Sir John Harrington

(1560-1612 / England)

Biography of Sir John Harrington

John Harington (also spelled Harrington) (4 August 1561 – 20 November 1612), of Kelston, was a courtier, author and master of art. He became a prominent member of Queen Elizabeth I's court, and was known as her 'saucy Godson'. But because of his poetry and other writings, he fell in and out of favour with the Queen, as well as with her successor, James I.

The work for which he is best known today, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, called the Metamorphosis of Ajax (1596) is in fact a political allegory, a 'device' in the contemporary sense of an emblem, not in the modern sense of a mechanical device. It is a coded attack, as his autograph marginal notes make clear, on the 'stercus' or excrement that was poisoning society with torture and state-sponsored 'libells' against his relatives Thomas Markham and Ralph Sheldon. The work enjoyed considerable popularity on its publication in 1596.

Harington is most popularly known as the inventor of the Flush toilet.

He is also remembered for the political epigram, "Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason? Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason."

Harington continued to write, even though he had vowed to give up poetry upon the death of Queen Elizabeth. He published just one more slim volume of verse in 1607, but continued to send letters both to friends and to the king's eldest son, Prince Henry, until 1609. Some of these letters were later collected by Harington's descendant, Henry Harington, and published under the title of Nugae Antiquae in 1769. The volume is a significant source for the history of the Tudor re-conquest of Ireland.

Orlando Furioso

A verse translation of the original Italian.

The Metamorphosis of Ajax

Around this time, Harington also devised Britain's first flushing toilet — called the Ajax (i.e. "a jakes"; jakes being an old slang word for toilet) — installed at his manor in Kelston, and which was reputed to have been current with the queen herself. Indeed, the American utilisation of the word 'John' as a euphemism for toilet, or bathroom, derives from Harington's invention. In 1596, Harington wrote a book called A New Discourse upon a Stale Subject: The Metamorphosis of Ajax about his invention[5]. He published it under the pseudonym of Misacmos. The book made political allusions to the Earl of Leicester that angered the Queen, and he was again banished from the court. The Queen's mixed feelings for him may be the only thing that saved Harington from being tried at Star Chamber. Updates


Such colour had her face as when the sun
Shines in a watery cloud in pleasant spring;
And even as when the summer is begun
The nightingales in boughs do sit and sing,
So the blind god, whose force can no man shun
Sits in her eyes, and thence his darts doth fling;
Bathing his wings in her bright crystal streams,
And sunning them in her rare beauties beams.
In these he heads his golden-headed dart,

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