The Great Bed of Ware
One of the V&A's greatest treasures
The Great Bed of Ware is probably the single best-known object in the Museum. The four-poster bed is famously over three metres wide, the only known example of a bed of this size, and reputedly able to accommodate at least four couples.
Constructed in about 1590, the Bed was probably made as a tourist attraction for an inn in Ware, Hertfordshire. Ware was a day's journey from London and a convenient place to stop for the night for travellers going to Cambridge University or other destinations. Visitors often carved their initials on the Bed or applied red wax seals , which are still visible on the bedposts and headboard today.
The Bed became so famous that Sir Toby Belch describes a sheet of paper as '... big enough for the Bed of Ware!' in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night (1601). It continued to be mentioned in plays and bawdy tales, and is first recorded as ‘The Great Bed of Ware’ in 1609, when it was referred to by this name by Ben Jonson in Epiconene.
Although unique in size, in form and decoration the Bed epitomises the flamboyantly carved and painted beds of the late Elizabethan period. The woodwork is profusely carved with anglicised Renaissance patterns, acanthus leaves and strapwork. The human figures carved on the headboard and the underside of the tester (wooden canopy) show traces of paint and would originally have been brightly coloured. The hangings and bedclothes on the Bed are modern reproductions.
The bed was lent to Ware Museum, Hertfordshire for a year from April 2012 to 2013 2013 in a project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Over 34,000 visitors and groups saw the bed whilst it was in Ware. A year-long programme of events was organised such as Tudor re-enactments, music, crafts and drama as well as a Great Bed of Ware Heritage Trail that visited the places that housed the Great Bed between 1590 and 1869.
Further images of the Bed, and details about its history, can be found in the Great Bed of Ware Search the Collections record.
You can explore the Bed in more detail in this video. It has no sound, but is captioned.