Offbeat Objects: The Great Bed of Ware
If you’re in London and the queue for the Natural History Museum is looking a bit too manic for you, pop across the street to the V&A Museum to see an Offbeat Object that you very well might have missed otherwise, and makes for a great tale. Today’s recommendation is – the Great Bed of Ware!
You may be thinking, “It’s just a big bed, what’s the deal?” Well folks, let me tell you the story of this bed. It’s 3 m wide (~10 ft), so already larger than a California King sized bed (measuring in at a paltry 1.8 m / 6 ft wide). History says that it could comfortably accommodate up to three couples in it. Allegedly twenty-six butchers and their wives spend the night in it for a bet once.
And not only is it gigantic, it’s pretty old. We aren’t sure of the exact year, but it was constructed around 1590. The first mention of it in writing comes from a letter written by a travelling German prince staying in the White Hart Inn in 1596. It was already 100 years old at the time of the 26 butchers stunt! It was likely always in the town of Ware until it’s movement to the V&A in 1931. The local inns purchased it off one another over the years as an Elizabethan tourist trap, as Ware is on the road between London and Cambridge. The bed was as famous in its day as some of the more unique American road stops are, like the giant ball of twine or world’s largest chair. One could even argue it was more famous than that, as Shakespeare used it in 1601 to describe something enormous in The Twelfth Night with Sir Toby Belch describing a sheet of paper as “big enough for the Bed of Ware.”
Moving it from Ware to London proved an interesting challenge for the V&A. The bed had to be carefully dismantled and packed up over six days. In total, it weighed 1413 pounds! It took another nine days to physically move the behemoth, and then required ten strapping carriers to porter it through the museum’s corridors. Unsurprisingly, it’s not been moved from its display since – but that’s mostly because it’s been a crowd-pleaser since arrival.
The V&A almost purchased the bed in 1860, but were put off by the price at the time. The 1931 purchase forced their hand, as it was about to go to an American buyer at an auction. The museum swept in to keep it in the country and paid £4000 for the privilege (approximately £60,000 in today’s money if my historic calculator is correct).
On its display now, you can get very close and personal with the bed. If you do, you’ll quickly notice another thing about tourist attractions that seems to withstand the test of time – graffitied initials all over the bed. Visitors have carved initials all over the wood, or applied red wax seals with their stamps on it. Not even the lion at the top of the headboard was spared the indignity of a seal to the nose. Whilst it was probably pretty tacky then, it’s fascinating to see this 400 year old graffiti and wax seals up close today.
A final note – this is an authentic Elizabethan bed, and although much larger than most, it gives a great idea of how people of some means would have slept. The wood is mostly bare now, but conservators have found evidence that the carvings would originally have been painted. The busy scenes around the bed would have been meant to be enjoyed and looked at for some time. The bedding is obviously more recent, but has been made with period materials and kept to look as much like a bed of the time as we understand it to be.
It’s not often one goes to see furniture on a museum visit, but I cannot recommend this one enough. Also, if you’re big into Elizabethan era things in general, you’ll find that the bed is in the middle of a bunch of artefacts from the period. Now go! Find something new and obscure to tell your friends about!