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.
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.
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
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 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, Conisbrough Castle
It has a long chute.
This one might have been for prisoners in their prison cell, but it’s just as likely to have been for soldiers and servants.
Here’s the latrine pit, which, you guessed it, someone had to dig out.
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.
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.