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Being Privy to Tudor Privies

Dear Reader,

A large part of this article (first written by me in 1999) was lifted from my website and used without permission by Terry Breverton in 'Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About the Tudors but Were Afraid to Ask'.

English: Richmond Palace from SW by Wyngaerde c.1558-62. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. From left: Great Kitchen (with pointed roof), main Palace Donjon, Galleried gardens, Ruined church of Friars Observant (founded 1502) per Thurley, S. Royal Palaces of Tudor England, London, 1993, pp.32-3. (Photo credit: Wikipedia).

If I ever find a time machine (other than that of my imagination) to take me back to Tudor times, I know one certain thing—I would walk with great caution mornings down narrow streets of any Tudor city or township. For early mornings saw many good Tudor housewives emptying their chamber pots out of their windows. Actually, I would apply my cautiousness to all times of the day. When people of this period had to go, they mostly found a suitable corner and just went. I also hazard a guess: the fact women wore no knickers most of the time made it easier for them to lift their skirts from the ground, squat a little and do.

Even at the beautiful palaces of this period, there were ‘pissing areas’ allotted for members of the court. In their first weeks at the court of Henry VII, Katherine Aragon’s Spanish ladies, and no doubt the sixteen-year-old Katherine herself, witnessed to their horror courtiers attending to their bodily needs when and wherever necessary (Emerson 1996, p. 54).

In the early Tudor years, the vast fireplaces of the times offered to men a popular and convenient choice where to urinate in.

As time approached the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign, such behaviour upset people more and more. In 1573, Thomas Tusser wrote in his ‘Five hundreth Goode Pointes of Husbandrie:

Some make the chimnie chamber pot to smell like Filthie stink, Yet who so bold, so soone to say, fough, how These houses stink? (Hibbert 1987, p. 201).

Cringing? Remember the people of Tudor England—despite their very human complexity—lived in a far simpler time to us. Plumbing in houses—if it existed—was primitive, though most homes of the well-to-do provided a kind of inside toilet. Likely based on the same principle found in castles, a narrow, cell-like room was situated against the outer wall of a house. Found inside this room—called, amongst other things, the ‘jakes’ or garderobe—was a seat with a hole placed over an internal shaft. They angled the shaft in such a way human waste went down to an outside cesspool (Emerson 1996, p.54).

The Tudor ruler’s Privy Chamber may have come by its name because of its proximity to the royal ‘privy, their ‘little room, enclosing a close stool, ‘a boxed seat containing a fitted chamber pot. When Elizabeth I ventured out into her kingdom on one of her many progresses, she took not only her portable bath but also her ‘portable’ loo, a closed stool covered with lush, red velvet, befitting her rank of queen. Her father, Henry VIII, also possessed a liking to have his ‘latrines’ velvet covered. One of his chamber pots, or a ‘Jordan’, as the Tudors called it, was enclosed with black velvet, decorated by ribbons, fringe and a few glint-headed nails—two thousand to be exact (Hibbert 1987, p. 200).

To be attendant to this very necessary royal function was one of the most important roles of the bedchamber. The women who took care of the cloths Elizabeth used during menstruation were in the position of being bribed by not only foreign dignitaries but also the men of her Privy Council. William Cecil himself kept informed about this very intimate part of Elizabeth’s life; the knowledge she functioned like a normal woman made him confident she could provide the country with an heir.

The expense of paper simply made using it for toilet paper not an alternative. Tudor people used salt water and sticks with sponges or mosses placed at their tops, (Emerson 1996, p. 54) while royals probably used the softest lamb wool and cloths.

Let’s return to the Tudor habit of using their fireplaces as chamber pots. I doubt very much that this happened at Elizabeth’s court. Elizabeth could swear, spit, and swill beer with the best of the men of her court. That does not diminish the fact she was England’s queen, and a virgin one at that.One man was so embarrassed he had farted in her presence he chose self-exile for seven years, causing her to remark with an amused glint on his return: ‘My lord, I had forgot the fart’ (Weir 1998, p. 257).

But - putting aside the fact the Elizabeth did not take kindly to particular smells – Elizabeth had a strong code of personal cleanliness for this period, liking to bathe at least once a week. She encouraged similar behaviour in her courtiers – she didn’t hesitate to tell them that they stank.

In the closing years of her reign, her godson Sir John Harrington designed an early flush toilet. Elizabeth had one installed at Richmond palace, but most English people did not think much of the idea, and it was many, many years before English homes included such a thing (Hibbert 1987, p. 200).

References: Kathy Lynn Emerson, 1996. The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England (Writer’s Guides to Everyday Life). First Edition Edition. Writer’s Digest Books. Christopher Hibbert, 1987. The English: A Social History, 1066-1945. Edition. Grafton Books. Alison Weir, 1998. Elizabeth The Queen. Jonathan Cape.



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