It Was Once Somebody’s Job to Chat With the King

In the 1500s, the King of England’s toilet was glamorous: a velvet-cushioned, portable seat called a close-stool, listed below which sat a pewter chamber pot confined in a wood box. Even the king had one duty that required attending to every day, naturally, however you can bet he wasn’t going to do it on his own. From the 1500s into the 1700s, British kings appointed fortunate nobles the strangely prominent chance to perform the king’s most personal task of the day, as the Groom of the Stool.

This is not the attractive task you normally would picture in a palace, however being Groom of the Stool– called for the close stool, the king’s 16th-century toilet– was actually a highly coveted position in the royal home. Every day, as the king rested on his padded, velvet-covered close stool, he exposed secrets. He asked for counsel, and might even become aware of the personal and political concerns of his individual groom, and deal to assist.

Believed to be a portrait of Sir Anthony Denny, Groom of the Stool to Henry VIII. Believed to be a picture of Sir Anthony Denny, Groom of the Stool to Henry VIII. Artist unknown(in the collection of Tudorplace )The task most likely began as a rather less prestigious position. In The Personal Lives of the Tudors, Tracy Borman priced quote the earliest points out of the job: a composed order from 1497 for Hugh Denys, “our Groom of the Stool,” that included”black velvet and fringed with silk, 2 pewter basins and 4 broad lawns of tawny cloth “for him to build a close stool. Borman likewise indicates directions from 1452 in the Book of Nurture for “The office off a chamburlayne,” that included a little rhyme to help new grooms to the job:

See the privy-house for easement be reasonable, sweet, and tidy;
And that the boards thereupon be covered with cloth fair in green;
And the hole himself, look there no board be seen;
Thereon a fair cushion, the ordure no male to vex.Look there be blanket, cotton, or linen to clean the nether end,
And ever he calls, wait prepared and timely,
Basin and ewer, and on your shoulder a towel.

Throughout the reign of Henry VIII in the 1500s, the king’s closest guys of court were offered the title, typically as a group. Prominent gentry and noblemen hung out with the king in his privy space, serving as his individual secretaries with his undistracted attention while he sat on his close stool. Later on kings, consisting of Henry VIII, designated someone to the job, who would travel with the king and his portable stool if he went on a journey. Just kings in exile were denied a Groom of the Stool, though they did get grooms who helped with the basic bedchamber.

The Groom of the Stool was in charge of all the activities and affairs of the king’s bedchamber and other personal rooms; making sure the king was well-dressed and bathed, his bed was made, and even that his personal financial resources remained in order. Borman wrote that sometimes the grooms had control to invest money. Before personal rooms and personal privacy became related to actually being alone, queens were surrounded by servants and attendants at all hours of the day, typically oversleeping the very same room as attendants. Some kings kept their close stool in “more personal” rooms than others, however even personal rooms would permit a handful of individuals, with the Groom of the Stool always among them.

At the deathbed of Henry VII, with his Groom of the Stool Hugh Denys (circled) one of the chosen attendees. At the deathbed of Henry VII, with his Groom of the Stool Hugh Denys(circled)one of the picked participants. Drawn by Sir Thomas Wriothesley, Garter King of Arms/British Library Grooms of the Stool were frequently feared by other members of court; they held extremely personal knowledge about political and individual affairs and, notably, the king’s ear. Sir Anthony Denny, groom to Henry VIII *, was even offered the obligation of Henry VIII’s stamp, which functioned as his signature for files. Lucy Worsley wrote in If Walls Could Talk that the Groom of the Stool got a special golden key attached to a blue ribbon to manage, of which no other copies could be made, just for the king’s personal rooms. Personal attendants in basic were happy about their status signs as such, she added, and frequently extolled it– but to be the king’s groom was most coveted of all.

In the early 17th century, Sir Thomas Erskine was King James I’s captain of the yeoman of the guard, and excitedly integrated this job with being Groom of the Stool, which, as Keith Brown wrote in his book on worthy power in Scotland, offered him “crucial influence over the king.” Grooms were in some cases embroiled in other areas of political power, too– Henry VIII’s groom Sir Henry Norris was politically included with the queen, Anne Boleyn, and was carried out along with her after she fell from her spouse’s favor. According to Worsley, both James I and his follower King Charles I were so swayed by their grooms’ counsel that in some aspects, political conversations of the king’s privy assisted sustain the 17th-century English Civil War.

In Sovereign Ladies, Maureen Waller noted that queens tended not to use this royal particular service, though they could marry into a powerful position through a Groom of the Stool. A lady called Katherine Ashley held the position for Queen Elizabeth I in the 1500s, though she was really Primary Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, and addressed the queen in her private day space, assisting her bathe and wash her hair. In contemporary times and as of 2006, the queen frequently has her own private restroom, Waller added.

There have been three female Grooms of the Stool, Elizabeth Boyle (not pictured) to Queen Dowager Henrietta Maria, and to Queen Anne: Sarah Churchill (left) and Elizabeth Seymour (right). There have actually been 3 female Grooms of the Stool, Elizabeth Boyle (not envisioned) to Queen Dowager Henrietta Maria, and to Queen Anne: Sarah Churchill (left) and Elizabeth Seymour (ideal). Sarah Churchill by Charles Jervas; Lady Elizabeth Percy by Sir Godfrey Kneller/Public Domain

Throughout the mid 1700s, using a Groom of the Stool at the close stool itself began to fell out of favor. Sir Michael Stanhope for Edward VI was the last to perform the complete job; the last Groom of the Stool was technically James Hamilton for the Prince of Wales in the 1800s, though already the position had moved to dressing responsibilities, and was renamed “Groom of the Takes” referring to the latin word for clothes, stola. Victorians, it appears, were a little more thinking about true personal privacy.

* Correction: This story initially referred improperly to Henry III– it has actually been updated to the rightful Henry VIII.

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