Archive Post: Henry VIII’s sauna found at Whitehall

The remains of King Henry VIII’s personal `Turkish’ steam bath have been identified in a new study of finds from his royal palace at Whitehall. The Turkish bath is thought to have been the first in Britain, complete with decorated tiled stove and steps leading down into a sunken stone pool.

Whitehall Palace in London was excavated in 1939, but the finds – including the sunken bath and hundreds of associated stove-tile fragments – were inadequately studied at the time, and were recognised as a Turkish bath only when re-examined by David Gaimster, a curator at the British Museum, and Simon Thurley, Curator of the Historic Royal Palaces. Speaking at a recent British Museum conference, Dr Gaimster said the discovery showed Henry VIII was adopting not only `the latest in Continental domestic design and technology’ but also a full Continental

Renaissance lifestyle. `The old-fashioned bathtub used at the beginning of his reign could not offer a greater contrast to the luxury sauna-bath arrangement introduced at Whitehall during the final decade of his life,’ he said. Steam baths, consisting of tiled stoves, baths, and occasionally beds and other furniture, were introduced to Europe in Germany in the later 15th century. In Britain they are known from records from the mid to later 16th century; and the Whitehall bathroom is recorded in an inventory of the palace dated 1543. The finds, however, provide the first archaeological evidence for the technology in Britain.

The tiles and the sunken bath were found associated with a small room in the king’s privy quarters. The wood-fired stove was classically designed with pediment and entablature, and was constructed of English-made green-glazed tiles which were moulded with Henry VIII’s royal arms and those of Edward Prince of Wales.

According to Dr Gaimster, the heraldic imagery suggests that Henry VIII’s modish bathroom may have been designed with a `public propagandist’ purpose in mind, despite being located within the inner sanctum of the royal quarters. The tiles and a reconstruction drawing of the stove are now on display in the new gallery of 15th to 18th Century Europe at the British Museum.

From British Archaeology news, April 1996.

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