Anatomy of a Castle – Latrines

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Garderobe, Aydon Castle

Since my novels are romances, arrangements for some of the more mundane aspects of life are rarely mentioned, although Tilda, the heroine of my novel The Monk’s Tale, does use a visit to the outhouse at an inn as an excuse to meet Mark, her prospective rescuer.  My recent visits to castles in the North East has provided me with many examples of latrines and garderobes and I thought some of them might be of interest.

Since castles were usually built on top of hills they weren’t always near running water, which could be a problem when it came to disposing of waste. If you were fortunate enough to be by a river or the sea, garderobes could be positioned over the moat, which would take the waste to them. None of the castles I visited this year were that blessed.

In many castles, like Aydon in the picture at the top of the post, the garderobe chutes jutted out a little from the external wall and waste simply fell to the ground. I’m sure one of the lower servants was tasked with clearing it up and taking it away every now and again.

Some people had private garderobes. This wasn’t a matter of privacy, but of status.  Privacy wasn’t something that really concerned people in the Middle Ages. Many latrines were communal, with people sitting next to one another. They weren’t always situated where they were most needed, but the lord could have one where it was most convenient for him.

Strictly speaking, Aydon Castle isn’t a castle, but a fortified manor house. I’ll still use it as an example, though, as its lord had a private garderobe. As you can see in the photograph below, the Garderobe Tower extends beyond the wall of the castle and is on the edge of a ravine. It was just off the solar block where the lord and his family slept and spent most of their time when they were indoors. Only they had access to their garderobe.

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Garderobe Tower, Aydon Castle

Garderobes and latrine blocks today, like other castle buildings, look grim and grey, but that’s not necessarily how they looked in the Middle Ages. Here’s a photograph I took of an English heritage information board at Old Sarum. It’s an artist’s impression of the king’s privy. As you can see, it might have been quite cosy. You’ll notice that the king has a servant with him.

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Old Sarum

The king’s privy was over a deep pit at the bottom of which were straw and bark chippings. Someone had to be lowered on a rope into the pit to dig it out when the king wasn’t in residence. I imagine the smell would have disturbed him too much if it had been done while he was there, since it was close to the royal apartments.

Here’s a latrine pit at Old Sarum.

Latrine pit, Old Sarum

Latrine pit, Old Sarum

There are latrines everywhere at Conisbrough Castle, serving not just the lord’s family, but soldiers and servants as well.

The one in the photograph below was probably for the soldiers guarding the keep. It’s just off the entrance chamber at the bottom of the keep. There would have been some kind of wooden seat on top of the stone, but the hole would have been open to the elements. It would have been unpleasant to use at any time of year, but must have been particularly bad during freezing weather in winter.

Latrine off entrance chamber, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

Latrine, off the keep’s entrance chamber, Conisbrough Castle

This one was the lord’s. It was private, just off his bedchamber. It really doesn’t look any more comfortable than that of the soldiers. It was higher up, though, and further away from any unpleasant smells.

Latrine off the bedchamber, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

Latrine off the bedchamber, Conisbrough Castle

It has a long chute.

Latrine off bedchamber, the keep, Conisbrough Castle

This one might have been for prisoners in their prison cell, but it’s just as likely to have been for soldiers and servants.

Prison with latrine, Conisbrough Castle

Here’s the latrine pit, which, you guessed it, someone had to dig out.

Latrine chute, Conisbrough Castle

Latrine pit, Conisbrough Castle

There were, as you can see, a few ways of dealing with waste. None of them can have been entirely satisfactory, especially if you were the one who had to dig it out and dispose of it.

 

Sources:

Aydon Castle by Henry Summerson

Old Sarum by John McNeill

Conisbrough Castle by Stephen Brindle and Agnieszka Sadraei

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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27 Comments

Filed under Castle, Manor House, Medieval Buildings

27 responses to “Anatomy of a Castle – Latrines

  1. I wonder if they dug a hole and created what we know as “the long drop”? The long drop of my childhood was at Nana’s place a wooden oblong structure with a hole shaped like a ordinary toilet seat all wastes dropped into a barrel. In Mums era a lucky chap got to dispose of it via a horse and cart!!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. I can see why all this doesn’t quite work in a romance. But in its own disgusting way, it’s fascinating. I’m glad you wrote about it.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It’s what comes of asking too many questions about how people managed to live in these places. It’s definitely not something I’d like to experience, especially when I suspect that my ancestors would have been the ones digging out the pits.

      Liked by 4 people

  3. It’s always the basic things and how they managed them that fascinates me. Having read this post, I am very grateful for indoor flushing loos!

    Liked by 4 people

  4. lydiaschoch

    “Many latrines were communal, with people sitting next to one another.”

    Is it safe to assume that there were no walls or doors between people in these latrines?

    I would have a hard time going to the washroom under those conditions! Although if you grew up with it such a thing probably felt perfectly ordinary. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • There were no walls or doors between the people, but bear in mind that these are all men. The only women in the castle would be the lord’s family and their maidservants, who would, I suspect, have access to the lord’s private garderobe.

      Liked by 2 people

    • The Romans and Greeks used communal baths, I have seen long benches with appropriate holes lining a wall in a room. Though I think the Romans used running water to help move the waste along. They were civilized. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

      • It all depended on whether or not you had running water nearby. When we get on to monasteries, we’ll see that they were often built in valleys and the latrines drained into rivers. A castle in a valley wasn’t much use, unless it was on the coast.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. I find toilets fascinating. I used a long drop for months in Africa…a plank with a great yawning pit of awful stuff underneath…though we did get individual sheds. Not a place I’d romance in 😀 :D. And I recently stayed in a place with an electric toilet…no water, just a weekly handful of compost and it churns your poo into … more compost!…which you empty only occasionally from a tray underneath. That was kind of cool…

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I enjoyed reading this. Your research is always impressive and I appreciate your sharing it with us. I can also understand why this subject doesn’t make it into a romance story 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Great post April, I have a soft spot for ancient toilets.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Oh it makes you feel so lucky that we have indoor plumbing and such luxuries. I think my ancestors would’ve been the ones doing the digging dirty work too! As always a really interesting read.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Adding this information to a story enlightens readers. The hardest history to uncover is that regarding personal functions. Childbirth, sleep (especially for peasants & servants), food preparation, food production, & menstruation are others.

    Finding a place to work them in without being disgusting requires tact, but done well, helps to make our perceptions of bygone times real and fascinating.

    Most folks roll their eyes at dry historical data, but stuff like this draws them in & makes history fascinating. We need more of it to counteract the Hollwoodizing of history. American media moguls, especially, overdo some aspects of life & totally ignore others in historical productions. Skewing is rife. This is probably why English historical productions are gaining favor.

    It starts with good writers, like you, April. ♥☺

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I find the details of day-to-day medieval life fascinating, even if not pleasant. You may have covered this previously, but what’s the difference between a latrine and a garderobe?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Pingback: Anatomy of a Castle – The Well | A Writer's Perspective

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