Where is the bathroom for Shakespeare? When you visit Stratford Upon Avon and you walk through Shakespeare’s Birthplace, or Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, you will see beautiful rooms decorated with the furniture from Shakespeare’s lifetime including beds, linens, and specifically in Anne Hathaway’s cottage there’s an enormous fireplace in the kitchen. What may stand out to you, though, as a modern visitor, is the curious absence of a bathroom.

This week, we explore the bathing habits, and bathroom goings, of 16th century England by asking: Did Shakespeare Have a Bathroom?

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( The short answer to this week’s question is no, but if we stopped there, it wouldn’t really explain what Shakespeare did instead. And you know me, we have to learn more!

So here’s what they had for toilets and bathrooms in Shakespeare’s lifetime.

Castles and royalty were their own cup of tea when it comes to anything, but in this case it also includes bathrooms.

As Natalie Grueniger, host of Talking Tudors podcast, writes in her article on Tudor Hygeine,

“Some of the houses Henry inherited already contained luxurious bathrooms such as Edward III’s bathroom at Westminster supplied with “2 large bronze taps for the kings bath to bring hot and cold water into the baths” (Thurley, Pg. 167).

In 1529, Henry VIII ordered a new bathroom built on the first floor of the Bayne Tower at Hampton Court. This tower was Henry VIII’s luxury suite and consisted of an office and strong-room; a bedroom, bathroom and private study and a library and jewel house (Thurley, Pg. 170).

Thurley describes the bathroom in great detail

“The Bathroom had deep window-seats with cupboards beneath and a ceiling decorated with gold battens on a white background. The baths were made by a cooper and were attached to the wall; they were supplied by two taps, one for cold water and one for hot. Directly behind the bathroom, in another small room, was a charcoal- fired stove, or boiler, fed from a cistern on the second floor which was filled by the Coombe conduit.” (Pg. 170)

Other similar bathrooms existed at the Tower of London, Windsor Castle and New Hall” (Source)

You can read Natalie’s full article on Henry VIII”s bathing practices and Tudor bathing here. Natalie was also a guest on That Shakespearea Life to talk about Tudor Bathing and you can hear her episode at www.cassidycash.com/ep45 If you are new to our channel, always visit the show notes for more history, resources, and historical illustrations! (Scroll down to grab this week’s freebie). 

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bathroom bathing episode 45

Henry VIII did have a room for bathing, but his action in both building and using that room for bathing was not only a novelty, it was unheard of in pretty much any other house in England. 

The average person would not only have not had a bathroom, they didn’t bathe regularly. Even royalty only bathed weekly. There was notoriously horrible water in England, and as a result covering yourself in water was a dangerous activity. This hesitancy about using water too much, for fear of disease, led to incredibly infrequent bathing (as a rule). 

Something that you do not need to do all the time hardly warranted an entire space in one’s home, so the idea of a room for the bath simply wasn’t popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime, outside of a royal palace.

tudor bathroom chamber pot old man

“Old man on chamber-pot” – porcelain of Capodimonte manufacture (1748-1752) by Giuseppe Gricci (Florence about 1720-Madrid 1771) – Duca di Martina Museum at Villa Floridiana in Naples | Photograph by Carlos Raso | Found on Flickr | Original Source | Public Domain | Accessed November 2020

There was also a distinction made in Tudor England between bathing and what we call “using the bathroom” today. To take care of one’s necessaries in Tudor England, you used a chamber pot. 

This was, as it sounds, a clay pot that you squatted, or sat upon, to use like a toilet. The contents were then poured out into the streets, or sometimes, they were poured into a public cess pool, which was a giant pit whose purpose was to house the city’s refuse. There were actually people employed to clean out the cess pool called gong farmers. 

Some private citizens did build their own cess pits for their home and staff to use, so in that way, it was kind of like having your own bathroom. You at least could have your own cess pit. Even if you had your own pit, though, you would still hire a gong farmer to clean it out for you once a year, sometimes every two years. 

bathroom tudor england woman chamber pot

“Emptying the Chamber Pot” Photograph by Chris Fithall | Sovereign Hill, Ballarat, Victoria, Australia | Note: For Sovereign Hill Museums Association and for Sovereign Hill staff and volunteers, the attribution specified in the copyright is not required. Attribution is not required from any person included in this photo. | photograph is used under CC Attribution License 2.0 No alterations or changes have been made to the photograph. | Original Source | Accessed November 2020

This being a horribly nasty job, the gong farmers were required to work at night so the smells and sight of someone carrying poo wasn’t made public. 

The job being so nasty, they were paid very well (albeit not necessarily highly thought of as individuals). Being a gong farmer is reported by some historians as paying close to 7 times what an average laborer would have been paid. (Source)

And what of toilet paper? Well, that did not exist in Elizabethan England either. When you needed toilet paper, someone in Shakespeare’s lifetime would have used clumps of grass, or hay, to take care of business.

gong farmer tudor bathroom

Eighteenth-century advertising flyer for the services of John Hunt, Nightman and Rubbish Carter | Public Domain | Original Source | Accessed November 2020

There was one man during Shakespeare’s lifetime who tried to bring the flush toilet into fashion, in response to the dreadful disease and uncleanliness associated with poo in the streets, and that was Sir John Harington. 

Sir John Harington is credited with inventing the first flush toilet, and he invented it in London when William Shakespeare was 32 years old. Interestingly, that’s the same year Shakespeare is thought to have written the play King John, but considering the toilet would not become known as the “porcelain  throne” until the late 19th century, I don’t think we can infer anything there. 

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Sir John Harington’s invention did not catch on in England, many people preferred their chamberpot and did not want to deal with Sir John’s newfangled device. Despite it not catching on during Shakespeare’s lifetime, Sir John Harington is credited with being the reason the toilet is known as the John. 

So for this week, the answer is no, Shakespeare would not have had a bathroom in his home. He would have had soaps, could have potentially bathed his face and hands and even teeth on a daily basis, but full body bathing would have been very limited, certainly did not have a special room in his home.

Science Labs for History

Digital history activity kits based on games, recipes, and crafts from Shakespeare's plays. Each one is full of tutorials, supply lists, and step by step instructions so you can cook, play, and create your way through the life of William Shakespeare.

Learn Shakespeare history the fun way--with hands on activities you can do at home or in your classroom. 

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