The Great Bed of Ware

When I was 23 years old, I lived and worked in London for a year. I became friends with a lovely 19-year-old colleague named Patrizia Dimaggio. Pat and I worked for a clothing manufacturing company in London’s West End. As the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, Pat spoke Italian at home and was raised with traditional Italian values. I was a country kid at heart from rural America, enchanted by my first exposure to city life. I was married and had two young children. Pat was still a teenager and had a curfew. Although we came from very different cultural backgrounds, we became fast friends. She came round to my house several times and got to know my kids. I became friends with her best friend, Maria, and her sister, Marcella, and the four of us would occasionally go out for a “girls night on the town.” When I moved back to California, we promised to keep in touch. We had no idea at the time how rare it is for people to actually do that.

This was back before email and texting and smart phones, back when international phone calls were quite expensive, but we did stay in touch and within a couple years, Pat came to America to visit. During the next seven years, I got divorced, my children became teenagers and I fell in love again.  When George and I got married, Pat and Maria came out for the wedding and got introduced to George’s wild and crazy family who took them under their wing and showed them a good time. During that visit, Pat told me that she had also fallen in love with a lovely young man from Kent. Two years later, they got married and I came out for the celebration. Over the next 10 years, my children and step children grew up and moved away, and Pat started a family of her own.

What does this all have to do with the Great Bed of Ware? And what is the Great Bed of Ware, anyway?

Well, when Pat started following our blog, she saw that George and I were posting pictures of every bed we’ve slept in during our year-long journey. When we told her we were coming to visit her, she decided she had to take us to see a famous historic bed from her county. Pat and Paul live in Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire County, and the town of Ware is just a few miles up the road.

During the 1580s, a huge bed was built for a local tavern. A German traveler described the bed in 1596 thus: “At Ware was a bed of dimensions so wide, Four Couples might cosily lie side by side, and thus without touching each other abide.” According to our museum guides, when you rented a bed at a tavern in those days, it wasn’t assumed that you would have the bed all to yourself. You just got a spot in the bed. They claimed the tavern owner could sell up to 12 spots in the bed.  Apparently, back in the day, people would sleep in a semi-reclining position, propped up with pillows. This allowed 6 people across at the head of the bed, with their toes reaching the middle of the bed, and another 6 people propped on pillows at the foot of the bed with their toes also reaching the middle.

My friend Pat at the foot of the bed

It became so famous around England that it was mentioned in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, first performed in 1601. Sir Toby Belch says to Sir Andrew Aguecheek …. “as many lies as will lie in thy sheet of paper, although the sheet were big enough for the bed of Ware”….

The bed was given to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1931, and has been a favorite exhibit there ever since. It is on loan to the tiny museum in the tiny town of Ware for one year.

I started thinking about my twenty-plus year friendship with Pat. I realized that if you put Pat’s family of 4 (Pat, Paul, Ethan and Ellis) and my family of 6 (Lois, George, Wyll, Brittany, Greg, and Karin) into the Great Bed of Ware, we’d still have room for our good friends Marci and Maria. No one would get any sleep, but it would be one big intercontinental party in one big bed.

After more than 20 years, the girls are out on the town again. From left, Marcella, Maria, Pat, and Lois.

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6 thoughts on “The Great Bed of Ware

  1. What a great story!

    Yes, the notion of sleeping while lying flat is quite modern. There is much speculation as to why our ancestors slept mostly sitting up, but the strongest going theory that I last heard has to do with respiratory issues. The heating was from fireplaces and the ventilation in buildings and castles was not exactly stellar design. Building interiors tended to be smokey, not to mention other respiratory illnesses. Sitting up aided in breathing. Moreover, the notion that people sleep privately is also quite modern. It was quite common to spread straw on the floor, bring out some blankets, and have everyone sleep in the main room of a castle or tower house. Only the Lord or Lady might have a private room. You will see that more in Ireland.

    What you will also see is very short beds. People often mistakenly assume that the beds were short because the people were short. Not so. They slept sitting up or slightly reclined.

    There is also considerable evidence that they slept in two shifts: sleep one and sleep two. They went to bed fairly early by our standards, slept a few hours, got up for a couple hours, then went back to bed for another few hours. We have documents of many discussions and recommendations about how people ought to spend the time between sleep one and sleep two from chores about the house to it being the best time for sex. The Industrial Revolution and modern lighting changed human sleep patterns–sort of. Many people still struggle with sleeping straight through the night. Contrary to being a problem, it might be more rightly understood as their bodies in keeping with ancient human rhythms.

    • Thank you for such an informative comment on my text. This is great. We’re loving Ireland in every way – the people, the landscapes, the history, the music, even the mad crazy weather. More stories soon.

  2. Fun! Plus your timing was impeccable. I was starting to have this thought at the moment I read:
    What does this all have to do with the Great Bed of Ware?
    And that thought was quickly followed by:
    And what is the Great Bed of Ware, anyway?

    • It was a fun outing with a good friend. Glad to know the timing worked. I’m just about to post another one that I think is too long, so I’m trying to split it in two somehow. It’s about our first two days in Ireland. We’re trying to catch up on all the great things we saw in England, too. Lake District National Park was fantastic. George is writing that post. So, lots to come in the next few days.

  3. Lois, I so understand your connections and your continued friendships. Despite the continents that separated us (I left my hometown when I was 8 to live in Egypt!! (12 years) and visited back home only occasionally for limited time) my kindergarten friend is still one of those I connect on almost daily basis! It is a wonderul feeling to have, what I call, an “emotional anchor” = a memory of times wayyyyy back when. One of my friends from the past, visited me in Florence, and when I was introducing her and mentioned that we had known each other for over 50 years, she asked me to cut down the number of years….”after all we still look good” LOL + 🙂 + 😉

    • You certainly do! I never would have guessed. It really is great to have friends that span such a long time and ones that we TRULY stay in touch with.

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