The Poison Chronicles: The Gross Reality of Royal Life

Vermin, foul stenches, public urination, and bacteria everywhere. These are just some of the things you'd come across in a royal palace, as told by Eleanor Herman in part 5 of her Poison Chronicles, inspired by her book The Royal Art of Poison.

Eleanor Herman
5-minute read
Episode #54

Many people fantasize about what it would be like to have lived in a royal palace from centuries ago. Those fantasies might come crashing down, however, once we realize that the most magnificent chambers were befouled by parasites, bacteria, viruses, and environmental poisons that were responsible for carrying countless young, healthy people to the grave.

For one thing, there were chamber pots in every room. Inside those gorgeous lacquered cabinets were pots brimming with a stinking stew of human waste. They were emptied daily into cesspits that often busted through walls, and then went either into the ground, leaching into ground water and ending up in the nearest well, poisoning the water, or into other rooms.

Many courtiers didn’t bother to search for a chamber pot. When the pious princess Catherine of Braganza arrived in England to marry King Charles II in 1661, she and her ladies were shocked at finding men blithely urinating throughout the palace. They complained “that they cannot stir abroad without seeing in every corner great beastly English pricks battering against every wall.”

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Men peed into the fireplaces, in the stairwells, and corners. A 1675 report on the Louvre in Paris claimed that “on the grand staircases…behind the doors and almost everywhere one sees there a mass of excrement, one smells a thousand unbearable stenches caused by calls of nature which everyone goes to do there every day.” Henry VII was so angry that people urinated in his royal gardens, he had crosses painted on the walls, hoping courtiers wouldn’t desecrate such a holy symbol—however, it just gave them something to aim for.

Urine wasn’t just on the walls and corridors, but pretty much on everything people touched. Male servants were encouraged to pee in a vat in the palace kitchen so their urine could be collected for cleaning the house, as well as for scrubbing draperies and textiles, as the ammonia in urine removes even the most stubborn stains. Urine was also used to bind dye to cloth and soften animal hides. Basically, anything you wore would have been soaked in pee.