Sir John Harington was a courtier, translator, a not so successful poet of the Elizabethan era. Harington’s father married an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII. His second wife was attendant to Princess Elizabeth, and Queen Elizabeth I stood as godmother to John, who was educated at Eton, Cambridge, and Lincoln’s Inn. Despite all these accomplishment, Harington’s fame came from inventing the flush toilet.
Unfortunately, Elizabeth banished Harington from her Court because he translated a lewd tale the 16th century Italian poet Ariosto. The ladies of the Court complained to the queen of the nature of the tale. Elizabeth sent him away until he could translate the whole of Ariosto’s epic poem, Orlando Furioso. She chose this punishment rather than actually banishing him, but she considered the task so difficult that it was assumed Harington would not bother to comply. Harington, however, chose to follow through with the request and completed the translation in 1591. His translation received great praise, and is one of the translations still read by English speakers today.
During his ‘exile’, 1584-91, he built himself a house, and devised and installed the first flushing lavatory, which he named Ajax. Eventually Queen Elizabeth forgave him, and visited his house at Kelston in 1592. Harrington proudly showed-off his new invention, and the Queen herself tried it out! She was so impressed it seems, that she ordered one for herself. His water-closet had a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather -faced valve. A system of handles, levers and weights poured in water from a cistern, and opened the valve.
In spite of the Queen’s enthusiasm for this new invention, the public remained faithful to the chamber-pot. These were usually emptied from an upstairs window into the street below, and in France, the cry ‘gardez-l’eau’ gave warning to the people below to take evasive action. This phrase ‘gardez-l’eau’ may have been the origin of the English nickname for the lavatory, the ‘loo’.
Around this time, Harington also devised Britain’s first flushing toilet–called the Ajax (i.e., a “jakes”—jakes being an old slang word for toilet). It was installed at his manor in Kelston. He also installed a flush toilet in Queen Elizabeth’s palace at Richmond in Surrey. In 1596, Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax about his invention. He published it under the pseudonym of Misacmos. The book made political allusions to the Earl of Leicester that angered the Queen. The book was a coded attack on the stercus or excrement that was poisoning society with torture and state-sponsored “libels” against his relatives Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. After the publication of this work he was again banished from the court. The Queen’s mixed feelings for him may have been the only thing that saved Harington from being tried at Star Chamber. The work itself enjoyed considerable popularity on its publication in 1596.
In 1599 he went on a military expedition to Ireland, winning a knighthood. His barbed epigrams and wanton writings gave too much offense, particularly under James I, to advance him beyond a reputation as Elizabeth’s “saucy godson.”
And just because it is Friday, let us get your blood churning. Here is an FYI: Kit Harington stars on “Game of Thrones” as Jon Snow. In numerous interviews, he’s revealed that his ancestor is Sir John Harington, the inventor of the first flushing toilet in Britain in the 16th century. Not only is Kit Harington the relative of Sir John Harington, but he suggests that same ancestor might be the very reason we call a toilet “the John.”
“The erudite courtier, and inventor of the flush water closet, died on November 20th, 1612.” History Today
“History of the Flushed Toilet,” Toiletology
“John Harington, Writer,” Wikpedia
“Sir John Harington, English Author,” Britannica
“The Throne of Sir John Harrington,” Historic UK