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Taking a look at Tudor perfume

By Workshop of Hans Holbein the Younger 1497/8 (German)Details of artist on Google Art Project - eAHC0d0WiemXSA at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

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 where 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 Florentina perfume manufacturer I Profumi di Firenze. What was already known in fourteenth-century Europe as ‘Hungary Water” was blended as scented oil in alcohol for Elizabeth of Hungary.

Perfumes were used in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as luxuries by those who could afford to do so, to disguise the inevitable odours that resulted from irregular bathing. We might recall the historical fear of water, understandable in an age when it was unclean. It was also, of course, an undoubted symbol of social status as a clear indicator of wealth because the wearing of perfume denoted privilege. Although washing was encouraged to promote personal hygiene, water was also distrusted because of poor sanitation – the Thames had refuse and raw waste flowing into it and was 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. The wine cellar at Hampton Court survives.

During Henry VIII’s reign, the drains of his residences were cleaned as were the moats, which could provide “fresh” water for the palaces as well as food. Hampton Court’s sophisticated conduit system (among others at the King’s houses) and 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.

Henry VIII’s ‘Bayne Tower’ at Hampton Court 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 bathwater. Elizabeth I apparently took at least two a year for medicinal purposes.

Rich clothing and fabrics were also heavily embroidered and would have not withstood the effects of washing (like the later, heavy baroque mantua) so wood-ash, tallow or olive oil soap was used in these instances, with the body linen worn underneath washed regularly. Soap was an expensive luxury. Spanish and Italian soaps were considered of the highest quality and would have been imported only by the very rich who could afford them. Clothes could also be perfumed with powdered orris root and damask-rose powder, as well as civet or ambergris.

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. Known as ‘pomanders’ in gold, silver or wood, these could contain such balls, being 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 could be petals or herbs. Pomanders were generally worn on a neck-chain or cord and carried around on the belt, like a sort of pendulum and portable atomiser. These pomanders were also generally held to protect the wearer from the plague. Cardinal Wolsey sometimes carried an orange filled with spices, as an alternative.

Henry VIII’s clothes could be scented with lavender or orange flower water. He also had his own concoction of “musk, ambergris, sugar and rosewater”. Sir Hugh Plat’s Elizabethan recipe recommended immersing the ingredient 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 nightwear could be scented with perfume in Elizabethan England. Even 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 appears to have been 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 book by C J S Thompson was in the library of the Royal Horticultural Society and the recipe is thought to have been for a perfume that Queen Elizabeth I actually used.

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 and used by the present author. 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…”

About author

Elizabeth Jane Timms is a royal historian, writer and researcher. Her academic subject is royal studies, specializing in Queen Victoria's family and Russian royalty. She is an authority on Russia's last Tsarina, Alexandra Feodorovna and also researches and writes about Queen Victoria. She has spent nearly ten years conducting original research on historic royalty and speaks as an independent scholar on TV and radio, including the BBC. Her research interests include royal correspondence and royal weddings, speaking on historic royal weddings at Windsor on BBC Radio Berkshire prior to the marriage of TRH The Duke and Duchess of Sussex in 2018. She is a long-standing contributor to the Swedish historical and genealogical journal, Royalty Digest Quarterly, currently also writing for Tudor Life Magazine, the official magazine of the Tudor Society. She was History Writer for Royal Central (2015-2020), writing a blog for the web's most popular royal news site. Her current projects include the portraiture of Queen Jane Seymour and Prince Henry Tudor (*1511).