Sunday, March 29, 2015

Here's Rosemary, That's for Remembrance....

by MJ Logue

The funeral of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, in November 1648, was the occasion for a large Leveller-led political demonstration in London, with thousands of mourners wearing the Levellers' ribbons of sea-green and bunches of rosemary for remembrance in their hats.

Colonel Rainsborough was the most senior member of the New Model Army to speak for the Levellers, a political movement of the English Civil Wars emphasizing popular sovereignty, extended suffrage, equality before the law, and religious tolerance - the historian Blair Worden suggests that the earliest use of the name Leveller was in a letter of November 1647 where "...they have given themselves a new name, viz. Levellers, for they intend to sett all things straight, and rayse a parity and community in the kingdom".

Rainsborough himself is possibly best remembered for his speech at the Putney Debates,
" ...I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it's clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under."

But - the Levellers were not a political party in the modern sense of the word; they did not all conform to a specific manifesto. They were organised at a national level, with offices in a number of London inns and taverns such as The Rosemary Branch in Islington, which got its name from the sprigs of rosemary that Levellers wore in their hats as a sign of identification.

The entire political history of the New Model Army is beyond the scope of one brief blog post. (I've written three novels to date with a Leveller hero, and I'm only just about scratching the surface!) So, instead - here's rosemary, as Hamlet's best girl says, in one of her more rational moments. I pray you, love, remember...

It's possibly one of the most well-known herbs in the garden, and possibly one of the least used. It roots phenomenally easily from a cutting - break off a sprig, stick it in the soil, and within a month you're pretty much guaranteed a new rosemary plant. The genus name Rosmarinus derives from the Latin words ros and marinus, translating to “dew of the sea", and legend has it that the plant originally had white flowers which were changed to blue ones when the Virgin Mary placed her cloak upon it while resting during her flight to Egypt. Bancke, in his work Herball from 1525, suggests techniques to use rosemary as a remedy for both gout of the legs and to keep the teeth from all evils. He also recommended that smelling rosemary regularly would “keep thee youngly", and Gerard, author of Herball or Historie of Plants(1597), referred to someone named Serapio who suggested that a garland of rosemary worn about the head was a remedy for the “stuffing of the head, that commeth through coldnes of the brain.” He also mentions that rosemary grew so plentifully in France that “the inhabitants burne scarce anie other fuel.”

Rosemary was also believed to offer protection from the plague. In 1603, when bubonic plague killed 38,000 Londoners, the demand was so high that the price increased from one shilling for an armful of branches to six shillings for a handful. To put that price increase in perspective, one price list from 1625 indicated that one could obtain 18 gallons of good ale for only 3 shillings or an entire ‘fat pig’ for 1 shilling. And Parkinson (1567-1650), the King’s Botanist to Charles I, mentions that in countries where rosemary was well-suited and grows to a large size, thin boards of rosemary were used to make lutes and other instruments, carpenters rules, and a myriad of other implements. The French believed that combing their hair once a day with a rosemary wood comb would prevent giddiness. Rosemary wood was so prized that unscrupulous merchants would often use less expensive woods and simply scent them with rosemary oil.

Rosemary has long held a prominent role in the wedding ceremony. Used in weddings to help one remember the wedding vows, the bride and groom might dip rosemary in their wine cups to toast each other. Dried rosemary was laid in the bed linen to ensure faithfulness and a bride who gave her groom a sprig of rosemary to hold on their wedding night would ensure that he remain faithful. In the middle ages the more elegant couples gave rosemary as a wedding favour. Sprigs were often dipped in gold and tied with a beautiful ribbon, this to symbolize that though the couple were starting a new life they would always remember their friends and family. Rosemary was often entwined into a wreath, dipped in scented water and worn by brides at the altar. (Anne of Cleves (1515 – 1557), Henry the Eighth’s fourth wife, wore a rosemary wreath at their wedding) The wreath symbolized fidelity, love, abiding friendship and remembrance of the life the woman had led prior to her marriage. At that time, wealthy bridal couples would also present a gilded branch of rosemary to each wedding guest. From this association, rosemary was also thought to be a love charm. According to English folklore if a girl placed a plate of flour under a rosemary bush on midsummer's eve, her future husband's initials would be written in it. Other's believed that to see your true love in a dream one should put rosemary under your pillow - Sleeping Beauty was said to have been awoken from her sleep by Prince Charming brushing a rosemary sprig over her cheek - and there is a saying: “Where rosemary flourishes the lady rules.” However, folklore warns men that by simply damaging or destroying that same rosemary, he will not find relief from his lady’s rule. Robert Hacket, in a wedding sermon in 1607 said, “Let this Rosemarinus, this flower of men, ensigne of your wisdom, love and loyaltie, be carried not only in your hands, but in your heads and hearts.” The English poet Robert Herrick (1591-1674) wrote of rosemary’s attachment to both beginning and end of adult life with, "Grow for two ends – it matters not at all Be’t for my bridall, or my buriall.”

Medicinally, it was well known to the Tudors as a stimulant to the system. In 'The Garden of Health' (1579) William Langham writes: "Carry the flowers about thee to make thee merry and glad and well beloved of all men...hang the flowers on thy bed and place Rosemary in the bath to make thee lusty, lively, joyful, strong and young. To comfort the heart steep Rosemary flowers in rose water and drink it".

Gerard agrees in his 1636 Herbal: "The flowers of Rosemary, made up into lozenges with sugar and eaten make the heart merry, quicken the spirits and make them more lively" - he also notes that Rosemary water acts as a breath freshener.

In addition to its medicinal uses, rosemary was prized as a cosmetic. Gervase Markham (1568-1637) English writer and poet, included high praise for rosemary in The English Housewife first published in 1615. He writes; "Rosemary water (the face washed therein both morning and night) causeth a fair and clear contenance." Furthermore; "when one maketh a bath of this decoction, it is called the bath of life , the same drunk comforteth the heart, the brain, and the whole body, and cleanseth away the spots of the face; it maketh a man look young . . ." An earlier herbal published in 1575 suggests something similar, if slightly more alcoholic – boiling the rosemary in white wine and washing the face in it.

Perhaps one of the more outrageous tales of rosemary's magic involves Queen Elizabeth of Hungary (1305-1381). Suffering from severe rheumatism and gout the Queen (aged 72) turned to the healing powers of the rosemary plant. She began using a variant of Rosemary Water, also referred to as Hungary (Budapest) Water, allegedly given to her by a hermit who claimed that "it would preserve her beauty and health until her death." In fact, legend claims, the treatment so enhanced her health, vitality and appearance that she, using her own words, "was not only cured, but recovered my strength, and appeared to all so remarkably beautiful that the King of Poland asked me in marriage." (from a text by John Prevost, published 1656). By the way, the King of Poland was 26 years old at the time. I cannot promise that it works. I can, however, assure you that the original Hungary water was nothing more than rosemary tops distilled in spirits of wine, although it became increasingly exotic as time went on. A little rosemary essential oil dispersed in raw alcohol would serve you as well, I’m sure, were you inclined to have a crack at capturing the hearts of Eastern European royalty....

Interestingly, there are very few recipes from the 17th century that involve using rosemary as a culinary herb. It featured in the Grand Sallet – as indeed it would, being both a digestive and a carminative, as well as an attractive leaf in its own right – and oddly, most of the recipes feature it being used in boiled meats, and not exclusively lamb or mutton: the Good Huswife’s Jewell (1597) gives a recipe for boiled chicken with herbs -
Take your Chickens and scald them, and trusse the wings on, and put their feete vnder the wings of your chickens, and set them on in a litle pot and scumme them faire, when they haue boiled, put in Spinnage or Lettuce a good deale, and Rosemary, sweete Butter, Verjuice, salt, and a litle Sugar, and strained Bread with a litle wine, and cut sippets and serve it out. So may you boile mutton, or Pigions or Conie.

(- that last emphasised by me. We think of rosemary as an accompaniment to sheep-related products. Evidently in the 17th century they thought of it as a much more diverse condiment – it even turns up in sweetmeats!)

Finally, my late mother-in-law told me that it's bad luck to buy a rosemary plant. Steal it, beg it, or be given it, preferably from a bride's bouquet, but never buy it. Plant it by your front door, and it will keep the witches out.

I have possibly the most famous rosemary bush in the West Country (Hollie Babbitt being a Leveller, there's a sprig of rosemary on the cover of all my books) and it's potted right by my front door. It came from a cutting from the Elizabethan manor at Trerice. And the only witches I have in are invited.

There must be something to these old tales after all!


Mad cake lady, re-enactor, historian, and writer of the Uncivil Wars series featuring Hollie Babbitt, the first Leveller agitant hero in popular fiction, and his rebel rabble of horse-thieves, Anabaptists and bad poets.

M.J.Logue has been slightly potty about the clankier side of Ironside for around 20 years, and lists amongst her heroes in this unworthy world Sir Thomas Fairfax, Elizabeth Cromwell and John Webster (for his sense of humour.)

When not purveying historically-accurate cake to various re-enactment groups across the country, she can usually be discovered practising in her garden with a cavalry backsword.

Often to be found loitering, in an ill-tempered manner, at - do pop along and pass unhelpful remarks!

The third in the Uncivil Wars series, A Wilderness of Sin, is due out on 3rd May and is available for pre-order at Amazon USAmazon UK, and Amazon CA.  

And there is a novella featuring the lovely Hapless Russell, A Cloak of Zeal, and his early days before joining Babbitt's troop available free until 2nd March. Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon CA

1 comment:

  1. My aunt gave me a rosemary bush when I married with strict instructions to keep it outside the back door. For decades it has added flavour to or food, and unbeknown to me, kept the witches of Goatstown at bay


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