Herbs In History

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The Royal Herb Strewer

By Debs Cook

The title of Royal Herb-strewer was a popular profession in England in the days before proper drainage and medicines were the norm, back then, herbs were used for their deodorising and healing properties. A herb strewers primary duty was to distribute herbs and flowers throughout the royal apartments in order to mask the rather unpleasant aromas of the city.

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 with James II as his laundress and starcher, sadly her mother and brothers died in the war, and the king took Bridget on to thank her for her loyalty and sacrifice. She received a salary of 12 as 'garnisher and trimmer of the chapel, presence and privy lodgings', and another 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 of her successors.
Ms Jessica Fellowes Royal herb strewer in 2003 chatting to Cheryl Waller.
The post became more ceremonial over the years, with Mary Dowle, Herb Strewer to George III, leading his Coronation procession. The tradition is thought to have ended after the reign of George III, but the post of Royal Herb Strewer still exists 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.

For his coronation in 1820, George IV appointed an old friend, Anne Fellowes, to the post, and she and her six attendants scattered flowers and herbs along the carpet of Westminster Abbey. She applied for the job again on the occasion of the coronation of William IV but, owing to cutbacks in the ceremony, her services were not required. Neither Queen Victoria nor any subsequent British monarchs have appointed a Herb Strewer for their coronations; however the Fellowes family to this day claim this position for the eldest unmarried daughter.

In 2003 the Herb Society had the pleasure of the strewing services of Ms Jessica Fellowes when the garden at Sulgrave Manor was officially opened. Ms Fellowes is seen in the photo below with Roger Tabor (the Chairman of the Herb Society at the time), and the Earl of Clanwilliam and above with Cheryl Waller. Below are the words of the then Chairman from a report he did for the Society.

The opening of the Herb Society garden at Sulgave Manor
"I then was delighted to introduce Ms Jessica Fellowes, The Royal Herb Strewer who inherited her honorary title from her ancestor who held that post for King George IV. We then moved to the honey-coloured stone steps that lead down into the Society's new garden.

There, Ms Fellows strewed sweet smelling herbs (including Maiden Pink and Fennel), and cut a golden ribbon, and declared the garden open. Everyone then walked down into the garden, and around the paths dividing the different sections. The herbs provided an enjoyable mass of colour and scents, enlivened by statuary."

Herbs Used For Strewing

Strewing herbs were used throughout Europe from the late Medieval to early Renaissance periods. A variety of herbs were often used along with the rushes and straw, this was done in order to take advantage of the herbs aromatic and insect repelling properties and the absorbent properties of the straw and rushes. Walking on the herbs would crush them, allowing the plants natural oils and aromas to be released. Strewing herbs were used in all areas of the household including the dinning room, kitchen, and bedrooms, they were even used in stables to help deter fleas and ticks from the animals.

Thomas Tusser, a regular at the court of Henry VIII, was famous for his 1557 instructional poem, Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie, in that poem he includes a list of 21 strewing herbs.
I've added the original spelling of Tusser's in brackets along with any notes he made, at the side of each herb where appropriate for historical interest.

Basil (Bassell), Lemon Balm (Bawlme), Chamomile (Camamel), Costmary (Costemary), Cowslips (Cowsleps and paggles), Daisies (Daisies of all sorts), Fennel (Sweet fennell), Germander, Hyssop (Hysop, set in February), Lavender, Spike Lavender (Lavender spike), Cotton Lavender (Lavender cotton), Marjoram (Marjoram, knotted, sow or set, at spring.), Maudeline (Mawdelin,[which was the name Camphor Plant 'Tanacetum balsamita' was known by at that time]), Pennyroyal (Peny ryall), Roses (Roses of all sorts, in January and September), Red Mints (Red myntes), Sage, Tansy (Tansey), Violets & Winter Savory (Winter savery).

Interesting to me is there was no mention of Rosemary, Yarrow, Sweet Woodruff and Meadowsweet amongst the strewing herbs, which are some of the herbs that are often most often associated with strewing in the late medieval and early Renaissance period, so Thomas Tusser should have been aware of them? Tusser does however mention these herbs in other lists such as 'Herbs, Branches And Flowers For Windows And Pots' and 'Herbs To Still In Summer', although surprisingly Meadowsweet gets no mention at all!

The need to strew the floor with herbs to cover smells has long been made redundant in the modern day. Instead we use the majority of the old strewing herbs to make scented sachets to deter moths, pot pourri to sweeten the room and a variety of other aromatic uses. Our love of herbs over the years hasn't changed, just the way we use them.

Most public herb gardens today will contain examples of strewing herbs, one that springs to mind is Norton Priory, Runcorn, Cheshire which has a medieval herb garden that contains a 'Strewing Herb Bed' which contains Rosemary, Fennel, Mugwort, Swwet Woodruff, Mint, Lavender, Lemon Balm and Tansy.
Please note, at the time of writing this article, I checked the Norton Priory website and no mention is made of the herb garden. When I visited in 2007 it was in need of some TLC and repairs, so maybe its been closed? I'll try and discover what has happened to the garden and will edit this report, but please don't travel to view the herb garden at Norton Priory without first checking it still exists!
A view of the strewing herbs bed at Norton Priory, Cheshire

Teachers Note - Mention of strewing herbs, the royal strewer and other historical facts aimed at children can be found on our Stories From Around The World schools page.

The above article was complied with reference to Thomas Tusser's poem as linked above and from the Wikipedia page on herb strewing.

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