The King’s Privy

People often have romantic notions about the kings and queens of yore.  We think about turreted castles and fluttering pennants and knights in shining armor, but not about the uglier, nitty gritty details of what life was really like in those days — before modern dentistry, and the invention of air conditioning, and countless other developments that contribute every day to making our lives much better than they have ever been before.

mann-wrathIndoor plumbing obviously is one of those developments.  Which raises the question:  how did kings deal with that essential aspect of the human existence?

Historians note that England’s King Henry VIII — he of the six wives — actually had a courtier called the Groom of the Stool to take care of that element of the King’s daily routine.   The GOTS apparently was a high-ranking (if not coveted) position that involves taking careful notes about the monarch’s bowel movements and maintaining the “Stool Room.”  The Stool Room was a private privy where the King used a padded chair “covered in sheepskin, black velvet, and ribbons” positioned above a pewter chamber pot to take care of business.

Other members of the Court had their own private rooms with their own chamber pots, but the masses weren’t quite so lucky.  The article linked above indicates that servants working at the King’s palace tended to answer the call of nature in whatever happened to be nearby.  Fireplaces and the stone walls of the castle were popular targets, giving the castle a distinct aroma by the end of a long day.  And visitors and the staff also used a huge, open-air facility called the “Great House of Easement” that had 28 seats and no stalls or interior walls.  The facility and its tank were cleaned by a group of boys called the Gong Scourers who were appointed by the King.

Still entertaining romantic notions those days of olde?

The Tower Of London

058The Tower of London is London’s oldest landmark, and one that is central to the interesting and bloody history of British monarchs. Every tourist guidebook that you might read will tell you it’s a can’t-miss destination if you are visiting London, and they are absolutely right.

070The Tower is one of those locations that itself is historic. When you walk around the central courtyard, where gigantic ravens with clipped wings still are found, you know you are walking where Anne Boleyn last trod before her head was separated from her shoulders by the executioner’s axe. It was in these towers that the two little princes deposed by Richard III were last seen, where Henry VIII disposed of various wives, and where countless prisoners were kept until they were ransomed, or beheaded, or freed if their patrons gained favor.

So, the Tower of London is worth a visit. Be prepared for an expensive entrance fee — more than 21 pounds, or about $35 — and big crowds. If you want to see the Crown Jewels (Richard and I didn’t) be prepared to wait in queue for an hour or more.

064Some of the parts of the Tower are wonderful; others not so much. Richard and I enjoyed a display about the Tower’s history as the British mint — who knew that Isaac Newton was the long-time head of the mint, and tough on counterfeiters? — as well as the Medieval Palace of Henry II and the intricate graffiti carved into the plaster of the towers by prisoners and preserved for all these years. Imagine the painstaking effort involved as prisoners worked on their messages day after day, knowing that they could spend years in their cells. And the Yeoman Warders, who regularly guide tours of the Tower, are iconic and funny, besides.

There are curiously cheesy elements to a visit to the Tower of London, too. The White Tower, with its spare Norman architecture, is the oldest building in the Tower complex and was built immediately after William the Conqueror successfully invaded England, yet it is filled with bric a brac.

076For centuries, the White Tower apparently has hosted a display of mounted British kings on wooden horses that has been a popular destination for distinguished visitors, even though the monarchs wear armor that is acknowledged to be wildly inaccurate. So, the visitor first sees pictures of sultans and other notable prior visitors to that display, then the wooden horses and non-historical suits of armor. Elsewhere in the building you will see a kind of metal, modern art dragon sculpture, a Native American headdress, and other paraphernalia.

For most of the visit, it seems that the White Tower’s history as a tourist destination has rubbed out its history as a fortress and residence. Then you finally reach the fine Chapel Royal of St. John, small and solemn and light-filled and beautiful after all of the consciously touristy stuff, and it makes the entire visit worthwhile. 080