To Bathe, or Not to Bathe: Part 6 – Did the Kings and Queens of the Renaissance Period Bathe?

Myself  .By T.V. Antony Raj


Information and opinions about the attitudes toward  bathing in the 16th century are quite mixed among historians. The general consensus seems to be that bathing was quite popular as a social ritual. In fact, the Catholic Church allowed bathing, but warned against excessive indulgence in the habit.

In the first volume of his “Geschichte des deutschen Volkes seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters” (“History of the German people since the end of the Middle Ages“) the 19th century German Catholic priest and historian Johannes Janssen wrote details on the popular use of baths in Germany during the Middle Ages. According to him, German men bathed several times each day. Some German spent the whole day in or about their favorite springs. The mid 16th-century German merchant Lucas Rem wrote in his diary that in 1511, he bathed 127 times from May 20th to June 9th.

Queen Elizabeth I

Queen Elizabeth, c.1575-1578. Painting attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. Anglesey Abbey.
Queen Elizabeth, c.1575-1578. Painting attributed to Nicholas Hilliard. Anglesey Abbey.

Queen Elizabeth I (7 September 1533 – 24 March 1603) was Queen of England and Ireland from November 17, 1558 until her death. Sometimes called The Virgin Queen, Gloriana, or Good Queen Bess, the childless Elizabeth was the fifth and last monarch of the Tudor dynasty.

Queen Elizabeth I boasted that she bathed once a month, “whether I need it or not”?

James I, her successor, seems to have washed only his fingers.

King Louis XIV of France

King Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701).
King Louis XIV of France by Hyacinthe Rigaud (1701).

King Louis XIV (September 5, 1638 – September 1, 1715) of France known as Louis the Great (Louis le Grand) or the Sun King (le Roi-Soleil), was a monarch of the House of Bourbon. He became King of France and Navarre at the age of four in 1643 after the death of his father, Louis XIII. His reign spanning 72 years and 110 days is the longest of any monarch of a major country in European history.

The palace of Versailles (French: Château de Versailles) was once the most lavish largest home in the world. It was the home of the French royal family along with hundreds of their courtiers and servants. It was created by Louis XIV (1638 – 1715) of France. The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France from 1682, when Louis XIV moved from Paris. For more than 30 years, the King’s obsession was to enlarge and enhance his residence. Now, three million people visit it every year, hoping to get a glimpse of the royal lifestyle of the 17th century.

Today, when looking at the gleaming golden palace, it is difficult to believe that life at Versailles in the 17th century was quite dirty. There were no bathrooms as we would know them. “Then how did…?”

Well, there were decorative commodes for the royalty and the courtiers in each room. The commoners simply relieved themselves in the hallways or stairwells. The royal dogs were not house-trained and the servants never bothered to remove the dog poo lying on the floors. The chimneys did not exhaust well and everything inside the palace was covered with soot.

I want to share the following excerpt from the interesting article titled “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene” by Helen from Fife, Scotland writing under the pseudonym Seeker7.

‘Garde Loo’ and Other Toilet Habits

The romantic scene of a towering castle surrounded by the pristine sparkling waters of a moat is not strictly true. Especially when we talk about toilets from hundreds of years ago.

In Tudor houses they were called ‘privies’. Many were basically a bowl with a slab of wood and a hole carved in the top. This would be set into a recess or cupboard-like area called a garderobe.

The castles were not much better. The slab of wood often just covered a hole in the floor that took waste products straight into the moat – now you know why there are no picturesque paintings of some cute rustic fishing in a castle moat.

Peasants did not have the luxury of any form of toilet no matter how crude. They were forced to relieve themselves where they could and then bury any waste matter. Washing your hands after doing your business was not practiced by anyone.

Of course, rich or poor, neither had toilet paper. Poor people would use leaves or moss to wipe their bottoms. If you had a bit more money then you would use lambs wool.

However, if you were the King, then you employed someone to wipe your bottom for you. The position of royal bum wiper was officially called ‘The Groom of the Stool’ the more formal title would be read as ‘Groom of the King’s Close Stool to King (name )’. As disgusting as this job may seem to be, it was a much sought after position. Noblemen would fight hard and dirty – excuse the pun – to get their sons employed in this role, as it often resulted in, eventually, advancing to powerful roles such as Private Secretary to the King. The reason for the promotion was that the groom, who knew the King’s most intimate secrets, often became his most trusted advisor and friend.

A medieval toilet or garderobe (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene").
A medieval toilet or garderobe (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“).

Garderobe shafts for getting rid of waste products (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene")
Garderobe shafts for getting rid of waste products (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“)

A royal toilet - still on view at Hampton Court, London. (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene")
A royal toilet – still on view at Hampton Court, London. (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“)

 Old Edinburgh

If you ever find yourself transported back in time to old Edinburgh be prepared for the shout of ‘garde loo ‘. If you were not quick enough – or if you were disliked – you could find yourself being showered with the contents of chamber pots hurled from the tenement windows. Chamber pots were of course used to collect urine overnight.

The term ‘garde loo ‘ comes from the French garde L’eau which means ‘watch out for the water’. This is where the nickname – ‘loo’ – for the toilet may have come from. The resulting stench of chamber pot contents was ironically known as ‘the flowers of Edinburgh’ .

So what happened to all this waste littering the streets? There was, in theory, supposed to be some form of street cleaning, but this was seldom carried out effectively. The streets all year round were covered in faeces – human and animal – urine, rotting food, corpses of animals and so on. It wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that an effective street cleaning regime came into force.

Old Edinburgh's narrow streets showing the tenement buildings from which chamber pots were emptied out of the windows. (Source: "A History of Humanity's Disgusting Hygiene")
Old Edinburgh’s narrow streets showing the tenement buildings from which chamber pots were emptied out of the windows. (Source: “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene“)
During the reign of Louis XIV people seldom bathed. They believed that a grimy layer of dirt would keep one healthy. The commoners fancied strong body odour, which they adduced gave them potent sexuality. They made up their own proverb:

The more the ram stinks, the more the ewe loves him.

To combat the smells, the royalty and the courtiers changed their linen wear often, but they still stank. So, they doused themselves with heady perfumes, oils, and scented powders to mask not only their own body odour, but also to avoid inhaling the stench emanating from other persons.

Opinions differ about the bathing habits of King Louis XIV.

It is often said that the physicians of King Louis XIV advised him to bathe as infrequently as possible to maintain good health and he had only three baths in his entire life.

A few primary sources say that King Louis XIV bathed only twice in his life, when his doctors prescribed a bath. Louis they say was usually powdered from head to toe with perfumed powder several times a day since he found the act of bathing disturbing.  But the King’s reluctance to bathe did not mean that he was covered in dirt.

As there was no running water inside the buildings servants brought hot water in pails or jugs for the King to bathe or wash.

According to one source Louis XIV had several bathrooms in his suite at Versailles, one of which contained two bathtubs. One tub contained all sorts of ingredients from bran to milk. A special valet called a “baigneur” applied soap brought from Marseilles, well-known for their abrasiveness, on the body of the king. So the second tub for rinsing and was necessary.

The King suffered from gangrene but refused an amputation. One day, one of his toes was found in his sock.

A Russian ambassador to the court of King Louis XIV of France said: “His Majesty [Louis XIV] stunk like a wild animal.”

The French historian Mathieu da Vinha explains in his book, “Le Versailles de Louis XIV,” that Louis XIV had sumptuous bathrooms built at Versailles, but not to clean the body. Valets rather rubbed his hands and face with alcohol, and he took therapeutic baths only irregularly.

“Louis’s washing consisted of rubbing his face with cotton soaked in diluted, scented alcohol and dipping his fingertips in a bowl – washing in water was considered dangerous to one’s health.”

Some have contradicted the above and have said that in reality Louis XIV was an incredibly clean King and bathed regularly in a large Turkish bath in his palace. He disinfected his skin with spirits or alcohol because perfumes  gave him headaches. He changed his clothing, especially his underwear, three times a day and was so clean that he was almost fussy about it.

After 72 years on the throne, Louis died of gangrene at Versailles on September 1, 1715, four days before his 77th birthday.

Peter the Great

Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche.
Peter the Great by Paul Delaroche.

Peter I or Pyotr Alexeyevich (June 9, 1672 – February 8, 1725) was the Tsar of Russia from May 7, 1682 until his death on February 8, 1725. He gave himself the title “Peter the Great” though he was officially known as Peter I.

Peter the Great, was a widely traveled, educated, and cultured person in his own way.

Some writers say that, however educated Peter was he never understood nor followed a proper practice of hygiene. He did not find it wrong or embarrassing with urinating on the shiny palace walls.

According to these writers, Peter was not a regular bather. He washed himself on occasions using the natural mineral spring bath.

To end this series of “To Bathe, or Not to Bathe” articles, I list below “Ten Weird Facts About Grooming In The Past” which I came across in Seeker7’s article “A History of Humanity’s Disgusting Hygiene.

Ten Weird Facts About Grooming In The Past

  1. Eyebrows that did not look fashionable were often masked by tiny pieces of skin from a mouse.
  2. Ceruse was the foundation make-up of choice for both men and women, that gave the famous smooth, pale look. However, it contained lead that seeped into the body through the skin leading to poisoning. This make-up also tended to crack and had a strong odour.
  3. Although the men wore linen drawers, the women wore no knickers at all.
  4. The reason why so many marriages took place in June was that most people had their yearly bath in May so they were still fairly clean when June arrived. However, as a precaution brides carried bouquets of flowers to cover up any odious smells. June weddings and carrying bouquets are still traditional today but most wedding parties smell a lot nicer.
  5. When people took their bath it was the man of the house who had the privilege of the tub filled with clean water. The sons of the house were allowed next, then the wife, the rest of the females and the babies were last.
  6. Houses in the past did not have the protective roofing we have today. It was not unusual for bugs, pests and droppings to fall onto your clean bedding from the roof. So four poles and a canopy was invented to keep the bed clean and this is where the origin of the canopied and four poster beds come from.
  7. A 17th century publication by Peter Levens gives clear instructions to men on how to cure baldness and thinning hair by making the following mixture – a strong alkaline solution containing potassium salts and chicken droppings to be placed on the area to be treated. In addition if men wanted to remove unwanted hair from any area of the body they should make a paste that contains – eggs, strong vinegar and cat dung. Once beaten into a paste, this should be placed on the areas where the hair is to be removed. Why they didn’t just shave is not documented.
  8. When Mary Queen of Scots returned to her native Scotland from France she was astounded and not a little put out that the men continued to wear their hats while sitting down to eat at her banquets. It was then pointed out to the young Queen that this was not a sign of disrespect to her but necessity. The men kept their hats on in order to prevent not only their long hair from touching the food but head lice from falling into their plates.
  9. In the 16th century some members of the church condemned using forks to eat as against the will of god. One put out minister remarked: “God would not have given us fingers if He had wanted us to use forks.”
  10. The use of condoms goes back many thousands of years. They went out of favour after the decline of the Roman Empire but re-emerged in the form of linen condoms in the 16th century – perhaps due to the fear of the disease syphilis. The church condemned condoms as a way for the devil to encourage elicit sex. One incensed churchman raged that “the use of these foul things allows people to play filthy persons greater than ever.”


← Previous: Part 5 – Did the Kings and Queens of the Early Renaissance Period Bathe? 





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