The invention of the flush toilet (at least in England)
Toilets are not new, they have been around since the Stone Age, and flushing toilets are old enough that history doesn't record their invention.
But then things fell apart as the Roman Empire crumbled. Flushing toilets on a modern design were finally re-invented in England a little before 1600, wrapped up in some royal court intrigue. Read on for the details!
Toilets are not new
Toilets have been around at least since 3,000 BC. For example, see the Stone Age toilets of Skara Brae in Orkney, off the northern coast of Scotland. There was a drainage system to remove waste, although there are no clear signs of active water flushing.
Waste plumbing and water flushing are not new
The cities of Harappa and Mohenjo-daro in the Indus Valley Civilization had flush toilets in most homes connecting to a common sewage disposal system as early as 2600 BC.
The Minoans on Crete and Thera had flushing toilets starting around 1800 BC.
The Hittite Empire's capital of Hatuşaş had public waste disposal plumbing around 1200-700 BC.
The Greeks on the sacred island of Delos had large-scale public plumbing in addition to private latrines flushed by running water in the period from 900 BC to 100 AD.
So, toilets, sanitary plumbing and water-flushed toilets have been around for more than 4,000 years, maybe at least 5,000 years if those at Skara Brae had some form of active flushing.
However, the state of the art in plumbing technology entered a long decline in Europe starting with the collapse of the Roman Empire.Spanish salmonella versus the Aztecs
By the time the Spanish explorers reached the Americas, they were astounded to find enormous cities with highly effective waste disposal systems. Meanwhile their streets back home were open sewers.
Hernán Cortés described their aqueducts in 1520. The conquistador Andres de Tapia reported, amazed, that Montezuma bathed twice a day. The Jesuit historian Francisco Javier Clavijer wrote that all the Aztec people, not just their ruler, "bathed often, and many of them every day".
The Florentine Codex, written with the assistance of Aztec prisoners shortly after the Conquest, described Aztec soap, deodorants, breath fresheners, and dentifrices. Spaniards of that time cleaned their teeth with urine, if at all. The Moors had invaded Spain, so the Spanish people saw the cleanliness of the Islamic invaders as a sign of their heresy, so their own dirtiness must be a Christian virtue.
Privy Chambers and Close Stools
The Privy Chamber was the most influential operating department within the English royal household. Control of the Privy Chamber meant control of the ruler. What had simply been the Chamber of the King had been divided under King Henry VIII (ruled 1509-1547) into the Privy Chamber, the Presence Chamber, and the Great Hall, working out from the innermost private space. The Privy Chamber included the ruler's bedroom, library, study, and toilet.
The toilet was a close stool, a box containing an earthenware or pewter chamber pot. It was a portable commode. As King Henry VIII grew older and fatter, the position of Groom of the Stool became ever more influential. Meanwhile, the work involved remained rather unpleasant. The Groom of the Stool, more formally titled the Groom of the King's Close Stool, was in charge of the royal excretion and was tasked with removing the excrement and cleaning the King's anal area after defecation.
Paper was an expensive and uncommon material until industrial production reduced its cost in the 1800s. Royalty would be cleaned with cloth made from wool, cotton or hemp. For further details on post-toilet cleaning, see the Wipe or Wash? page for more detail. And, consult Rabelais for his suggestions on wiping alternatives.
The Many John Haringtons
Things get confusing, several men named John Harington were members of the nobility and the royal court during the 16th and early 17th centuries.
John Harington of Stepney, born around 1517, is the first one with a role in this story. He had some role in the court of King Henry VIII, although not as his treasurer — even the compiler's of the U.K.'s National Dictionary of Biography seem to have gotten all the Johns mixed up. He served the Lord High Admiral Thomas Seymour, a brother of Henry's third wife Jane Seymour.
But this John Harington had some connection to the court of Henry VIII, because he married Ethelreda Malte. Or Etheldreda. Or Audrey. Etheldreda, let's call her, seems to have been an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. Henry got his tailor John Malte to claim her as his illegitimate daughter, although it was a rather unconvincing claim. Her mother, Joan Dingley, is obscure. She would have been a member of the lesser nobility with a position in the royal court. One theory is that she did the king's laundry.
Henry gave John Malte and thus his illegitimate daughter Etheldreda various lands and properties, including Saint Catherine's Court north of Bath, and the money to buy the manor of Kelston, a small village four miles northwest of Bath. Henry also gave John and Etheldreda the former Shaftesbury Abbey, well south of Bath in Dorset. It had been the second-wealthiest nunnery in England before Henry dissolved the monasteries. John died in 1547, and Etheldreda inherited the properties.
John Harington and Etheldreda Malte married in 1548. She was a Lady-in-Waiting for Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen Elizabeth I. She was beautiful and quite wealthy, but her co-worker soon caught her new husband's eye.
Isabella Markham and Royal Intrigues
Isabella Markham was another of Princess Elizabeth's Ladies-in-Waiting. In early 1849, John Harington was writing sonnets to her. He wrote sonnets praising all of Elizabeth's Ladies-in-Waiting, but especially Isabella. One collected in Nugæ antiquæ goes:
John Haryngton to Isabella Markham, 1549
Alas! I love you overwell,
Myne owne sweete deere delygte!
Yet, for respects I feare to tell
What moves my trobled spryghte:
What workes my woe, what breeds my smarte,
What wounds myn harte and mynde;
Reason restrayns me to emparte
Such perylls as I fynde.
In a later sonnet he wrote that he had "firste thought her fayre as she stode at the Princesse's windowe in goodlye attyre, and talkede to dyvers in the Courte-Yard".
|Rulers of England|
|Lady Jane Grey||10–19 July 1553|
Soon after that, John was imprisoned in the Tower of London from early 1549 to spring 1550. He had some connection to people involved in a plot to convince King Edward VI to marry Lady Jane Gray. Isabella's father was Lieutenant at the Tower 1549–1551, so his sweetheart's father, his future father-in-law, was his jailer. But it gets more complicated.
When Queen Mary announced her plan to marry Prince Philip of Spain in January 1554, Thomas Wyatt led a force from Kent to depose Mary and put Elizabeth on the throne. John was mentioned in a letter between some of the conspirators in Wyatt's Rebellion, and he was again imprisoned in the Tower.
Fearing further conspiracies, Queen Mary had her half-sister Princess Elizabeth imprisoned in the Tower in March 1554. She was accompanied by Etheldreda, Isabella, and four other Ladies-in-Waiting.
And so there was John Harington, imprisoned in the Tower of London along with his wife and the woman who would become his second wife.
Elizabeth and her Ladies-in-Waiting were only in the Tower for two months. In May 1554 Elizabeth was moved to Woodstock Palace near Oxford and placed under house arrest. Harington remained locked up for the rest of the year. He got himself released in January 1555.
In October 1555 Elizabeth was allowed to return to her residence at Hatfield House, a royal palace in Hertfordshire, just north of London. John Harington immediately began visiting, so as to see Isabella. Oh yeah, and to say hi to the wife.
Isabella, Gentlewoman of the Chamber (and Chamber Pot)
Mary died, and Elizabeth became Queen in November 1558. Isabella Markham was appointed Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber. She was described as a favorite of Queen Elizabeth. This means that she would have been involved in cleaning the queen's chamber pot. If she was the most favored, she would have sat with the queen while she used the royal stool. She might have been, given her history with the queen.
Elizabeth was officially crowned 15 January 1559, and Etheldreda died later that month.
John Harington was finally free of his inconvenient wife, and he married Isabella within two months. He had inherited the enormous dowry of property King Henry VIII been given his first wife, and he was married to the woman he had longed for through the past decade. He continued in the service of Queen Elizabeth, who later granted him the Stoughton Grange Estate in Leicestershire in the Midlands.
Their first son, John, the flush toilet (re)inventor, was born in August 1561.
Sir John Harington of Kelston, Re-inventor of the Flush Toilet
Sir John Harington was born in 1561 in Kelston, a village near Bath in southeastern England. The childless Queen Elizabeth I accepted him as one of what eventually added up to 102 godchildren.
By 1570 he was at Eton College. He then went to King's College at Cambridge in 1576, graduating with a BA in 1578 and MA in 1581. He briefly studied law at the Inns of Court in London, but then his father died and he returned to Kelston to supervise the completion of the manor house.
Running water was a source of inspiration to him, foreshadowing his later flush toilet design. But at first he stuck with fountains.
He hung around the royal court, where his poetry and unusually free-spirited nature drew Queen Elizabeth's notice. She encouraged him to write, which led to a series of episodes emphasizing the need to be careful what you ask for.
Elizabeth had been surrounded for years by sycophantic men who seemed to be in a competition to see who could speak and write in the most exaggerated language of gallantry. Not Harington, though. He was blunt and straightforward, always speaking his mind with little to no concern for consequences, and it seems that Elizabeth enjoyed that.
Harington was always on the edge of giving offense with his readings of his somewhat risqué pieces. He enjoyed his role, signed some messages to Elizabeth as "your Highness's saucy godson".
Then, in the 1580s, he translated part of the especially risqué canto 28 of the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto. The epic was set during the wars between Charlesmagne's Christian forces and the Saracen army attempting to invade Europe. It focused on the paladin or knight Orlando, known in French as Roland, and his unrequited love and lust for a "pagan princess".
Harington's partial translation went beyond his usual level of raciness. He showed and maybe recited his translation to the Queen's ladies-in-waiting. Isabella had died in 1579, so at least he wasn't reciting erotica to his mother. But the ladies-in-waiting were scandalized. Or at least they felt obligated to say that they were. There was at least a little of "I know that it's lurid and lewd, because I've read it three times so far!"
The usual story is that Queen Elizabeth was scandalized and even enraged by the episode. She banished him from her court, telling him not to return until he had translated the entire epic poem. As it's 38,736 lines long, one of the longest poems in European literature, she thought she was rid of him.
Based on what happened later, I don't think that Elizabeth was really all that angry with him. She probably meant for him to go away long enough for everyone to cool down, and forget the details of what he had done and also what she had told him to do.
Much to everyone's surprise, he was gone for a few years and then returned in 1591 with the entire epic translated into English, naughty bits and all. This was its first translation into English. He was praised, first for completing the task, and then for the quality of his translation which is still read today. It's often seen as being as significant in Anglo-Italian literary relations as Spenser's Faerie Queene.
Harington didn't just bring back a manuscript. He had gone to a publisher and created a book which was a triumph of artistic design, with lavish copper-plate illustrations and detailed notes on the text. Since he was just doing what the Queen had commanded, he was back in good standing in the royal court, and then some.
Harington was a shrewd and energetic self-promoter. The bound volume was dedicated to Elizabeth. and he had more copies made, some of them hand-colored, which he presented to other potential patrons. One of them was King James VI of Scotland, who ended up succeeding Elizabeth as James I of England. He revised it and republished it in 1607.
In 1596 he wrote what today is his best-known work, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, ostensibly a description of a newly designed flush toilet installed at his home in Kelston, but actually an allegorical attack on Robert Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester.
Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester
Dudley, a nobleman and the favorite of Queen Elizabeth throughout her reign, was involved in both domestic and foreign politics. As a young man he had escaped execution after leading a force of 300 men in support of Lady Jane Grey over Mary Tudor as the successor to King Edward VI in 1553. Dudley, his father, and four brothers were imprisoned in the Tower of London and condemned to death, his father and one brother were executed.
Elizabeth, the future Queen, half-sister to Mary and childhood friend of Dudley, just happened to be imprisoned in the Tower at the same time. Dudley and his surviving brothers were released after a little over a year in prison. Meanwhile, Dudley's family had befriended now-Queen Mary's husband Philip of Spain. As long as King Philip was around, Dudley and his brother were welcome at court, but when Philip wasn't there, they were just a couple of suspected conspirators.
Elizabeth I succeeded Mary on 18 November 1558, and Dudley became Master of the Horse that same day, putting him into an important position with close access to the ruler. The next year the Spanish ambassador was describing Robert Dudley as one of the three people running the country, and Philip II said:
Lord Robert has come so much into favour that he does whatever he likes with affairs and it is even said that her majesty visits him in his chamber day and night. People talk of this so freely that they go so far as to say that his wife has a malady in one of her breasts and the Queen is only waiting for her to die to marry Lord Robert ... Matters have reached such a pass ... that ... it would ... be well to approach Lord Robert on your Majesty's behalf ... Your Majesty would do well to attract and confirm him in his friendship.
Dudley's first wife, Amy Robsart, died in 1560 when she fell down a flight of stairs and broke her neck. This left Dudley available to marry the Queen, but persistent rumors that he had arranged his wife's death interfered with that. He remarried in 1578, but didn't inform the Queen. Nine months later his competitors at court told the Queen. She was enraged, labeling Dudley a "traitor" and his new wife, Lettice Knollys, a "she-wolf" permanently banished from the court.
Domestically, Dudley supported the Puritan movement while trying to mediate between the Puritans and the Church of England. He was also a major supporter of Francis Drake and other explorers, and was in overall command of the English ground forces during the conflict with the Spanish Armada.
A document titled The Copie of a Leter wryten by a Master of Arts of Cambrige appeared in 1584, laying charges that Dudley was a sinister "master courtier" and a corrosive figure in the court of Elizabeth I. It has since been interpreted as Roman Catholic propaganda against the Puritan sympathies Dudley had fostered within Elizabeth I's regime. Dudley was described as an amoral opportunist "of almost satanic malevolence" involved in a number of murders, starting with that of his wife and then continuing with the poisonings of the Cardinal of Chatillon, the Earl of Sussex, the Earl of Essex, and several others. He supposedly had a "monstrous sexual appetite" and he and his wife were involved in various episodes of adultery and abortions. Plus, he had hired a mathematician to cast black magic spells. Eventually the tract came to be retitled Leicester's Commonwealth.
Metamorphosis of Ajax
Well, Harington's 1596 publication of Metamorphosis of Ajax was just piling onto an already abused Dudley, and the Queen was outraged, again. Ajax was a variant of a jakes, a slang term possibly of French origin for "toilet". Before the completion of the Great Vowel Shift, "Ajax" and "a jakes" were pronounced the same. The book criticizes the "stercus" or excrement associated with "a jakes", but this really was an allegorical attack on state-sponsored torture and conspiracies against Harington's relatives, actions blamed on Dudley, the 1st Earl of Leicester.
Harington had published the Metamorphosis of Ajax under the pseudonym of "Misacmos" but it was pretty obvious that he had written it. This got him banished from the court of Queen Elizabeth I for a second time.
The illustration of the monk sitting on a monastic reredorter is accompanied by some verse.
A godly father, sitting on a draught,
To do as need and nature hath us taught
Mumbled (as was his manner) certain prayers
And unto him the devil straight repairs!
And boldly to revile him he begins,
Alleging that such prayers are deadly sins;
And that he show'd he was devoid of grace,
To speak to God from so unmeet a place.
The reverent man, though at the first dismay'd
Yet strong in faith, to Satan thus he said:
Thou damned spirit, wicked, false and lying,
Despairing thine own good, and our envying;
Each take his due, and me thou canst not hurt,
To God my prayer I meant, to thee the dirt.
Pure prayer ascends to him that high doth sit,
Down falls the filth, for fiends of hell more fit.
Well, let's skip past the allegorical criticism of Elizabethan court figures. Here is the core of the Metamorphosis of Ajax, the detailed description of how to metamorphosize your ajax:
WHEREIN BY A
Tripartiate Method, is plainly, openly, and demon-
stratively declared, explained, and eliquidated,
by Pen, Plot, and Precept, how unsavory
Places may be made sweet, noisome
Places made wholesome, filthy
places made cleanly
THE COMMON BENEFIT OF BUILDERS, HOUSEKEEPERS,
BY T. C.
TRAVELLER, APPRENTICE IN POETRY, PRACTISER IN MUSIC,
PROFESSOR OF PAINTING;
THE MOTHER, DAUGHTER, AND HANDMAID OF ALL MUSES,
ARTS, and SCIENCES
Invide quid mordes? Pictoribus atque Poetis,
Quidlibet audendi semper fiut aequa potestas.
IMPRINTED BY RICHARD FIELD,
DWELLING IN THE BLACKFRIARS.
TO M.S.E. ESQUIRE
My master having expressly commanded me to finish a strange discourse that he had written to you, called the Metamorphosis of AJAX, by setting certain pictures thereto; there came unto my mind a tale I had heard, perhaps more merry than mannerly, how a plain or rather pleasant serving-man, waiting on his master at the Pope's court, happened to be present one day when the gentleman, after long attendance and great means, had obtained the favour to kiss his Holiness' foot. The man seeing what his master did, first stole out of the chamber, and then ran out of the house, hiding himself for a pretty space: the gentleman hearing of it, pitied his mans simplicity (who perhaps was crafty knave enough for all that), and asked why he went away? Alas! sir, said he, when I saw that a man of your worth and worship, in so public a place, might kiss but his toe, I doubted they would have made me have kissed him in some homilier place; and so I might have been shamed for ever.
If that serving-man had cause to run out of the house,
methinks I may seem to have more reason to run out of
my wits, to have so strange a task appointed me:
for when the very face and head, or title of the book,
seemed so foul and unsavoury, what might I think
the feet or tail thereof were like to prove?
Wherefore, I would gladly have shunned so base
an office; but having my masters example,
joined to his commandment, I took heart to me:
and first, I read over the discourse, to see what was
promised therein on my behalf (viz. certain pictures).
But I assure you, in the reading of it, whether it
were the well-handling of the matter, or my partial
opinion (a fault that I am seldom charged withal),
my mind was altered; and I compared the homely
title of it unto an ill-favoured vizor, such as
I have seen in stage plays, when they dance
Machachinas, which covers as sweet a face sometimes
as any is in the company.
And even presently therewithal, as if I had been
inspired with the spirit of AJAX, methought I
durst have adventured with my pen and pencil
upon any thing.
For as the saying is,
Painters and poets, claim by old enrolment,
A charter, to dare all, without controlment.
|Or to a toad, or a snake made in sugar, that looks unsightly, but tastes sweetly.|
Wherefore, by the privilege of this charter (as also
by a patent I have of serving two apprenticeships),
I will go somewhat beyond the bare words of my
commission, and yet not swerve much from the charge
that is laid upon me.
For, sir, I would you knew it, though I never
troubled the schools at Oxford with any disputes
or degrees, yet I carried there a good scholars
books after him; and I trust I got some quaint
phrases among them; as namely, instead of
praying the cobler to set two patches on my shoes,
I could have said,
Set me two semicircles upon my suppeditals:
with much other eloquence beyond the common
And yet, notwithstanding all these great vaunts,
I will not take upon me, that I am able to say
so much of the Metamorpho-sis, the etymology,
and the reformation of Don AJAX house, as my
master hath said; or to defend the words,
illustrate the matter, and dilate of the form,
as he hath done; for who can stand against such
an army of emperors, kings, magistrates, prophets,
poets, all-hallows, and all prophanes, even from
the Bible to the Bable, as are by him brought for
enobling of his arguments?
Yet for anatomizing as it were of the shape and body
thereof because he hath handled that point
(in M. Plat's opinion) somewhat too briefly
for common understandings, I must here a little
better open it: for as the old saying is
(bonum quo communius eo melius),
and the old verse is,
Scire tuum hihil est, nisi te scrire hoc sciat alter.
Goodness is best, when it is common shown:
Knowledge were vain, if knowledge were not known.
|M. Plat in his book against famine, fol. ultimo penultimo.|
|Wherefore now, seriously and in good sadness, to instruct you and all gentlemen of worship, how to reform all unsavoury places of your houses, whether they be caused by privies or sinks, or such like (for the annoyance coming all of like causes, the remedies need not be much unlike), this shall you do.||If that which follows offend the reader, he may turn over a leaf or two, or but smell to his sweet gloves, and then the savour will never offend him.|
|"In the privy that annoys you, first cause a cistern, containing a barrel or upward, to be placed either behind the seat, or in any place either in the room or above it, from whence the water may, by a small pipe of lead of an inch, be conveyed under the seat in the hinder part thereof (but quite out of sight); to which pipe you must have a cock or a washer, to yield water with some pretty strength when you would let it in.||This cistern in the first plot is figured at the letter A; and so likewise in the second plot. The small pipe in the first plot at D, in the second E; but it ought to lie out of sight.|
|"Next make a vessel of an oval form, as broad at the bottom as at the top; two feet deep, one foot broad, sixteen inches long; place this very close to your seat, like the pot of a close-stool; let the oval incline to the right hand.||This vessel is expressed in the first plot H, M, N; in the second H, K.|
|"This vessel may be brick, stone, or lead; but whatsoever it is, it should have a current of three inches to the back part of it (where a sluice of brass must stand); the bottom and sides all smooth, and drest with pitch, rosin, and wax; which will keep it from tainting with the urine.||The current is expressed in the second plot K.|
|A special note.|
|"In the lowest part of this vessel, which will be on the right hand, you must fasten the sluice or washer of brass, with solder or cement; the concavity or hollow thereof, must be two inches and a half.||In the second plot I, L.|
|"To the washers stopple must be a stem of iron, as big as a curtain rod; strong and even, and perpendicular, with a strong screw at the top of it; to which you must have a hollow key with a worm fit to that screw.||In the first plot G, F; in the second F and I.|
|"This screw must, when the sluice is down, appear through the plank not above a straws breadth on the right hand; and being duly placed, it will stand about three or four inches wide of the midst of the back of your seat.||In the first plot between G, I.|
|"Item, That children and busy folk disorder it not, or open the sluice with putting in their hands without a key, you should have a little button or scallop shell, to bind it down with a vice pin, so as without the key it will not be opened.||This shows in the first plot K, L; in the second G; such are in the backside of watches.|
|"These things thus placed, all about your vessel and elsewhere, must be passing close plastered with good lime and hair, that no air come up from the vault, but only at your sluice, which stands close stopped; and ever it must be left, after it is voided, half a foot deep in clean water.||Else all is vain.|
|"If water be plenty, the oftener it is used and opened, the sweeter; but if it be scant, once a day is enough, for a need, though twenty persons should use it.|
|"If the water will not run to your cistern, you may with a force of twenty shillings, and a pipe of eighteen pence the yard, force it from the lowest part of your house to the highest.||These forces, al also the great washer, you shall buy at the queen's braziers in Lothbury, at the boar's-head.|
|"But now on the other side behold the Anatomy."|
Here are the parts set down, with a rate of the prices; that a builder may guess what he hath to pay.
|A the cistern; stone or brick. Price||6||8|
|b, d, e the pipe that comes from the cistern, with a stopple to the washer. Price||3||6|
|c a waste pipe.||1||0|
|f, g the stem of the great stopple, with a key to it.||1||6|
|h the form of the upper brim of the vessel or stool-pot.|
|m the stool-pot, of stone||8||0|
|n the great brass sluice, to which is three inches current to send it down a gallop into the Jax.||10||0|
And lest you should mislike with this phrase, I had it in a verse of a grave author, that was wont to walk up and down the court with a forest bill; I have forgot how it began (like a beast as he was), but it ended in rhyme:
O that I were at Oxenford, to eat some Banbury cakes.
i the seat, with a peak devant for elbow-room. The whole charge thirty shillings and eight pence: yet a mason of my masters was offered thirty pounds for the like. Memorandum. The scale is about half an inch to a foot.
A the cistern
b the little washer.
c the waste pipe.
D the seat board.
e the pipe that comes from the cistern.
f the screw.
g the scallop shell, to cover it when it is shut down.
H the stool pot.
i the stopple.
k the current.
l the sluice.
M, n the vault into which it falls: always remember that ( ) at noon and at night empty it, and leave it half a foot deep in fair water.
And this being well done, and orderly kept, your worst privy may be as sweet as your best chamber.
But to conclude all this in a few words, it is but a standing close-stool easily emptied. And by the like reason (other forms and proportions observed) all other places of your house may be kept sweet.
Your worships to command.
Did Harington Become a Pair of Shakespeare Characters?Shakespeare and Sanitation
That's actually a literary theory!
Shakespeare wrote As You Like It in 1599, the end of the decade in which Harington published his lavish translation of Orlando Furioso and his Metamorphosis of Ajax.Why does "jakes" mean "toilet"?
The first was an admirable, scholarly work. The second was a mean-spirited screed about toilets, which led people to call him "Sir Ajax Harington". And remember that in the 1590s "Jack", "Ajax", "a jakes", and "Jacques" were all pronounced roughly the same.
As You Like It features Orlando, an idealistic young hero, and Jacques, a cynical figure.
The theory is that Shakespeare intended those characters to refer to two sides of Harington's nature.
Shrewd Moves by Harington
Regardless of Shakespeare's intentions, John Harington of Kelston was an intriguing figure. Relentlessly self-promoting, he didn't care what people thought of him so long as potential patrons noticed him.
Members of the royal court thought it strange, even inappropriate, for him to get involved in the details of book production for his Orlando Furioso translation. But it was more than a scholarly achievement. It was also a tool for attracting patronage.
Then he wrote a satirical tract on toilets. That was far stranger yet.
But for Harington there was no such thing as bad publicity.
Did Harington's Invention Become Popular?
His publication was reasonably popular, The Metamorphosis of an Ajax went through four editions in 1596. The Queen banished him from the court, briefly, but again it was probably more that she felt obligated to do so for the sake of appearances. Dudley had been one of her favorites, but she was enraged by his re-marriage without informing her.
His invention, however, the Metamorphosized Ajax or the wash-down flush toilet, did not catch on in England. Queen Elizabeth I did have one installed in her palace at Richmond, but probably more out of curiosity or favor to her godson than anything else. Harington also sent one to Robert Cecil, the 1st Earl of Salisbury and the Secretary of State of England 1596–1612, another potential patron. More on him, and an epic royal party, anon.
The biggest problem is that it's rather labor intensive. It drained into what Harington called the vault, a large waste tank underneath. He said that it needed to be emptied twice a day, at noon and at night, and refilled with half a foot of fresh water. Queen Elizabeth had staff to empty, clean, and refill the waste vault twice a day. It's good to be the Queen. Most people didn't an army of palace staff. Flush toilets in homes weren't practical until Alexander Cummings invented the S-shaped trap in the 1770s. Only then could you connect your toilet to a sewage system without filling your house with sewer gas.
English royalty stuck to the "close stool" for at least another two centuries. Harington's design was a little more successful in France where it was called the Angrez, a corrupted form of Anglais or English.
Harington's Irish Misadventure
Harington was at home in Kelston minding his own business when an extraordinary letter arrived. It was from Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex, who had added an "Oh, and by the way..." long postscript saying that Queen Elizabeth was sending him to lead England's largest-ever military expedition to Ireland, some 16,000 troops. He would be confronting Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, leader of the Irish rebellion against Tudor rule.
And, Harington was to accompany him! Immediately. He wrote, "I had scant time to put on my boots."
Elizabeth had included him as a confidential observer and informant. She knew his observing and reporting skills, and also his complete lack of concern about what people thought of what he said and wrote. Most people would think "What would the Queen want me to find?" Harington didn't care.
The expedition was a debacle. Elizabeth had directed Essex to end the rebellion, with the expectation he could do so immediately upon arrival. During his brief time there he should behave as Elizabeth would, and be sparing in awarding honors. Once he had quickly put down the rebellion, he was to remain in Ireland until she sent for him. Essex promised to follow her orders, and told the Privy Council that he would confront O'Neill in Ulster, the northernmost province of Ireland.
Instead, Essex led his army into southern Ireland and fought a series of inconclusive battles, wasted his funds, and divided his army. Meanwhile the Irish rebels were winning important battles up north.
Essex never confronted O'Neill. He did meet him, to sign a treaty for a truce that many considered humiliating to the English crown. Harington was there to witness that, and chatted with O'Neill.
Meanwhile Essex had been bestowing knighthoods left and right. John was one of the enormous number. By the time Essex's forces retreated to England, over half the knighthoods in England had issued by him.
Elizabeth had ordered him to subdue O'Neill and take control of Ireland, and stay there until she sent for him. After the truce, basically a surrender by the English forces, he sailed back and arrived unannounced on 28 September 1599. Very unannounced, as he surprised her by appearing in her bedchamber that morning before she was properly wigged or gowned.
Queen Elizabeth was not amused.
She was enraged, and told Essex that if she had wished to abandon Ireland she could have done it without sending him.
Essex had wanted backup, and had dragged John along with him on his early morning surprise visit. Harington was initially in for his third dismissal, more painful because he had done nothing other than what Elizabeth wanted him to do.
The following day, Essex was interrogated by the full Privy Council for five hours. They concluded that his truce with O'Neill was indefensible, and his return from Ireland was effectively a desertion of duty. He was sent into house arrest at his own York House.
A few days after that, Queen Elizabeth sent for Harington. In an inner chamber at Whitehall she questioned him at length, and considered his detailed and utterly honest report. A few days later she sent him a message through Lord Buckhurst: "Go tell that witty fellow, my godson, to get home; it is no season to fool it here."
She meant that there was no point in his trying to cheer up her beleaguered court with his wit. Harington returned to Kelston, where he sent both prose and poetry attempting to cheer up Elizabeth.
Essex was released from house arrest almost a year later, in August 1600. In February 1601 he and a mob of followers marched out of his Essex House mansion on the Strand in London. He wanted to force an audience with the queen. He was arrested, convicted of treason, and on 25 February 1601 became the last person beheaded in the Tower of London.
Harington and the new King James
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603 and James VI of Scotland claimed the English throne as James I of England. Harington was not as successful in the court of her successor, although he worked as hard as ever to win patronage.A Tract on the Succession to the Crown
He had seen Elizabeth's death coming, and in 1602 he had published A Tract on the Succession to the Crown. He had compiled writings from the "Papists, Protestants, and Purytans" to convince the whole spectrum of English opinion of the validity of the Scottish Stuart claim to the English throne.
That same year Harington sent James a highly symbolic customized lantern. It depicted the Good Thief being crucified alongside Christ, asking him to "Remember me when you come into your kingdom." Like Harington and James, you see. Harington also sent a four-volume collection of over 400 of his epigrams. He was full of epigrams. One of his most quoted was:
for if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
Elizabeth I died 24 March 1603. James left Edinburgh on 5 April and arrived in London on 7 May, nine days after Elizabeth's funeral. By the time he was officially crowned as James VI and I of Scotland and England in July 1603, multiple conspiracies were underway.
The Bye Plot was a conspiracy by Roman Catholic priests and Puritan leaders to kidnap the king for a variety of reasons, including a demand for toleration for their denominations. The Main Plot, developed in parallel during that busy summer, was allegedly led by members of the royal court and financed by Spain. It intended to replace James on the English throne with his cousin Lady Arabella Stuart.
John Harington's cousin Sir Griffin Markham was somehow involved in both of these rather far-fetched schemes. This led to his being arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. His execution was waived in return for a massive fine of £4,000 and exile. Markham left for exile in Europe and his cousin Harington was stuck with paying his fine.
Harington couldn't pay the fine without selling his own property, which he did not want to do. So, he was imprisoned in the Gatehouse Prison in Westminster. Like his father, he was imprisoned for a connection to someone who might have been involved in a conspiracy.
He got himself released in October with the help of Robert Cecil. He had used his few months of imprisonment to revise his translation of the sixth book of Virgil's Aeneid. James I had already created him a Knight of the Bath in recognition of his loyalty to the English throne, and had also transferred all of cousin Markham's property to him. Markham was in exile in Europe, under a death sentence and also still owing the realm that £4,000. There was no way he was coming back. And so Harington once again wiggled out of trouble. Meanwhile, James had added some more property to Harington's manor in Kelston.
The Continuing Quest for Patronage
Sir John Harington of Kelston then focused his quest for patronage on Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the older son of King James and Anne of Denmark. James saw himself much more as a schoolmaster than a father for his children. Harington saw an opportunity to provide useful texts.
First, in 1604, he sent his newly revised translation of Virgil's Aeneid. The next year, another collection of his own epigrams. In 1608, it was a large quarto volume of Bishop Francis Godwin's Catalogue of the Bishops of England from 1601, with Harington's added marginalia, two indices, and his large addition containing colorful biographies of the church hierarchy under Elizabeth.Health Regimen of the School of Salernum 1624 edition
Harington also translated Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum or the Health Regimen of the School of Salernum. This was a medieval collection of health tips, no doubt almost entirely outdated by the time Harington started the project, but his translation of them into English verse was a success. A rewriting and republishing of it in 1624, after Harington's death, recommends a walk in the morning to stimulate your bowels.
Then walke ye gently, and what excrements soeuer do slip down to the inferiour parts, being excited by naturall heate, the excretion thereof shall the better succeed.
Harington mostly remained at home in Kelston. He did make it to an epic royal entertainment at the Hertfordshire estate of Robert Cecil in late July of 1606. King James had stopped here in 1603 on his month-long trip from Edinburgh to London. Now Cecil was hosting a bacchanal for James and his brother-in-law, King Christian IV of Denmark. Recall that Harington had sent Cecil one of his wash-down toilets, so maybe the attendees used it.
That is, if they could make it there.
Both of the kings were notoriously heavy drinkers, and few of their courtiers could keep up. A masque of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba started and then collapsed into chaos. Most of the players were too drunk to remember their lines, or even to stand up.Harington's
One actress tripped, dumped a large tray of food onto the Danish king, and fell headfirst into his lap. The king jumped up to dance with her and immediately collapsed to the floor. There was a short break while he was carried away to sleep it off, covered with smashed food. Then three actresses portraying Hope, Faith, and Charity took the stage. Hope tried to speak but couldn't. Either she couldn't remember her lines, or she was so drunk that she could no longer speak. She and Faith staggered off. Charity hunkered down by King James' feet, muttering incoherently. Then she staggered or crawled off to join Hope and Faith, who were vomiting. Later Peace came out and tried to get to the king, using her olive branch to savagely beat everyone who got in her way.
Harington described the spectacle in a letter to his friend, collected in Nugæ antiquæ.
Sir John Harington to Mr. Secretary Barlow, [from London,] 1606.
My good friend,
In compliance with your asking, now shall you accept my poor accounte of rich doings. I came here a day or two before the Danish King came, and from the day he did come untill this hour, I have been well nigh overwhelmed with carousal and sports of all kinds. The sports began each day in such manner and such sorte, as well nigh persuaded me of Mahomets paradise. We had women, and indeed wine too, of such plenty, as woud have astonishd each sober beholder. Our feasts were magnificent, and the two royal guests did most lovingly embrace each other at table. I think the Dane hath strangely wrought on our good English nobles; for those, whom I never could get to taste good liquor, now follow the fashion, and wallow in beastly delights. The ladies abandon their sobriety, and are seen to roll about in intoxication. In good sooth, the parliament did kindly to provide his Majestic so seasonably with money, for there hath been no luck of good livinge; shews, sights, and banquetings, from morn to eve.
One day, a great feast was held, and, after dinner, the representation of Solomon his Temple and the coming of the Queen of Sheba was made, or (as I may better say) was meant to have been made, before their Majesties, by device of the Earl of Salisbury and others. — But, alass! as all earthly thinges do fail to poor mortals in enjoyment, so did prove our presentment hereof. The Lady who did play the Queens part, did carry most precious gifts to both their Majesties; but, forgetting the steppes arising to the canopy, overset her caskets into his Danish Majesties lap, and fell at his feet, tho I rather think it was in his face. Much was the hurry and confusion; cloths and napkins were at hand, to make all clean. His Majesty then got up and woud dance with the Queen of Sheba; but he fell down and humbled himself before her, and was carried to an inner chamber and laid on a bed of state; which was not a little defiled with the presents of the Queen which had been bestowed on his garments; such as wine, cream, jelly, beverage, cakes, spices, and other good matters. The entertainment and show went forward, and most of the presenters went backward, or fell down; wine did so occupy their upper chambers. Now did appear, in rich dress, Hope, Faith, and Charity: Hope did assay to speak, but wine renderd her endeavours so feeble that she withdrew, and hoped the King would excuse her brevity: Faith was then all alone, for I am certain she was not joyned with good works, and left the court in a staggering condition: Charity came to the King's feet, and seemed to cover the multitude of sins her sisters had committed; in some sorte she made obeysance and brought giftes, but said she would return home again, as there was no gift which heaven had not already given his Majesty. She then returnd to Hope and Faith, who were both sick and spewing in the lower hall. Next came Victory, in bright armour, and presented a rich sword to the King, who did not accept it, but put it by with his hand; and, by a strange medley of versification, did endeavour to make suit to the King. But Victory did not tryumph long; for, after much lamentable utterance, she was led away like a silly captive, and laid to sleep in the outer steps of the anti-chamber. Now did Peace make entry, and strive to get foremoste to the King; but I grieve to tell how great wrath she did discover unto those of her attendants; and, much contrary to her semblance, most rudely made war with her olive branch, and laid on the pates of those who did oppose her coming.
I have much marvalled at these strange pegeantries, and they do bring to my remembrance what passed of this sort in our Queens days; of which I was sometime an humble presenter and assistant: but I neer did see such lack of good order, discretion, and sobriety, as I have now done. I have passed much time in seeing the royal sports of hunting and hawking, where the manners were such as made me devise the beasts were pursuing the sober creation, and not man in quest of exercise or food. I will now, in good sooth, declare to you, who will not blab, that the gunpowder fright is got out of all our heads, and we are going on, hereabouts, as if the devil was contriving every man shoud blow up himself, by wild riot, excess, and devastation of time and temperance. The great ladies do go well-masked, and indeed it be the only show of their modesty, to conceal their countenance; but, alack, they meet with such countenance to uphold their strange doings, that I marvel not at ought that happens. The Lord of the mansion is overwhelmed in preparations at Theobalds, and doth marvelously please both Kings, with good meat, good drink, and good speeches. I do often say (but not aloud) that the Danes have again conquered the Britains, for I see no man, or woman either, that can now command himself or herself. I wish I was at home: — O rus, quando te aspiciam? — And I will; before the Prince Vaudemont cometh.
Prince Henry Frederick died of typhoid fever at the age of 18, in early November 1612.
Sir John Harington of Kelston died before the end of that month. His greatest creation may have been himself. He was the Andy Warhol of the Elizabethan age. He liked to be at the center of affairs, partly because that led to increased patronage and fortune, but also because he so enjoyed that environment.
We know more about Harington than most writers of his era, largely because of his self-promotion. So, the information isn't 100% trustworthy, but at least we have it. He collected and published his epigrams, his letters, anything he came up with. His letters in particular provide a unique insight into the courts of Elizabeth and James. Two large catalogs of his personal library from late in his life show that he owned a large collection of playtexts. His notes to Orlando Furioso mention that Plutarch criticized Homer for leaving no description of himself. Harington certainly avoided that shortcoming.
Harington's manor home was torn down in the 1760s, so no sign of the original Ajax no longer exists.
He had sent one to Robert Cecil for his home at Theobalds House, site of the epic royal party. Cecil's home was demolished after the English Civil War and a new mansion built in the Georgian era. Some ruins of walls and entranceways are all that remain of Cecil's home today.
The book The Harington Family from 1957 is a nice history, and it's available for free at archive.org.
On the "That Shakespeare Life" Podcast!
Cassidy Cash had me on her
That Shakespeare Life
podcast twice to discuss John Harington!
▶ Episode 151 — Flush Toilets in Elizabethan England ▶ Episode 155 — The Life of John Harington
Alexander Cummings was a Scottish watchmaker and general mechanic and tinkerer born in Edinburgh in 1733. In 1775 he was working in London when he obtained the first English patent for a flush toilet design.
Cummings' innovation was an S-shaped double bend in the waste pipe. Water would remain in this bend, called a "trap", forming an air lock that isolated the air near the toilet from the sewer gases down in the main sewer pipe. Most all plumbing fixtures today have a similar drain line trap, shaped variously like an S, a U, or a J.
Cummings went on to write books about watch and clock design, about the relationship between carriage wheel rim shapes and the road wear they caused, and about gravity. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society, one of the scientists and engineers from the UK and Commonwealth who have "made a substantial contribution to the improvement of natural knowledge, including mathematics, engineering science and medical science".
Joseph Bramah was born in Yorkshire, England, in 1748. He became an inventor and locksmith. He is best known for inventing the hydraulic press, but he also made a significant improvement to the design of flush toilets.
Bramah was installing flush toilets built to Cummings' design when he observed that the current model tended to freeze during cold weather. Bramah's employer, a Mr Allen, had replaced the standard slide valve with a hinged flap sealing the bottom of the bowl. But Bramah obtained the patent for Allen's design in 1778.
He set up a factory to manufacture the new design, and they were produced well into the 1800s.
George Jennings was born in 1810 in Hampshire, England. He started working as an apprentice to his grandfather's glass and lead business, and then moved to his uncle's plumbing business in Southampton. In 1831 he became a plumber with a firm in London where his father had previously been a foreman.
The sanitary plumbing business was given a boost by the 1848 Public Health Act which required every new house to have a "water closet, privy, or ash-pit, furnished with proper doors and coverings", while also placing the supply of water, sewerage, drainage, and paving under the authority of a single local body. That same year, 14,000 people died of cholera in London, 55,000 throughout Britain. Jennings came to specialize in designing toilets intended to be "as perfect a sanitary closet as can be made", and to apply these designs to the first public flush toilets.
Jennings' design of the subterranean "public convenience" included entrances with illuminated arches and elaborate metal railings. The interiors were initially finished in slate, but he then switched to ceramic tiles.The End of Open Defecation
His most famous public toilet installation was when he installed his "Monkey Closet" design in the "Retiring Rooms" of the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851. During the Great Exhibition, May 1st through October 15th of 1851, 827,280 exhibition visitors paid one penny to use the Retiring Rooms. That penny got them the use of a clean toilet seat, plus a shoe shine and the use of a towel and a comb.
Jennings was awarded a patent in 1852 "For improvements in water-closets, in traps and valves, and in pumps." This included the pan and trap of the water-closet being constructed as a single piece, "so formed that there shall always be a certain quantity of water retained in the pan itself, in addition to that in the trap which forms the water-joint." He also improved the drain and the valve.
He designed the first public underground toilet at the Royal Exchange, opening in 1854.
In 1855 he became in involved in a very significant modern sanitation project. The British government appointed him the head of the sanitary commission sent to the Scutari Barracks, what the Turks called the Selimiye Kişlası, in the Üsküdar district on the Asian side of İstanbul. Florence Nightingale, who was founding modern military nursing care, had asked for his participation. Her work there with Jennings during the Crimean War made her a heroine.
Jennings went on to build up a booming business, exporting high-end plumbing to foreign royalty (an elaborate mahogany shower cabinet for the Khedive of Egypt, a copper bath for Empress Eugenie of France) and installing it for domestic royalty (the public facilities installed at Saint Paul's Cathedral in London for a thanksgiving service celebrating the Prince of Wales' recovery from typhoid).
Thomas Crapper came along later, only opening his plumbing business in 1861. See the detailed page for details on what Crapper did and did not do.