In my “historic towns” series, I discussed the village of Exton in Rutland, and one of its key historical figures, John Harington, 1st Baron of Exton, favourite of James I of England and guardian of Elizabeth of Bohemia. Just because of the link, I decided to expand and write about Harington’s contemporary and relative, the ‘other’ Sir John Harington.
John Harington, writer, was born in Somerset at the family seat in Kelston, around 1560. Although the date is unconfirmed, he was baptised in London on August 4th that year. His parents were poet John Harington Sr and his second wife Isabella Markham who was one of the ladies of Elizabeth I’s privy chamber. Harington was one of Elizabeth’s 102 God-Children. The two John Haringtons were therefore both present in Elizabeth’s court circle at the same time. They are thought to be related however the line of the writer’s grandfather, Alexander of Stepney, was rife with intrigue, but both were thought to be somehow descended from Lord Harington of Aldingham, a baron in the 14th Century during the reign of Edward II.
John received his education at Eton, followed by Kings College, Cambridge where he studied law, before marrying Mary Rogers, grand-daughter of Sir Edward, through his son George and his wife Joan Winter, in September 1583. The couple had nine children, seven of whom survived infancy. John, attracted to the intrigues of court life, chose to pretty much forsake his formal education in favour of bearing witness to and producing writings based on what he saw. Often blurring the lines of what was considered acceptable, as far as the subject matter he chose to record, he soon gained the attention of the Queen, who despite her frequent disapproval, encouraged John in his work.
Harington incurred the wrath of Queen Elizabeth with his partial translation of the Epic ‘Orlando Furioso’ (the Frenzy of Roland) by Ludivico Ariosto which borrows on the earlier unfinished ‘Orlando Innamorato’ by Boiardo, which in turn leans quite heavily on the ‘Song of Roland’. The Queen is said to have banished Harington from court, with the proviso that he was not to return until he had completed the translation in full. As the original was over thirty-eight thousand lines long, it was presumed that Harington would abandon the task before completion. Despite taking several years, by 1591 he had finished his translation and was welcomed back into the Queen’s circle. His translation remains the pivotal work to this day.
In his home in Kelston, Harington had been working on an adaptation of his interior plumbing vis a vis the privy. Using a valve to remove soiled water, and a tank to wash the bowl, Harington’s invention the ‘Ajax’ (based on the old English slang term ‘Jakes’ for toilet) was the forerunner to the more modern flush toilet. Prior to his invention, toilets were very much based on the primitive hole in a box, tucked away in the corner of the “Garderobe” sometimes with a bucket or pot underneath which would be emptied by hand or alternatively emptying directly into a pit or moat, depending on where you were. Following installation and successful use within his own home, Harington began to introduce his invention into the houses of nobles and elites. Americans refer to the smallest room in the slang term ‘John’ which is a direct reference to its inventor.
Five years later Harington wrote a book ostensibly based on his invention, ‘A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax’ using the pseudonym Misacmos. A very popular publication (available on Amazon for the princely sum of $21!) the work was felt by some to be a metaphor for what Harington personally believed to be the seedier side of court, casting aspersions on the foul excrement that was contaminating the
Queen’s circle, and hinting at the political machinations of her favourite, Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Hints were aimed at the libelous treatment of his relative, Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. The Queen, perhaps understandably, was furious and once again banished Harington. It was thought that only her personal feelings towards Harington saved him from trial.
Three years later, obviously still smarting, yet perhaps hoping to find a way to absolve her Godson of his misdemeanors, she encouraged Devereux to find a position for Harington within his forces on his expedition to Ireland, where he was to put down a rebellion led by the Earl of Tyrone, Ireland was four years into its Nine Years war at the time, and Devereux appointed Harington his commander of horse, under Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton.
Making use of his literary talent, Harington took the opportunity to write detailed letters and journals which formed a good source of intelligence to the Queen much of which is still available today. This of course served to find him back in Royal favour, however Devereux made the mistake of urinating on his own strawberries, by his negotiating truce with Tyrone rather than putting down the rebellion, which was the Queen’s aim. Being present at the negotiations, Harington was a party to the later fall-out. Elizabeth famously telling Devereux that if she ‘had wanted to abandon Ireland, she wouldn’t have sent her forces there.’ Devereux was also criticized for awarding too many knighthoods. Harington once again on the Queen’s irate recommendation made himself scarce, he had after all received one of those knighthoods.
The Queen’s displeasure with her Godson did not last too long, despite Devereux’s later uprising and consequential abrupt earthly departure. As she neared her end, Harington desperately tried to cheer her out of her melancholy in the face of her own impending mortality by reading to her some of his more humorous work, written for purpose, for which she had some years before seemed to enjoy. She thanked him for his efforts but assured him that there was little one could do to inspire humour in one who was about to depart life.
Following his God-mother’s death, Sir John Harington found himself struggling somewhat in the court of the new King James I. When left in the lurch with his cousin Griffin Markham’s debts, as the latter was exiled due to his involvement in Roman Catholic plots against the new King’s freedom in return for religious tolerance, Harington found himself stung to the tune of £4000. He was unable to stand this amount without selling his own lands to satisfy the debts, and took himself off to avoid further punishment. James however recognised Harington’s loyalty over his inability to pay, and not only rewarded him with the honour of Knight of the Bath, but awarded him his cousins forfeit lands.
Despite his claim of being unhappy with the drunken antics and debauchery of James’ court, he nonetheless wrote extremely humorous accounts of the exploits which proved popular. Sir John was later appointed as tutor to the young Prince Henry Frederick for whom he annotated several works of literature including most famously a copy of ‘De praesulibus Angliae’ later published by his own Godson, John Chetwind, and wrote a translation of ‘Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum’.
Just two weeks after the sudden death of his young royal charge in November 1612, Sir John Harington passed away following a six- month illness. He was subsequently buried at his home in Kelston. So next time you sit comfortably on that porcelain throne…. Tip your hand to the man who enables you to flush it! An intriguing man, with so much more up his sleeve than ridding the world of shhhh…melly stuff!
Oh and Game of Thrones actor Kit Harington claims a descendency from him… “You know flushing, Jon Snow!”