Today’s post comes from Elizabeth Sharrett, postgraduate student at the Shakespeare Institute.
“No sooner was I crept out of my cradle
But I was made a king, at nine months old.” Henry VI, Part II [IV,9]
Whether of royal blood or that of the middling sort, babies were kept in cradles until about the age identified by King Henry in Shakespeare’s time. Therefore, today’s post focuses on a baby’s cradle at Hall’s Croft from around the year 1680. Though later in date, it is nevertheless typical of the kind used in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. The entire cradle is oak and hosts a superstructure at the head end with the initials BK and HB carved into its panels. The body is also paneled and features carved rosettes and diamonds. This is a rocking cradle, raised on shaped strips of wood, as opposed to a hanging or swinging cradle, which was suspended between two posts. According to Victor Chinnery’s book Oak Furniture, these were the two most common types of cradles, both carefully engineered to gently sway the baby (Chinnery 397).
Cradles, like beds, were in many ways symbolic of familial legacy and inheritance as they hosted subsequent generations at their most vulnerable. Indeed, the initials on the Hall’s Croft cradle may be those of the mother and father, and help reinforce this priority, situating the child in relation to his or her lineage. When Shakespeare uses “cradle” in his works, it almost always involves characters or plays concerned with the themes of nobility, inheritance, and succession: the Histories being the most frequent users of the word, followed by the courts in As You Like It, Cymbeline, King Lear, and Macbeth. Incidentally, one of the earliest surviving examples of a hanging cradle, according to legend, hosted Henry V.
Yet, whether noble or not, babies were kept in the cradle for about nine months to a year. Upon reaching this point, they were released from the swaddling of linen strips in which they had spent their early months, and moved to the truckle bed to sleep with their older brothers and sisters alongside their parents - as explained in one of my previous posts about a truckle bed. This important moment of transition in the life of a Renaissance child ushered them into a world of new activity and learning, of which we will learn more about in my next post!