Toilet Zen: Henry VIII and lavatory reading.


Exterior of a castle garde robe: Image via Wikipedia

Before I was married, I had another name. A name which shall remain nameless.

But my Uncle Gerry did some research into our name.

According to Uncle Gerry, you might have seen one of my relatives thrashing Harold and his bunch on the Bayeux tapestry. And one of my clan – so the story goes- was a trusted member of Henry VIII’s bedchamber.

I have no evidence of this whatsoever: the family researcher has long since shuffled off this mortal coil, and any wealth or connections which were once sloshing around have mysteriously disappeared in the ensuing thousand-odd years.

The keeper of the bedchamber was an unbelievably powerful character. Only the most trusted noblemen were allowed to see the king or queen in less than regal splendour.

But none of my lot ever made it to the pinnacle of  intimacy with a monarch. I do not speak of the monarch’s consort: rather, of the Groom of the Stool.

How much more unguarded can a king or queen be, than with the servant who assists him (or her) on the toilet?

The stool was a portable lavatory. It could be moved with the monarch on progresses. David Starkey describes stools from the Whitehall Inventory of 1542: “Central to the inventory accounts are the Close Stools, covered in silk and satins, padded with swans’ down, trimmed with gilt nails, with Venetian gold fringing and elaborate systems of cisterns and pots. ”

One might be forgiven for assuming that the wiping of the king’s bottom would be a menial business, and its facilitator ridiculed.

But one would clearly know very little about human nature, if one drew such a conclusion.

Because for a bloke especially, the toilet is all about rumination. It invites reflection. If you are charged with kingly rule, it is the one place you can press pause and think about stuff. There is no-one to manage, no-one to honour, no-one to rebuff, no-one to pacify.

There is just you.

And, if you are the king, it’s you and the stool groom.

So: you talk to them. About anything and everything. After all, you’re both there, not about to go anywhere else. Both a captive audience.

It is possible Henry VIII revealed more to his Groom of the Stool than to anyone else. Clergyman and historian John Strype includes in his book Ecclesiastical Memorials  depositions from two such grooms, Sir Thomas Heneage and Sir Anthony Denny, alleging Henry told them he doubted the virginity of Anne of Cleaves because of  “her brests so slacke”.

One could make a similar complaint about Henry’s mouth, except that this was a special place. The stool was a moment apart. It was self-confessional.

Throughout the ages, in toilets all over the world, you would find signs of this little quirk of human nature.

Usually, a pile of well-thumbed books.

Roman baths often had libraries of scrolls for reference, according to the New York Times. In the thirteenth century, someone sat down and wrote the Life Of St Gregory The Great. Its author reputedly recommends those toilets high up in mediaeval fortresses as the perfect place to get some reading done.

And it’s not just a historical habit. According to the Guardian, Pediatric gastroentologist Ron Shaoul conducted a study in 2009 of 499 men and women of all ages. 64 per cent of the men said they were toilet readers, and 41 per cent of all the women.

And the remaining percentages shudder. Because, what better way could there be to assist malevolent microbes in their bid for world domination?

Director of the Hygiene Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Val Curtis, says the risk is minimal. She reads the New Scientist during her sojourn in the lavatory. And she says that as long as everyone washes their hands, there’s no need to get obsessive about the whole toilet reading thing. You can read her outspoken comments here.

Perhaps Henry VIII should have indulged in a good book instead.


72 thoughts on “Toilet Zen: Henry VIII and lavatory reading.

  1. Nice blog, Kate. My dad set the example of the loo being a fine location for total contemplative or instructional or entertained solitude. I have followed that example ever since. 🙂

  2. I seem to remember a lavatory at the top of a tower in Aldous Huxley’s “Chrome Yellow” . I also have a clear memory a lavatory in a Yorkshire country house, on the floor of which were scattered dozens of .410 shotgun cartridges. The master of the house like to take a pot shot from the pot:)

    1. Hi George – thanks for commenting today! Not royal, noble at the most, and the paperwork, as I say, is sketchy 😀 But if we believe the hype someone Shrewsday-ish was in that bedchamber with Henry at some point or other. Not sure it could have been a very pleasant post to hold.

  3. Certainly a catchy title, and toilets seem to possess a strange fascination for many. I recall the reaction of my tour group at the the marble communal toilets at Roman/Greek Ephesus. They sat on them and had someone take a photo. We also learned that the slaves had to warm up the marble before their masters sat and talked—about the politics of the day, no doubt. I wonder if the slaves were also Grooms of the Stool with similar duties. As for the reading time, if my husband did that, he’d be building me a house with two bathrooms.

      1. The thought of wiping the king’s bottom elicits the same response from me…eeeewww. And yes, very fortunate. With only one bathroom, there would be war 🙂

  4. This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George takes an expensive book into the lavatory at the bookstore . . . and then is required to purchase it! 😀

  5. Well, I am not a toilet reader, our dad put a timer on the light in our toilet so that no-one would sit in there longer than FOUR minutes, after that you were in the dark. And the light was hitched to the extractor fan as well so, after your four minutes, not only did your light go out but the fan and its blinds shut off and closed. No light. No air. No covering noise. And the devisor of this cruel regime ensured that the light was just too far away to reach from the throne.. c

  6. Nice to know the stereotype of men spending swathes of time on the “throne” is an ancient and noble tradition. I hope for your forefather’s sake they had some form of gas mask/ventilation back then. I used to think they were called “gasp masks” when I was little 🙂

    1. Thankfully these castles were draughty places 😀 Plenty of ventilation. Though it was recommended that the garde-robe be high up: waste made its way straight into the moat.

      Poor old fish.

  7. I meant to say earlier, that we just watched a show on Rome ~ Off the Beaten Path. The public restrooms were, um, public.

    They had “stadium seating” for about 24 . . . all the way round in a circle. No doors. No walls. Just one seat next to the next, next to the next. 😯

  8. Finding the right book to read at that time is important. You want something that is interesting, but not so interesting that you don’t want to put it down. I usually find books with short chapters or non-fiction that is chock full of information. And, no library books. They must be my own.

  9. Forgive the pun, but it still sounds like a crappy job to me. Not the type that reads while taking a squat, either, but I have had some contemplative thoughts while showering.

    1. Crappy job indeed, Lame. Just because it’s the King’s bottom, doesn’t mean it smells of roses.

      Thinking of you out there in the Big Apple. I do hope you are safe and well and in a nice high apartment with plenty in the fridge and electricity to cook by.

  10. The whole microbe question has bothered me a bit, but then I don’t enjoy sharing my books! 🙂 You come up with some interesting research questions, Kate! I must say that I have never once considered who was minding the King’s toilet! I adore the title of your post! 🙂

  11. I blushingly confess to being one of the 64% – in fact, it is the only place where I read novels. I’m quite sure it contributes to germ distribution, washing notwithstanding, but then what about shaking hands?
    If one had a dedicated loo attendant, it would be a good place for toilet humour, wouldn’t it?

    1. Those contemplative moments would simply fly by, Col 😀 One can be too precious about germs. As you and the good lady from the Hygiene Centre say, a good handwashing conquers most, if not all.

      1. Yip. And ten minutes after washing, a fresh batch from another source is probably in place. So does one only read books nobody else has looked at? Or touch things nobody else has touched (so you’d rather break your neck than grab a handrail)?

  12. So much for ‘where kings and queens go unattended’! We might have just discovered ‘faecal matter’ but we certainly haven’t invented it therefore I limit my paranoia about it because humanity seems to have survived the last thousand years or so. 🙂

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