For some strange reason there are a lot of rather peculiar stories going around about famous historical figures having very odd bathing habits that generally involve them not bathing very much.
I’m not sure why this is, I’ve dealt with the general myths about common people never bathing in the past (they did) but the stories about these royals keep being used as an excuse to prove that back then everybody was filthy.
After all, they claim, if the royals never bathed, why would the commoners?
Some of the most regular victims of this slander are;
- Queen Elizabeth I of England
- Queen Isabella I of Castile
- King Louis XIV of France (and his entire palace)
In this article I will deal with the stories surrounding Elizabeth I.
As with all my articles this is a work in progress, when I learn something new I’ll update what I’ve written.
So here’s the story as it’s often shared;
Queen Elizabeth I only bathed once a year “whether she needed it or not”.
This claim is still taught in schools, mentioned in museums and was even part of history facts & worksheets for the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), (that is until I got in touch with the website that is the largest library of history teaching and study resources on the internet and suggested they sorted that out) and it is even used in history books, not as a joke.
I’m going to deal with the claim in 2 parts, first the bathing claim then the quote.
The bathing claim.
So how often did Queen Elizabeth I bathe and where does the idea come from that she did it so rarely?
Researching how often the Tudor royals bathed is tricky, after all what do we today mean by bathing and what did the Tudors mean when they talked about a bath?
When the Tudors speak about bathing do they mean a full immersion in a big tub with hot water or do they also mean a quick jump in a lake, washing themselves in a small tub with warm water, washing themselves with water from a basin or having servants scrub you clean?
All of these actions would result in you being a lot cleaner but I wouldn’t call them all bathing and maybe the Tudors didn’t either.
But we just don’t always know for sure what they meant.
For instance when some (not all) doctors and members of the church warned people about the baths, sometimes they didn’t mean literal bathtubs but they could also be talking about the bath houses.
Telling people not to take a bath is odd but telling people to avoid bath houses where lots of naked people got way too close and did more than just bathe (if you know what I mean) makes total sense.
Outbreaks of the plague made people realise that visiting such busy places wasn’t always a good idea (makes more sense now we’ve experienced Covid doesn’t it) and outbreaks of other diseases, especially of the venereal kind often started in bathhouses (what a surprise) and made them even less popular.
The story about Elizabeth I is used as an example of her being dirty, having so few baths surely means she was filthy and stank.
Which means that the commoners must have been even dirtier.
But as we know there were more ways to get clean than just a bath.
Let’s get one thing straight; having a full hot bath was a lot of work back then, it was a luxury.
It would involve filling buckets of water from a well, carrying them to the kitchen area, heating the water over a fire, carrying that to a heavy wooden tub, filling the tub, lining it with clean linen (you don’t want splinters in your royal backside), adding some herbs, bit of soap, etc.
BUT… literally any other way of washing and bathing was very little work.
Wells and other water sources were more common than people often realise and in some parts of Medieval and Early Modern Europe every house had their own well or water pit, sometimes even more than one, just outside in their garden.
Fires were burning for much of the day already to cook on and warm the house, so if you needed a bit of hot or warm water that wouldn’t be a huge effort and wouldn’t take very long.
By chucking hot rocks from the fire in a bucket you could heat that water in seconds.
So a BIG HOT BATH was a lot of work, washing yourself in a smaller tub or just with a bowl was not.
Another important thing to remember is that sometimes they mean a medical bath, so not a bath or wash just to clean yourself or to enjoy for a bit, but a bath for medical reasons.
Although some doctors warned against hot baths, others encouraged them, it was part of some procedures, for your health.
Yes, some people did think that hot water opened the pores and that this was dangerous but they also thought that bad smells were dangerous.
Also an important detail, that’s often forgotten, is that this often only applied to suspicious water, still water, water in bath houses, water from a dodgy well, etc.
If you had access to water from a fresh water spring you wouldn’t have to worry about immersing yourself fully, which makes sense of course. In big cities such as London and Exeter fresh spring water was piped into the city to public fountains and even some private houses, the royals also had spring water piped into some of their palaces, which would be another reason for them to be less worried about bathing.
People knew very well that you could get sick from unclean and polluted water but if you got it straight from a spring you should be fine.
Still, you don’t need hot water to wash with and although many avoided bath houses they still bathed in rivers and lakes, from bowls at home or just with cold or warm water, even without going under water completely.
John Harington was a courtier, he suggested that you should start every day by cleansing your face, head and whole body.
But Claudius Hollyband writes about a schoolboy who only washes his hands and face, but he insists on clean well or fountain water, not dirty river water.
We know that the Tudor royals liked their baths, after all they had bathrooms installed in many of their palaces, very luxurious bathrooms, with steam rooms, running hot and cold water (yes really) piped in from a fresh water spring, there was a “sweat bath”, a bath with a water feature with oyster shells and rocks, they had special bathing clothes made and the water was filled with cinnamon, cumin, mint, liquorice and all sorts of other herbs and flowers that made the water smell nice and/or had alleged health benefits.
They even may have used oils to rub themselves in before a bath, thinking this would close their pores and that would fix that problem with the sickness entering your skin.
We also know that they hated people stinking, it was not tolerated at court, from records and palace rules it’s clear they were pretty much obsessed with it.
So besides bathing and washing, people also used nice smells (such as rose oil) but some choose to bathe less frequently and in stead focused on making sure their clothes were clean, especially their underclothes.
This actually works better than bathing regularly but not washing your clothes, at least when it comes to smells. It was recently put to the test by historian Ruth Goodman (read about it in her book ‘How to be a Tudor’) and you may find it hard to believe but not bathing, showering or washing for months does not make you stink as long as you keep your clothes clean. Linen does a pretty good job of cleaning the skin and absorbing any dirty smells, such as sweat.
Which also explains why sometimes rubbing yourself clean with a linen cloth, even without water, would actually work rather well. Of course the cloth would be washed before it was used again.
The royal family employed a legion of laundresses and seamstresses that would continuously be cleaning, washing and repairing the many clothes being used.
So although we may frown at that idea and think it’s dirty, at least they wouldn’t stink much and even if they did, you’d have to do some pretty serious stinking to smell so strong it would overpower the smell of smoke coming from all the open fires everywhere that impregnated every bit of fabric, your hair, furniture, etc.
The Tudors, common people too, bathed, there were still bath houses and people jumped in canals and lakes for a wash, which we know from town records that recorded those who drowned while bathing.
Back to Elizabeth.
We know she had a several extremely luxurious bathrooms that made bathing not just a joy but also entertaining. A LOT of effort and money was put into allowing the Tudor royals easy and regular access to very comfortable and pleasurable bathing.
And this was not just at her palaces, she even had a ‘hip bath’, (the ones you can sit in but not lie down in) that she would take with her on trips. Yes she appears to even wanted to be able to bathe in-between palaces.
Does that sound like something you’d do if you only made use of that once a year?
Even if she did only have a bath now and then, she also washed herself and was washed a lot more often than that. Of course when she was washed by her ladies with wet cloth she would end up being very clean, but I doubt many people would describe such a rub-down as having a bath or bathing even though it might be more effective than a modern day shower.
On top of that Elizabeth seems to have cared a lot about her personal hygiene, appearance and health.
When she in 1562 felt unwell, the first thing she did was take a bath, unfortunately she turned out to have smallpox, but this is why we know she had that bath, her becoming sick was written about.
So where could this idea have come from?
It is not totally unfounded.
We know she bathed and washed quite regularly and couldn’t really be called dirty, especially based on the hygiene expectations of the day. But during the last years of her life things changed, her health started to fail, she became depressed and she started losing her best friends.
That included some of the ladies who had been with her since childhood and were involved in washing and bathing her.
She was a frail sick 70 year old woman who had lived a very stressful and demanding life, full of regrets, that involved giving the order to execute people she cared about, she was plagued by visions of ghosts and was no longer herself.
During the last part of her life she refused to be bathed and washed, she also refused to let doctors examine her, which of course is not too surprising for someone in her condition.
Maybe this is where the myth originated that she rarely bathed, maybe in combination with the habit of focusing more on washing clothes than bodies that was fashionable for a while and a general misunderstanding of Tudor era hygiene.
But it is of course unfair and ridiculous to claim Elizabeth never bathed and was dirty based on what her life was like just before she died. Regardless, we can safely say that she bathed more than once a year, more than once a month, and when she wasn’t bathing she was still washing herself and/or being washed and cleaned very regularly, probably daily.
When the claim is made that she bathed once a month “whether she needed it or no”, this might have meant she bathed even when she didn’t “need” one because of her period or maybe she just meant one of those very luxurious baths or… well… did she actually say it, like ever?
The quote claim
The quote is very popular, it is even mentioned in many of the books I’ve used as research for this article, well researched books but none of them provides a contemporary source for it.
Who said it, did Elizabeth say it herself, did someone else say it about her, if so who was it and how did they know?
For us to even consider the quote to be related to Elizabeth we’ll need to be able to trace it back to when the queen was alive, shortly after that time or as close as possible to that era as we can.
But so far I’ve not even managed to come close… which makes the entire quote highly suspicious.
I can’t find ANY mention of the quote in connection before the 1920s!
According to the October 1927 issue of the ‘Two Bells’ magazine for employees of the Los Angeles Railway, at a conference in London Dame Beatrix Lyall claimed to quote the following from a “gossip sheet”; “The queen hath built herself a bath, where she doth bathe herself once a month, whether she require it or no.”.
In other publications there’s mention of this taking place at the Mother’s Union Housing Conference and possibly a few years earlier, but I have no access to those archives.
To make things even more suspicious the publication then also mentions an infamous hoax.
In 1917 journalist H.L. Mencken published an article in the New York Evening Mail claiming that the bathtub had been invented in 1828 and the first bath was introduced to the US in 1842.
Although this is obviously nonsense and was debunked almost immediately, the story refused to die and was mentioned on television unironically as recent as 2008.
But ten years later the quote is published in the US in a book called ‘The body taboo: its origin, effect, and modern denial’, by Elton Raymond Shaw.
And for decades the story has been leading it’s own life, although often the quote and it’s source changes a bit, some claim the information comes from court papers, a diarist, other mention letters from an ambassador, etc, etc.
But trying to find those is fruitless and I always come back to the 1920s conference.
Until an earlier mention is found it might be Dame Beatrix Margaret Lyall who’s to blame for the quote.
Interestingly enough the quote seems to have existed earlier without the connection to queen Elizabeth.
In the April 15th 1893 issue of the ‘Timber & Wood working machinery’ a suspiciously similar sentence is said by an entertainer from the States;
And in 1905 we find the following mentioned in Sigmund Freud‘s book ‘Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious‘;
Dr. Freud also kindly explains to us how the joke works, someone tries to boast about their hygiene routine but in stead ends up showing how bad it is.
It seems to have been an commonly known joke.
This of course makes it even unlikelier that there ever was a genuine connection to Elizabeth.
If you look up stories about Elizabeth’s bathing habit before the 1920s you won’t find any mention of her bathing just once a month/year, the only unusual thing mentioned is that she bathed in wine!
My conclusion so far, based on what I’ve found, is that Elizabeth did not bathe just once or twice a year, she most likely bathed several times a month, she was washed and/or rubbed clean quite regularly, probably daily, except for the last weeks/months of her life and there’s no evidence whatsoever that the famous quote has any connection to her.
The quote is most likely a well known joke that in the 1920s was connected to Elizabeth just to get a cheap laugh at a conference and that has stuck with her ever since.
If you know of earlier mentions of the joke or can provide me with a link to a contemporary record proving Elizabeth indeed only bathed once/twice a year/month and that she said something similar to the quote or that someone living at roughly the same time said something like that about her, please let me know.
- How to be a Tudor, by Ruth Goodman
- The private lives of the Tudors, by Tracy Borman
- Clean and decent : the fascinating history of the bathroom & the water closet and of sundry habits, fashions & accessories of the toilet principally in Great Britain, France, & America, by Lawrence Wright
- Aroma. The cultural history of smell, by Constance Classen, David Howe and Anthony Synnott
- Houses of power, the places that shaped the world, by Simon Thurley.
- Elizabeth’s women, friends, rivals and foes who shaped the virgin queen, by Tracy Borman
- The complete story of England’s most notorious dynasty, the Tudors, by G.J.Meyer
- Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Sigmund Freud
- The Babees book, Joh Harington’s schoole of Salerne
- The Time Traveler’s guide to Elizabethan England, by Ian Mortimer
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