The use of perfume can be traced back to the world’s most ancient civilisations, notably Mesopotamia and Egypt; it flourished during the Italian Renaissance and the personal perfumer of the French Queen Catherine de’ Medici, Rene the Florentine, brought his perfumes with him to France in the 16th century, whereby the art was popularised under her patronage. Catherine de’ Medici’s perfumers were known as the ‘Muschiari’; at a time when Florence was considered the great world capital of perfume. (Some Medici-inspired scents have been painstakingly distilled and recreated by the renowned natural pharmacist Dr Giovanni di Massimo, founder of the Florentian perfume manufacturer, I Profumi di Firenze.) What was already known in 14th century Europe as ‘Hungary Water” was blended as scented oil in alcohol for Elizabeth of Hungary.
Perfumes were used in the 16th and 17th centuries by those who could afford to do so, in order to disguise the inevitable odours that resulted from irregular bathing. It would also, however, have been an undoubted symbol of their social status, as the wearing of perfume was a sign of privilege. Although washing was encouraged to promote personal hygiene, water was also distrusted because of poor sanitation – the Thames, for example, had refuse and raw waste flowing into it and had been used as a fluid dumping ground since as early as the 1300s, a problem which increased relative to the growing population in London. Alcoholic drinks were preferred to drinking water, such as ale or beer, with wine as the more expensive option for the wealthy. During Henry VIII’s reign, the moats of his residences were cleaned, because they helped to provide “fresh” water for the palaces as well as food – the Hampton Court conduit system (among others at the King’s houses) attributed to Cardinal Wolsey, was so successful that it supplied water to Hampton Court Palace until the late Victorian period. As the water itself in Elizabethan England was regarded as impure, it is easy to see why people chose to mask the effects of not washing with perfumes, because the water that flowed through London for example, was so unclean.
The Wanstead or Welbeck Portrait of Elizabeth I of England as Pax holding an olive branch (Marcus Gheeraerts the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)
Henry VIII’s ‘Bayne Tower’ at Hampton Court Palace, survives – the first floor of which contained his ‘bain’ or bath. Elizabeth I had a bath which she took with her whenever she travelled between one palace and another. Baths typically took a long time to prepare but once made, “sweet, boiling perfumes” could be added to the bath water. Elizabeth I apparently took at least two a year for medicinal purposes.
Rich clothing and fabrics were also heavily embroidered and would not have withstood the effects of washing. Soap was used for the body linen that was worn underneath, which was washed. Soap was an expensive luxury; those from Italy or Spain were considered of the highest quality and would have been imported only by the very rich, who could afford them. Clothes could be perfumed with powdered orris root and damask-rose powder, as well as civet or ambergris.
Perfume, like clothing, was an important wealth indicator, helping to proclaim a certain status, with less expensive options available to mask body odours; generally speaking, it would have been only used by the wealthy. Perfume in Tudor England was largely sourced from Italy, the main ingredients being balls of ambergris (derived from the sperm whale), musk (secretion of the deer) and civet (derived from a civet’s scent glands). Perfume could be contained in little glass bottles. What was known as ‘pomanders’ in gold, silver or wood, could contain these balls and be taken from the French, “pomme d’ambre” (apple of amber). Each case would be perforated to allow the scent to reach the nose of the wearer, sometimes a different ball or scent would be contained in each separate part. These little cases could take various shapes, such as hearts or skulls. Pomanders could also contain spices such as nutmeg, cloves and cumin – the less expensive versions would be petals or herbs. Pomanders were generally worn on a neck-chain or cord and carried around on the belt, like a sort of pendulous, portable atomiser. These pomanders were also generally held to protect the wearer from plague. Cardinal Wolsey sometimes carried an orange filled with spices, as an alternative.
Henry VIII’s clothes could be scented with lavender or orangeflower water; he also had his own concoction of “musk, ambergris, sugar and rosewater”. Sir Hugh Plat’s Elizabethan recipe recommended immersing the ingredients in “rosewater”, and the recipe included “laudanum, benzoin, storaxes, ambergris, civet and musk.” Elizabeth I’s so-called “bodies” or laced bodices could even be made of “perfumed leather”. Cambric night wear could be scented with perfume in Elizabethan England. Nostradamus had his own “rose tablets”. According to Volume 31 of the Archaeological Journal, a pomander was described – the name could also mean the concoction of perfumes themselves – as being made up of first dissolving ambergris and then adding the musk and civet later – this may be the same recipe reproduced by the author Frederick Madden in his 1831 book “Privy purse expenses of the Princess Mary, daughter of King Henry the Eighth, afterwards Queen Mary”.
Elizabeth I certainly used rosewater or marjoram as perfume. The author C J S Thompson included a recipe thought to have been used by Elizabeth I in his 1927 book, “The Mystery and Lure of Perfume”, in which he also alludes to the use of perfume in Shakespeare’s plays. The book mentions a pair of “perfumed gloves” given to Elizabeth I by the Earl of Oxford, as well as her “cloak of perfumed leather”. Also listed is the recipe of “a perfume for Queen Elizabeth”. The recipe seems to have been the inspiration for the perfume, ‘Elizabeth I’ which was reproduced until recently as a perfume in 2009 by Historic Royal Palaces, since discontinued. It had flowery-green notes. The recipe recommended to “take 8 grains of musk and put in rose-water 8 spoonfuls, 3 spoonfuls of Damask-water, and a quarter of an ounce of sugar. Boil for five hours and strain it…” The recipe is thought to have been for a perfume that Queen Elizabeth I actually used.