The History of Four-Poster Beds

 
 

The traditional British four-poster bed represents traditional luxury and timeless elegance.

 

 At the Milestone Hotel in South Kensington, luxury is the order of the day. Our sumptuous suites hearken back to classical English design (combined with modern amenities, naturally); each boasts its own historically minded decorating scheme. However, there’s one particularly special feature that many of our suites share: the traditional, utterly British four-poster bed.

Throughout its long history, the four-poster bed has always been a sign of style and wealth. In medieval and Renaissance times, the bedsteads were hugely coveted, and any merchant who had one in his house was doing very well for himself. Royalty and members of the nobility had extremely opulent four-poster beds as a matter of custom, which were made according to the specifications of each individual owner. It’s no wonder that bedchambers were at the centre of court life.

Though its exact origins are unknown, it’s thought that the four-poster bed originated in Austria before migrating to England, where it grew in popularity; the first records and descriptions of four-poster beds date to the late 14th or early 15th centuries. The style began simply: prior to the four-poster version, beds were often no more than a hard board covered in fur or quilts. With this in mind, it’s easy to see why the four-poster bed became the most coveted of luxuries.

Canopies were first added to beds in the 13th century, with an upper area, also known as a tester, suspended from the ceiling. Gradually, the canopy came to be supplemented by side curtains. Supported by beams built into the bed frame itself, and voilà – the four-poster bed was born.

Though the four-poster bed is now revered for its style and historical charm, the furnishing developed due to practical reasons. Bedchambers in that era were often chilly and draughty, and at night the curtains were drawn to help keep the sleeper warm inside the bed. Bedrooms were also frequently more communal than they are today (servants often slept in the same room as the lord or lady in question), so the curtains also helped to afford a greater degree of privacy.

Beyond their functionality, though, four-poster beds were also unquestionably about status. The beds of the nobility were ornately carved, inlaid, painted, and decorated with custom coats of arms. Lavish, exotic fabrics like silks were also used, and beds increased in size and weight. The Great Bed of Ware, now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London (and included in our favourite exhibits), is emblematic of the style. Made by craftsman Hans Vredeman de Vries, the remarkable item, which dates from the 1590s, exemplifies this baroque and fanciful attention to detail.

The four-poster bed later evolved in style: it grew lighter and more narrow under French influence, and in more modern times beds began to be constructed from iron instead of the traditional English oak or walnut. At the Milestone Hotel, our beds run the gamut of styles, from the ornate, brocade-covered bed in the Princess Suite to the classical carved wooden bed in the Viscount Suite. The bed in the Tudor Grand Master Suite, meanwhile, is a stunning interpretation of the style: sans curtains, its golden frame and carved posts are a hotel highlight.

Next time you stay with us, then, be sure to turn your attention to your bed. Odds are, it has more than its fair share of history behind it.