Essential Reading

'I have been a family historian for more than 40 years, and a professional historian for over 30, but as I read it, I was constantly encountering new ways of looking at my family history....Essential reading I would say!' Alan Crosby, WDYTYA Magazine

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Our Ancestors and their Beds - New Article

Kith and Kin : Our Ancestors and Their Beds

By Ruth A. Symes

(Images copyright of Auckland Castle Trust)

What is it about Kings and carparks? First, the body of Richard III is found in a carpark in Leicester and then, a dark oak bed, found dismantled in the car park of the Redlands Hotel in Chester in 2010, turns out to have belonged to none other than Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York. Quite apart from its celebrated erstwhile occupants, the bed might interest family historians because it shows how an item of domestic furniture, albeit a rather superb one in this case, can very much enhance our understanding of  how our ancestors lived.

The bed, which is superbly carved and reckoned to bring about £20 million at auction, is on display in the Power and the Glory Exhibition at Auckland Castle, County Durham until September 2014. It is believed to be possibly the only surviving Tudor bed in the country and is likely to have been a wedding present to the King and Queen who married on 18th January 1486. The wooden structure has been carbon-dated to the late fifteenth century from material sourced from German forests. It is known that Henry made a trip to Northern England  in 1495 and the bed, which would have been made for easy transportation, may have been brought with him from London to Lathom in Lincolnshire where he visited the Stanley family who had helped him to seize the Crown at the Battle of Bosworth, ten years earlier.  

The symbolic significance of this bed is unmistakeable:  if its identification is correct then it is possible that this was the bed in which Henry and Elizabeth’s second son, later Henry VIII, was conceived. And since the later Henry was the key figure in removing Britain from the jurisdiction of Catholic Rome, the bed might truly be called ‘the cradle of our Protestant Reformation.’  The bed, known as the Paradise State Bed will be on display at Auckland Castle until September 2014 and has already been the subject of a BBC 4 documentary , Secret Knowledge: The King’s Lost Bed.

Surprisingly enough, the beds of our own (rather less elevated) ancestors may well have had their own points of interest. It’s possible that you may have inherited a family bed but, if not, look out for them in documents relating to your family’s estate, especially wills and inventories (see box on Key Sources). Inventories of property made at the time of the death in order to establish the value of an estate would usually refer to the significant value of beds. For example, the inventory of Jane Jenkins, spinster, made in 1796 and relating to the items in and around her property (possibly Trelan Farm, Craswell, Escley, Herefordshire), includes:  from the room over the kitchen,  two feather beds, bedstead and bedlinen worth £1, 16s;  and from Chamber 1, one featherbed, bedstead, curtain and bedclothes worth £2,2s  and  from Chamber 2 one feather bed, bedstead and bedclothes worth £1, 11s and 6d.

Likewise, in 1808, Elizabeth Brew of Lezayre on the Isle of Man was fairly typical in bequeathing in her will to her daughter Jane Brew, ‘the sum of one hundred and fifty pounds British, a feather bed, bedding, the cow and the desk above the parlour... to [my] son Thomas, the feather bed with the blue and white check [and]  the desk in the factory, and … to [my] daughter Elizabeth, one of the feather beds in the room above the kitchen.’ (see:

For our ancestors, the family bed was probably the most important item of furniture in the home.  As a visit to any stately home will confirm, beds were status symbol amongst household possessions.  In brief, the more beds you had and the more ostentatious their design, the greater your obvious wealth. Poorer families made do with one bed: the poorest slept on the floor. The matrimonial bed would certainly have been the locus of the most important emotional events in your family’s history – after all, consummations of marriage, conceptions, births, nursings and deaths all took place atop of it.

A Short History of Beds

Archaeological evidence tells us that the earliest beds used in Britain were shallow chests in which the bedding was placed. Next came timber-framed beds with rope or leather supports across which a ‘mattress’ was slung.  Early mattresses were simply bags containing a soft filling such as straw or wool,  that was covered with plain, cheap fabric. By the Elizabethan period, wealthier families turned in to flamboyantly carved and painted beds.  

By the mid-eighteenth century well-to- do households were acquiring bedcovers made from quality linen or cotton, and comfier mattresses were now filled with coconut fibre, cotton, wool and horsehair.  Such beds were a paradise for bed bugs (blood-sucking human parasites) which laid their eggs on wooden footboards and headboards.  To combat this problem, brass and iron bedsteads were first made in Europe during the 1840s and were soon manufactured on a massive scale.

In the Victorian period, taller houses were built to accommodate more bedrooms and the members of wealthier families, at least, slept in different rooms.  With better knowledge about the way in which disease was transmitted, it was recommended that bedrooms were kept airy and uncluttered. Four-poster beds disappeared, bed hangings were removed, mattresses were turned daily  and it was advised that bedding was rigorously washed every few weeks, with pillows and mattresses being properly cleaned a couple of times a year.  Beds were strategically placed so that bedroom doors shielded them from view to maintain privacy.

From 1865, coil spring construction became popular for beds,  and as time went on, so popular were British beds that many brass and iron bedsteads found their way to the outposts of the Empire – places as far away as Africa and India.  At the end of the 1920s, mattresses made from latex rubber came onto the market, and by the early 1940s, our ancestors had all but stopped scratching at night - bedbugs were virtually eradicated in the developed world!

Beds and Family Events

Conjugal Bed

Conducting an affair in the marital bed has always been considered one of the most heinous sins – such beds were symbols of the trust, faith and steadfastness.  They were also, of course, were associated with sex and fertility as attested by some of the superstitious practices that went on around them - from the placing bits of wedding cake under a bridesmaid’s pillow (as a means of bringing her luck in love) to the tying of a laying-hen to the bed of a newly married couple (Ireland).


With most children being born at home in the past, the most likely place for your ancestors to have entered the world was the marital bed. Since maternal and child mortality was so high in the early Victorian period in particular, the time of being ‘brought to bed’ must have been a terrifying experience for most women. Additional, beds could become places of genealogical intrigue; there have been cases (possibly mythical) where a child has been smuggled into the family bedchamber in a warming pan or other receptacle to replace a child who had died  (see, for example, the Mary of Modena bed at Kensington Palace) . New mothers in the Victorian period were advised to lie flat in their beds for nine days after the birth of their children and the whole lying --in period lasted a month.


As your family death certificates will reveal, most people in the past died, not in a hospital, but in their own beds. Household advice books had plenty to say on how a sick bed should be maintained. As well as having the bedding regularly changed, they should be pulled away from the wall to allow for the better circulation of air. If the worst should come to pass, it was common for families (and even servants in wealthier households) to gather at the edge of a bed when a loved one was about to die. Catholic ancestors will have made their final confession and taken their final sacrament in their beds.  

What Can Individual Beds Tell Us?

The medieval ‘royal’ bed discovered in Chester was ornately carved and the decoration has been useful in identifying the bed’s probable occupants. It is believed that the headboard portrays Henry VII and Elizabeth transformed into Adam and Eve  - something which reflects the Tudor belief that this royal couple had been chosen by God to save England from the Wars of the Roses.  Is that it is hoped that their marriage will be fruitful.

The beds of our own ancestors, even if they are still within the family, will not, of course, point so exactly to the time at which they were made or to the genealogy of the family. Some old beds, of course, boast carvings which have symbolic meaning, such as the satyr for lust, or the snake for evil. Others may bear the scratched signatures of those who have slept in the bed. Officially-carved monograms on beds tend to represent either the full name of one occupant (with a large surname initial in the centre) and the initial for the first name on the left and for the middle name on the right, or a monogram for a married couple with the initial for the joint surname in the centre,  the man’s first name initial on the left and the woman’s first name initial on the right. Inherited items of bed linen such as pillow cases or counterpanes may also bear a family monogram though here the convention tends to be reversed with the woman’s first initial on the left and the man’s on the right. 

Sleep and Our Ancestors

Two hundred years ago, in pre-industrial times, it was common for whole families to sleep together. The idea of children having separate bedrooms, and very young infants sleeping alone, would have been quite shocking to most families and is a phenomenon born outa world in which people have larger incomes, bigger houses and smaller families. Drawings of old beds show that it was also common for people to sleep slightly propped up rather than lying down flat.  

Moreover, today’s obsession with getting eight hours of uninterrupted slumber is actually quite an unnatural modern innovation, according to some researchers. Diaries, letters and court records attest to the fact that it was more usual in the past (when the long hours of darkness were far less assailable due to the lack of electric light), for people to have two four-hour sleeps with a one or two hour gap in between (so called ‘segmented sleep’).  At a time when there was little to do after dark and therefore no prestige in staying up all night, these two shifts of sleep made sense. During the middle wakeful period, people might go to the toilet, smoke, read, write, pray, chat and or have sex. The existence of cupboards to hold food in bedrooms from the past points to the fact that it was common to get up and have a snack in the middle of the night.

The move to a single longer sleep, it is believed, came with improvements in street and domestic lighting, and, because of the opening up of such places of nightly entertainments as coffee houses in which the urban upper classes might fraternise until late in the evening.  After 1684, when London was first lit by wax candles in glass lamps at night, respectable people first started to cut short the hours they were abed and to indulge in legitimate social activity. This coupled with the new working timetable brought in by the Industrial Revolution meant that segmented sleep became a thing of the past.  It was only, apparently,  in the late nineteenth century that some of our ancestors started to articulate their worries about interrupted sleep in diaries and letters.

Last paragraph…

All in all, the family bed witnessed most of the activity that made our ancestors human, from defecation in the bed pan to prayers at the bed’s edge, from illicit and licit liaisons under the covers, to births, deaths, sacraments and sickness. You never know, family records might well suggest that the beds your ancestors slept in are worth investigating further.

One Man and his Bed: Edmund Harrold, Manchester Wigmaker and Diarist

Unless your ancestor actually made notches in the bedpost, you are unlikely to find out much about exactly what went on between his or her sheets. Occasionally, however, personal papers from the past – diaries or letters- have revealed some of the intimate secrets of the bedroom. 

Edmund Harrold was born in 1678 and worked for probably his whole life in Manchester as a barber surgeon and wigmaker, selling books to make some extra cash on the side.  Between 1712 and 1715 (when he was between 34 and 37 years old) he kept a diary recording aspects of his day-to-day working and domestic life and his problems with alcohol. Notably, he recorded the frequency and variety of the marital sex he had! When the diary was first published in 1867 the references to sex were cut out so as not to shock a Victorian audience, but the recent edition (2008) is uncensored. And as the new editor puts it: ‘there is no other known published plebian diary which makes such candid reference to sexual activity.’

Harrold records the number of times he had intercourse with (or, as he puts it ‘did’ or ‘enjoyed’) his wife on ‘the new corded bed’ and ‘on the roof bed’ and notes the positions they adopted (whether ‘old fashion’ or ‘new fashion’). Harrold did not record the sex for salacious reasons, rather he saw marital intercourse as a religious duty necessary for procreation, and as a sensible means of containing his lust. His activities in the bedchamber produced nine children in all, seven died young.  

Find Out More

Wills and Testaments  -  Testators often left beds to family members or friends. To find details of your ancestors’ wills made between 1858 and 1966 view the National Calendar of Wills available at see To get a copy of an actual will (for a fee) you can visit The Central Probate Registry (First Avenue House, Holborn, London) in person. You are advised to make an appointment beforehand. Alternatively, order the will via the website grants – wills. Wills made before 1858 may be held in local or National Archives. To find out more visit 

Inventories - From 1530-1782, executors of wills had to provide the registry of the appropriate probate court with an inventory of the deceased’s goods, together with their value. After 1782, this was no longer obligatory but any interested party could request such an inventory. Inventories, which were usually compiled by reputable neighbours, listed everything from the deceased’s personal property to his or her so-called ‘chattels’ - furniture, clothing, cash, livestock and the tools of their trade.  Inventories may often be found attached to other surviving testamentary records (in the Probate Registry or archives – see above),  but have occasionally been indexed separately.

Museums – The Paradise State Bed found in Chester is available to view at Aukland Castle, County Durham  until September 2014 ( The Victoria and Albert Museum, London houses a collection of famous beds including the State Bed from Melville House, Fife and The Great Bed of Ware (three feet wide and able to accommodate up to four couples!) which was constructed in about 1590 and was a tourist attraction in the town of Ware for many generations. This bed bears the scratched initials and remnants of wax seals left by tourists over the centuries. 

Websites - 16964783 The myth of the eight-hour sleep. Victoria and Albert Museum

See the video about the Great Bed of Ware at


Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past, Phoenix 2006

Celia Heritage,  Tracing Your Ancestors Through Death Records: A Guide for Family Historians, Pen and Sword Books, 2013.

Craig Koslofsky, Evening’s Empire, A History of the Night in Early Modern Europe, New Studies in European History,  CUP 2011

Judith Flanders: Inside the Victorian Home: Domestic Life from Childbirth to Deathbed. Harper Perennial, 2004

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