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Henry VIII and the art of herbal healing

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Henry VIII

Henry VIII ascended the throne of England 500 years ago on 22 April 1509. He was just 17 years and 10 months old at the time. His coronation took place on 24 June 1509, a few days after his marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

To celebrate his anniversary a major exhibition of books, manuscripts and letters written or annotated by Henry opens at the British Library on 23 April 2009.

The exhibition aims to show how Henry VIII transformed England in so many ways — personal, political, intellectual, religious and literary.

His musical compositions in the “Pastyme with good companye” manuscript will be on display along with his own heavily annotated prayer book, the Psalter of Henry VIII, evidence of the young prince’s devotion to religion. The dissolution of the monasteries came much later.

To be included in the exhibition is Henry’s prescription book. This contains various recipes for herbal medicines including some for treating the chronic ulcerous sore he suffered on his leg and for “restraining humours”. Several  “oyntments” are also described “for the King’s grace to coole and dry and comfort the membre”.

Henry VIII studied herbal healing and was familiar with the ingredients available at the time such as plantain, fenugreek, linseed and marshmallow. Around 30 of the formulae in the book are ascribed to the king himself. They include ointments, balms, plasters, lotions and decoctions.

Henry was said to be fascinated by the preparation and compounding of these medicines and took the necessary equipment with him on his travels.  

Most of his subjects could not afford doctors’ fees. They resorted to “old wives’ tales” and remedies made from the ingredients at hand. Henry recognised this problem and, building on an earlier piece of legislation brought in by his father, developed the Charter of King Henry VIII.

The charter not only ensured that the poor had access to herbal medicines but also safeguarded the position of the herbal practitioner. It may be considered to be the basis of the practice of herbal healing in Britain to this day.

Henry’s charter stated: “… it shall be lawful to every Person being the King’s subject having Knowledge and Experience of the Nature of Herbs, Roots and Waters of the Operation of the same, by Speculation or Practice, within any part of the Realm of England or within any other the King’s Dominiuns, to practice, use, and minister in and to any outward Sore, Uncome Wound, Apostermations, outward Swelling or Disease, and Herb or Herbs, Ointments, Baths, Pultess, and Emplaisters, according to their Cunning Experience, and Knowledge in any of the Diseases, Sores, and Maladies beforesaid, and all other like to the same, or Drinks for the Stone, Strangury or Agues, without suit, vexation, trouble, penalty or loss of their goods.”

The phrase “Cunning Experience” presumably equates to what we might call “secundum artem”.

Ironically, Henry’s dissolution of the monasteries meant that he actually destroyed the “physick” gardens that contained many of the very plants he held dear to himself.

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