Today, you might expect to find a bed in the bedroom. But in the 1500s and early 1600s, beds appeared in some unlikely spaces. The most expensive bed - the best bed - was normally positioned in the most public of places, and for many living in early modern Stratford, this was the parlour. Across the town, costly beds were displayed in this ground floor chamber that was usually used for business, dining, hosting, and leisure. So why did people put their best beds in the parlour, and how likely was Shakespeare to have followed this early modern trend?
The type and number of beds found in Tudor and Jacobean homes depended on a few factors, ranging from the size of a household to the family’s wealth and/or social level. Tester beds were among the most prestigious items in early modern homes, but only people with some degree of wealth could afford them. Usually made by a joiner (thus sometimes referred to as ‘joined beds’), the bed frame and posts were constructed in wood, while the tester (the section covering the top of the bed) was made of textile or wainscot (wood panels). Like the simple bedstead from Anne Hathaway’s Cottage pictured above, tester beds could be plain in style, but, more often than not, were elaborately decorated. Intricate carvings were etched into headboards and testers, while the frame itself would be draped in colourful textiles that often cost more than the bedstead itself. These were the ‘best beds’ in the house: the real showpieces of the Tudor home. So why were they placed in the parlour and how were they used?
Beds in the parlour were rarely slept in. In many urban middling and gentry homes, the parlour was the primary exhibition space. Used for dining and hosting, as well as for business and networking, it was the main room in which to receive visitors. Much like displaying a new sports car on the drive-way, tester beds were conspicuously positioned in places where friends, family, neighbours and visitors were most likely to see them. Thus, the best bed was a display piece: as the most significant domestic investment, it was a clear statement of status and wealth. Only the most distinguished guests were permitted to sleep in such beds, and it is unlikely that they were used by the master and mistress of the household. They would have been more inclined to sleep in the second most expensive bed in the house - the second-best bed - usually positioned on an upper floor.
How do we know that people displayed their best beds in this way? Well, evidence of parlour beds appears in written documents, as indicated by this entry taken from the 1625 inventory of Stratford-upon-Avon gentleman, John Sadler (BRU/15/1/21):
in the parloure, one joyned bedsteed £1
one feather bed, bolster, one flockbed & matris quilted £4 6s 8p
Inventories were lists of household goods compiled upon a person’s death. Usefully (though not consistently), objects were grouped together according to the room in which they were discovered. Sadler’s joined bed, with its accompanying bedding, amounted to well over £5. This is not an insignificant sum by early modern standards, in fact, these items were the most expensive objects listed in the inventory. Although not completely unbiased documents, inventories help us to understand more about early modern homes and the objects that filled them.
A joined bedstead, perhaps similar in nature to the bed described in John Sadler’s parlour, remains in a first-floor chamber of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage in Shottery (near Stratford-upon-Avon). Known as 'The Hathaway Bed', it is decorated with detailed carvings, fine bed posts, and, originally, would have been draped in bright textiles. The carved headboard and posts make up the oldest sections - dating between 1580 and 1630 - while the tester dates from about 1650.
Originally, the bottom section of the bedstead (the frame) was threaded with ropes which interlocked and tightened to support the bed’s many accessories - mattresses, flock beds, bolsters, pillows and blankets - which have all been replicated to complete the bed today. The combination and addition of parts, both old and new, was not unusual in Tudor England. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, household objects were often recycled and repurposed - a door might be transformed into a headboard, for instance - so nothing went to waste in the early modern home.
Like many objects in SBT’s collections, the Hathaway Bed has an interesting history. The Trust acquired this bedstead when they purchased Anne Hathaway’s cottage in 1892. It was one of a number of early modern objects to come with the farmhouse, meaning that this bedstead may have been there since the 1600s. If so, the bed would have belonged to the Hathaway family who lived in the cottage for many years. This bedstead may be one of the beds listed in the inventory belonging to Bartholomew Hathaway (brother of Anne Hathaway) who inherited the house in about 1581 and lived there until his death in 1624.
This sort of bed would have belonged to a relatively wealthy family or individual (of middling status) and as a wealthy yeoman, Bartholomew Hathaway certainly fits this profile. Because of its decoration and likely cost, a bed like this would have taken the role of the best, or second-best, bed depending on the house and status of the owner, and was most likely placed in a public area. Perhaps it was used by Bartholomew himself in the first floor room where it now lives, or maybe it was reserved for his guests and positioned on the ground floor, in the parlour.
When we think about it, placing the best bed in the parlour does not seem so strange. The desire to show-off prized - not to mention expensive - possessions in our most frequently used rooms has not changed in the past four centuries. Rather it is the objects themselves, and the status they carry, that have altered. As fashions shifted, beds were found less frequently in parlours. In many parts of the country, they had all but disappeared from this room by the early 1600s, yet they remained popular in the parlours of Stratford’s most prosperous residents until the 1630s. As late as 1639, maltster (someone who produced malt for brewing) Thomas Rogers of Harvard House had a parlour bedstead listed in his inventory. As a gentleman and owner of a grand townhouse, New Place, Shakespeare would have most certainly possessed a decorated tester bed or two: perhaps not so dissimilar to the Hathaway Bed that survives today. We might, then, imagine that he followed this Stratford trend of positioning his best bed in the parlour.
Alex Hewitt is a PhD student in History at the University of Birmingham and is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council: Midlands3Cities