Toilets are one of the most important features of any medieval castle, even though they left much to be desired--for quite a few reasons. Sanitation, especially in early castles, was one of the last things on the architect's mind. Many unhealthy mistakes were made as a result.
In some early castles, the urinal might simply be a hole in the floor. Castle toilets were built out of stone (sometimes with a stone seat, sometimes with wood) and usually projected out over the castle walls, so that the waste would drop below--outside the castle walls. Often some poor soul was required to clean out the cesspool. The odor around most castle toilets would have been quite a stench. And if there was a moat or a river flowing nearby, the water was fouled by the waste.
Harlech Castle garderobe chutes
At Harlech Castle in Wales, three garderobe chutes are visible (the above photo), two on the left built into the castle wall and one in the turret on the right. The one on the right is of special interest to castle historians: it is called a corbelled (that is, built out) latrine turret and is similar to those found in castles of the Savoy (an old region where Switzerland, France, and Italy now intersect).
Conisbrough Castle latrine chute
This wall above on the left is part of the tower keep at Conisbrough Castle in northern England. Two latrine chutes are clear. One at the bottom of the photo, and one (that looks more like a small fireplace) near the top. Both sent waste to the base of the keep outside the castle.
Chinon Castle corbelled garderobe
Chinon Castle in the Loire Valley of France is rich with history. Joan of Arc, for example, was once imprisoned there, though not in this building (which is the gatehouse). In the above photo, you can see a close view of the garderobe. It was corbelled out from the wall and designed so that the waste just barely fell outside the castle wall.
St. Andrews Castle toilet
This garderobe can be found at St. Andrews Castle in Scotland. Thoughtful of the poor cesspool cleaners (but ignorant of sea creatures), this toilet emptied directly into the sea. The bars were added to stop tourists from falling into the sea. But nothing stops the wind from whistling up through the stone seat. And it's quite a windy place, too!
Town wall toilets at Conwy Castle
The photo above shows a series of toilets (or garderobes) built into the town wall of Conwy, Wales. The town walls surround the town and connect it to the castle. These garderobes weren't for anyone, though. They were built especially for those who oversaw the castle and King Edward I's castle-building program in Wales. This is the only medieval town wall still in existence where so many garderobes can still be seen.
The urinal at Orford Castle
One of the most interesting castles with toilets is tiny Orford Castle in the eastern part of England (near Ipswich). What makes the castle fascinating are the toilets, which were fairly numerous for the time period. Particularly unusual are (1) the double toilets (in one room) to be found on the first floor and the urinal (on the entrance level). Shown above (the triangular opening), the urinal was built for the constable (the person in charge) of the castle. Since castle urinals were usually just a small hole in the floor, Orford's is a rare and rather elaborate feature.
Toilet chutes at Orford Castle
Equally interesting is the sewer system, shown above. The discharge from the toilets emptied out at the rear of the keep through a series of four rather large chutes. By concentrating the waste in one area, perhaps the castle designer was hoping to confine the stench to one place, too.
Copyright © James M. Deem. Taken from an unpublished manuscript by James M Deem. All rights reserved.