The Unprivate Privy – Part One

Though visiting historic homes is a favourite leisure activity of the Great British public, what it really wants to know – when it descends on a stately home – is how the owners went to the toilet. Most of us who plead guilty to this are amazed to discover that in the past spending a penny was rarely a private experience.

Take Roman times. Doing your business then was usually a communal affair. Sharing a low wall of three or four holes carved out of the top, once you’d preformed, you’d wipe your arse with a handful of fig leaves. Or, you might opt for a sponge attached to a stick resembling a modern pan scrubber. While patrons sat side by side, trying to ignore the stench, servants kneeling at their master’s feet in an open gutter, would rinse out the soiled sponges. Some even carried theirs with them; Seneca recounts the story of a prisoner who, when faced with the prospect of being thrown to the lions, rammed a lavatory sponge down his throat.

By the Middle Ages, things had not progressed much. People of all ranks were undisturbed by the idea of defecating or urinating in public; privacy at this time was an unknown concept. At the king’s castle, a bench was carved out of stone with a number of round wooden holes cut out of the top. After a hearty banquet for a castle’s 100-250-strong household, the stench must have been sickening. Instead of toilet paper, piles of cheap, plentiful wool enabled you to ‘wipe your nether end’.

The waste was carried through the thickness of the walls to little arches at the base, enabling it to be discharged into the moat, ditch or small stream below. Or it would make its way to a cess pit. When, in 1281, thirteen convicts from Newgate Jail earned £4 7s. 8d for emptying Edward I’s cess pit, and came face to face with the putrefying piles of royal faeces, they must have wished they’d remained in chokey.

As time went by, though lack of privacy was never an issue, the rich and privileged sought their own personalised toilet. It was called a close-stool. The earliest models, dating from the early 1400s, were box-shaped and made of iron, but later leather became more sought-after. At the top of the stool, a hinged lid opened to reveal a flat surface with a circular hole in the centre, containing a removable soil pan. The surface area surrounding the hole would be covered with velvet or other luxurious fabric. Soft, maybe, but hardly hygienic. One of Henry VIII’s close-stools was upholstered in black velvet and embellished with ribbons, fringes and two thousand gilt nails. Its seat and elbows were covered in white velvet stuffed with down.

With a carrying handle on each side, the close stool could be brought to its master by his servant, then taken away for the pan to be emptied. The stool would be kept in a ‘store-room of stink’, where the servant would bed down for the night. Not before the eighteenth century would a servant and his master’s close-stool be separated once and for all.

At court, the Groom of the Stool had the dubious honour of standing ready behind the king’s posterior with a monogrammed towel. Henry VIII’s servant kept records of the contents to monitor the king’s daily contractions. Despite this unsavoury aspect, the position of Groom of the Stool was a powerful one since the incumbent controlled access to the king. Henry Norris, the king’s longest-serving groom, ended up managing the royal pursestrings.

For the medieval and Tudor king or duke, the overwhelming advantage of the close-stool was its mobility. Important meetings and audiences no longer needed to be interrupted since you could ‘do your business’ – while doing your business.

Close stools remained popular among the rich and famous into the eighteenth century. Though all 274 of Louis XIV’s ‘smelly pieces of furniture’ were housed in his wig closet, the Sun King treated them as a throne from which he received dignitaries and other important guests. And it’s quite clear from the ways in which they were designed, emblazoned with the royal coat of arms, that these seats and their users were meant to have an audience. When the king was at war with the Netherlands, Louis XIV commissioned a close stool to resemble a stack of books with titles such as ‘Voyage to the Low Countries’. Later, Louis XV’s mistress, Madame de Pompadour, purchased a ‘bizarre’ model enabling two to sit next to each other while attending to their private business. Why any two people – with the possible exception of kids – would want to do this is a puzzle, but in an age where non-privacy was taken for granted, especially at court, it wouldn’t have been considered odd.

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