If Game of Thrones star Kit Harington uses inventive language, he comes about it honestly. His ancestor invented the flush toilet.
The tousled, hunky Jon Snow—aka Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch aka the King of the North—may be a man of deliberate, brooding words in HBO’s hit seven-season fantasy drama. But in real life, the British actor uses less-restrained and more colorful language.
Kit’s distant ancestor—his great, great, great-plus grandfather John Harington—was both a royal poet and the inventor of the royal flush. Makes perfect sense!
Christopher Catesby “Kit” Harington was born into an ancient family whose lineage extends back to King Charles II and King James I. His mother was a playwright, his father, Sir David Harington, a 15th Baronet.
In his early twenties, Kit attended London’s prestigious Central School of Speech and Drama. He landed roles on stage in the West End, which in turn won him an audition for HBO’s soon-to-be mega-success fantasy adaptation. His work on Game of Thrones has earned him an Emmy nomination, film roles, a girlfriend, and $500,000 per episode.
“There’s an unhealthy obsession in America with royalty and the class system,” Harington told Rolling Stone in 2014. “‘Oh, my God, you’re the son of a duke!’ I’m not an anti-royalist, but who gives a ####?” Ahem!
Well, for starters, his great-great-great-whatever grandfather John Harington.
John Harington, born in 1560, was a prominent courtier of Queen Elizabeth I. His father was a poet and his mother was a gentlewoman of the Queen’s privy chamber. John was educated at Eton and King’s College, and was accepted in court as the Queen’s “saucy godson” (she counted more than 100 godsons).
John Harington landed himself in deep doo-doo when he published a political allegory against the monarchy in 1596. The Queen banished him from court.
John Harington’s work, A New Discourse of a Stale Subject, Called The Metamorphosis of Ajax, simultaneously decried the “stinking” manners of the ruling class and extolled his readers to “better themselves by cleaning their household privy latrines and correcting personal shortcoming,” according to Dolly Jorgensen, in Early English Studies, Volume 3, 2010.
In exile until 1599, Harington built himself a house in Kelston, where he devised and installed the first flushing lavatory. The water closet he invented consisted of a pan with an opening at the bottom, sealed with a leather-faced valve. Knobs, lifters, and weights opened the valve and were connected to a cistern whence water was poured.
In his New Discourse, Harington described his invention, calling it an Ajax. The publication was said to have enjoyed popularity upon its release.
When Queen Elizabeth relented and visited Harington at his house, he showed her his invention. She apparently tried it and ordered one for herself. Though it would be a couple hundred more years before flush toilets would become within reach of the masses.
After Queen Elizabeth died and James I ascended the throne, John Harington fell out of favor of the court. He died in 1612 at the age of 52.
Kit Harington has joked on TV and in many publications that his ancestor is the reason why today people say they are going to use the “john.” (Though some lexicographers note the usage dates back even farther than this.)
Harington obviously enjoys the perks of Game of Thrones but will be ready to move on after its final season. “I told my agent, ‘No more swords, no more horses,’ ” he told Rolling Stone in 2014.
Harington wants to do something different. “Jon is a hero; he’s a good person, he’s a moral person—a somewhat solemn person—so I get a lot of those surly heroic roles. I’ve learned to try to avoid those now. Otherwise, I’m just going to go insane,” he told Elle magazine in 2017. Maybe he should write a screenplay about his royal ancestor.
*Correction, we misspelled Harrington the correct spelling is Harington. Updated 18th April 2018
E.L. Hamilton has written about pop culture for a variety of magazines and newspapers, including Rolling Stone, Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, the New York Post and the New York Daily News. She lives in central New Jersey, just west of New York City