Kings and queens are usually the first people to have new things, like flushing toilets. The garderobes set into the thickness of the walls of the White Tower at the Tower of London are ‘one of the building’s many sophisticated features and perhaps the earliest known example of such an arrangement in the country. Waste was discharged through an opening halfway up the building’s outer wall’. So begins the story of royal sanitary arrangements.
You can see latrines emptying directly into the moat set into the outer wall of Edward I’s Brass Mount in the north-eastern corner of the Tower. The moat was used for drainage in this way until the 1840s, when the pollution was one of the reasons that it was filled in. In 1830, the Duke of Wellington ordered the silt from the moat be taken to fertilize market gardens at Battersea, but this was not enough to prevent complaints in 1841 that the banks exposed at low tide were ‘impregnated with putrid animal and excrementitious matter … emitting a most prejudicial smell’ and 80 men from the garrison were in hospital as a result. By the end of 1845 the moat had been largely drained.
The sanitary needs of Tudor courtiers at Hampton Court Palace were met in a variety of ways. The lodgings of the senior members of the court, such as those in Base Court, had their own garderobe shafts. Some used piss-pots, like the Tudor pot excavated and displayed at Hampton Court (still containing traces of Tudor urine). Lower-ranking members of the court would use the ‘common jakes’ in the south-west corner of the palace, later known as the Great House of Easement, where lavatories drained via the moat into the river. Fourteen people could be seated here simultaneously.
The grandest people continued to use a close stool – a padded seat placed over a chamber pot – and the Groom of the Stool had become the king’s most intimate, and therefore most powerful servant. The close stool used by William III remains in the King’s Apartments at Hampton Court Palace today. With the passage of the centuries, the court became more formal, both in terms of the variety of spaces it required and its personnel. William III’s Groom of the Stool was his favourite Hans Willem Bentinck, Earl of Portland. The Groom of the Stool, with access to the bedchamber, closet and close stool room, was inevitably the person closest to the monarch and consequently wielded enormous power. He kept the key to the bedchamber on a blue ribbon round his neck.