Sir John Harington (1560 – 1612) of Kelston was an English courtier, author and translator popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet. Harington’s father enriched the family by marrying an illegitimate daughter of King Henry VIII; his second wife, and John’s mother, was a gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber of Queen Elizabeth I, who stood as godmother for John. The young man was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn, London. He became a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I’s court, and was known as her “saucy Godson”. But because of his poetry and other writings, he fell in and out of favour with the Queen. For translating and circulating among the ladies a wanton tale from the 16th-century Italian poet Ariosto, he was banished from court until he should translate the whole of Ariosto’s epic poem Orlando Furioso. As it is 38,736 lines long, one of the longest poems in European literature, Queen Elizabeth thought she was rid of him. Much to everyone’s surprise, he returned in 1591 with the entire epic translated into English. He was praised, first for completing the task, and then for the quality of his translation which is still read and still popular today. As he complied with the queen’s command, he was back in good standing in the royal court.
Queen Elizabeth I died in 1603. During what would prove to be the her last Christmas, he tried to lighten her increasingly frequent moods of melancholy by reading her some of his comic verses. The Queen thanked him for his efforts but said sadly: “When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries shall please thee less – I am past relish for such matters.” She was succeeded by James VI of Scotland who claimed the English throne as James I of England. Harington was not as successful in the court of her successor. His cousin, Sir Griffin Markham, had become involved in 1603 in two plots to kidnap or depose James I. This led to his being arrested, convicted, and sentenced to death. His execution was waived in return for a massive fine of £4000 and exile. Markham left for exile in Europe and his cousin, Sir John Harington was stuck with paying his fine. He could not pay the fine without selling his own property, which he did not want to do. He escaped custody in October of 1603, but James I had already created him a Knight of the Bath in recognition of his loyalty to the English throne, and also transferred all of cousin Markham’s property to him, so Harington once again managed to stay out of trouble. He later became the tutor to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, the older son of King James and Anne of Denmark.
Sir John Harington fell ill in May 1612 and died on 20 November 1612, at the age of 52, soon after the death of his pupil Henry Frederick who died of typhoid fever at the age of 18. He was buried in Kelston.
Sir John Harington has become historically associated with the invention of Britain’s first flushing toilet. It involved flushing with water from a cistern and utilised a stopper that prevented smells from rising from the storage below. He called it the Ajax (i.e., a “jakes“, being an old slang word for toilet; the American slang term “john” is thought by some to be a reference to its inventor). He installed one at his manor in Kelston. In 1596, Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax about his invention.He published it under the pseudonym of Misacmos (translated as hater of filthiness). This was the pseudonym he also used for his epigrams. (See FLUSHED WORDS below). The book made political allusions to the Earl of Leicester that angered the Queen. It was a coded attack on the stercus or excrement that was poisoning society with torture and state-sponsored “libels” against his relatives Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. According to his biographer, D. H. Craig, “readers were to be repelled initially by all the talk of urine and ordure but then reminded that vice (however painted and perfumed) was a far more serious offense against moral sensibilities.” Filled with characters drawn from family and friends along with veiled representations of his enemies, the work also makes common use of biblical characters and classical writers. Many considered the whole subject a breach of common decency, and Harington had difficulty finding a printer. Eventually, Richard Field agreed to serve as the publisher, and it was released in 1596. After publication, Harington was banished from the court. The Queen’s mixed feelings for him may have been the only thing that saved him from being tried at Star Chamber. The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity on its publication.
Eventually Queen Elizabeth forgave him, and visited his house at Kelston in 1592. Harrington proudly showed off his new invention, and the Queen herself tried it out. She was so impressed it seems, that she ordered one for herself, installing Harington’s “water closet” in Richmond Palace, making it the first indoor plumbing of its type. Her enthusiasm did not last. She may not have been impressed by Harington’s invention, but then, like other rich people, she did not have to empty her own close-stool.
Before his invention, the public was used to the chamber pot. These were usually emptied from an upstairs window into the street below, and in
France, the cry ‘gardez-l’eau‘ gave warning to the people below to take evasive action. This phrase may have been the origin of the English nickname for the toilet, the ‘loo’. Wealthy households might have a close-stool, which had a padded seat with a metal or porcelain container beneath it. But it still had to be emptied. Harington’s water-closet had a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather -faced valve. A system of handles, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern, and opened the valve. There was a picture of it in his book (see the image on the right) and he proclaimed that it ‘would make unsavoury Places sweet, noisome Places wholesome and filthy Places cleanly’. His flush toilet did not catch on and serious improvement of toilets in England had to wait for the 18th century and the coming of the S-bend.
Sir John Harington’s family were old friends of Queen Elizabeth and the queen was Harington’s godmother. She seems to have been fond of him, but he was often in trouble for circulating lewd verses and translations among the court ladies. His attempt at a translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso caused his banishment from Queen Elizabeth’s court for some years. Angered by its racy content, the Queen told Harington that he was to leave and not return until he had translated the entire poem. She chose this punishment rather than actually banishing him, but she considered the task so difficult that it was assumed Harington would not bother to comply. He, however, chose to follow through with the request and completed the translation in 1591. That translation received great praise, and is still read by English speakers today. The more than 30,000 lines of Orlando Furioso took at least five years to compose and set to print.
It took him over ten years to compose and circulate more than four hundred epigrams, organised into four books, a brief selection of which I have included below. The influence of Martial is evident. Not only has he translated the Latin poet (see the Brief Poems post on Martial) but some of the poems below are virtual copies of Martial originals. During his lifetime, the Epigrams, written under his pseudonym, ‘Misacmos’, meaning ‘a hater of filthiness’, had the widest manuscript circulation among his contemporaries. Copies of individual epigrams or groups of them, evidently circulated within the Court, within the Inns of Court, and elsewhere, and they were frequently recopied in 17th-century miscellanies. Harington made numerous revisions when preparing fair copies of large numbers of epigrams from his ‘scatterd papers’, and it was revised versions that were posthumously published in 1615 and 1618. Some eighty or more epigrams found in his own manuscript collections were not published until the twentieth century. I have taken some limited liberties with the text and modernised the spelling.
Brief Poems by Sir John Harington
Against writers that carp at other men’s books
The readers, and the hearers like my books,
But yet some writers cannot them digest.
But what care I? For when I make a feast,
I would my guests should praise it, not the cooks.
Of writing with a double meaning
A certain man was to a judge complaining,
How one had written with a double meaning.
Fool, said the judge, no man deserveth trouble,
For double meaning, so he deal not double.
The author, of his own fortune
Take fortune as it falls, as one adviseth:
Yet Heywood bids me take it as it riseth:
And while I think to do as both do teach,
It falls and riseth quite beside my reach.
Misacmos against his book
The writer and the matter well might meet,
Were he as eloquent, as it is sweet.
Faustus finds fault, my epigrams are short,
Because to read them, he doth make some sport:
I thank thee, Faustus, though thou judgest wrong,
Ere long I’ll make thee swear they be too long.
Ladies you blame my verses of scurrility,
While with the double sense you were deceived.
Now you confess them free from incivility,
Take heed henceforth you be not misconceived.
Of plain dealing
My writings oft displease you: what’s the matter?
You love not to hear truth, nor I to flatter.
Against Itis a poet
Itis with leaden sword doth wound my Muse,
Itis whose Muse in uncouth terms doth swagger,
What should I wish Itis for this abuse,
But to his leaden sword, a wooden dagger.
Of reversing an error
I did you wrong, at least you did suppose,
For taxing certain faults of yours in prose:
But now I have the same in rhyme rehearsed,
My error, nay your error is reversed.
To an ill reader
The verses, Sextus, thou dost read, are mine;
But with bad reading thou wilt make them thine.
In lectorem inuidum
Who reads our verse, with visage sour and grim,
I wish him envy me, none envy him.
Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?
For if it prosper, none dare call it treason.
A rule to play
Lay down your stake at play, lay down your passion:
A greedy gamester still hath some mis-hap.
To chafe at luck proceeds of foolish fashion.
No man throws still the dice in fortune’s lap.
Of a fair shrew
Faire, rich, and young? How rare is her perfection,
Were it not mingled with one foul infection?
I mean, so proud a heart, so cursed a tongue,
As makes her seem, nor faire, nor rich, nor young.
Five years hath Cinna studied Genesis,
And knows not yet what in Principio is ;
And grieved that he is gravelled thus, he skips,
O’er all the Bible, to th’ Apocalypse.
New friends are no friends; how can that be true?
The oldest friends that are, were sometimes new.
Fortune, men say, doth give too much to many:
But yet she never gave enough to any.
Your verses please your reader oft, you vaunt it:
If you your self do read them oft, I grant it.
To an old bachelor
You praise all women: well, let you alone,
Who speaks so well of all, think well of none.
Of Sextus’ s wit
To have good wit is Sextus thought by many;
But sure he hides it all; he shows not any.
Poor Lynus ‘plains that I of late forget him,
And says he’ll be my guest if I will let him.
But I so liked him last time I met him
That he be sure do all I can to let him.