top of page

Make Your Bed and Lie In It by Nigel Roth

In 2010, Bill Bryson, renowned for his astute travel writing and comic adventures, decided he couldn’t be bothered to go anywhere for his next book, and so stayed at home and wrote At Home.

In the brilliant tour of his Victorian house, he visited every room and described the history of the various items therein. It was a unique and spectacular idea for a piece of writing in which you could shuffle around your own home for months, going from room to room drinking tea, eating biscuits, and, I suspect though I can’t confirm this, taking periodic naps in chairs that presented themselves perfectly for that purpose.

Turns out Bryson was a prophet as well as an author.

But I’d like to go one better, because I can’t even be bothered to leave the room. Moreover, I can’t even be bothered to leave my bed, and so this particular essay is going to be written about just that.

A bed. Two beds, in fact.

For the first one, we (well, you, actually, because I’m staying where I am) need to travel to 1590, a fairly odd year.

This is the year in which Maurice, Prince of Orange captured the entire city of Breda, in the southern Netherlands, using sixty-eight soldiers who breached Breda’s defences by hiding in a peat boat. This is also the year that Governor John White lost an entire American colony, that of Roanoke, the inhabitants of which were never seen again, despite attempts to find them on several occasions.

And, it was also the year that Hertfordshire carpenter Jonas Fosbrooke built an enormous four-poster bed, carved in oak, and measuring 3.4 metres long and 3.3 metres wide, that could comfortably provide a good sleep for ‘at least four couples'.

The story of the second begins one-hundred-and-fifty-five years later, in 1745, when James Graham was born in Edinburgh, destined to make his own bed, and lie in it.

While the bed that Fosbrooke made was mentioned by such literary geniuses as the playwright-of-dubious existence, William Shakespeare, in Twelfth Night, and the playwright of definite existence Benjamin Jonson, in Epicoene, and the poet who was not a lord, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, in Don Juan, we know less than nothing about Fosbrooke himself.

We do know the bed was housed in a huge bedroom in the White Hart Inn in the town of Ware, and that being so large it would probably have been made on site, so it may be that Fosbrooke was local to the area. He was certainly an accomplished craftsman and, one suspects, very well-respected in the cabinetmakers guild.

James Graham, on the other hand, saw far less need for certification of any kind, and left medical school without achieving a degree, to set up as an apothecary in Yorkshire, and was, by 1770, in America, traipsing around the colonies as an occultist and aurist, inserting prosthetic eyes into empty sockets and performing cataract surgery.

Meanwhile back in Ware, Fosbrooke was honing his craft by carving European Renaissance motifs into the bed panels of his Great Bed of Ware, and adding marquetry based on the designs of the Dutch architect, painter, and engineer, Hans Vredeman de Vries, whose fame peaked in the late 1500s, with his books on ornaments. Where and how Fosbrooke acquired those books is, of course, unknown, but the fact that he did would suggest a certain level of literacy and intellect, or some really good connections in nearby London.

Now in Philadelphia, Graham, on the other hand, was not exactly honing his craft, but being shown a new one. It was the principles of electricity, and he was being taught by none other than Ebenezer Kinnersley, Benjamin Franklin's best friend and partner in innovation. And with that new knowledge on-board, and with the American Revolution humming far too loudly in his ears, he upped again and left for Bristol.

And here is where Fosbrooke and his exquisite craft, and Graham and his pseudo-quackery really diverge.

The Great Bed of Ware, which saw much ‘copulation and enjoyment’ in the White Hart when those kinds of pastimes were acceptable, sees far less as a bed of multiple occupancy in the Saracen’s Head down the road, where it was moved sometime in the nineteenth century, as Victorian’s forgot about enjoyment and employed stoicism in favor of sexual freedom, at least in public.

Later, around 1865, the Victoria & Albert Museum was offered the bed and shuddered at the idea of purchasing it for their exhibition, stating that it was a ‘coarse and mutilated relic in no [way] appropriate as a new acquisition’, and five years later it was moved again, this time to the former fortified manor of Rye House, where it sat, outside in the English weather, decaying further, as many of us do in the English weather, whether we're outside or not.

Decaying, conversely, was becoming Graham’s focus, or, more specifically, the reversal of it.

On return from a trip to Europe, Graham, with the help of the Duchess of Devonshire’s mother, opened a spa, equipped it with