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Groom of the Stool: Was The King’s Toilet Guy The Worst Job Ever?

Groom of the Stool: Was The King’s Toilet Guy The Worst Job Ever?

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Some jobs are a dream and others literally stink! But the most stinky job of all, believe it or not, was actually a very powerful position because it put you right next to the king! The Groom of the Stool, a royal position in England, created during the Tudor era, was stinky and powerful. The holder of this office was responsible for attending to the ruler’s toilet, amongst other things.

Though, the Groom of the Stool sounds like it was the most disgusting job available it was also a key position. In spite of the unpleasant nature of this job, the Groom of the Stool was a highly coveted office amongst English courtiers. After all, the Groom had direct access to the king when the latter was performing his most private bodily functions. For this reason and others, it was a very powerful and influential position.

The History Of The Groom Of The Stool

Although the position of the Groom of the Stool (known also as the Groom of the King’s Close Stool) was officially created during the reign of Henry VII , it seems that a similar role was already in existence about 40 years before that. This is based on instructions found in the Book of Nurture , dated to 1452 AD, for “The office off a chamburlayne.” These instructions included a rhyme which was meant to help a new Groom (or whatever the title that was in use at that time) with his job. The rhyme is as follows,

 

 

“See the privy-house for easement be fair, sweet, and clean;
And that the boards thereupon be covered with cloth fair in green;
And the hole himself, look there no board be seen;
Thereon a fair cushion, the ordure no man to vex.
Look there be blanket, cotton, or linen to wipe the nether end,
And ever he calls, wait ready and prompt,
Basin and ewer, and on your shoulder a towel.”  

In around 1495 AD, Henry VII, the first king of England from the House of Tudor, created the Privy Chamber , which was the first chamber of the king’s private apartments, and therefore was only accessible to the king’s family and the privy household. Along with the creation of the Privy Chamber was the creation of the office of the Groom of the Stool. At that point in time, the Groom mostly attended to the king’s toileting needs, and it was probably not a very prestigious job. It should be said, however, that at this time, the Groom was also involved in setting national fiscal policy under the chamber system, in addition to being placed in charge of the royal household’s finances. Therefore, Henry’s Groom of the Stool, to a certain extent, influenced the finances of the kingdom.

A written order from 1497 AD for Hugh Denys, Henry’s second Groom of the Stool, included “black velvet and fringed with silk, two pewter basins and four broad yards of tawny cloth.” With these items, Denys was supposed to construct the king’s “toilet.” It may be added that the stool, or close stool, is considered to be the predecessor of the modern toilet.

Close stool commode, circa 1650 AD, in the Hampton Court Palace, England. (Lobsterthermidor / Public domain)

Close stool commode, circa 1650 AD, in the Hampton Court Palace, England. (Lobsterthermidor / Public domain )

In its simplest form, the stool consisted of “a box or cabinet at sitting height with a hole in the top. Within this hole was a bowl, usually pewter or earthenware, which captured urine and feces.” The stool was portable and was covered by a folding lid when not in use.

Interestingly, an example of a royal close stool can be seen at Hampton Court Palace . This object belonged to William III, and is therefore dated to the 17 th century / early 18 th century AD. The stool is designed like a chest and has a slightly domed lid. The stool is covered in “crimson velvet and decorated with double and single lines of studs on gold braid.” The stool could be locked, and a pair of gilt metal handles were attached to its sides. The seat inside is padded, with silver fringe hanging around the inside of the lid. This was no doubt a toilet stool fit for a king.

It was during the reign of Henry VIII, Henry VII’s son and successor, that the role of the Groom of the Stool was greatly expanded. Apart from tending to Henry’s toileting needs, the Groom was now also in charge of monitoring the king’s bowel movements . These observations, along with other issues relating to the king’s health, were reported to the royal physician . The Groom also organized the king’s day around his bowel movements, which were predicted by his diet and mealtimes.

Other responsibilities of the Groom were less concerned with the king’s toileting needs but nevertheless gave him a significant amount of influence. For instance, the men who tended to the king in the Privy Chamber were governed by the Groom. The Groom also kept track of the expenditure of the Privy Purse and made sure that the valuable objects in the Privy Chamber were kept safe. Furthermore, the Groom was given the authority to decide who was allowed, and not allowed, access to the king in the Privy Chamber.

It is not entirely clear if the Groom of the Stool actually had to wipe the king’s posterior after he had done his business. Incidentally, the Groom, as well as other courtiers at Hampton Court during Henry’s reign, had access to the “great house of easement.” This was a building containing 28 seats on two levels. Excrement from the “great house of easement’ made its way to the River Thames via brick-lined drains.

Hampton Court Palace, probably where the first position of the Groom of the Stool in the Tudor era. (Mistervlad / Adobe Stock)

Hampton Court Palace, probably where the first position of the Groom of the Stool in the Tudor era. ( Mistervlad / Adobe Stock)

The Groom Of The Stool Position Was Awarded To Noblemen

The office of the Groom of the Stool was usually awarded to sons of noblemen, or to members of the gentry, indicating that such a job was not simply given to anyone who might be interested to apply for it. Henry VIII had four Grooms of the Stool, the second of whom was Sir Henry Norris. The story of this Groom is particularly interesting as it demonstrates the influence that the holder of this office could aspire to attain, as well as the risk it entailed.

Norris was the second son of Sir Edward Norris, and was born in around 1481 AD. As a youth, Norris came to the court of Henry VIII, was appointed as a Gentleman of the King’s Chamber, and became one of the king’s most intimate friends. Henry granted Norris various offices, which made him a very influential person at court. For instance, in 1515 AD, Norris was made Keeper of the Park of Foliejon in Winkfield, Berkshire. Four years later, he was appointed as Bailiff of Ewelme in Oxfordshire, and in 1523 AD, he was made Keeper of Langley New Park in Buckinghamshire, as well as Bailiff of Watlington. In 1526 AD, Norris replaced Sir William Compton (who later died of sweating sickness in 1528 AD) as the Groom of the Stool.

Norris was not only close to the king. He was also an ally of Anne Boleyn as she rose in the English court. Norris’ ties with the queen would ultimately lead to his downfall and death. In April 1536, Sir Francis Weston, a Gentleman of the King’s Chamber, hinted to the queen during a talk that Norris loved her. Shortly after that, the queen spoke to Norris about it, and joked that he was waiting for a dead man’s shoes. Norris did not find this joke funny and protested against it. In the end, the queen asked Norris to dispel any rumors he might hear about her conduct.

Norris’ meddling in court politics, however, made him many enemies, one of whom was Thomas Cromwell, who received reports about the Groom’s alleged affair with the queen. The rumors eventually reached the ears of the king, who told Norris that he was suspected of plotting with the queen and urged him to confess. Subsequently, Norris was arrested, and taken to the Tower of London. He was put on trial, found guilty, and executed. After Norris, Henry had two more Grooms - first Sir Thomas Heneage, and then Sir Anthony Denny. The latter had the unenviable responsibility of telling Henry on the 27 th of January 1547 that he was dying. The king died the following day.   

Henry VIII was succeeded by Edward VI, who had his own Groom of the Stool. The next two Tudor monarchs, Mary I and Elizabeth I , however, did not have a Groom of the Stool, since it was inappropriate for a male to attend to a queen’s toileting needs. Instead, an office called the Lady of the Bedchamber was created during Elizabeth’s reign. The Lady’s responsibilities were similar to those of the Groom, though, needless to say, it was held by a woman. During Elizabeth’s reign, this position was held by Katherine Ashley. The lady attended to the queen in her private day room, helped her bathe, and washed her hair.

Elizabeth’s death in 1603 marked the end of the House of Tudor, and the English throne went to a new royal dynasty, the Stuarts. Under their first Stuart monarch, James I, the position of the Groom of the Stool was reinstated. After the restoration of the Stuart monarchy, Charles II renamed the office “Groom of the Stole.” Apparently, this change in the title reflected a change in the job’s responsibilities, i.e. from one that helped the monarch with his toileting needs to one that helped dress the king.

The rear view of the medieval garderobe toilets at Portchester Castle, UK, where the poop exited the castle and made a considerable stink. (Colin Babb / Medieval Garderobe (toilets) Portchester Castle)

The rear view of the medieval garderobe toilets at Portchester Castle, UK, where the poop exited the castle and made a considerable stink. (Colin Babb / Medieval Garderobe (toilets) Portchester Castle )

The Position Of Groom Of The Stole Continued Until 1901 AD

In the subsequent centuries, the position of the Groom of the Stole was maintained (mostly) by the various rulers who sat on the English (and, subsequently, British) throne. The last Stuart ruler, incidentally, was a woman, Queen Anne, who, unlike Mary and Elizabeth of the Tudor era, kept the office of the Groom of the Stole. The position however was filled by women.

The Grooms of the Stool / Stole probably continued to wield much influence at court, though perhaps not as much as Norris during the reign of Henry VIII. Still, some Grooms went on to hold important posts in the British government. John Stuart, for instance, was a Groom of the Stole to George III. Later, John Stuart became Prime Minister of Great Britain. Incidentally, George, who was notorious for his insanity, had a total of nine Grooms during his reign, more than any other English / British monarch.

Queen Victoria, the last British ruler from the House of Hanover, did not have a Groom of the Stool. Nevertheless, Grooms were appointed for both her husband, Prince Albert, and her son and heir, the future Edward VII. Although Edward, as Prince of Wales, kept a Groom of the Stole, the position was abolished for good when he ascended the throne in 1901 AD.

James Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Abercorn (1838-1913), likely the last Groom of the Stole in British history. (Lafayette photography studio, London / CC BY-SA 4.0)

James Hamilton, 2nd Duke of Abercorn (1838-1913), likely the last Groom of the Stole in British history. (Lafayette photography studio, London / CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Therefore, Edward’s Groom of the Stole, James Hamilton, 2 nd Duke of Abercorn, is considered to be the last holder of the office. It is unknown as to why Edward decided to abolish this position. Others, however, have considered Sir Michael Stanhope, who served the young Edward VI, to be the last Groom of the Stool in the strictest sense. This is because the responsibilities held by the Grooms after the Tudor period had undergone great changes. Stanhope, by the way, was hanged for a felony before Edward’s death, and it is thought that the position of the Groom was subsequently left vacant.

A sick man on the commode toilet, after taking a laxative, in medieval times. As overeating was common in these times so was the use of laxatives. (See page for author / CC BY 4.0)

A sick man on the commode toilet, after taking a laxative, in medieval times. As overeating was common in these times so was the use of laxatives. (See page for author / CC BY 4.0 )

An Amazing Job That Came With Influence

In summary, the Groom of the Stool, in its original form, was certainly not the most pleasant job in history, since it required its holder to attend to the monarch’s toileting needs. At the same time, however, this meant that the Groom had more access to the king than all the other courtiers. This meant that the Groom had the potential to become a very influential person at court, and that he could dabble in politics if he wished.

This was certainly the case with Henry VIII’s second Groom of the Stool, Sir Henry Norris. As Norris’ life demonstrates, making mistakes in the game of politics at such a high level could cost a Groom his life.

After the Tudor era, the position of the Groom of the Stool was maintained but modified. This probably reduced the influence of the Groom, though not to the extent that the position was reduced to a ceremonial role.

When women were on the throne, the policy towards the position of the Groom varied. Whilst Elizabeth I did not have a Groom, she did have a Lady of the Bedchamber. Anne I, on the other hand, kept the office, though it was filled by a woman, whereas Victoria did not have a Groom, but appointed one for her husband and another for her heir.

The position of the Groom of the Stool was finally abolished permanently when Edward VII became King of the United Kingdom in 1901 AD.

Top image: A closeup of King William III's stool toilet at Hampton Court Palace. Source: Peter K Burian / CC BY-SA 4.0

By Wu Mingren

References

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