Monday 2: The Great Bed of Ware
What may not be so evident in this picture is the extraordinary size of this bed. It is nearly 11 foot wide and over 11 foot long. To put that into perspective, a standard King-size double bed in the UK is 6ft 3” wide (1.93m) whereas this bed is 10 ft 8” (3.26m) which supposedly means four couples can sleep comfortably in it.
It was built in about 1590. This was a time when everyday people would often keep their beds downstairs in the living room as a way of showing off to their visitors that they could afford a bed. Four poster beds have been popular since the medieval period. Imagine climbing into this bed, drawing the curtains (note - these curtains are a modern reproduction) and settling down for the night. Thanks to the curtains, any drafts would be kept out and privacy/secrets kept in.
Often when we look at four poster beds, they seem smaller than they actually are. This then leads on to the usual comment of “people were way shorter back then”. Actually this idea that we were much smaller in the past is misleading as a recent study by Oxford University calculated that the average height of a man in 1500s was in fact 5ft 7” which is only two inches smaller than the average man in the UK today. Also, one of the most famous men of the 1500s, King Henry VIII, was reputedly over 6ft tall.
This bed is most likely to have been built as a publicity stunt to entice people to stay at the White Hart Inn in Ware, Hertfordshire, north of London. Today there are instagram influencers galore but back in the day there was less social-media but more social-ising. In other words, word of mouth was the perfect way to encourage people to travel the day-long journey from London to stay and sleep in this Great Bed. And it worked. People were so keen to show they had slept in the bed that they would leave carvings of their initials or even stamp their hot wax seal onto the wood. Notice how the photo below right shows that the base of the front left post has red splodges on it. It is also worth looking closely at the carvings on the head board (look at photo below right). The carvings include lion heads and satyrs which symbolise power, fertility and potency. Some of the carvings on the headboard even have traces of paint on them which suggests this bed would have looked even more extravagant and striking than it does today.
It was so well known that the most famous playwright of the time, William Shakespeare, mentions it in his 1601/02 play “Twelfth Night” when the character Sir Toby Belch comments on a sheet that is ‘big enough for the bed of Ware.’ Clearly the bed became so famous that it could be referenced in colloquial conversation. I guess an equivalent today would be watching a film/tv show and the character starts talking to their phone, however not wanting to advertise Apple per se, the character shouts out (for example) “Hey Sira.” Sira does not exist but the concept of talking to Siri is so ubiquitous that we the audience know what the character is doing.
Perhaps comparing the Great Bed of Ware to that of Siri is a little far fetched. However, it does show the power of its publicity because, despite being built in 1590, we still are talking about it today. Even though essentially, it is just a very big bed.