Great Bed of Ware
- Place of origin:
Ware (probably, made)
Vredeman de Vries, Hans, born 1527 - died 1604 (designer)
- Materials and Techniques:
Oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry
- Credit Line:
Purchased with Art Fund support
- Museum number:
W.47:1 to 28-1931
- Gallery location:
British Galleries, Room 57, case 2 
This bed is in the typical style of carved wooden beds of the 1590s but it is remarkable for its large size. It is over 326 centimetres wide. The height was slightly reduced in the 19th century. The human figures carved on the headboard would originally have been brightly painted.
The bed was probably made as a curiosity to attract customers to one of the inns at Ware, Hertfordshire. Ware is 22 miles from London, then a day's journey on horseback or by coach. The town had many inns in the 1590s.
The bed has been famous since it was made. William Shakespeare mentioned it in his play Twelfth Night, first performed in 1601. The contemporary playwright Ben Jonson called it 'the great bed at Ware' in a play in 1609. Visitors often carved their initials on the bed or applied red wax seals, which are still visible on the bedposts and headboard today.
Bed of oak, with carved posts, headboard and tester. The headboard is inlaid with two marquetry panels within arched frames, and is divided vertically by three carved figures, two male and one female. On each side of the headboard is a figure of a satyr. The woodwork shows traces of paint.
Place of Origin
Ware (probably, made)
Vredeman de Vries, Hans, born 1527 - died 1604 (designer)
Materials and Techniques
Oak, carved and originally painted, with panels of marquetry
Height: 267 cm, Width: 326 cm, Depth: 338 cm
Object history note
The origins of the bed are unclear. It was probably made as a curiosity to attract customers to stay at one of the inns at Ware, which was then a day's journey from London on horseback or by coach (22 miles). As a staging post, Ware had many inns by the end of the 16th century, and had the additional advantage of a connection to the Thames by the river Lea.
It is unlikely, as sometimes suggested, that the bed was made for Ware Park, a nearby large house. The earliest reference to the bed is in 1596, when the bed must have been in an inn, as a German visitor, Prince Ludwig of Anhalt Kohten, mentioned the bed in his diary, the "Poetical Itinerary". The bed is referred to in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, first performed in 1601, and continued to be mentioned in plays, bawdy tales and by travellers (see references). It has been known as `The Great Bed of Ware' since at least 1609 when it was mentioned in a play by Ben Jonson. It must have been widely known in 1666 to have been referred to in a poem about the great fire of London (London Undone; or, A Reflection upon the Late Disasterous Fire; London, Printed by E.C. for H. Eversden, and H. Brome, 1666): "But then (alas!) men had no time to talk,/ No more but so, Take up your Bed and walk,/ Into the Fields on that bleak dew-dropt Grass,/ Where the Earth Bed, and Heaven its Teaster was./ Infants and aged quarter'd row by row,/ Never Quarters had More-fields then now./ The Miscellany made in every square,/ The Counterfeit of the Great Bed of Ware...." The size of the bed was frequently exaggerated; a writer in 1732 claimed it could 'hold twenty couple' (Thornton, 1976). Its importance has also been exaggerated: at one time it was thought that the bed might have been made for royal use, and the date 1463 which was painted on the headboard, now faded, reflects the tradition that it was made for King Edward IV (Thornton, 1976). The bed featured in a London pantomime in 1839, which gave rise to the story that it was made by a character called 'Jonas Fosbrooke'.
Visitors who stayed at the inns often carved their initials in the bed and applied red wax seals, still visible on the bedposts and headboard. In the 19th century the bed became known among antiquarians, including Henry Shaw, who illustrated it in Specimens of Ancient Furniture in 1836. It passed through the ownership of several inns, notably The Saracen's Head where it stayed from 1765 to 1870 (Thornton, 1976, when it was bought by the Rye House Hotel in nearby Hoddesdon.
Rye House hotel had fifty acres of gardens which were developed as a tourist destination, including a fairground. While at Rye House parts of the bed displayed in a building especially constructed in the garden. Parts of the bed were restored or replaced, notably the frieze to the tester. Photographs show a set of antlers attached to the top of the bed, associated with a custom whereby a cautionary oath was proclaimed over the visitor by the innkeeper for a fee, known as the 'swearing of the horns'. The Museum has a set of photographs of Rye House taken in about 1900 (on the Departmental catalogue), and a fragment of the material displayed either on the bed or in the same room at that time, of 1690s crewel-work.
The bed was sold with the hotel to the Cannon Brewery in 1927, who wished to dispose of the bed. In 1931 it was sold for £4000, then a very large sum, to Frank Partridge and Sons Ltd, the London antique dealers, who agreed to sell it on at cost price to the V&A after exhibiting it themselves. The V&A acquired it principally for its historical and litererary status and to prevent it being sold abroad. The acquisition papers include an account of a visit to Rye House in about 1910 by Mr Clifford Smith, a curator in the Furniture Department, and a postcard, hand-bill and leaflet about Rye House collected at that time.
The bed today shows many signs of alteration, particularly to the columns, which have been cut down at some time and are missing their capitals. The frieze around the top is certainly a replacement, as the 1910 postcard 1910 shows a previous, much damaged frieze. The underside of the tester is probably a replacement, as are the panelled lower sections to the legs. Analysis of the paintwork shows that some original paint survives on the carved figures and that the headboard was overpainted in dark green, possibly in the 18th century, afterwards removed.
At Rye House the bed was displayed with boards attached to the sides and end of the bedframe, possibly added at the time. The boards have carved graffiti but marks show that they were re-used, possibly from school desks.
One of the best-known pieces of English furniture, this bed has been famous since it was made, for its unusually large size; no other beds from the period on this scale are known. The woodwork is profusely carved with anglicised Renaissance patterns, acanthus leaves and strapwork. The three human figures vertically dividing the headboard, two male and one female, carry baskets of fruit on their heads symbolising fertility. At each side edge of the headboard are carved satyrs with hoofed feet, symbolising drink and lust. The human figures carved on the headboard and the underside of the tester, or wooden canopy, show traces of paint and would originally have been brightly coloured, as was much Elizabethan furniture. The two marquetry panels in the headboard showing architectural scenes and swans are typical of the work introduced by German craftsmen settling in London in the late 16th century, and are strongly influenced by the designs of Hans Vredeman de Vries (1527-1604), the Dutch artist. A precise source has not so far been identified. Swans can be seen swimming in the foreground, perhaps a reference to the River Lea running through the town of Ware, which was famous for its swans. However, swans are also found on other German furniture of around the same date.
Historical context note
No other Elizabethan beds on this scale are known. However, in form and decoration it epitomises the flamboyantly carved and painted beds of the late Elizabethan period. Hangings would originally have been suspended from the tester on three sides to provide privacy and warmth, with valances on the tester and below the bedframe to hide the legs. The bedding would have been substantial on a bed of this quality. Bedcords would have been threaded through the holes in the bedstock to support the mattresses. Specially designed tighteners were used to keep these taut, giving rise to the expression 'sleep tight'. A woven or plaited rush bedmat would have been placed over the cords, supporting several layers of mattresses, possibly flock below and feather above. On lesser quality beds the bottom mattress would have of straw. The sheets and pillow covers would have been linen, with woollen blankets, and a decorative coverlet. With such a number of elements to the bedding, which would have risen up to the decorative section of the headboard (hence the lower section is plain), there was a danger that the bedclothes might slip off. Wooden poles or 'bed-staves' were used, pushed inside the lower frame, or into holes in the frame, to hold it all on. They are commonly mentioned in connection with beds in 16th and 17th century inventories, but no surviving examples of bedstaves are known to the author in England, although some survive in Sweden. The bed was acquired with boards attached to the sides of the bedframe. These were often a feature of Tudor beds and probably served both as somewhere to sit, as the bedclothes were so high, and as a step up onto the bed. The coverlet would not have covered the boards.
The Great Bed of Ware, oak, carved, inlaid and painted. British, 1590-1600.
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
Wilk, Christopher, ed. Western Furniture 1350 to the Present Day in the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: Philip Wilson Publishers in association with the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996. pp. 48-49. ill. ISBN 1 85667 443 5.
Thornton, P. K.The Great Bed of Ware, (Victoria and Albert Museum Masterpieces, Sheet 8). London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1976.
Thorpe, W.A. The Great Bed of Ware and Harry Fanshawe. In: Country Life. August 15 1941
Brenchley Rye. England as seen by foreigners, London: John Russell Smith, Soho Square, 1865. p.62
Thornton, P K. Chronological List of References to the Great Bed of Ware. Unpublished list, on the object catalogue housed in the Department of Furniture and Woodwork, Victoria and Albert Museum.
Vince, A J. An Historical Guide to the Rye House. 17 p., ill.
Frank Partridge & Sons Ltd. The Great Bed of Ware. London; Frank Partridge & Sons Ltd, 1931. 10 p.. ill.
Hay, Kate. The Great Bed of Ware: Secret History. V&A Magazine, May-August 2000, pp.19-22.
Léon-Auguste Asselineau, Armes et armures, meubles et divers objets du Moyen-Áge et de la Renaissance. Dessinées d'après nature et lithographiées par A., 2 vols. Paris, 1844, vol.1 no. 74
Henry Shaw Specimens of Ancient furniture (1836), plate XXXVII, p. 40
The Great Bed of Ware, Hertfordshire. This celebrated piece of furniture is already amply illustrated by the quotation on the copper-plate [drawn by Henry Shaw 1832, quoting from Twelfth Night]. It is a fine specimen of a bedsted of the time of Queen Elizabeth in oak, in good preservation, and has some remains of colour in its frieze...
Dictionary of English Furniture (Country Life 1924-7, 2nd rev. ed. 1954, 3 vols. See entry for Desks p.205
Fred Roe, Old Oak Furniture (London, 1908), p.194
Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), no. 314
'DESK or CUPBOARD for books. Carved on the back and sides with two rows of Gothic arcading enriched with tracery Within a slightly moulded framework; the front is plain with the exception of two carved lions’ masks at the upper corners. The framed sloping top opens on hinges, and the interior is fitted with a cupboard with a hinged lid. The lower part of the desk is missing. The lock plate and the book ledge are post-medieval (PL.114a, b & c).
Oak. Last quarter of 14th century
97x 83.8x 54.6cm
Mus. No. 143-1898
This an extremely rare example of a medieval desk-cum-book cupboard. It is without doubt authentic and English, It is a great pity that it has lost the lower part of its panelling and its base. Two decorative features point strongly to England. The trefoil tracery in the super-arches of the back panel is stilted in the characteristically early Perpendicular Way (compare stall-ends at Lincoln Cathedral, See Fig.39). This same trait could also be found on a fragment of panelling from the York Minster choir- stalls in the Roe collection (illustrated in Roe 1910, PL.xvI) [sic] where the tracery pattern is sexfoil. The date of the construction of the York stalls is about 1390 (Francis Bond, Wood Carvings in English Churches: I. Stalls and Tabernacle Work and II. Bishops’ Thrones and Chancel Chairs, London, 1910, p.58). The treatment of the lions’ masks on the front of the desk is another parallel with Lincoln, in particular the same treatment of the hair in whorls and ear shape (Pics. 56a & b). The Lincoln stalls must have been manufactured in about 1370 (See CAT.67). The placing of these masks is reminiscent of the use of this motif on choir-stalls on the standards underneath the capping (compare Chichester Cathedral)'.
Helena Hayward, (Ed.), World Furniture. (London, 1965), p.34, fig. 85
H. Clifford Smith, Catalogue of English Furniture & Woodwork. Vol.II. - Late Tudor and Early Stuart (London 1930), cat. 320. plate 48
Books chests and desks of this kind (armariola), with lids set at an angle on which books might be laid whilst being read, are often represented in illuminated MSS, with St. Jerome or other Doctors of the Church, scribes at work, etc. Compare Laborde, 'Les MSS. à Peintures de la Cité de Dieu de St. Augustin,' 1909, pl. XCVII (1473), etc. A rare example of medieval domestic furniture.
William H. Lewer and J. Charles Wall, The Church Chests of Essex (London, 1913), p.17, illustrated in a line drawing on p.18
'Similar receptacles for books may often be seen in ancient pictures of the studies of medieval scribes and limners...another of the fifteenth century in the Victoria and Albert Museum has a framed lid set at an angle on which books might be laid whilst being read.'
DIETRICH, Gerhard: Schreibmöbel von Mittelalter zur Moderne. (Munich, 1986).
Oliver Brackett (revised by H. Clifford Smith), English furniture illustrated. (Spring Books, London, nd). [Originally published under the title of An encyclopaedia of English furniture, London : E. Benn, 1927]
The marquetry decoration is influenced by the designs for engraved ornament published by Vredeman de Vries.
Marquetry; Carving; Painting (image-making)
Furniture and Woodwork Collection