This website uses cookies to provide a rich user experience. Please consult our Cookie Policy to learn about what cookies this website uses, or to control the cookies you receive. You need do nothing if you are happy to receive cookies.
Look and Learn History Picture Library License images from £2.99 Pay by PayPal for images for immediate download Member of British Association of Picture Libraries and Agencies (BAPLA)

Garderobe became a Norman euphemism for cold and draughty privy

Posted in Architecture, Castles, Historical articles, History, Interesting Words, Royalty on Friday, 15 November 2013

Click on any image for details about licensing for commercial or personal use.

This edited article about personal hygiene first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 460 published on 7 November 1970.

Norman garderobe, picture, image, illustration

The smallest room in a medieval castle was called the "Garderobe"; this was a shaft built into a turret or other thick wall and was often on the draughty side, by Pat Nicolle

The Romans, we know, were the Grand Masters of the Bath and the Water Closet. They almost soaked themselves out of existence. We in Britain took centuries to learn that “Cleanliness was next to Godliness,” and when we did catch on to the idea a pretty fair mess we made of it.

In Medieval London the only sign of anything like the great Public Baths of Rome was the establishment of some stinking bath-houses called bluntly “The Stews.” It had been returning Crusaders who, having noticed the cleanliness of the “Turkish Infidels,” started up the idea. No “Turkish Infidel,” of course, would dream of anything so disgusting as a man soaking in his own body-dirt. The shower was the cleanest idea, and, later on, the “Turkish” or steam-bath. Even modern India is not so keen on “wallowing.”

But let us return briefly to “The Stews” which existed in Medieval London, and on the Continent as well. So far as records show these were communal bath-houses, generally equipped with wooden tubs and smaller wooden tubs from which attendants poured water over the naked and upstanding occupants. In fact:

“Rub-a-dub-dub
Three men in a tub.”

“The Stews” were generally situated near the hot ovens of bakeries which provided the warm water. “Let him stew in his own juice” is possibly a phrase condemning such persons who were loutish enough to sit, or lie down, in the tubs. Around the bathers there fussed barbers, shavers and blood-letters. Mixed “stewing” seems to have gone on, and by and by “The Stews” became such smelly spreaders of disease and meeting places of persons up to no good of one kind or another that in the reign of Henry VIII they were nearly all closed. “The Stews” may have had many faults, but at least they started with the idea of cleanliness – a notion which was not to reappear for over another century.

London continued to discharge its domestic refuse into open drains and rivers such as the Fleet. “Guardez l’eau” they shouted in Edinburgh. Latrines in the average private dwelling existed no more than bath-tubs. In fact the nation stank. It was not surprising that plague and cholera broke out, rats were rampant and pure drinking water a rarity.

The rich Elizabethans were proud as peacocks in their silks, jewels and velvets, but they undoubtedly smelled high like over-ripe cheese.

Yet it must be recorded that the Virgin Queen herself, who took a bath once a month “whether she need it or no” was probably cleaner than the rest of her court. Being as human in one respect as the lowliest and smelliest of her subjects, she was able to make use of a “place of easement” quite fantastic for its times.

This, at Richmond Palace, was none other than a true Water Closet, the invention of a certain Sir John Harington, one of the Queen’s godsons. Sir John’s “closet” had an overhead cistern, a seat with a pan, a flushing pipe and an overflow pipe. The Queen was delighted with it. But two centuries were to pass before Sir John’s convenience was to be “re-invented” and put to more general use.

The Stuart kings were, if anything, even dirtier than the Tudors. King Charles II may have been a merry enough monarch but he seems not to have been a very sanitary one. When, in 1665, the King and his court fled from the plague in London to spend the summer in Oxford, they left behind them on departure a state of affairs which made the royal palace seem more like a public convenience than a royal palace.

Kings and queens and their lavatories! The thought of it has always intrigued the public. What were, their privy places like? To find out, let us consider the historical toilets of royal and noble personages. In medieval castles and palaces the “smallest room” was known as the “garderobe” – literally “wardrobe” or “cloakroom.” These conveniences were shafts built into turrets or other thick walls with, quite literally, seats on the top of them – and draughty perching places some of them must have been, especially those which jutted out into the open air above the moat! Bodiam Castle in Sussex has no fewer than twenty “garderobes” built into the great stone walls.

These were the earliest “grand” privies. It was not until Tudor times that, with palaces being more like fine houses and less like fortified castles, private matters moved further indoors. The chilly “garderobe” was replaced by the “close-stool,” a type of “commode” portable, reasonably hygienic and often sumptuously upholstered.

Henry VIII had one of great magnificence, made in 1547 for “the use of the Kynge’s mageste.” The “King’s Majesty” seated itself upon a “throne” of black velvet, garnished with ribbons, gilt-headed nails and fringes. The whole fitted into a great leather case and clearly accompanied the monarch on all his travels. Hampton Court contains a later example of the same thing – used, probably by Queen Elizabeth I and James I.

Yes, from the lowest to the highest in the land there is one thing necessarily in common – the “loo.” When the “highest” in the land attended the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in Westminster Abbey there were installed – for their convenience – 213 chemical closets, arranged and concealed with the utmost discretion.

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.