The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

Four-poster bed at Westwood Manor, Wiltshire. (Copyright  David Winpenny)
Four-poster bed at Westwood Manor, Wiltshire. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

We spend about a third of our lives in them – but how often do we think about our beds and our bedrooms? We know that Shakespeare thought about his beds – in his will he left his second-best one to his wife, Anne Hathaway.

This might seem like a slight, and a suggestion that he didn’t think a great deal of her, but current thought is that it was a caring act, making sure she was comfortable in her widowhood; she couldn’t have the best bed as it had to stay in the house she was about to leave, which went to their daughter Susanna.

Servants room, Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

Servants room, Brodsworth Hall, South Yorkshire. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

However comfortable the second-best bed may have been, it would not have been as good as a modern bed – but much better than those from, say, a millennium before. Then, people didn’t generally have their own bedroom – they would sleep on the floor of the main (often the only) room they occupied during the day. In a castle or manor house this would be the great hall; benches and temporary tables – boards – would be cleared away and sacks filled with hay or (less comfortable) straw would be brought out. Wrap yourself in your cloak, and you’d be really ready to ‘hit the hay’.

These sacks – paillasses, from the French ‘paille’, meaning straw – were used for millennia; certainly, World War Two soldiers often encountered them in temporary barracks. But as the centuries progressed two things happened; the richer – posher – end of society felt some disdain for spending their nights sleeping in the company of the lower orders, so they took themselves off to separate chambers to sleep. And more comfortable beds were produced.

First came the idea of filling your sack with feathers instead of with straw – and the finer the feathers, the more you’d need, the more expensive the bed would be and the more it would cost.

We still use the term ‘feather-bedding’ to criticise those we feel have been made too comfortable, perhaps by some generous financial arrangement.

Boudoir, Hillwood, Washington DC. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

Boudoir, Hillwood, Washington DC. (Copyright  David Winpenny)

And you would no longer have to rest your sack – now transformed into a rudimentary mattress – on the hard floor. In the Middle Ages the wealthy had wooden frames made to hold their feather mattresses in their new sleeping chambers.

These originally would have boards beneath the mattress, but it was soon found that it was more comfortable to be suspended on a lattice of ropes.

The ropes were, of course, made of natural materials that would vary in tautness according to the weather (and also as to how carefully the knots were tied), so periodic tightening was usually required – hence the still-repeated benediction at bedtime ‘sleep tight’.

From these wooden beds developed the typical ‘four-poster’ bed; the sleeping chambers were rarely draught-free, so a bed with curtains would ensure extra snugness.

Newly-wedded Elizabethan brides and husbands were conveyed to the marriage bed in procession, and at daybreak the guests would steal into the bedroom to see whether the bride or groom opened the curtains of the bed first – whoever did so was bound to rule the roost in the marriage.

Processions to the sleeping chamber could be very elaborate in grand houses.

The Crichton family of Sanquhar in Scotland (one of the family, James, was the original ‘Admirable Crichton’) held a lavish party for King James I and VI at their house, which included a procession that accompanied the king to bed, lit by torches made of IOUs for loans they had made the king.

They burned, it was said, paperwork worth £30,000 – something about £4 million in today’s prices.

From such extravagances grew the idea of the state bedroom in grand houses, complete with state bed.

Neither the room nor the bed were intended to be slept in.

They were status symbols, the elaborate bed showing that the possessor had great wealth, and anyone who was allowed in the bedroom was considered favoured.

The state bedroom formed part of a processional route that approached the aristocrat or the monarch – the further you got through the sequence of rooms, the more in favour you were.

If you were allowed beyond the bedchamber (where the formal ‘levee’ would take place, though the lord would have actually slept elsewhere) into the cabinet – a small, very private room – you were very much one of the top people (and that’s where we get our ‘cabinet’ government from, too).

In Victorian times the bedroom was often supplemented with extra rooms – the dressing room for the master of the house (often with a bed in it, too) and the boudoir for the mistress; the boudoir had developed in the 18th century, its popularity apparently increased by the writings of the Marquis de Sade, who suggested that feminine wiles and intrigues were hatched there.

English Victorian matrons wouldn’t have approved; the word boudoir is from the French for a ‘sulking room’, so there may have been much anguish behind the closed door of the fashionably-decorated room.

For the servants, of course, it was more likely to be an iron bed in an unheated garret and a cold basin in which to wash that was their lot. It was in such a room at Norton Conyers that the mad servant who inspired Charlotte Bronte to write Jane Eyre was confined.

None of these bedrooms would have had baths or what are called these days ‘private facilities’; a hip-bath brought in by a footman and filled by maids with cans of hot water would have been all that was required for bathing, while chamber pots met other needs. London’s Goring Hotel was the first, in 1910, to provide all its rooms with en-suite bathrooms.

These days, we take our bedrooms and associated rooms full of conveniences of every sort, for granted. We’ve come a long way from sleeping on a straw-filled paillasse – though at the end of the day we may still say that we’re ready to ‘hit the sack’.