Monday 19 November 2012

Sir John Harington, 1560-1612

John Harington was born in 1560 in London, to the gentleman and poet John Harington of Stepney and his second wife Isabella Markham, a gentlewoman of Elizabeth I’s Privy Chamber. He was baptised at Allhallows, London Wall, with the Earl of Pembroke as his godfather and the Queen herself as his godmother. A tiny gold font, now lost, was gifted to him from her at his baptism. Of all her many godchildren, it was Harington whom she spoke of as ‘my godson’. During his time studying at Eton she sent him a letter, exhorting ‘boye Jacke’ to study a speech she’d included; and over the following years her fondness for ‘that witty fellow’ and his drolleries, although strained at times, never ceased.

In 1569 John’s parents moved to Kelston, a few miles from the city of Bath. Here Harington of Stepney held land which had been granted to his first wife Ethelreda Malte, who may or may not have been the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. Harington of Stepney set about building Kelston Manor, an undertaking which John took on after his father’s death in 1582. Nothing now remains of his elaborate home but a few descriptions, some earthworks, a possible brewery building, and an overgrown patch of walled garden beside the church of St. Nicholas, which lay adjacent to the house. We do know that the Queen, on her progress to Bristol in 1592, was reputed to have visited the manor where she ‘dined right royally’ under a fountain bearing John’s witty device, a hare, holding a ring, sat on a tun. 

Church of St. Nicholas, Kelston; by Wikipedia user Rwendland

John had as his neighbours the Rogers family of Cannington, and in 1583 he married Mary, daughter of the widowed Lady Jane. When questioned by the Queen on the success of their partnership, Mary attributed it to ‘persuad[ing] her husbande of her own affectione, and in so doinge…command[ing] his’. They had nine children, two of whom, described by John as ‘two too fleeting’, died in infancy. Also numbered among the family members was Bungey the spaniel, described as a ‘rare Dogge’.

John’s collection of epigrams from 1600 contains many poems featuring or addressed to members of his immediate family. Those to his mother-in-law are often surprisingly frank, whilst several to his ‘Sweet Mall’ border on the saucy. Occasionally, as the epigrams show, both wife and mother-in-law conspired to criticise John’s frequent visits to court, and despite his partiality for playing the courtier, he did come around to their view. As for Bungey, he merited not only an epigram but, in later years, a letter to James I’s son Prince Henry, describing his intelligence and various ‘feats’, including carrying letters to and from Elizabeth’s court.  

Harington and Bungey on title page of Orlando Furioso; used under the NPG's CC licence

John graduated as Bachelor of Arts from Cambridge in 1578 and took his Master of Arts there in 1581. Despite his education and his skill as a poet, he often put himself forward as something of the harmless court fool. The tactic of hiding art within art, as promoted by Castiglione in his Book of the Courtier, was one which served John well in the upheavals of both the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts. But being a man with a certain degree of liberal-mindedness, and moreover the ‘purpose to speak frankly and truly’, he didn’t always escape trouble.  

The Haringtons had close connections with several Catholic families and both father and son seem to have held the martyred Jesuit priest Edmund Campion in high regard. In 1583-4 Elizabeth was informed that John was involved with ‘nawghtie bookes’ – not quite what it sounds like, the phrase in fact refers to some of Campion’s works, dangerous material in Protestant England, which John was helping to import and distribute.

Another kind of naughty book – by Elizabethan standards, at least – was what got John into trouble next because, kind-hearted fellow that he was, he determined to give the no doubt rather bored ladies-in-waiting to the Queen a bit of reading matter. So he translated for them in a rather racy vein book 28 of the Italian epic poem Orlando Furioso. The Queen was not impressed. Harington was to be banished from the court – until he’d translated the work in full. Undeterred, Harington did just that, and published it in 1591 with a title page which not only featured his portrait but also a nonchalant talking spaniel – representative of Bungey – a device he ‘fancie[d]’ a great deal. Both can be seen in the picture above. The same year, John became High Sheriff of Somerset.

Not long after the Orlando Furioso debacle, John turned his inventive mind to the creation of something radically different: a flushing toilet. This included two of the elements – the valve and the wash-down system – present in the modern day lavatory, and John had one installed in Kelston Manor. In true Harington fashion, it was nicknamed ‘Ajax’, punning on the Elizabethan term for the toilet, ‘a jakes’. The Queen is said to have had one in Richmond Palace, and perhaps another in Whitehall, although ‘the sound of the waters were enough to upset her digestion for a week’ and she suggested he sell the invention to the ‘Irish or Blackamoors…but not in my kingdom.’ It’s inventing the loo for which John is probably best known, which got him an ‘interview’ on the BBC’s Society of Inventors programme, and a slightly more dubious few minutes of fame in an episode of South Park. Whatever he might think of this claim to fame, it probably wouldn’t have surprised him. ‘[W]hen you have heard,’ he wrote, ‘there was one who had written of A Jakes, straight you had a great mind to see what discourse it would prove… You hoped for some knavery.’

Descendant of the Ajax; by Wikipedia user Jarlhelm

He went on to write a book based around the idea, A new Discourse on a Stale Subject called the Metamorphosis of Ajax, which was printed in1596. A list of materials for the building of the invention was included, as well as a picture of the finished article, complete with fish swimming in the cistern. However, the main part of the book was actually concerned with cleanliness of both body and mind – John nicknamed himself Misacmos, ‘hater of filth’ – which included clearing the names of some of John’s relatives, suspected of being Catholic recusants. It also contained some very unflattering comments about several courtiers, one of them the recently deceased Earl of Leicester. Once again, John was dismissed from court, with instructions to grow more ‘sober’ – although by 1598 the Queen was beginning to thaw.

In 1599 John accompanied the Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, to Ireland, where his involvement in ‘action’ led to Essex knighting him. True to form, John couldn’t resist a joke, and the entry in the Calendar of State Papers was for Sir ‘Ajax’ Harington. But the Queen was displeased at Essex’s handling of the Irish campaign, and John narrowly avoided imprisonment in the Fleet prison as a result. Luck was on his side – after some days of being rebuffed, Elizabeth eventually granted him an audience. And the knighthood remained.  

So did John’s capacity for getting into trouble, which included a suit brought against him by his brother-in-law for stealing goods and a spell of imprisonment for debt after standing surety for his disgraced cousin Griffin Markham. Fortunately, the outcomes of both crises were in his favour, and in 1603 King James I created him a Knight of the Bath.

Although John made sure to be attentive to his new monarch, it seems to have been James’ son, Prince Henry, who was his main interest. John’s Epigrams of 1600, witty, acerbic and touching in various measures, was dedicated to the Prince in 1605, and John wrote him letters and translated and annotated texts for his edification, including several works relating to religion. John had a deep interest in theology, and supplemented it with practicality, such as drawing attention, in 1608, to the need for more money to restore Bath Abbey.

Bath Abbey today; by Wikipedia user Bluedog423

Even while still in his early forties, John had been troubled with lameness enough to call himself a ‘cripple’, and a couple of years later he was ‘olde and infirme’. Whatever ailment he suffered from, it was long-lasting: in May 1612 he was conveyed to the healing spa of Bath ‘sick of a dead palsy’. He eventually returned to Kelston, and managed to compose more letters to Prince Henry, who died on the 6th November that year. Two weeks later, on the 20th, John himself died.

His funeral was held on December 1st – the feast day of Edmund Campion. He was buried in the parish church of St. Nicholas, with a grave slab which reads simply ‘In memory of Sir John Harington, knight, 1612’. Originally his grave was located within the communion rails, but during the Victorian rebuilding of the church, the slab at least was relocated into the churchyard, where it still stands.

Tomorrow, November the 20th, marks the 400th anniversary of Sir John’s death. But because you can’t keep a good legend down, I’m posting this today, which just happens to be World Toilet Day – an event aiming to promote accessible and clean toilet facilities for all. I like to think Sir John would approve. 

Sir John in the early 1590s; used under the NPG's CC licence


Collinson, J. (1791) The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset, Bath, R. Cruttwell
Grimble, I. (1957) The Harington Family, London, Jonathan Cape
Jesse, G. (1866) Researches into the History of the British Dog, London, Robert Hardwick
Kilroy, G. (2009) The Epigrams of Sir John Harington, Farnham, Ashgate
Pudney, J. (1955) The Smallest Room, London, Michael Joseph

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