Privacy and the Bed(room)

One of the exercises in studying architecture is to colour floorplans according to a gradation of public to more private, often using a green to red colour scale. This leads to varying results in contemporary building plans, with one recurring phenomenon: the bedroom is usually red. This modern idea of the bedroom and the bed as the most private part of the home was born only in the nineteenth century, as rooms became increasingly specific, with designated bedrooms for the different members of the family, gendered drawing rooms and connecting corridors.

example of the segregation of zones according to access by Gauche

The idea of the bedroom as private is thus a relatively recent development, as is the concept of the bedroom as the designated room to put the bed.[1] For the Chatsworth case, I have been reading the inventory of Chatsworth house that was drawn up for the last will and testament of Bess of Hardwick in 1601. Of the 127 rooms mentioned in the inventory, 71 featured at least one bed (but several rooms had two to three beds) and several pieces of beds, including textiles, could be found in the storehouse and other rooms. The use of the word ‘chamber’ usually implied that the room contained a bed.[2] These beds could range from a simple servant bedsted to a richly decorated four-poster bed draped with expensive textiles, as the one present in My Lady’s Bed-chamber at Chatsworth:

“A bedsted, a tester vallans and postes covered all of black wrought velvet with golde lace and golde fringe, curtins of black damask all trimmed with golde lace, a mattris a featherbed, three bolsters too quiltes four fledges, three flannels a pillowe, three fusteans about the bed foure fledges about the bed.”[3]

This bed is believed to be the oldest bed in England. It has been standing in Berkeley Castle for over 400 years (photo from mirror.co.uk).

The bed and the bedroom in the sixteenth century were thus far less private than one might suspect. For starters, personal servants were probably present at all times, to be able to serve their master’s bidding. In France the custom of the public lever and coucher was already commonplace in the sixteenth century, as noble and household servants came in the bedchamber while the king was getting (un)dressed. This public ceremony became part of the daily formal court ceremonial at the court of Louis XIV in the seventeenth century. A similar custom was adopted by the English court at the end of the seventeenth century.

The bed also played a prominent role during other courtly ceremonies, mostly involving the birth of a successor, or the death of the reigning monarch. These life-cycle events were public ceremonies, often with a rather large crowd assembling in or near the bedroom. The drawing of Henry VII’s deathbed by Thomas Wriothesley shows 14 people gathered around the bed in the privy chamber, including the king’s closest friends, courtiers and physicians.[4] Exceptional was, however, that the door to the king’s privy chamber remained firmly shut. This is how the privy chamber ‘worked its magic’,[5] and the king’s death remained a secret for two days while the council prepared for the accession of Prince Henry (future Henry VIII). Only the 14 people present at the death knew that the king had died and they were trusted to keep the secret.

Drawing of the deathbed of Henry VII by Sir Thomas Wriothesley (c) British Library

 

Notes:

[1] See here for a short history of the bed as a furniture piece.

[2] Several exceptions have been recorded: Levey, Satina, and Peter Thornton. Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick. London: National Trust, 2001, p. 16.

[3] ‘The Inventorie of the furniture of household stuff which is meant and appointed by this my late will and testament to be remayne and contynewe at my house at Chatesworth according to the true entent and meaning thereof’, kept in the Chatsworth archives, published by Levey and Thornton: Levey, Satina, and Peter Thornton. Of Houshold Stuff: The 1601 Inventories of Bess of Hardwick. London: National Trust, 2001.

[4] British Library Ms 45131, f. 54: Henry VII on his deathbed, drawing by Sir Thomas Wriothesley.

[5] To use the words of Thurley, Simon.  Houses of Power. The Places that Shaped the Tudor World. London: Transworld Publishers, 2017, p. 88.