The Tudor Society

20 November – Elizabeth I’s godson and his flush toilet

On this day in history, 20th November 1612, in the reign of King James I, courtier and author Sir John Harington died.

Why am I talking about a man who died in the Stuart period?

Well, because he was Queen Elizabeth I’s godson and because during her reign he invented the Ajax, or “jakes”, England’s first flush toilet.

Find out more about Sir John Harington and his flush toilet invention in today's talk.

Also on this day in history, 20th November 1591, Sir Christopher Hatton, Elizabeth I’s Lord Chancellor and favourite, died aged fifty-one. He was such a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I that he had a dazzling career and was constantly at her side. Find out more about Sir Christopher Hatton, his career and accomplishments, his patronage of learned men and explorers, and his special relationship with Elizabeth I, in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1556 – Death of Sir John Godsalve, member of Parliament, landowner and administrator, at Norwich. He was buried in St Stephen's Church, Norwich, in the Lady Chapel. Godsalve's offices included Constable of Norwich Castle, Keeper of the Gaol there, commissioner for chantries in Norfolk and Suffolk, Justice of the Peace for Norfolk and Comptroller of the Tower of London Mint.
  • 1558 – Death of Maurice Griffin, Bishop of Rochester, probably at the Bishop's Palace in Southwark. He was buried at the church of St Magnus the Martyr, London Bridge. Griffin was Welsh and he left provision in his will for the setting up of Friars School in Bangor, with the support of William Glyn, Bishop of Bangor, and Jeffrey Glyn.
  • 1600 – Burial of Robert Wilson, actor and playwright, at St Giles Cripplegate in London. Wilson acted in the companies Leicester's Men and the Queen's Men, and is known for his plays which include “The Three Ladies of London” (1581), “The Three Lords and Three Ladies of London” (1590), “The Cobbler's Prophecy” (1594) and “The Pedlar's Prophecy” (1595). He was also one of Philip Henslowe’s writers, writing plays for the Rose Theatre.


On this day in history, 20th November 1612, in the reign of King James I, courtier and author Sir John Harington died.
Why am I talking about a man who died in the Stuart period?

Well because he was Queen Elizabeth I’s godson and because during her reign he invented the Ajax, or “jakes”, England’s first flush toilet.

Let me tell you a bit more about Harington and his invention, which didn’t actually catch on.

• Sir John Harington was born in 1560. His exact birthdate is not known but he was baptised on 4th August 1560 at All Hallows, London Wall. Queen Elizabeth I stood as his godmother, while William Herbert, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, stood as his godfather.
• He was the eldest son of courtier John Harington of Kelston in Somerset, and his second wife, Isabella Markham.
• Harington was educated at Eton before moving on to King’s College, Cambridge, where he attained a BA in 1578 and a Masters in 1581. William Cecil, Baron Burghley, advised him on his studies, as did Sir Francis Walsingham.
• In November 1581, when he was 21, he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn, one of London’s inns of the court. However, his father died in 1582 leaving John to inherit the family’s estate at Kelston, which he did in 1583.
• In September 1583, Harington married Mary Rogers, granddaughter of Sir Edward Rogers who had served Henry VIII, Edward VI and Elizabeth I.
• In the 1580s, Harington worked on an English translation of Italian Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem Orlando Furioso, or The Frenzy of Orlando. According to one story, Harington had been banished from court by his godmother the queen when he’d been caught sharing a rather racy translation of Canto 28 with her ladies, and his penance was to go away and translate the whole work. He did and it was published in 1591. It was dedicated to the queen.
• His next work was his 1596 book “A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax”, in which he outlined his design for a flush toilet. Ajax was a play on “jakes”, a slang term for “privy”. His invention was inspired by a conversation with a group including Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, and his sister Mary, and the invention incorporated a cistern of water located above a privy, which had a “cock or a washer to yield water with some pretty strength when you would let it in.”. I love the fact that in the accompanying diagram of the toilet, the cistern had fish in it! I think just to show that it was water!
In his book, Harington said that if water “be plenty” then the privy could be flushed as often as it was used, but if water was scant, then once a day was sufficient.
The invention was just a small part of the book, the work was, as Harington’s biographer Jason Scott-Warren describes it “a complex blend of scatological comedy, moral reflection, and social satire”. In this work, he also described himself as a “protesting Catholicke Puritan”.
• Unfortunately for Harington, he got intro trouble with Elizabeth I due to derogatory remarks he made about her favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in his book, and he was lucky to escape being hauled before the Star Chamber.
Although his invention didn’t take off, he did install one at Richmond Palace and sent one to Robert Cecil to install at his home Theobalds.
• In 1599, Harington served the queen in Ireland under the Earl of Southampton and was knighted there by Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Unfortunately, Essex incurred Elizabeth’s wrath for his actions in Ireland for leaving without her permission, and Harington was caught up in this. He was, however, able to see the queen privately and explain himself, regaining her favour.
• In December 1600, Harington collated epigrams he’d written in the 1590s into two collections, giving one to the Countess of Bedford, and another to his mother-in-law.
• In 1602, Harington completed his “Tract on the Succession to the Crown” which supported the claim of King James VI of Scotland. He also sent the Scottish king a four volume set of epigrams.
• His final service to his godmother, Elizabeth I, appears to have been entertaining her at Christmas 1602 with readings from his own comic verses. Following her death, he met the new monarch and his wife in Rutland and presented them with congratulatory elegies.
• Harington ended up being imprisoned in the Gatehouse Prison in summer 1603 due to being guarantor for a debt of £4,000 run up by his uncle, Thomas Markham. While he was in prison, he worked on revising an earlier translation he’d made of Virgil’s Aeneid. He presented this to King James in the summer of 1604 to be used in educating the king’s son and heir, Prince Henry Frederick. The following year, he presented the prince with a collection of epigrams, and then further works in 1608.
• In 1605, Harington put himself forward for the position of Lord Chancellor of Ireland, providing a treatise on how he’d go about solving the Anglo-Irish problem. He also wanted to be made Archbishop of Dublin. He failed to get either position.
• Sir John Harington died on this day in history, 20th November 1612 at the age of 52, following a few months of illness. He was laid to rest at Kelston on 1st December.

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20 November – Elizabeth I’s godson and his flush toilet