John Harington (writer)

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For other people named John Harington, see John Harrington (disambiguation).
Sir John Harington
Sir John Harington by Hieronimo Custodis.jpg
Sir John Harington by Hieronimo Custodis, c. 1590–93
Born 4 August 1561
Kelston, Somerset, England
Died 20 November 1612(1612-11-20) (aged 51)
Kelston, Somerset, England
Spouse(s) Mary Rogers

Sir John Harington (also spelled Harrington) (4 August 1561 – 20 November 1612), of Kelston, was a courtier, author and master of art, popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet. He became a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I's court, and was known as her "saucy Godson". But because of his poetry and other writings, he fell in and out of favour with the Queen.

The work for which he is best known today, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) is a political allegory and a coded attack on the monarchy. His New Discourse described a forerunner to the modern flush toilet that was installed at his house at Kelston.

Early life, education and family[edit]

Harington was born in Kelston, Somerset, England, the son of John Harington of Kelston, the poet, and his second wife Isabella Markham, a gentlewoman of Queen Elizabeth I's privy chamber. He had the honour of being accepted as a godson of the childless queen, one of 102.

The exact relationship between the John Harington of Kelston and the line of his contemporary John Harington, 1st Baron Harington of Exton has not been established. Apparently John of Kelston did not know the pedigree of his obscure grandfather, Alexander of Stepney. Nevertheless it is generally assumed that he was also descended from the first Lord Harington of Aldingham, a baron in Edward II's time.

He was educated at Eton and King's College, Cambridge.[1]

Harington wed Mary Rogers, daughter of George Rogers of Cannington (son of Sir Edward Rogers) and Joan Winter, on 6 September 1583 and together they had nine children, two of whom died young, as his autograph revisions make clear.

Life as a courtier under Elizabeth[edit]

Although he had studied the law, Harington was attracted early in life to the royal court, where his free-spoken attitude and poetry gained Elizabeth's attention. The Queen encouraged his writing, but Harington was inclined to overstep the mark in his somewhat Rabelaisian and occasionally risqué pieces.

His attempt at a translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso caused his banishment from court for some years. Angered by the raciness of his translations the Queen told Harington that he was to leave and not return until he had translated the entire poem. 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.[2]

Invention of the toilet[edit]

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. In 1596, Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax about his invention.[3] 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.

The forerunner to the modern flush toilet had a flush valve to let water out of the tank, and a wash-down design to empty the bowl. The term 'John', used particularly in the USA, is generally accepted as a direct reference to its inventor.[4]

Harrington and his invention of the toilet was spoofed on the show South Park, in the episode Reverse Cowgirl. In the episode, he appears in ghost form at a trial for Clyde Donavan's mother, claiming that people have been misusing the toilet for years and that rather than sit front ways, it was meant to have people sit back ways facing the back of the toilet, where he claims it was a shelf for your quill and ink.

Campaigns in Ireland[edit]

In 1599 the queen sent an army, led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to Ireland during the Nine Years War (1595–1603). Following her strong recommendation that Essex include him in his army, Harington was put in command of horsemen under Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. Harington's legacy from this campaign were his letters and journal, which served to give the queen good intelligence about the progress of the campaign and its politics. Harington wrote, "I have informed myself reasonably well of the whole state of the country, by observation and conference: so I count the knowledge I have gotten here worth more than half the three hundred pounds this journey hath cost me." During the campaign Essex conferred a knighthood on Harington for his services. Essex fell into disfavour with the queen for concluding the campaign on a truce, and also caused her fury over the large number of knighthoods he awarded. Harington had been present at the truce negotiations, and on accompanying Essex when he returned to court to account to the queen, he experienced the royal wrath. However, his wit and charm soon secured the queen's forgiveness.

Life as a courtier under James I[edit]

After the queen's death, Harington's fortunes faltered at the court of the new King, James I. He had stood surety for the debts of his cousin, Sir Griffin Markham, in the sum of £4000, when the latter had become involved in the Bye and Main Plots. Not able to meet his cousin's debts without selling his own lands, and unwilling to languish in gaol, he escaped custody in October 1603. However, James I had already recognised his loyalty and created him a Knight of the Bath and also granted him the properties forfeited upon Markham's exile.

Towards the end of his life, Sir John Harington became the tutor to Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales. He annotated for him a copy of Francis Godwin's De praesulibus Angliae. Harington's grandson, John Chetwind later published these annotations in 1653, under the title of A Briefe View of the State of the Church. While tutoring the Prince, he also translated Regimen sanitatis Salernitanum (Health Regimen of the School of Salernum), a medieval collection of health tips, from Italian to English verse, published in 1607 in London at the John Holme and John press.[5]

Harington fell ill in May 1612 and died on 20 November 1612, at the age of 51, soon after Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, who died on 6 November; he was buried in Kelston.[6]


In a February 2014 interview on the Jimmy Kimmel show, British actor Kit Harington confirmed that he is one of John Harington's descendants.[7]


  1. ^ "Harington, John (HRNN576J)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  2. ^ Culture UK – The invention of the indoor closet or the lavatory, toilet or loo as it is known today
  3. ^ Kinghorn (1986)
  4. ^ Kinghorn, Jonathan (1986), "A Privvie in Perfection: Sir John Harrington's Water Closet", Bath History 1: 173–188.  ISBN 0-86299-294-X. Kinghorn supervised a modern reconstruction in 1981, based on the illustrated description by Harington's assistant Thomas Coombe in the New Discourse.
  5. ^ "A Salernitan Regimen of Health". Gode Cookery. Retrieved 25 January 2013. 
  6. ^ Scott-Warren, Jason. "Harington, Sir John". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 16 April 2012. 
  7. ^ Kit Harington on Jimmy Kimmel LIVE. Published on February 19, 2014.


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