id="attachment_3529" align="alignnone" width="700"] Image: The Mermaid Inn & Rye[/caption]
If you’ve never slept in a four-poster bed, the historic Mermaid Inn at Rye in Sussex, which dates from 1420, offers what might be the ultimate experience – seven of its bedrooms are furnished with four-posters, so you’ll be spoilt for choice.
The height of four-poster luxury – at a price
There are, perhaps, no more opulent four-posters than the beds to be found at the Château de Versailles in the King’s and Queen’s apartments.
[caption id="attachment_3533" align="alignnone" width="700"] Image: Lynn Byrne[/caption]
Adorned with embroidered silks and an abundance of gold leaf, no expense was spared in their creation. Despite the grandeur, Bourbon royal couples enjoyed little four-poster privacy, with almost every aspect of their lives, including their marital lives and extra-marital love intrigues, not to mention the birth of their children, subject to the constant scrutiny and surveillance of courtiers, extended family members, clerics and servants.
An iconic Arts and Crafts four-poster bed
If you have a fondness for this period, then a visit to Kelmscott Manor in Oxfordshire is a must. Formerly the home of William Morris and his wife Jane (known as Janey), it’s the setting for what many regard as the finest example of an Arts and Crafts bed.
[caption id="attachment_3531" align="alignnone" width="700"] Image: William Morris in Quilting[/caption]
This four-poster features a set of exquisite draperies, designed by the couple’s daughter, May Morris, and which include a hand stitched version of William Morris’s Poem for the Bed at Kelmscott. Sadly, like the bed hangings at Versailles, the sumptuous Kelmscott bed draperies, which took 35 weeks to complete, were no guarantee of marital happiness – Janey’s affair with the manor’s joint leaseholder, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, sent shockwaves across the Morris circle.
Four-posters – the stuff of children’s literature
With their air of magic and mystery, it’s no surprise that four-poster beds feature so often in children’s book illustrations – as they do in films of the books (think Harry Potter and Hogwarts). Among the most memorable are Edmund Dulac’s illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea. What a clever young woman to be able to detect the presence of the pea under all those mattresses and, in so doing, to win her prince…[caption id="attachment_3532" align="alignnone" width="700"] Illustration by Sir Arthur Rackham[/caption]
Unlike the Bourbons and the Morrises, this couple did manage to live happily ever after – or so we are told.
Today’s four-posters – a welcome lightness of touch
Centuries later, we are still in thrall to the joy of the four-poster bed but today’s designs are altogether more pared down, reflecting contemporary preferences for minimalist interiors. You don’t need to worry about constantly dusting all those carved nooks and crevices. And, in case you think that a high ceiling is essential to accommodate a four-poster bed, modern versions are designed to fit comfortably into today’s family home, with average ceiling heights. A modern four-poster makes a strong statement without overpowering everything else in the room.
Raft’s simple but elegant teak four-poster bed reflects its South East Asian roots. It’s handcrafted by our skilled workers in Indonesia from 100% reclaimed teak, making it green and unique. Its classic lines will suit most design settings, whether your bedroom is furnished with up to the minute, on trend furniture, vintage, mix and match, or antiques.
Then there’s the fun of dressing the bed: for a contemporary look, opt for clean, crisp white or neutral bed linen, and add a textured throw, like Raft’s Lambswool Windowpane. Not only will it look good on your bed, but its luxurious softness will keep you extra snug on cold winter nights. Team it with some co-ordinating cushions, such as Raft’s handmade versions in salt or pepper to complete the look.
Today’s efficiently heated homes – and the absence of servants sleeping at the foot of the bed – mean that you don’t need to think about heavy bed curtains. But an artfully thrown length of white or ivory cotton voile draped over the rails will give your bed a certain something: a nod in the direction of the past, as well as a hint of the tropics, where drapes like this are used to keep out pesky mosquitoes. Using cotton voile in this way also gives you a cost-effective way of ringing the changes and adding some hints of seasonal colour – for example, vibrant colours in summer, when natural light is at its strongest, soft greens in spring, or russet tones in autumn.
For a finishing touch add a bedside rug or two. Raft’s Aurora reversible rug is handwoven from the finest wool, comes in two neutral colours, grey and sand, and is available in three different sizes. It’s also remarkably durable but still luxurious enough for any four-poster loving princess or prince.
Raft is one of the world’s largest retailers of 100% recycled teak, which we turn into stunning and enduring furniture for the home and workplace. Take a look at our full range of bedroom furniture here.