The Royal bedchamber - A smelly adventure into the 17th century
It was lovely to revisit Hampton Court Palace this year to provide an afternoon workshop as part of their ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ Exhibition. Twelve students gathered to create their own natural fragrance inspired by the olfactive triggers of the 17th century Royal Court, so let us unlock the door on the past.
The significance of the bedchamber grew during the reign of Charles II, when having spent time in France, he brought back to England the custom of receiving members of his court in his bedroom. It soon became the most sought after room in the Palace. Aside from private pursuits of sleeping and sex, it was a place where the rich and powerful; courtiers, politicians and family members, were given private audience to discuss politics, witness courtly ceremony and even observe personal ablutions.
Maintaining a welcoming, sweet air in the bedchambers and about the royal person became a dedicated and time-consuming process in itself. London during this long era was a fetid pit of smells, as most royal palaces where built near or downwind of the Thames, which of course was a pungent soup of effluence. The Thames was a popular dumping ground for human waste, dead bodies and animals, the flotsam + jetsam of daily rubbish, the ripeness of the air would have been compounded by the noxious fumes of industries (tanneries, factories), the lack of street sanitation and a proliferation of animals and stables. So far, so funky!
To provide an immersive olfactory experience of foul gases and fragrant herbs, I created 4 recipes to 'scent the scene' for students to smell during the class:
- An impression of the river Thames circa c17 - pongtastic
- Unmade beds + unwashed bodies to evoke the 'aromatic' boudoir
- A refreshing toilette water, used for cleansing/washing
- A 'Herb strewing' blend - used to fragrance living quarters + clothes
The first one was a reasonably unpleasant ‘Eau de Thames’ blend, mixing (among other things), Valerian Root, Seaweed Absolute and (synthetic) Civet, imagine some hot sun, the aroma of tanneries and horses and you have the great London River c17c, quite a bit of nose wrinkling ensued!
Full bathing was a rare occurrence, even among the noble and wealthy and outer clothing was rarely cleaned. So with bath-dodging a common occurrence, beds and bodies were uniquely aromatic. My next ‘Scenting the Scene’ recipe was to evoke a 'carnal', unwashed bodies and beds, with a mixture of Jasmine absolutes (sambac + grandiflorum), Civet, Castoreum (synthetic), Honey and Beeswax absolutes with a dash of Cumin, it had a slightly fleshy, sweaty, rancid odour – (a bottled version of Tracy Emins 'unmade bed'!) It definitely brought out an ‘ewww’ factor with the group.
Masking the Odours
The desire to mask environment and bodily odours gave rise to a number of Royal household positions and processes, enter stage left:
- The Groom of the Stool – ie: The royal bum-wiper, a highly sought after position among the sons of noblemen, as it often resulted in advancing to more powerful roles.
Royal posteriors would use a hidden chamber pot, secreted in a plush, ornate, velvet commode, created for maximum comfort and discretion, but is there a magazine rack?
- The Groom of the Stole – effectively, head of the Royal Bedchamber, who attended the Royal Sovereign at all times and regulated access to the Bedchamber, would also appoint menial bedchamber servants such as ‘Laundress of Body Linen, Starcher and Seamstress’
Perfumed 'Toilette' - The daily ablutions
These staff would have overseen the daily ‘Royal Levee’ or the morning ‘Toilette'; this entailed using a basin to carry out washing of the hands, feet, face and intimate regions, most likely using fragrant, scented waters derived from Rose, Orange Blossom and Violets, shaving and hair combing, using powders and pomades would have ensued. Royal women would have their décolleté included, in addition to cosmetic application and fragrancing. A portable hip bath would be placed in the dressing room if a full bathe was desired.
For this 'Scene Scent' section, I created a more appealing aroma and used a beautiful, Orange Blossom Flower water (hydrosol), to which I added Mandarin, Orange and Bergamot essential oils and gave a good shake to spritz into the air ... it was a revitalising relief from the previous 2 blends!
Other cosmetics that may have been used during these ablutions, such as:
- Hair: Pomatums made from animal or vegetal waxes infused with herbs and flowers would be used to dress wigs and hair.
- Teeth Powdered herbs would be used to clean teeth and vinegars mixed with wine used as a mouthwash (defeating the object surely!!)
- Cleansing: Toilet waters and splashes/colognes were refreshing and cleansing and would have been derived from flowers (jasmine, rose, orange blossom, violet), herbs (rosemary, thyme, basil, lavender) and citrus (bergamot, orange, lemon).
and the lengthy process of the morning 'levee', allowed for a variety of powerful visitors to be allowed an audience with the Regent.
The ‘Strewer of Herbs’
To mask the unpleasant odours arising from bodies and living quarters (inside and out), the Royal Chambers were kept fragrant by the Royal Herb Strewer; a popular profession in England in the days before proper drainage and medicines as herbs were used for their deodorising, healing and insect repelling properties.
The post was created after the civil war, when it was bestowed upon Bridget Rumney, who held the post from 1660-1671, Bridget’s mother had served James II as his laundress and starcher. She received a salary of £12 for attending to Queen Catherine’s private rooms and apartments. She also was given two yards of superfine scarlet cloth for livery as have all her successors.
(What a fabulous job-role, I imagine a rather sylvan tableaux, dressed in scarlet, stitching fragrant bags and bestowing fragrant herb trails around floors and pathways!)
The post became more ceremonial over the years, with Mary Dowle, Herb Strewer to George III (1738-1820) leading his Coronation procession (1760).
The tradition is thought to have ended after the reign of George III (1820) but the post of Royal Herb Strewer still exisits today. The last full time Herb Strewer was Mary Rayner who served George III and his two sons (George IV and William IV) for a total of 43 years.
Their primary duty was to distribute herbs and flowers throughout the royal apartments and ahead of the path of royal personages to make the atmosphere less pungent and possibly more pleasing. Strewing herbs were used in all areas of the household including the dining room, kitchen and bedrooms. ‘Sweet bags’ were made to place in wardrobes and drawers to keep clothes/linens smelling sweet (the original ‘lavender bags!’), a variety of herbs combined with powdered orris root to prolong the fragrance; strewing herbs were also used in the stables to help deter ticks and fleas from animals.
A variety of herbs were often used, combined with rushes and straw, to enhance the herbs aromatic properties and the absorbent qualities of the straw and rushes. Walking on these herbs would crush them allowing for the plants natural oils and aromas to be released.
So, what herbs were used? There is a gentleman, Thomas Tusser who gives us a list of herbs in his poem ‘Five hundred Points of Good Husbandrie’, published in 1557:
Basil; Lemon Balm; Chamomile; Daisy; Fennel; Hyssop; Lavender; Spike Lavender; Marjoram; Camphor; Roses; Mint; Pennyroyal; Violets; Sage; Southernwood.
All these herbs are renowned for the aromatic, antibacterial and insect repellent properties so it is likely, many of these herbs would have been used.
For demonstration purposes, I created a Herb Strewer mix for the workshop, containing dried Roses, Lavender; Roman Chamomile; Peppermint; Sage and Southernwood. It smelt very aromatic, herbal and reminiscent of a ‘still room’ or laundry room. Of course fresh herbs would have been used back then, especially to strew on dirt floors and common areas.
As a modern 'Herb Strewing' equivalent, you could use this dried blend and grind it to a powder, mix half and half, with bicarbonate of soda and sprinkle onto carpets and rugs (a Georgian ‘shake + vac’ if you will!), leave for 20 minutes to allow the herbs to work their magic and then hoover up, voila – fresh and deodorised floors!
Perfumes and potions
Apothecaries were the original perfumers' training ground in England. Apothecaries were incorporated by Royal Charter in 1617 and the earliest perfumers in London worked for the Royal Apothecarists, distilling perfumes and scenting and fumigating Royal apartments.
There is a mention of fumigating the Royal Bedchamber during Elizabeth 1st reign with a ‘perfuming pan’, but I could find no further reference after that time:
“in 1564 Elizabeth 1st mistress of the chamber used two pounds of orris powder to scent the room with a perfuming pan. Perfumes were also used the air the great chambers at Hampton Court, Richmond, Sheen and Westminster”
The use of perfumes would have assisted in both masking and equalising body odour and fragrancing the air. Ornate perfumed pomanders and scented gloves would have been worn upto 18c incorporating frequently used pungent ingredients such as Jasmine, Spikenard; Musk; Orris root, combined with rich spices such as Clove, Anise, Cinnamon and Nutmeg and redolent resins such as Myrrh and Labdanum.
Perfumes of the time tended to fall into two categories, floral and musky. The blooms of roses, orange blossom and jasmine combined with herbs and resins and the fixative animal ingredients of musk and civet; powerful yet subtle, they would have been favoured by both sexes as blending naturally with the human scent – especially if unwashed!
So, inspired by our olfactory glimpse into the past, our merry band of scent-smiths set to work on creating their own perfume, using a selection of 20 essential oils, absolutes and a few animal synthetics (civet, castoreum).
Sifting through the scent strips and building a blend ..
A winning combination?
It was an enthusiastic group, Neroli and Jasmine proved popular inclusions and among the many creations, there were complex bouquets using the full palette of florals; a masculine fresh + woody one, with a drop of Civet (Yes! I knew someone would be tempted to use it), and a few sweet and simple benzoin-based ones, a couple of citrus colognes with herbal twists (Rosemary verbenone) and one deep, carnal, oriental juice making use of jasmine, rose and spices - heady stuff! No takers for Cumin though..... harumph!