Historians recreate Henry VIII's velvet world of lavatorial luxury

The theory that Tudor monarchs were as likely to take a bath as make a happy marriage has been disproved by the revelation that Henry VIII's sanitary habits were surprisingly hygienic.

Historians have reconstructed the "garderobes" or privys used by courtiers at Hampton Court to show that the Tudor arrangements were less basic than popularly believed. The King, his most senior courtiers and his wife of the moment luxuriated in lavatorial arrangements of Rolls-Royce standards, Simon Thurley, Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, explains in One Foot in the Past, to be shown on BBC2 on 20 July.

While the lower courtiers had to use the malodorous communal facilities of the Great House of Easement when they answered a call of nature, Henry VIII had the use of a specially designed box tucked away in a private room off the state bedchamber.

This "close-stool" was lavishly covered in black velvet and its lid opened to reveal a padded and beribboned interior covered in the same material. It had a hole in the centre with a pewter bowl placed underneath. The programme reveals that it was a privilege to be the Groom of the Stool with the duty of attending the King when he relieved himself, and the position often went to a high-ranking courtier.

In 1539, one groom recorded how Henry VIII had taken laxative pills and an enema, sleeping until 2am "when His Grace rose to go upon his stool which, with the working of the pills and the enema, His Highness had taken before, had a very fair siege".

One Foot in the Past has also reconstructed for the first time in more than two centuries how the Great House of Easement, used by lower-ranking courtiers at Hampton Court, would have looked. The Tudor communal lavatory was converted into a grace-and-favour residence in the 19th century, but the BBC has pieced together its appearance by examining its structure and exploring the closed sewers that still run under the palace.

They reveal that the courtiers enjoyed pleasant facilities when they went to the lavatory, which was on the ground and first floors with views over the east and west fronts of the palace.

The courtiers sat side by side on an oak plank with holes cut into it at two-foot intervals and watched the comings and goings of the court. A chute beneath their feet channelled waste into brick culverts which ran under the moat and into the river Thames.

However, someone had to clean the underground chambers into which waste from the "non-flushing" lavatories was held while the court was in residence. The unlucky candidates were the King's Gong Scourers, appointed by Henry VIII to clean the sewers and the garde- robes of all royal palaces within a 20-mile radius of London.

"After the court had been here for four weeks, the brick chambers would fill head-high. It was the gong scourers who had to clean them when the court had left," Mr Thurley explains.