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.