Sir John Harington: ‘A Protesting Catholique Purytan’

Gerard Kilroy

King Edward School, Bath

1 December 2003

What do people know about Sir John Harington? Two things: that (apparently) he invented the water-closet, and that he wrote a famous epigram about treason:

Treason doth never prosper, what’s the reason?

For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason.

He also wrote many witty and scurrilous epigrams, often about Bath:

Of going to Bathe

A common phrase long used here hath beene,

And by prescription now some credit hath:

That divers Ladies comming to the Bathe,

Come chiefly but to see, and to be seene.

But if I should declare my conscience briefely,

I cannot thinke that is their Arrant chiefely.

For as I heare that most of them have dealt,

They chiefely came to feele, and to be felt.

If Harington is often regarded as a trivial writer, it’s because the printed versions of his work always omitted his political and theological epigrams.

A Brief Life

Sir John Harington, born in 1560, was the son of John Harington of Stepney and his 2nd wife Isabella Markham, a lady of Queen Elizabeth’s bedchamber. His father had earned the young Queen’s everlasting gratitude for his loyalty to her during her imprisonment at Hatfield. He was made a godson of the Queen, and sent to Eton and then King’s, Cambridge. On coming down in 1581 he began his time at Lincoln’s Inn, but gave up the study of the law when, after his father death in July 1582, he came into possession his estates, at Batheaston, Kelston and St Catherine’s, (inherited through his father’s 1st marriage to Audrey Malte, an illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII) and the most important manuscript collection of Tudor poetry.


Harington’s major literary output over the next 8 years was the translation of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso. The story behind this is that Harington translated a rather racy section, Canto 28 (which he passed round among Elizabeth’s ladies in waiting) in which Iocondo sets out with his companion to prove that women are unfaithful, travelling round Europe, quite successfully, to prove it. In punishment, Elizabeth is said to have sent Harington away from court to translate the whole epic, which became ‘The longest narrative verse undertaken by an Elizabethan courtier’, reaching to almost 33,000 lines of ottava rima, plus notes, the "Apologie" as its preface, a commentary for each canto, a biography of Ariosto, and an index. With full-page copper plates before each canto (a first for English printing) it became "the most elaborate work" attempted in Richard Field’s printshop, a publishing as well as a literary event.’ The frontispiece features the author Ariosto, and the translator (and his dog Bungey) beneath. His translation of Book V was Shakespeare’s source for the window trick on the Claudio-Hero story in Much Ado about Nothing, and much of the plot of Othello.

Perhaps in recognition of this, the following year, the Queen famously visited him at Kelston.

The Queen kept her word, arrived at Sir John’s house in her way to Oxford, in 1592, and dined right royally under the fountain, which played in the court. Elizabeth took this opportunity of visiting the City of Bath....

In 1594, at Wardour Castle, Harington with the Earl of Southampton, Sir Matthew Arundell, Count Thomas Arundell, Lady Mary Arundell (Southampton’s devoutly Catholic sister) and Sir Henry Danvers thought up the ‘devise’ of A New Discourse of a Stale Subject called The Metamorphosis of Ajax, which was published in 1596. This earthy satire is usually thought to make Harington the inventor of the water-closet, but my recent inspection of two of the earliest surviving editions, in Washington and Princeton, made it clear, that the middle section (which is most often reproduced) purporting to show a design of a closet, is actually by Thomas Combe, Harington’s servant, who had published a book of emblems in 1593, A Theater of Fine Devices. ‘Devise’ in the 16th century sense meant an emblem, not, as today, a mechanical contrivance. The work also contains a satirical account of one Alexander Hume, Headmaster of King Edward’s School, who in1591, came to the defence of a Mr Wisedom, who one Sunday in Chippenham stood up and denied that Christ descended into Hell, eventually publishing a book containing 600 reasons why Christ did not descend into Hell. Following this notorious controversy, he left his post as Headmaster and went to Scotland. The governing body, the City Council, appointed John Arnold and Henry Slyman as the next two headmasters: one became a Jesuit and the other secretary to the Duchess of Feria, so it seems that the Governing body included men of Catholic sympathies. Dr Sherwood is the most likely candidate.

This work did cause offence at court, as Harington’s cousin, Robert Markham makes clear in 1598-9:

Your book is almost forgiven, and I may say forgotten; but not for its lack of wit or satyr... and tho’ her Highnesse signified displeasure in outwarde sorte, yet did she like the marrow of your booke ... (despite threats of the Star Chamber)… The Queen is minded to take you to her favour, but she sweareth that she believes you will make epigrams and write micasmos again on her and all the courte; she hath been heard to say, "that merry poet, her godson, must not come to Greenwich, till he hath grown sober, and leaveth the ladies sportes and frolicks.

In 1599 Sir John Harington was summoned to join Essex’s expedition to Ireland, the real background to Shakespeare’s Henry V. He was sent with Sir William Warren to conclude the negotiations with O’Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, and during his conversation with the Earl’s two sons, whom he found of a ‘towardly spirit’:

I gave them… my English translation of Ariosto… which their teachers… soon after showed to the Earl who… would needs hear some part of it read; I read… to the beginning of the 45th Canto and some other passages of the book, which he seemed to like so well, that he solemnly swore his boys should read all the book over to him.

With Essex himself, Harington’s experience was painful, incurring Elizabeth’s sharp displeasure on their return, as he relates in two separate letters, both written in the comfort and safety of the new reign. The first, in 1603, is to the Bishop of Bath and Wells (Harington’s old tutor, Bishop John Still):

Essex tooke me to Irelande; (with) scante tyme to putte on my bootes; I followede withe good wyll, and did returne… to meet ill wyll (and) beare the frownes of hir that sente me; and, (but) for hir good lyking, rather than my good deservynges, I had been sore discountenancede indeede. I obeyede in goinge wythe the Earle to Irelande, and… in comynge wythe him to Englande. But what did I encounter thereon? …my gracious Soveraigns ill humour. What did I advantage? Why, trulie, a knighthood; whych had been better bestowede by hir that sente me, and better sparede by him that gave it. I shall never put oute of remembraunce hir Majestie’s displeasure: - I enterd hir chamber, but she frownede and saiede, ‘What, did the foole brynge you too? Go backe to your businesse.’

In the second letter to his cousin Robert Markham (1606), he gives more details of the Queen’s volatile mood when he and Essex arrived in her bedchamber late that night

She coulde pute forthe such alteraciouns, when obedience was lackinge, as lefte no doubtynges whose daughter she was. I saie thys was plain on the Lord Deputy’s cominge home, when I did come into hir presence; she chafed muche, walked fastly to and fro, looked with discomposure in her visage; and, I remember, she catched my girdle when I kneelede to hir, and swore, ‘By God’s Son I am no Queen; that man is above me; - Who gave him commande to come here so soon? I did sende hym on other busynesse.’ It was longe before more gracious discourse did fall to my hearynge; but I… was then bid ‘Go hom.’ and did not stay to be bidden twyse. (With) all the Iryshe rebels… at my heels, I shoulde not have had better speede, for I did now flee from one whom I both lovede and fearede too.

Throughout this period, Harington was writing and circulating manuscript versions of his epigrams, many too subversive to print.

In December 1602 Harington gave his friend Bishop Tobie Matthew of Durham (later Archbishop of York), a single manuscript (of what became known in 1880 as A Tract on the Succession to the Crown) and to Prince Henry, in 1604, a translation of Aeneid VI, and a beautiful handwritten updating of Godwin’s 1601 Catalogue of Bishops, still in the British Library. Finally, Sir John Harington carried on his father’s work of transcribing Tudor poets, many in his own beautiful hand, as I discovered in a manuscript of Edmund Campion’s poem on the early history of the church. The Harington collection of manuscripts includes the most important transcriptions of Wyatt, Surrey, Sir Philip and Mary Sidney, Thomas Phaer, Chaloner, and Edmund Campion.

Sir John Harington campaigned tirelessly for at least 13 years for the restoration of the Abbey Church, now so beautifully roofed, as seen in a letter to Lord Burghley of 1595 saying how ‘Our work at the Bathe dothe go on haud passibus aequis... but it seemeth more like a church than it has aforetime, when a man could not pray without danger of… stones tumbling about our ears’. In The Metamorphosis of Ajax Harington writes of how ‘unworthie and dishonorable thing’ it is ‘for a towne so plentifully served of water, in a countrey so well provided of stone, in a place resorted unto so greatly’ that the money gathered nationally ‘in the opinion of manie’ not less than £10,000 has not reached the ‘ruinate church’ for which it was intended. In 1608, he gives a devastating account of the ‘death, or at least the deadly wounde’ of his beloved church, when the

Commissioners… offered to sell the whole church to the towne under 500 marks. The townspeople of Bath, fearing damaging rumours or underhand dealings, utterly refused it. Whereupon ‘certaine merchants bought all the glass, iron, bells, and lead, of which lead alone was accounted for (as I have crediblie heard) 480 tunne... Thus speedily it was pull’d down, but how slow it hath rysen again, I may blush to wryte. Collections have been made over all England, with which the chauncell is covered with blew slate… but the whole body of the church stands bare… The rest of the money… is laid up (as I suppose) with the money collected for Paul’s steeple, which I leave to a melius inquirendum. And thus the church lies still… spoiled and wounded by thieves.

Later, he regrets that his old tutor John Still (made Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1592) had disappointed hopes in Bath that his marriage to a Miss Horner, owner of Mendip mines, would enable him to procure lead to cover the church. Finally, in June 1608, he appeals in a letter to a Mr Thomas Sutton (who was to found of Charterhouse School in 1611):

Do somewhat for this church; you promised to have seen it e’re this; whensoever you will go to Bathe, my lodgings shall be at your commandmente: the baths would strengthen your sinews, the alms would comfort your soule.The tower, the quire, and two isles, are already finished by Mr Billett, executor to the worthie Lord Treasurer Burgleigh: the walls are up ready for covering.

The leade is promised by our bountiful bishop, Dr Montague; timber is promised by the earl of Shrewsburie, the earle of Hartford, the lord Say, Mr Robert Hopton, and others. There lacks but monie for workmanship, which if you would give, you should have many good prayers in the church now in your life-time, when they may indeed doe you good, and when the time is to "make friends of the mammon of iniquity, (as Christ bids us,) that we may be received into everlasting tabernacles;" to which God send us, to whose protection I leave you, &c.

Sir John Harington used his disguise as a foolish wit to cover a consistent theological and political purpose. Why in disguise? Because works in these dangerous times all needed to be read between the lines. Harington’s disguise as a ‘pretender of wise foolery’ looks like a successful attempt to mask his serious moral purpose. Unfortunately for us, the disguise has been so effective that it has taken 400 years before anyone has bothered to peel away the mask of sprezzatura and discover beneath it a man with a passionate commitment to religious faith and religious freedom.

I exhort therefore againe and againe all parties, to leave to persecute and learne to perswade. Attempt by reason and not by rigour to wynne the adverse party. Let not every man imagine hee sees all but that another perhaps hath found somewhat that he hath not heard of. And then if this peremptorynes were once laide asyde, and charity admitted in the place [...] it were impossible the quiet of the Commonwealth should be thus disturbed with pretended factions of religion.

Sir John Harington was in advance of his time. He wanted religion to be separated from affairs of state, was in favour of discussion rather than suppression and used his wit as a cover for serious involvement in religious and political events of his time. His writing, mostly presented as manuscripts were designed to influence the religious attitudes of the recipient. Three poems give a glimpse of his profound purpose follow (the first two are found among the hidden papers of Sir Thomas Tresham of Rushton Hall):

Against an extreame flatterer that preached

at Bathe on ye Queens day the fortieth year

of her Raigne

You that extoll the bliss of this our nation

And lade our eares with stale and loathsome prayse

Of forty yeares sweet peace and restfull dayes.

Which you advaunce with fayned admyration

Much better would yt sute your high vocation

To beat down that your flattring tongues do rayse,

And rather seeke some words of Commination,

For times abounding with abhomination.

Say that gods wrath against us is provoked

And tell us tis to us the scripture sayes

I forty yeares have dur’d [brookt] this generation

And sayd theise people have not known my wayes.

For law with lust and rule with rape is yoaked,

And zeale with schisme and symony is choaked.

Of a hangman

When doome of death by judgement fore appointed

strayninge the lawe beyonde all reache of reason

had unto death condemnde a Queene annoynted

and founde (oh straunge) without alleageance treason:

That axe that should have done that execution

Shunde to cutt off a head that had been crowned:

The hangman loste his wonted resolution

to kill a queene so noble, so renowned.

Ah, was remorse in hangman and in steele

when peers, and judges no remorse could feele?

Graunte Lord that in this noble Ile a quene

Without a heart maye never more be seene.

The third poem ‘Of Two Religions’ remains one of the most complex and subtle poems of the early modern period. As in other epigrams, the reader is invited to legere et intellegere (read, comprehend, between the lines, sometimes helped by manuscript insertions) and indeed to choose between body and soul, father and son, or weather to save both. Deeper meaning also lies in the word controlle, and in ‘sounder’ which with a 17th century ‘s’ would have closely resembled ‘founder’ (i.e. the older church).

Of Two Religions.

One by his father kept longe time in schoole

and proving not unlearned nor a foole

Was erst by him demaunded on occasion

which was the sounder Church in his perswasion.

Yf this Church of Geneva late reformed

or that old Catholicque that theise have skorned

Both do cyte Doctors, Councells both alledge

both boast the word, truths everlasting pledge./

Then say my sonne (quoth he) feare no controwle

Which of the two is safest for my soule./

Sure (quoth the sonne) a man had neede be crafty

to keepe his soule and body both in saf’ty.

But both to save, this is best way to hold

<live> die in the new, <dye> live if you <can> list in th’ old.


A full discussion of this and indeed all Harington’s epigrams features in Gerard Kilroy.Edmund Campion: Memory & Transcription (Ashgate, 2005). Copies of this at a reduced rate for BRLSI Members will be available in September 2005.

Summary by Martin Sturge

[1] Sir John Harington, A Tract on the Succession to the Crown (1602) ed. Clements R. Markham (London: Roxburghe Club, 1880):111. The only manuscript is York Minster Library MS XVI. L. 6.