Written by Victoria Green.
Known as the mad king who lost America and the posthumous star of an Alan Bennett play, King George III is an interesting fellow, and not just for his toilet habits.
George III ruled Great Britain, later the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, from 1760 until 1820. His reign was fraught with conflict, and he was often seen as the ‘scapegoat for the failure of imperialism’. Though it wasn’t all doom and gloom for George; William Pitt’s appointment as Prime Minister did bolster the king’s popularity somewhat, and he became a symbol of piety and righteousness.
In the later part of his life, the king was plagued by a persistent illness popularly known as the ‘madness of King George’. It is recorded that George would often become ‘seriously deranged’ and implacable. As treatment for mental health was still very primitive, the king would be often be forcibly restrained for long periods of time. George’s condition was naturally the subject of much public speculation. There are stories that the king once ‘shook hands’ with a tree, believing it to be the king of Prussia. It is long disputed what caused the king’s ‘madness’; was it the genetic disease porphyria, or arsenic poisoning from cosmetics? Recent studies at the University of London, however, have suggested bipolar disorder or a similar psychiatric illness.
‘But how is this all relevant to that wonderful leather commode?’
I hear you ask.
Well, one of the key points of evidence for diagnosing King George’s porphyria was his famously blue urine. This is certainly a potential symptom of the disease, a result of starving the haemoglobin of the enzyme porphobilinogen and causing a build up of heme within the cells. Heme is a pigment, eventually excreted, and can stain the urine blue or purple. In hindsight, the king’s blue pee is now thought to be a side effect of his medicine. George’s medical records note that he was given gentian, a plant with deep blue flowers, which may have discoloured his excretions. Either way, the commode of George III must have played a very important, and public, part of the later years of his reign.
The toilet under discussion is a rather lovely, decorative piece. It is English, made of wood, and covered with Russia leather (a durable leather made from calfskin and worked with birch oil, often used for bookbindings). The commode features brass nailing as decoration, including the royal cypher on the lid and ‘GR’ on the front panel. Most of the leather on the back has disappeared, having apparently been scorched away. The commode comes complete with a pewter pan, wooden lid and flat legs. George III’s reign dates the commode to the 18th Century.
Commodes were historically known as ‘close stools’ or ‘necessary stools’; the word stool later developed this term into a lovely double entendre. These close stools were made for convenience, and often used in the king’s private chambers or when travelling. One couldn’t possibly expect the king of England to walk to his privy in the middle of the night!
The use of the close stool by royalty in turn led to the creation of a fairly unique office, the Groom of the Stool. In the earliest times, this servant would have been responsible for aiding the king in his ‘royal business’, whilst maintaining an aura of royal decorum over the proceedings. This lowly position had become one of the most important offices by the Tudor age. The Groom of the Stool would have been a man of significance, a graduate of the privy chamber.
David Starkey writes that “the Groom of the Stool had (to our eyes) the most menial of tasks; his standing, though, was the highest”. The role was by no means “demeaning” or “humiliating”, as we would consider it to be nowadays. On the contrary, the Groom of the Stool had unobstructed access to the king and became his personal secretary, working closely with the monarch in his private rooms. The position of Groom of the Stool remained until 1901; a frighteningly long time for someone to be aiding the monarch’s excretions (especially as the first practical water closet was patented by Joseph Bramah in 1778).
But that’s enough toilet-talk for one day! This blog is just another weird and wonderful reminder that leather really is everywhere.
Including under George III’s bum.