Welcome to Episode #45 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
I believe that if you want to understand Shakespeare's plays, then understanding the life of William Shakespeare, the man, is essential. This podcast is designed to help you explore early modern England as Shakespeare would have lived it by interviewing the historians, performers, authors, and experts that know him best.
While many of the castles and great homes of the monarch in England already contained luxurious bathrooms, it would be Henry VIII–in a style true to his flamboyant reputation, that would create elaborately accessorized bathrooms for palaces like Whitehall and Hampton Court. While these bathrooms were used by the monarchy in Shakespeare’s life, such as Queen Elizabeth, the average Tudor, and Shakespeare himself, had a much simpler version of bathing, not to mention a variety of myths and legends to accompany popular opinion of keeping clean.
Here to walk us through a brief history of soaps, bathing, and the act of cleanliness in Shakespeare’s lifetime is Natalie Grueniger.
Natalie Grueninger is the host of the Talking Tudors podcast, as well as the author of the blog “On the Tudor Trail.” I’ve asked Natalie to visit with us today to talk with us about two excellent blog articles she wrote specifically about Tudor bathing, examining the common practices, methods of making soap, and the inside details about those bathrooms in Whitehall Palace.
She graduated from The University of NSW in 1998 with a Bachelor of Arts, with majors in English and Spanish and Latin American Studies and received her Bachelor of Teaching from The University of Sydney in 2006.
In 2009 she created On the Tudor Trail, a website dedicated to documenting historic sites and buildings associated with Anne Boleyn and sharing information about the life and times of Henry VIII’s second wife. Natalie is fascinated by all aspects of life in Tudor England and has spent many years researching the period.
Her first non-fiction book, co-authored with Sarah Morris, In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn, was published by Amberley Publishing in the UK in September 2013. Book number two in the series, ‘In the Footsteps of the Six Wives of Henry VIII’, was released in the UK in March 2016.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Natalie about :
Was bathing an everyday occurrence in Tudor England?
- Does this mean that there were, actually, bathrooms similar to what we have today being used in England during Shakespeare’s lifetime?
- Where did they get their soap? Would Shakespeare have made his own soap, or bought it at a store?
Hath drops too few to wash her clean again
Blanchisseuse (Petite femme s'occupant à savonner) by Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin (1735); This is an example of the cake or block of soap Natalie talks about in this episode used for, just as this picture shows, washing clothes. Source
During Shakespeare's lifetime, people bathed much more frequently than they are given credit. We know that personal hygeine, as well as cleaning their homes, was of importance to people like William Shakespeare from the numerous manuals and recipes for soaps, their uses, and the right way to clean.
Washing soaps would have been made with animal fat, whereas soaps for bathing the body would have been made from something softer, like olive oil. Wealthy ladies would enjoy fancy fragranced castille soap, often imported from Spain. In Natalie's article on Tudor bathing, she says that a “14th century household manual, he gives directions for preparing washing water suggesting the use of ‘sage, marjoram, camomile, rosemary and orange peel as possible ingredients.’ He also offers an alternative that is ‘very cheap’ once again suggesting that it was not only the wealthy Tudors that were interested in personal hygiene but people from all levels of society.” Source
While indoor plumbing would not become an available utility until well after Shakespeare's death (despite the technology and plan existing, it was merely a funding issue which delayed a city wide plumbing option for London); bathrooms existed, and in particular, urinating was to be done properly.
Yes, there were rules about defecation in Shakespeare's lifetime (there were regulations about nearly everything so honestly, learning of this fact came as small surprise). There were large houses constructed during Henry VIII ‘s reign, which remained in use into Elizabeth I's reign and Shakespeare's lifetime, where up to 14 courtiers could go to the bathroom at one time. The structure was called, rather crudely, the Great House of Easement. (If you don't believe me, check out Hampton Court Palace's official website here, that's where I learned it.)
Instead of plumbing, the toilets had great stone tubes from the seat of the toilet out to the river (one of the many reasons not to drink water from the Thames).
Closed toilet, similar to what would have been available to Henry VIII in his private bedchamber. Source
Inside Whitehall Palace as well as at Hampton Court, Henry VIII upgraded the bathrooms to be very lavish. In addition to having his own garderobes (toilets), the bathrooms had hot and cold running water, and were quite opulent by today's standards, let alone for the Tudor period.
Along with the provided garderobes, there were rules for courtiers about where and when they could use the bathroom. It was considered unhealthy to hold in your urine, so lavatories were provided for the courtiers to use provided they did not make any noise. If their “letting go of fluids” was going to make noise, courtiers were instructed to disguise the sound by coughing.
Aside from the provided garderobes, Henry VIII was said to have certain fragrances he preferred, and was prescribed by medical advice to take medicinal herb baths in the winter.
Bid them wash their faces
And keep their teeth clean.
The Tudor Toothbrush
While the concept of a toothbrush like we have today did not yet exist for Shakespeare, that does not mean he didn't care about keeping his teeth clean.
Some ways Shakespeare and his contemporaries would have kept their teeth free of food and avoided the dangers they were aware sugar brought to teeth in particular would be to clean them with a fabric cloth, chewing on a stick, or picking at their teeth with a toothpick.
Powdered sage could be used to rub teeth and whiten them, as well the ashes of burnt rosemary. Elizabethans were familiar with mouthwashes, and used mints and other after dinner confections to freshen the breath after eating.
look you, a sweet virtue in a maid
with clean hands.
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