John Harington

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Sir John Harington, 2nd Baron Harington of Exton

Sir John Harington (1561 - November 20, 1612) was known as Queen Elizabeth I's 'saucy Godson'. He was born in Kelston, Somerset, England.

Although originally intending to study law, Harington was attracted early in life by Queen Elizabeth's court, his freespoken attitude and poetry gaining the Queen's interest. Although she actively encouraged his writing, Harington was sometimes inclined to overstep the mark in his somewhat Rabelaisian and occasionally risqué pieces, which included the translation of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso. This led to his banishment from court for some years but was completed in 1591.

Around this time, Harington also devised the first British flushing toilet, called the Ajax (i.e. "a jakes"; jakes is an old slang word for toilet), and this was installed at his manor in Kelston, reputedly used by the Queen herself.

In 1596, Harington published a book on this invention, called The Metamorphosis of Ajax, but certain political allusions meant he was once again banished from court and was threatened with the Star Chamber,- he returned to his manor house in Kelston to spend more time with his wife Mary, whom he had married around 1586, and their seven surviving children. But his godmother forgave him.

Harington allowed himself to be knighted in 1599 by Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, in Ireland, an act which displeased the Queen - nevertheless, yet again Harington was forgiven.

After the death of the "Mayden Monark", Harington's fortunes faltered, as he spent his time variously at the court of the new King, James I, the manor at Kelston - and in prison, for the debts of his cousin, Sir Griffin Markham for whom he had stood surety for £4000, when the latter had become involved in the Bye and Main Plots. Not able to meet his cousin's debts without selling his own lands, and unwilling to languish in gaol, he escaped in October 1603. However, James I had already recognised his loyality and created him a Knight of the Bath and also granted him the properties forfeited by Sir Griffin Markham on his exile.

Throughout this time, he continued writing; although he had vowed to give up poetry after Queen Elizabeth's death, he published just one more slim volume of verse in 1607. However, he still wrote letters both to friends and to the King's eldest son, Prince Henry, until 1609, and some of these letters were later collected by Harington's descendant, Henry Harington, and published under the title of Nugae Antiquae in 1769.

Sir John Harington became ill in May 1612 - and died on 20 November, and is buried in Kelston.

The above picture is a relation, Lord Harington of Exton, of which there have been many, and they are often confused with Sir John Harington of Kelston (of whom a portrait, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, London, is on show Montacute House, Somerset, England.) The exact relationship between the John Harington of Kelston and the line of John Harington of Exton has not been established. Apparently John of Kelston did not know the pedigree of his obscure grandfather, Alexander of Stepney. Nevertheless it is generally assumed that he was also descended from the first Lord Harington of Aldingham a baron in Edward II's time.


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