Courtly Beauty Secrets from the 17th Century


2nd witch:

"Eye of newt, and toe of frog,

Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,

Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting,

Lizard's leg, and howlet's wing,--

For a charm of powerful trouble,

Like a hell-broth boil and bubble."

Macbeth (IV, i, 14-15), …

Well this is not exactly a typical anti-ageing recipe, but in the 17th century, similarly strange, repellent and sometimes toxic substances were used in the name of beautification, as we soon found out in a fascinating lecture on May 10th:  “Skin deep: Beauty in the reign of Charles II” with Stefania Crowther, Centre for Renaissance Studies, University of Warwick

For the beauty ideal of the time we need look no further than any one of the King’s mistresses; pale, lily-like and translucent of skin, wide and dewy-eyed, flush of cheek and giving the impression of a natural, youthful beauty and innocence.


Was their beauty a genetic blessing or were their some magical cosmetic enhancements afoot?  Whatever their secrets, to be beautiful was the currency of the day and they were certainly the ‘celebrity’ inspirations for the many society and middle-class women who aspired to be like them.

We discovered that the substances used to achieve this ‘natural and subtle’ enhancement ranged from the toxic, such as belladonna extracts, lead and mercury; to the repellent -hogs grease, bird droppings and urine, so you can imagine our  audible sighs of relief when less fatal and more familiar, edible household ingredients were also mentioned, such as egg whites, vinegar, almond oil, rosewater and lemon juice.

Many women, as the main care-givers and given the general lack of doctors, usually had a small apothecary kit of laudanum, iodine, mercury etc in their home first aid kits, combined with some lay medical and herbal knowledge they could usually create many recipes that were available at the time.

There were a number of educated and entrepreneurial women taking advantage of this trend for beautification and the printing of recipe pamphlets & almanacs started to circulate pronouncing their products’ miracle effects (and in some cases highlighting their non-toxic, ie, mercury/lead free ingredients) in hyperbolic terms.

Stefania showed us some fascinating and hilarious samples from the Wellcome Library archives  illustrating adverts for popular ‘Miracle Waters” of talc and pearl, of ‘Pomades and grease’ and 'skin-enhancing powders'.

One of the more successful and respected of these beauty-pedlars was Hannah Woolley (1622-1675), an English writer who published early books on household management and etiquette, one of which  ‘The ladies directory’ included both cosmetic and culinary recipes.


Other writers of culinary and cosmetic almanacs included Mary Doggett; Lady Frances Catchmay's 'A booke of medicens’; Sarah Jinner and the mysterious WM (author initials) of whom very little is known, who wrote ‘The Queens Closet Opened” (recipes of Queen Henrietta Maria, wife to Charles 1) in 1655 , a precursor to celebrity endorsement that we have now. The book is divided into three sections: 'The Pearl of Practice' which covers medical remedies; 'A Queen's Delight' which examines confectionery; and 'The Compleat Cook' which looks at general culinary recipes.

So, after delving into the metaphorical ‘renaissance reticule’ what beauty tips did we unearth?

  • For pale, lily-like, translucent skin:

Mercury: the slightly white sheen effect of mercury on skin gave the illusory effect of innocence, youth, radiance, fertility and virtue, (the same beliefs that are revered today and synonymous with our ideal of beauty) and was applied to face, neck and décolleté.  A cosmetic ‘airbrush', it also helped to cover scars, ruddy complexions, freckles and brown spots and therefore ‘blur’ the ageing process, as these were seen as undesirable (nothing changes then!)

There were many side effects and disadvantages to using mercury, to many it had an offensive smell so waters, cleansers, whitening tonics that contained it were frequently scented and other ungents and fragranced accessories were used to mask the smell. This is a mere ‘fly in the ointment’ considering its other toxic and often fatal attributes: prolonged use led to wrinkled leathery skin (sweet irony), tooth decay, loss of memory, aches and pains, etc.  By Charles II period its harmful effects were probably known but it was still in use, as many perceived the risks were worth it…the price of beauty indeed!

Many beauty recipes used in the Elizabethan era were continued into Charles II reign, such as white lead or  ‘Venetian Ceruse’, also known as Spirits of Saturn, a 16th century cosmetic used as a skin whitener. It was in great demand and considered the best available.  The ‘Ceruse’ was mixed with vinegar to achieve the coveted pale complexion.  The pigment of white lead caused poisoning, damaging the skin and causing hair loss.   Usage over an extended period could result in death.


Egg white was popular to mix in with white chalk or lead and vinegar, this paste was applied to give a smooth shiny finish.  You just had to remain immobile, as this new ‘skin’ had a tendency to crack and flake (perhaps the reason for the demure faces in the paintings!)

  • Flushed cheeksand rosy lips

Although the desired effect of mercury and lead gave the promised whitening complexion, it could sometimes obscure the natural blushing mechanism, a desirable trait, as it demonstrated modesty and a sense of shame, so women frequently applied extra rouge on top of their ‘white foundation’.

The colour for cheeks and lips came from mercuric sulfide (vermillion), which could be laid on thickly, or from other compounds such as ‘cerise powder’, white lead to which red colouring was added, or by using Spanish papers, which was bought dyed red to rub into cheeks.   Mercuric sulfide could cause tooth loss, gum disease and depending on concentration and frequency of use, other organ diseases.

Lips were reddened with ‘Vermillion rouge’, again mercury based, or natural, but expensive colourants such as alkanet/madder root or Cochineal.

  • Wide-eyed and innocent
nell gwynn-eyes
nell gwynn-eyes

Many upper class women used Belladonna eye-drops to dilate their pupils and to achieve the desired doe-eyed, limpid look. Though the desired effect was considered attractive, belladonna (deadly nightshade) is a toxic herbaceous plant containing an active ingredient called atropine.  Cosmetic use of Belladonna in eye-drops could cause visual disturbances, increased heart rate and prolonged use could lead to blindness.

  • Lustrous locks

Golden, reddish hair was still revered and dyes to promote the yellow colour that might have been used were a mixture of urine, rhubarb, lye, saffron, cumin seed, celandine and oil.  Hair was not frequently washed so fragranced powders were used on natural hair and wigs.  Men and women wore wigs due either balding or from the indignity of hair-loss due to the side effects of mercury/lead usage.

  • Skin toning and softening

Usually animal fats, alcohol, urine and flower waters in various combinations was recommended for toning, plumping and rejuvenating ‘ye saggye skin’!  If you are feeling daring, perhaps a few recipes might tempt you?

A recipe to soften the skin, quoted by Lemery, a French chemist was to:

wash in your own urine, or with rosewater mixed with wine, else make a decoction of the rinds of lemon”.

A more challenging (and foul) recipe to target particular flabby or sagging areas, (perhaps on a lazy Sunday afternoon):

“to brew up a mixture of chicken and goose grease, pine, rosin, pitch and turpentine in an earthenware pot.

This was then mixed with wax, cooled, applied "to the place that Languishes, or does not equally Thrive", and allowed to set into a plaster.

  • Pomatums

A form of grease used for lips, hair, hands etc, usually a combination of suet, waxes and animal fat.   Spermaceti, an extract of sperm whale, was commonly used for candles and pomade-cosmetics. However, the downside was that it would melt in high temperatures, so if you had been over generous in your application to your face, hair etc it would soon liquefy to give the undesired ‘looked like a greasy fry pan’ effect!  Pomatums were frequently perfumed and combined with bean flours and orris root in recipes to whiten and soften (ideal for hands!).


A revelation indeed, but a final thought struck me that nearly 400 years separate us from the Stuart lovelies and their ideals of beauty and maintaining it; yet the pursuit of  delaying and blurring the encroaching effects of age continues and we still seem bound by the same expectations, fed no doubt by  media's influence to aspire to 'naturally'  flawless complexions, pert and toned skin, wide-eyed and 'fresh-faced'.    Welcome to the brave new multi-million-dollar world of high tech skin-care (snake venom anyone?) injectibles (botox) and cosmetic surgery...and increasing self-dissatisfaction?

I am off to purloin some wine (to drink) and eggs (to scramble); although I might save the egg white for a face mask!

The lecture is part of a programme of events in conjunction with Hampton Court’s current exhibition “The Wild, Beautiful and the Damned”, allowing you to discover more about its theme of beauty and decadence in the late Stuart court.