Sir John Harington: Queen Elizabeth's Godson

D. McDonald reflects on the life of a courtier, author and master of art, popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet as well as a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I's court.

Sir John Harington by Hieronimo Custodis, c. 1590–93
Sir John Harington by Hieronimo Custodis, c. 1590–93
Among the lords who died fighting for the King on Bosworth Field, in 1485, was a certain Sir James Harington to whom had been granted, by Edward IV, in 1465, various manors in Lancashire, Yorkshire and Westmorland as a fitting reward for his capture of King Henry VI.

Those estates were forfeit to the Tudors and it remained for the grandson, John Harington, senior, to restore the fortunes of his house by gaining, on the strength of his wit and agreeable manners, the favour of Henry VIII.

So successfully did he apply himself to the task that he was appointed Treasurer of the King’s Camps and Buildings and was given in marriage the hand of Ethelreda Dobson, one of the King’s natural daughters, together with the forfeited Church lands of Kelston and Bath Easton in the county of Somerset.

In an old booke of my father’s,” wrote his son, “I read a merrie Verse, The Blacke Sauntus, or Monkes Hymne to Saunte Satane, made when Kynge Henry had spoylede their Synginge. My father was wont to say that Kynge Henry was used, in pleasant mood, to sing this Verse.”

John Harington, senior, was devoted to the interests of the young Princess Elizabeth during the reign of her sister, Mary Tudor, and a constant visitor at Hatfield, where he met and fell in love with Isabella Markham, one of the lovely young gentlewomen in attendance upon the Princess.1 As his first wife did not long survive her marriage, Harington was soon free to marry Isabella, and the young couple shared with the Princess her captivity in the Tower in 1554. During that time, Harington was fined £1,000 for having conveyed a letter to the Princess from one of her friends. As soon as Elizabeth came to the throne, she was quick to reward such faithfulness and stood as godmother to their son, also John Harington, who was born at Kelston in 1561.

Young Harington was educated at Eton and Cambridge. For a short while he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn, and then married Mary, daughter of Sir George Rogers, of Cannington in Somerset. On the death of his father, in 1582, he settled down to live the life of a country squire on his estates at Kelston. He was, however, frequently at Court, where he became a great favourite with the Queen. His wit was renowned, and he enlivened his leisure by making a translation of the mildly improper story of Giocomo, from the twenty-eighth book of the Orlando Furioso, of Ariosto.

His manuscript was passed round among the ladies of the Court and eventually came into the hands of the Queen, who enquired the name of the man who had placed so indecorous a tale in the hands of her maidens of honour. On learning that her godson was the culprit, she ordered that, as a punishment, he should not appear before her again until he had completed a translation of the whole work. Harington was able to finish the task with the assistance of his brother, Francis, and have it ready to hand over to Elizabeth, when she gave him the honour of entertaining her at Kelston, in 1592.

Judged by modern standards, Ariosto is a tedious and long-winded writer, and Harington’s translation did little to enliven his narrative. The more purple passages appear nowadays to be of rather a pale violet, but it was a sumptuously produced folio volume, and probably the first book to be illustrated with copper engravings. The frontispiece carries a portrait of Harington, signed by William Rogers, known to be the first Englishman to have practised that art.

In 1596, Harington published A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject, which he sub-titled The Metamorphosis of Ajax. This little work professed to describe a species of water-closet (jakes), which he had invented and caused to be erected at his home at Kelston, but in it he contrived to include much diverting matter based upon his very extensive reading. The booklet was further sub-titled A Cloacinean Satire, and was, indeed, well loaded with satirical embellishments, together with allusions to contemporary persons. In itself, the Metamorphosis is of little interest, or in accord with modern taste, but in the supplement, which is entitled—An Anatomy of the Metamorphosis of Ajax

wherein, by a Tripartite method is plainly, openly and demonstratively declared, explained and eliquidated by Pen, Plot and Precept, how unsavoury places may be made sweet, noisome places made wholesome, filthy places made cleanly—”


Harington, under the initials, T. C., gave diagrams and details of his invention. Even the cost of making is included—“The whole charge thirty shillings and eightpence; yet a mason of my master’s was offered thirty pounds for the like.”

Elizabeth was by no means pleased with this latest escapade of her godson, especially as certain veiled references to the second Earl of Leicester were likely to put their author in danger of the Star Chamber. She therefore ordered “that saucy poet” into exile and had him sent as Master of the Horse, under Essex, to take part in the Irish campaign against Tyrone, in 1599. He was away for almost a year, but his misdemeanour was soon forgiven.

In fact, his cousin, Robert Markham, was able to tell him even before he left England that—

though Her Highnesse signified displeasure in outward sort, yet she did like the marrow of your booke. The Queene is minded to take you to her favour, but she swearethe that she believes you will make epigrams on her and on all her courte: she hath been hearde to saye ‘ that merry poet my godson must not come to Greenwich tille he hathe growne sober and leaveth the ladies’ sports and frolics’.”


Whatever we may think of the flippant way in which Harington chose to announce his invention, it must be acknowledged that his application of hydraulics to sanitation was a very great advance upon the cess-pit in the backyard. Though the first patent for a water-closet was taken out by Alexander Cumming, in 1775, Harington was, in fact, the inventor of the first apparatus for the water carriage of ordure. The apparatus which he invented had such advantage in comfort and decency as well as in health that its use quickly spread abroad and, in 1750, it was usual in France to refer to water-closets as Lieux à l’Anglaise. The Queen herself, after she had forgiven her godson’s indiscretion, gave instructions for an appliance after his design to be set up in the Palace at Richmond, and sent him her thanks for the invention.

The despatch of Harington to Ireland in the company of Essex was not entirely on account of his indiscretions. Essex was regarded with considerable mistrust by Sir Robert Cecil, and probably by Elizabeth herself, and Harington was ordered, with injunctions as to the greatest secrecy, to keep and forward to the Queen a full journal of everything he should note during the expedition. When Essex returned at the end of his inglorious campaign, he took Harington with him when he went to the Palace, no doubt in the hope that the Queen’s godson might secure for him a more favourable reception. But Elizabeth was not to be placated. She was, in fact, in a towering fury.

“When I did come into hir presence,” wrote Harington, “she chaffed much, walked fastly to and fro, looked with discomposure in her visage and, I remember, catched my girdle when I kneeled to her and swore—‘ By God’s son, I am no Queene. That man is above me: who gave him command to come here so soon? I did send him on other busynesse’.”

She ordered Harington to go home forthwith.

I did not stay to be bidden twice. If all the Iryshe rebels had been at my heeles I should not have made better speede.” ....


Harington’s best sentiments are to be found in his letters, some of which are very charming. A collection of these was made, together with his epigrams, by one of his descendants, the Rev. Henry Harington, and published as Nugae Antiquae, in 1769. Though his epigrams were much appreciated at the time, they have little literary merit and are now only of interest for the light which they throw upon the manners of his age. Harington gives several life-like pictures of the ageing Queen, for whom he always had the tenderest regard.

Nowe, for my owne parte, I cannot blot out from my memorie’s table the goodnesse of our Sovereyn Ladye to me, her affectione to my mother who waited in privie chamber, her bettering the state of my father’s fortune, her watchings over my youth, her liking to my free speech and admiration of my little learninge and poesy, which I did so much cultivate on her commande, have rootede such love that to turne askante from her condition with tearlesse eyes, would straine and foule the springe and founte of gratitude.”


The old Queen was, indeed, in a bad way at the end of her reign.

The many evil plots and designs,” wrote Harington in October, 1601, “have overcome all Her Highnesse’s sweet temper. She walks much in her privy chamber, and stamps with her feet at ill news, and thrusts her rusty sword at times into the arras in great rage. ... So disordered is all order that Her Highnesse hathe worne but one change of raiment for many days and sweers much at those that cause her grief in such wise to the no small discomforture of all about her.”


Later on he wrote—

The Queene was reduced to a skeleton, altered in her features: her taste for dress gone: nothing pleased her: she stamped and swore violently at the ladies of the Court, whom she tormented beyond measure.”


And finally, on the last occasion he was to see her, when he had gone to read some verses to the poor old Queen—“to feede her humoure”

She smilede once and was pleased to saie— ‘ When thou doste feele creeping tyme at thy gate, these fooleries will please thee lessc; I am paste my relishe for such matters: thou seest my bodilie meate dothe not suite me well: I have eaten but one ill tastede cake since yester-nighte’.”


Harington was not always flippant and light-minded in his published works, and the tract which he prepared On the Succession to the Crown (1602), to maintain the right of James VI of Scotland to succeed to the crown of England, though agreeably written and sprinkled with anecdote, was a serious work, written to accompany a New Year present to James, of a lantern curiously wrought, symbolic of the waning light of Elizabeth and the splendour that was to come. This carried a representation of the Crucifixion and bore the inscription — “Lord remember me when thou comest into Thy kingdom” — a refined piece of blasphemy when one considers to whom the present was made.

Though Harington would not have dared to utter such views as were set forth in this pamphlet during the life-time of the old Queen, it is perhaps not fair to blame him for turning so early towards the rising sun. He was a courtier, and a very extravagant one, under the courtier’s necessity to prepare for the future. Though James conferred upon him the Order of the Bath, he had little else from him and one gathers that Harington was not entirely at his ease with the new Sovereign. It may have been that he had too strong a sense of humour, liable to come out at inopportune moments.

His Majestie did much presse for my opinion touchinge the power of Satane in the matter of witchcraft, and askede me with much gravitie if I did trulie understand why the Devil did worke more with anciente women than others? I did not refraine from a scurvey jeste and even said (notwithstandinge to whome it was saide) that we were taughte hereof in Scripture, where it is tolde that the Devil walketh in dry places.”


It seems that His Majesty, like his illustrious successor on another occasion, was not amused!

The end of Harington’s life was clouded over with frustration and debt. He quarrelled violently with his mother-in-law, and even ran the risk of imprisonment in his endeavour to get possession of her estates. It was in such an atmosphere that he prepared, under the title of The Englishman’s Doctor, or the Schoole of Salerne, and published in 1609, a translation of the Regimen Sanitatis Salernitanum, which is perhaps his most enduring claim to fame.

It is not known what moved him to undertake that work, but it is very probable that he did so for the edification of the ill-fated son of James I, the young Prince Henry, for whose education he had been made partly responsible. He had already prepared for that Prince a short work entitled A briefe view of the Church of England as it stood in Queen Elizabeth and King James his Reigne, based largely upon his extensive knowledge of the bishops and other Church dignitaries of that period. Though that book was not published until after Harington’s death, a MSS. copy was made for —“the private use of Prince Henry upon occasion of that Proverb—

Henry the Eight pull’d down Monks in their Cells:
Henry the Ninth should pull down Bishops and their Bells.”


One learns from it that it was the vindictive cruelty of Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, that was responsible for the traps set for Elizabeth before her accession—

My father, only for carrying of a letter to the Ladye Elizabeth, and professing to wish her well, he kept him in the Tower twelve month and made him spend a thousand pound ere he could be free of that trouble. My mother, that then served the said Ladye Elizabeth, he caused to be sequestred from her as a heretique, in so much that her own father durst not take her into his house, but she was glad to sojourne with one Mr. Topliffe; so that I may say in some sort this bishop persecuted me before I was born.”


The Regimen of Salerno must surely have been one of the most popular medical works ever to be written. It appeared first about the end of the eleventh century and though, indeed, it was composed primarily for laymen — according to legend, which is now disputed, for Duke Robert of Normandy, who spent some time at Salerno receiving treatment for a poisoned wound of the arm which he had sustained at the capture of Jerusalem on the First Crusade — it was, doubtless, committed to memory by countless practitioners over many hundreds of years, as a rule-of-thumb guide to the simple and more homely rules of common sense in matters of health. It was translated into every language and ran through more than three hundred editions.

Harington’s version has a freshness and naive charm of its own, while many of the recommendations of the Regimen are not without a point today.

Use three Physicians still: first Doctor Quiet, Next Doctor Meryman, and Doctor Dyet.

With nature custome walkes in equall range, Good dyet is a perfect way of curing:
Great suppers do the stomache much offend. Sup light if quiet you to sleepe intend.

Know in beginning of all sharp diseases ’Tis counted best to make evacuation.

Drink not much wine, sup light and soon arise When meate is gone, long sitting breedeth smart:
And afternoone still waking keepe your eyes.

For water and small beere we make no question
Are enemies to health and good digestion.
And Horace in a verse of his rehearses
That water-drinkers never make good verses.”


Harington died on November 20th, 1612, and was buried at Kelston. His wife and seven children survived him. Contrary to all appearances he was no idle butterfly but, in spite of a light-hearted manner, a keen observer, of wide reading and versed in many tongues. Most of his writings that have come down to us were not originally intended for publication but, from the quality of the little that has survived, we cannot but wish that he had left more of his musings to posterity.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X