Portrait by Hieronimo Custodis, c. 1590-93
|Baptised||4 August 1560|
|Died||20 November 1612 (aged 52)|
Kelston, Somerset, England
Sir John Harington (also spelled Harrington, baptised 4 August 1560 - 20 November 1612), of Kelston, but baptised in London, was an English courtier, author and translator popularly known as the inventor of the flush toilet. He became prominent at Queen Elizabeth I's court, and was known as her "saucy Godson", but his poetry and other writings caused him to fall in and out of favour with the Queen. His best-known work 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.
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.
Harington married Mary Rogers, daughter of George Rogers of Cannington (son of Sir Edward Rogers) and Jane Winter, on 6 September 1583.
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.
Around this time, Harington also devised England's first flushing toilet - called the Ajax (i.e., a "jakes", which was 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. 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 US, is thought by some to be a reference to its inventor, although this is disputed.
In 1599, the Queen sent an army, led by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, to Ireland during the Nine Years War (1594-1603), to subdue a major rebellion by the Gaelic chieftains, led by Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone. 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 was 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 by making a truce with Tyrone, which amounted to a virtual capitulation to the Irish rebels (she snapped at Essex: "if I had meant to abandon Ireland, it had been superfluous to send you there"), 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: "tell my witty godson to get him home... it is no season to fool it here!" However, his wit and charm soon secured the Queen's forgiveness: despite his closeness to Essex, he survived Essex's downfall with his reputation more or less unsullied. During what would prove to be the Queen's last Christmas, he tried to lighten her increasingly frequent moods of melancholy by reading her some of his comic verses. The Queen thanked him for his efforts but said sadly: "When thou dost feel creeping time at thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less - I am past my relish for such matters."
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 from custody in October 1603. However, James I had already recognised his loyalty and created him a Knight of the Bath and granted him the properties forfeited upon Markham's exile.
He claimed to be unhappy at James's Court, due in particular to the heavy drinking regularly indulged in by both sexes, but in fact he seems to have derived a good deal of amusement from observing the antics of the courtiers. He left a memorable description of a disastrous attempt by Sir Robert Cecil to stage a masque at Theobalds in honour of a visit by the King's brother-in-law, Christian IV of Denmark in 1606, where some of the players were too drunk to stand up: "the entertainment and show went forward, and most of the presenters went backward, or fell down, wine did so occupy their upper chambers".
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, Harington 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.