A Most Intimate Office
Kings and queens may have absolute power, but they don't rule in a vacuum.
Others near the seat of power may wield considerable power.
And in many monarchies, power has concentrated around a literal seat
of power — the ruler's chamber pot.
The best place to be was sitting next to the king
while he sat on his padded, velvet-covered toilet box,
voiding his bowels into the pewter chamber pot inside.
In Tudor England, politics happened in the royal court, not in parliament.
The Lord Chamberlain managed the king's court,
ushering you into the inner circle.
Then, the more intimate you became with the king,
the greater your influence and power.
Making your way into a large Tudor property was a little like entering
a Greek temple,
a Shintō shrine,
a large Christian church,
or other religious facility.
You pass through a series of doors or gateways,
moving into smaller and increasingly more sacred or powerful spaces.
In a Tudor palace you first entered the Great Hall,
then passed through it into the Great Watching Chamber.
In it, the king's guard watched over the ruler.
Members of the court and visitors waited there to petition the ruler.
Some of the more favored would be ushered through to the next chamber,
the Presence Chamber, the last public room.
It was the main ceremonial room in the palace, a place for formal audiences.
Beyond that was the Privy Chamber.
The Latin word privatus meaning "withdrawn from public life"
led to Old French privé meaning "private", as well as
"private place" and "familiar friend".
That in turn led to the Middle English pryvy
and then privy by the early 13th century.
It eventually became a now-outdated term for an outdoor toilet.
The center of the royal court was the Privy Chamber,
a suite of rooms with the bedchamber as the innermost chamber.
The Privy Council is a body that advises a monarch.
During the Tudor period, the Privy Council overlapped with
those men given access to the Privy Chamber.
Privy chamber, Privy Council, it meant intimacy with the king.
Using the Tudor terminology for the positions,
the Gentlemen of the Chamber
had full-time jobs being the king's pals.
The Grooms of Chamber had a more intimate position.
They were not just official buddies,
they also helped the king put on his outer clothing.
Just his outer clothing, because...
The Groom of the King's Stool
had the most intimate position of all.
He was the man who helped the king use the toilet,
and take off and put on underwear.
If the king went on a journey, the Groom of the Stool brought the royal
toilet along, continuing with his duties.
The Groom of the Stool, also called the "Chief Gentleman of the Chamber",
was the most trusted, and most influential, of the king's advisors.
He was in charge of all activities in the king's bedchamber and other
private rooms, and he made sure that the king was bathed and well-dressed.
In England, beginning with Henry VII, the Groom of the Stool was
also in charge of the privy purse.
He was the king's personal treasurer, and directed national fiscal policy.
Sir Anthony Denny, Groom of the Stool to Henry VIII, even had the
responsibility for Henry VIII's stamp, with which he signed documents.
It wasn't just England, other European monarchies had introduced
similar systems and it became common in the 14th century.
The French term Valet de Chambre was commonly used.
Italian rulers had Cameriere, and German-speaking rulers had
Kammerjunker or Hofjunker.
The Russian Tsars had
or Stolnik of various ranks,
and the Poles and Lithuanians used the same term.
The Pope had his own Papal Gentlemen.
And it wasn't just Europe.
As far away as Japan, men helped the ruler get dressed, get undressed,
and use the toilet.
The Shogun wore an elaborate outfit that was wrapped onto him like bandages.
A toilet break required support work.
During the day, the Shogun would use a portable urinal or
urine tube made largely of bamboo.
The Tsuchida family held a hereditary position for many generations,
from the Kamakura Shogunate into the Edo period of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
They were the
the public official who handled the Shogun's urine.
Some of the valets de chambre were royal artists, musicians,
poets and writers, and even inventors.
Many of the artists who became successful and prominent enough
to be well known today had positions in a royal court.
Geoffrey Chaucer, largely known today as a writer,
also had a number of roles as a diplomat and civil servant.
He had become a page to King Edward III's daughter-in-law in his early teens,
and married Philippa de Roet, a lady-in-waiting to Edward's queen,
Philippa of Hainault.
From there he progressed to higher offices at court.
The English court had specific titles.
Queen Elizabeth I had the Lord Chamberlain's Men as a royal acting company.
When James I ascended to the throne and became the acting company's patron
in 1603, they became The King's Men.
belonged to this acting company for most of his career.
They perfomed for the royal court in the winter.
In the summer they occasionally performed for the king,
but they also gave public performances in London and sometimes toured.
Some of their members, including Shakespeare, became Grooms of the Chamber.
"Groom of the Stool" — What Does It Mean?
The word grom or grome meant "man-child" or "youth"
in Middle English.
By the 13th century it was groom, referring to
a minor official or attendant in a royal or nobile household.
By the mid 15th century it was a title of an officer of the
English royal household.
Stool is an old word, today it means a simple seat
but it used to mean a significant one.
It's common across Indo-European languages.
Old Norse used stōll.
Russian uses стол or stol for "table",
and стул or stul for "chair".
Stolichnaya vodka takes its name from the word for "capital",
referring to the ruler's table.
Old English used stōl to mean "chair" or "seat" or "throne".
It was often used for "a chair of authority, state or office; especially
a royal or episcopal throne" according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
The OED's earliest example dates from about 897 in Pastoral Care,
King Ælfred's translation of Pope Gregory's treatise.
The Pope used the Latin cathedra for a bishop's throne;
the king's translation used stole, the objective form
of the Old English word.
By 1598 the word stool began to refer to fecal matter.
Or fæcal, if you're British.
But What About The Stool?
The Groom of the King's Stool helped the king use the stool,
the king's Close Stool.
A close stool is a box-like seat.
It has an opening on its top,
and holds an earthenware or metal chamber pot inside.
It's made a close stool by having a lid that closes.
The lid restricts the odor and visibility.
A written order survives from 1497 for Hugh Denys of Osterley,
"our Groom of the Stool",
which specified "black velvet and fringed with silk, two pewter basins
and four broad yards of tawny cloth" for the construction of the King's
The deathbed of Henry VII in 1509, as drawn by Sir Thomas Wriothesley.
From the left on the near side of the bed are:
a physician holding a urine bottle,
William FitzWilliam holding a staff and closing the King's eyes,
a physician holding a urine bottle,
Hugh Denys, the Groom of the King's Close-Stool,
and another physician holding a urine bottle.
It was a time of uroscopy, diagnosis by visual examination
of the patient's urine.
Here you see three physicians holding urine bottles at the deathbed of
Henry VII in 1509.
At the right you see physicians examining the urine of the Duke of Normandy,
who was suffering from the sweating sickness,
also called the sweats and English sweat.
It was a contagious disease of mysterious origin that struck England and
then continental Europe in a series of epidemics beginning during the reign
of Henry VII in 1485, and lasting until 1551.
Symptoms of the sweating sickness began suddenly, with death often
following within hours.
A practicing physician at the time described the symptoms as starting
suddenly with a sense of apprehension, followed by chills and shivering,
There was giddiness, headache, and severe pains in the neck, shoulders,
After a half-hour to three hours of chills, the hot and sweating stage began.
The headache remained, as the giddiness progressed to delirium.
There was a sense of great heat accompanied by sweating,
along with extreme thirst and difficulty breathing.
The disease typically lasted through a full day,
followed by either recovery or death.
Some patients went through several episodes before dying.
How to be a Groom of the Stool
John Russell's Boke of Nurture
from 1452 contains a section
"The office off a chamburlayne", concluding with explanations in verse
for building and maintaining a close stool:
Se þe privehouse for esement244 be fayre, soote, & clene,
& þat þe bordes þer vppoñ / be keuered withe clothe feyre & grene,
& þe hoole / hym self, looke þer no borde be sene,
þeroñ a feire quoschyñ / þe ordoure no mañ to tene
looke þer be blanket / cotyñ / or lynyñ to wipe þe neþur ende245
and euer wheñ he clepithe, wayte redy & entende,
basoun and ewere, & oñ your shuldur a towelle, my frende
In þis wise worship shalle ye wyñ / where þat euer ye wende
244: A siege house, sedes excrementorum. A draught or priuie, latrina
245: An arse wispe, penicillum, -li, vel anitergium.
Withals. From a passage in William of Malmesbury's autograph
De Gestis Pontificum Anglorum
it would seem that water was the earlier cleanser.
[Penicillum is Latin for "brush",
which could be used for wiping.
Anitergium is a Latin word formed on the model of
facitergium, meaning "face wipe".
It's a fancy way of saying "arsewisp" or "arse wispe",
the routine term of the time.
Both wisp and wipe derive from the Old English
wipian, meaning "to wind round".
At the time, a wisp made of hay could be used for wiping.
A wiper would ordinarily be a handkerchief.]
Fix it nicely, make sure the boards don't show through the
green cloth on the top, add a cushion,
and always be ready with a basin, a ewer of water, and a towel.
This is for royalty or upper nobility, their lord gets cotton or linen
"to wipe the nether end".
Most people used water and their hand.
Even the cheapest paper was far too expensive for most people.
Can I Get My Own Close Stool?
After a fashion, yes!
They're called "bedside commodes" these days.
But you can put one in your own privy chamber, and close its lid to
try to contain the odor.
They have open frames, you might want to add some green cloth
and a feire quoschyñ or "fair cushion".
As for getting someone to sit by you and chat while you use it,
and then clean the pot when you're done, that will be more difficult.
Children's close-stools are widely available.
They're called "pottys".
Grooms of the King's Stool
||Groom of the Stool
|William Grymesby was mentioned as being
Yoman of the Stoole in 1455
|The House of York seems to have done without
Grooms of the King's Stool.
|Sir Edward Burton
His son, Sir John Burton, was Groom of the King's Stool
to King Henry VIII
|Hugh Denys, ?–1509
Denys continued in service during the beginning
of Henry VIII's reign.
|Sir William Compton, 1509–1526
Compton died in 1528 of the sweating sickness.
|Sir Henry Norris, 1526–1536
Norris became politically involved with Anne Boleyn,
Henry's second wife, and was executed along with her
after she fell from favor.
He was accused of treason and adultery with Anne,
but most historians agree that the accusations
were false, part of a plot to get rid of Anne.
|Sir Thomas Heneage, 1536–1546
|Sir Anthony Denny, 1546–1547
|Sir Michael Stanhope, 1547–1551
Stanhope was beheaded in 1552, having been convicted
of conspiring to assassinate John Dudley,
1st Duke of Northumberland, and others
The Groom of the King's Stool was a man's position, serving a male ruler.
Neither Mary I (ruled 1553-1558) nor Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603)
had a Groom of the Stool.
The Queens did, however, have Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber.
A woman named Katherine Ashley was among those who held the position of
Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber for Elizabeth.
Analogous to the male role, attending to the queen in her private day room,
helping her to bathe and dress.
And, we assume, to use the toilet and clean up afterward.
One of Elizabeth's Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber was Isabella Markham,
mother of John Harington,
re-inventor of the English flush toilet.
There were indoor toilets in in 3000 BCE in the
Neolithic settlement at Skara Brae,
on the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Britain.
And there were flushing toilets in 2600 BCE in cities in the
Indus Valley Civilization, and later in Minoan settlements in Crete and Thera
around 1800 BCE.
However, once Roman influence had faded away, Britain and the rest of Europe
had gone back to chamberpots and simply urinating and defecating outdoors.
Harington's invention, to the extent it was practical,
was a great improvement.
||Groom of the Stool
|Thomas Erskine, 1st Earl of Kellie, 1603–
|Sir James Fullerton, 1625–1631
|Henry Rich, 1st Earl of Holland, 1626–1643
|William Seymour, 1st Marquess of Hertford, 1643–c.1649
|Thomas Blagge, c.1649
London Gazette, 23 July 1685, page 1.
Starting with Charles II, the position was called
Groom of the King's Stole, "Stole" rather than "Stool".
Opinions are mixed, but it seems that this wasn't caused by squeamishness
over the nature of the close stool, but was instead traditionalism.
Not embarassment over the portable toilet, but going back to the
Middle English term stole.
As you can see in this page from the
they had returned to "stole" in 1685, well before the
notoriously squeamish Victorian era.
Charles II appointed
John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647–1680),
a Gentleman of the Bedchamber in March 1666.
This gave him prime lodgings in Whihtehall and a pension of
£1,000 per year.
In return, one week out of every four Rochester helped the King to
dress and undress, served the King's meals when he ate in private,
and slept at the foot of the King's bed.
In the movie
Johnny Depp portrays Rochester, who was renowned for drunkenness
and "extravagant frolics" and died of venereal disease at the age of 33.
||Groom of the Stole
|William Seymour, 1st Marquess of Hertford, 1660
|Sir John Granville (later Earl of Bath), 1660–1685
|Henry Mordaunt, 2nd Earl of Peterborough, 1685–1688
|William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, 1689–1700
Mary II was Queen of England, Scotland, and Ireland,
co-ruling with her husband, William III, Prince of
Orange from the Netherlands, until her death from
smallpox in 1694.
|Henry Sydney, 1st Earl of Romney, 1700–1702
|Sarah Churchill, Countess of Marlborough (later Duchess),
While Anne would have had Gentlewomen of the Privy
Council, apparently the title "Groom of the Stole"
was still applied.
|Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset, 1711–1714
|John Berkeley, 3rd Baron Berkeley of Stratton,
Groom of the Stole to Prince George
|Robert Leke, 3rd Earl of Scarsdale,
Groom of the Stole to Prince George
|John West, 6th Baron de la Warr,
Groom of the Stole to Prince George
|Lionel Sackville, 1st Duke of Dorset,
|Charles Spencer, 3rd Earl of Sunderland,
|The position was vacant 1722–1723
|Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin, 1723–1727
|Francis Godolphin, 2nd Earl of Godolphin, 1727–1735
|Henry Herbert, 9th Earl of Pembroke, 1735–1750
|Willem Anne van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle, 1751–1755
|William Nassau de Zuylestein, 4th Earl of Rochford, 1755–1760
|John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, 1760–1761
George III developed mental illness in the later
part of his life, it has been suggested that he
had either bipolar disorder or porphyria.
His son George, Prince of Wales, ruled as Prince
Regent from 1810 to his father's death in 1820.
Did his unusual behavior lead to his going through
more Grooms of the Stool/Stole than any other
But his life and reign were both longer than any
predecessors or any subsequent kings
|Francis Hastings, 10th Earl of Huntingdon, 1761–1770
|George Hervey, 2nd Earl of Bristol, 1770–1775
|Thomas Thynne, 3rd Viscount Weymount, 1775
|John Ashburnham, 2nd Earl of Ashburnham, 1775–1782
|Thomas Thynne, 3rd Viscount Weymouth, later Marquess of Bath, 1782–1796
|John Ker, 3rd Duke of Roxburghe, 1796–1804
|George Finch, 9th Earl of Winchilsea, 1804–1812
|Charles Paulet, 13th Marquess of Winchester, 1812–1820
|Charles Paulet, 13th Marquess of Winchester, 1820–1830
|William IV, 1830–1837
||Charles Paulet, 13th Marquess of Winchester, 1830–1837
Victoria did not appoint a Groom of the Stole,
although presumably like Mary I and Elizabeth I she had
Gentlewomen of the Privy Chamber, with one of them the
Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber.
She did appoint Grooms of the Stole for her husband, Prince Albert,
and eldest son, who became Edward VII.
||Groom of the Stole
||Lord Robert Grosvenor (later Lord Ebury), 1840–1841
|Brownlow Cecil, 2nd Marquess of Exeter, 1841–1846
|James Hamilton, 2nd Marquess of Abercom (later Duke of Abercom), 1846–1859
|John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, 1859–1861
Prince of Wales
|John Spencer, 5th Earl Spencer, 1862–1866
|The position was apparently vacant 1866–1877
|Sir William Knollys, 1877–1883
|James Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Abercom, 1883–1901
And then, that was it.
James Hamilton was the last Groom of the Stole in Britain.
Why Do We Call It A "Toilet"?