Now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but once housed in the Saracen’s Head at Ware, was the Great Bed of Ware, made of oak and just over ten feet long and ten feet wide (3 m by 3 m). According to popular tradition, the Great Bed was made by Jonas Fosbrooke, a journeyman carpenter of Ware, who presented it to King Edward IV in 1463. Although the date 1463 is painted on the headboard, seemingly verifying this tale, the bed is actually thought to have been made as a publicity stunt for the White Hart at Ware around 1590. It was famous enough by the time that Shakespeare wrote Twelfth Night (first performed 1601) for him to include an allusion to it (Act 3, scene 2). Later, the Great Bed was housed at several different inns – the George, the Crown, and finally the Saracen’s Head, where it remained until 1870. It was then sold to the proprietor of the Rye House Hotel at Hoddesdon and acquired by the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1931.
Meantime, the Great Bed went on being mentioned by travellers, historians, poets, and playwrights into the nineteenth century, the stories told about it becoming increasingly fanciful. Its size was enormously exaggerated – a writer in 1706 said it could lodge a troop of soldiers if supplemented with a trundle bed; another in 1732 said it would hold twenty couples; while one in 1736 spoke of the twenty-six butchers and their wives who had slept in it on the night that King William III was crowned.
The bed was famous not only for its size but because it was supposed to be haunted. Those who tried to sleep in it were kept awake by ‘the pinching, nipping, and scratching that went on all night long’. It was said that Harrison Saxby, Master of the Horse to King Henry VIII, fell in love with the daughter of a rich miller living at Chalk Island near Ware and swore that he would do anything to make her his wife. King Henry, who happened to be passing through Ware on his way to Hertford Castle, heard this and ordered the girl and her many suitors to appear before him. He promised her in marriage to the man who would spend the night in the Great Bed (this before the real bed was made). Only Saxby took up the challenge and withstood the tormenting of the ghost though next morning he was covered in bruises. Naturally, he won his bride. As to who did the haunting, it was said by many to be the ghost of old Fosbrooke, angry at the common use his great bed was being put to.