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15th Century English Furniture: History & Styles

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

After centuries of turmoil, life in England finally began to settle down in the 15th century. This led to innovation and expansion in the amount and variety of furniture, as well as new techniques for building and decorating.

In the Early Middle Age

Life changed a great deal in the 15th century in England, which led to differences in the way people lived and furnished their homes. A time of greater stability brought about big innovations in furniture and decoration. This lesson will focus on the furniture, history, and style of 15th century in England.

Prior to the 15th century, furniture in England was useful and portable above all else. Because the life of the average human in the early Middle Age was one of turmoil and movement, furniture had to be able to be picked up and moved. Therefore, furniture like chests, which could be used for sitting, storage, and sleeping, was the most many people owned. But with the growing stability of the later Middle Ages, that began to change as the 15th century loomed.

15th Century Brings Innovation

While most furniture was still constructed from oak (since it was the most available material in England at the time), softer woods were also used. Beginning in the later Middle Ages, the furniture and materials available in England began to branch out. While furniture still needed to be portable, there was more variation in it. For the first time, objects with only one use were owned by classes other than the nobility. For example, desks began to appear, and there were folding chairs, and collapsible tables and beds.

This is also the time that framed paneling first appeared in Europe. This allowed carpenters to work with larger surface areas, where they had previously been limited to the width of a single plank of wood. Paneling allowed furniture to become larger and more elaborate, and led to the biggest innovation yet in English furniture.

The cupboard replaced the chest as the most important furniture
The cupboard replaced the chest as the most important furniture

The discovery of paneling is directly linked to the appearance of the cupboard, which became the most important piece of furniture people owned (replacing the chest of the early middle ages). Cupboards, which we would call sideboards today, were used to hold the owners' eating and drinking instruments, and were status symbols. The decoration and ornateness of the piece (and the utensils it contained) were a sign of the wealth of the family who owned it.

Seating

While the chest was replaced by the cupboard as the most important piece of furniture, the bench was no longer alone in the array of seating possibilities, though it was still the most common seating available in the majority of households. A chair was still a rare thing to own, and certainly was a status symbol. Most chairs were made from spindles with carved designs or collapsible x-frames. The seats themselves were sometimes constructed on carved chests, and could be folded down with hinges if the chair had to be moved.

Another European innovation that made its way to England was the settle. The settle was a wooden bench with a high back, often ornately carved and decorated and covered with a cushion. These were standard furnishings in taverns, forming the seats of the booths we know today.

Tables and Beds

Before the 15th century, tables were basic trestles, with boards placed across x-shaped legs, a simple design that allowed for easy dismantling when the table had to be moved. Tables were still generally of the trestle-type during this time frame, but their sizes varied now. The 15th century saw smaller tables that could be more easily moved and tables with removable tops that could be relocated quickly. In wealthier households, tables were often decorated.

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