History

Toilets in Tudor England 

by Cassidy Cash

Why, they will allow us ne’er a jordan, and then we

leak in your chimney; and your chamber-lie breeds

fleas like a loach.

Second Carrier, Henry IV Part 1, (II.1)

witch feeding familiars 1604

Room at the Edman’s Museum showing a room with a Bible and a Chamberpot (Jordan) as would have been set up, potentially for travellers, in 1530 | Image used under CCBYA4.0

A Jordan was another name for a Toilet

The second carrier’s insult from Shakespeare’s Henry IV reveals for us some details about how people in Tudor England used the bathroom. A “jordan” is a kind of chamberpot, and an expected part of inn-keeping provisions for the traveler. Additionally, the “Chamber-lie” is also another term for ashes or soot that was found in the bottom of the chimney, where travelers would frequently urinate.

The cultural understanding of the time for where lye came from and how it was used made using the chimney as your bathroom a logical choice, as opposed to purely an act of rebellion as we are apt to consider it when we see it on stage in Henry IV Part 1 today. The term “chamber-lie” 

A Physician-Alchemist Examining a Urine Flask | David Teniers the Younger (1610-1690) | Public Domain | Image Source

had multiple meanings, being applied as both a specialized term for a chamber pot that is specifically for collecting urine as well as for the ash in your chimney..

If you’re wondering why people would collect urine in pots or pee into the fireplace ashes, those decisions have to do with how urine was used in Tudor England. 

Urine was considered a great option for cleaning laundry. While the science might not have been fully fleshed out here, urine does contain a high quantity of ammonia, making it an effective bleaching agent for linens and bed clothes. 

In an establishment like an inn where there were many guests staying there, it was incumbent upon the inn owner to collect the urine of his patrons because there were several sheets that needed cleaning. The chamber-lye allowed people to collect urine in large quantities and then the ammonia in urine was applied to clean the large amount of bed linens consistent with an inn.

Foh! prithee, stand away: a paper from fortune’s

close-stool to give to a nobleman! Look, here he

comes himself.

Clown

Alls Well That Ends Well (V.2)

william strachey mermaid tavern group

Close Stool (Commode) | Circa 1650 | Hampton Court Collection, United Kingdomn | Public Domain | Image Source

The Close Stool

In Shakespeare’s play, Alls Well That Ends Well, The Clown mentions a “close stool” which refers to a particular kind of chamberpot available usually to the wealthy. 

Though chamber pots were common, a comfortable chamber pot was for the wealthy. It is simply a pot that sits on the floor but a close stool allowed you to sit instead of squat, which is more comfortable. Additionally, a close stool featured a lid which meant if you did not want to empty the box right away, the close stool kept the refuse contained. 


Using a close stool was such a big deal that the King himself had a particular person assigned to him whose job it was to assist the King in using the close stool as well as to be responsible for keeping it clean. This man was known as “The groom of the King’s close stool” and due to his proximity to the King was one of the most powerful non-royal persons in the kingdom. 

The Groom of the King’s Close Stool would sit with the King while he used the toilet and as such as a completely trusted individual. His job would include helping the King with the toilet, assisting in his underwear, and when the King traveled his Groom came along as part of the entourage. 

 I will tread this unbolted villain into

mortar and daub the walls of a jakes with him

Earl of Kent, King Lear (II.2)

Southampton portrait wriothesley

Sir John Harington | Hieronimo Custodis | Public Domain | Image Source

John Harington Invents a Better Way to Go

Not everyone was well pleased with the chamber pot or stool setup for bathroom goings, and that includes one of Elizabeth I’s godchildren, Sir John Harington, who in 1596, wrote a book describing what has been called the design for the first flush toilet. 

Harington’s design was described as] a washdown. Instead of a hole with a water channel or even just a pit, he had a thing called a cistern (Tank on the back of the toilet) it washed into this kind of funnel under the seat. It could potentially be alot cleaner. 

The toilet was not called a toilet in the 16th century. Harington’s design was known as “a wash down bowl” and Elizabeth I, despite her seeming indignation at the allegorical meaning, did have one of these wash down bowls installed at her palace in Richmond.

 You will be scraped out of

the painted cloth for this: your lion, that holds

his poll-axe sitting on a close-stool, will be given

to Ajax

Costard, Love’s Labour’s Lost (V.2)

Waste disposal | Harington’s flush toilet descibred in A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax | 1596 | Author Sir John Harington | Public Domain | Image Source

Toilets did not catch on in England

While the book, Metamorphosis of Ajax, was perhaps intentionally an attacking allegory against Robert Dudley at the time it was written, the design presented included engineering diagrams down to a minutia of detail. When we look at the drawings, it does appear that this flush toilet could be functional. Both the Queen and her godson tried out the design in their homes, but it did not inspire confidence among the general public:

A form of the wash down bowl became successful in France. Even if the design had caught on in popularity, it was hard to implement without a broader infrastructure to support it. For example, there wasn’t city plumbing so for most homes there wasn’t a place for the refuse to be carried away after it was washed down. As they say in engineering, it’s that last mile that counts. 

While William Shakespeare and his contemporaries in Tudor England might not have used a toilet on a regular basis, the flush toilet was available in the 16th century. It’s amazing how long it takes to progress from a hole in the ground!

Cassidy Cash is a historical map illustrator and Shakespeare historian. She is the host of That Shakespeare Life, the #2 Shakespeare history podcast in the world as ranked by Welp Magazine and ranked in the Top 100 for History on Apple Podcasts in Great Britain. Cassidy is the  host of the YouTube series DIY History where she introduces you to games, recipes, and crafts from Shakespeare’s lifetime that you can try out for yourself at home. Cassidy’s documentary short films and animated plays about Shakespeare’s history have won international film awards for history and animation. Find out more about Cassidy and explore the life of William Shakespeare at www.cassidycash.com

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