Sunday, March 13, 2016

Privys, Garderobes and Latrines – a quick tour of the not so sweet side to castle living

By Lizzy Drake
Photo: Framlingham Castle privy chute (Holly Stacey)

It used to be one of those taboo human necessities that history books of an older generation would often slide over with a quick reference of architectural purpose within a castle, perhaps a word or two about its necessity, and then the historian quickly moves on to a more palatable subject. After all, dwelling on where one does one's dirty deeds isn't well respected, or at least, it certainly wasn't in the past. Enter a new generation of historians without fear of taboo, where every subject of history is of interest, including the humble and stinky corners of the castle. So the question is, what was a castle loo like and how did it work?

In manor houses and lesser homes, folk would use a chamberpot to relieve themselves which would then be dumped out but the castle had a different system. Instead of using the privacy of one's own bedroom or bed chamber, one would visit the garderobe, or privy, which would most often be shared with other castle inhabitants. The garderobe was a room where, well, clothing was often kept. It might seem random and crazy that it would end up being synonymous with a privy. 'Hold on love, I've just got to pop to the closet to do a poo,' just doesn't sound very alluring. But the garderobe, garder being French for 'to keep clothes', is certainly the origin of the word wardrobe and in many castles, the best place to keep finery was where moths were deterred from the strong ammonia stench that emanated from the small rooms. Although there were more places to pee than just the garderobe or jake – believe it or not, fireplaces were used as mens' urinals.

In Wendy J Dunn's article on privy's, she writes, 'Even at the beautiful palaces of this period there were ‘pissing areas’ allotted for members of the court. In their first weeks at the court of Henry VII, it shocked Catherine Aragon’s Spanish ladies, and no doubt sixteen-year-old Katherine herself, to witness courtiers attending to their bodily needs when and wherever necessary (Emerson 1996, p. 54).' Also in Wendy's article on privys and castle pissing places, she goes on to state that the larger fireplaces were by far the more preferred.
 In Platt's book, 'The Castle in Medieval England and Wales' he describes garderobes as: 'a privy or lavatory, though the word is sometimes also used to denote a private bedchamber or a store.' Other words used for garderobes at the time were: jakes, privys, draughts or gongs. The word 'privy' makes these toilets sound private, which was in a way true as they were in their own small room and often had a cloth covering the entryway, except that many were multiple-occupancy and not as private as what we would consider in today's standards. Draughts is much more realistic as a descriptive name as most castle privys were cold stone with holes that led out to open air chutes either to a river, moat, or just down a hill, though many led to cesspits where 'gong farmers' were given the most delectable of roles, cleaning out the refuse from the stench-filled pits which were often loaded up on carts to be put upon crops. According to English Heritage, at Old Sarum, Wiltshire, the gong farmers had a rope tied around their wastes and were lowered into the cesspit in order to clean it out, though many cesspits had crawl spaces rather than a rope-and-dangle system of retrieval.

Old Sarum's cesspit credit English Heritage

Framlingham Castle, like many large castles without a moat or river to take the waste away, only had a chute down the hill which today can be accessed easily on a visit to the site where a visitor can see up the chute from the outside and imagine how well the waste could have piled up. According to the castle guidebook (page 12), 'Latrines were reached through small doorways in the curtain wall and expelled their contents down chutes out into the ditch below. An example of this can be seen in tower 13. On the east side of the castle, vaulted chambers can be seen in tower 7. Elsewhere, the holes for floor beams can be seen, for example, in the gate-tower and in the corner tower 4.' It doesn't exactly paint a pretty picture for these iconic structures. Nevertheless, the privy for larger structures was necessary as with a larger population, the chamberpot system of poo and dump wasn't as effective; in other words, the common privy allowed for excrement to be gathered, rotted and re-used if not just swept away by a body of water or left to be eaten by a moat's population of carp. Anyone for a fish supper?

Photo credit Holly Stacey - Framlingham Castle

Emerson, Kathy Lynn - The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Renaissance England, Writer’s Digest Books, 1996

Dunn, Wendy -

Matarasso, Francois, 'The English Castle; Cassell plc, London, 1995

Platt, Colin, 'The Castle in Medieval England & Wales'; Chancellor Press, London, 1995

English Heritage Guidebooks – Framlingham Castle

English Heritage Blog – Toilets through time – Life in the Castle


 A Corpse in Cipher
Lizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing careen in the genre. The First Elspet Stafford book, A Corpse in Cipher - A Tudor Murder Mystery, is available now.

When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.

You can follow her on Twitter (Lizzy Drake@wyvernwings)


  1. Interesting! The word garderobe is still used in Norwegian for wardrobes and changing rooms.

  2. I knew about the garderobes, but I hadn't heard of the fireplace usage! Doesn't surprise me, though. Well, as for the common privy, it sounds like an excellent case of recycling. Pity about the waste of urine, though; the Romans could have suggested a good use for that.


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