Say It With Flowers

In this Diamond Jubilee year of the second Elizabeth (of whose perfume tastes we know little) let’s remember her great royal namesake who died after a reign of 45 years on March 24 1603. It is well attested that Elizabeth Tudor had a particularly acute sense of smell, and an especial detestation of the then fashionable trick of treating soft leather with lavender oil: this brought on the violent nervous headaches to which the Queen was prone. We have the amusing tale of her ordering some courtier out of her presence on account of his perfumed cape only to have him best her (a rare event) with his riposte “Tush, Madam, tis my boots that stink!”

And the devastating anecdote of the poor man who broke wind when bowing to his sovereign and hid his mortification in self-imposed exile for seven years. When finally he re-appeared at Court Elizabeth was at her most charming,gracious and hospitable before remarking over her shoulder as she swept out, “We hath quite forgot the fart…”

The Virgin Queen bathed more often than was considered safe for her health; about once a month. Her near-fatal smallpox of smallpox in 1562 was attributed to this dangerous indulgence. Elizabeth’s daily hygiene routine would have consisted of wipings down with cloths soaked in rosewater, colognes and spirits. Spring water was also imported from spas for her use, London sources being far too filthy to use. To sweeten the breath it was then logically but fatally thought well to swill the mouth with vinegar, honey and sugar. Vain of the whiteness of her skin and her long delicate fingers the Queen cut a far more attractive figure however than her successor James 1st whose hands, perennially unwashed, were said be as soft as black silk.

For propaganda purposes Elizabeth sat for a succession of portraits which defined her popular image according to strict government guidelines, and which became more symbolically complex as they grew increasingly less realistic. The Rainbow Portrait was painted when the Queen was sixty seven but there is no acknowledgement of this in the painting: she is fantastic in appearance, literally ageless. She holds the eponymous Rainbow in her left hand – we are tactfully reminded that without the Sun (Elizabeth herself) the Rainbow cannot exist – and we think of Iris, the goddess who trailed her multi-coloured cloak across the sky and gave her name to the exquisite flowers which even in Tudor times played such a key role in perfumery: orris powder, from the dried and pulverised iris roots, was used to scent clothing, hair, closets, chests and linens.

The Rainbow portrait is so crammed with symbols that a small book might be written on its various possible meanings; the point is that in an age of illiteracy these now enigmatic emblems would have been immediately understood and appreciated by everyone who saw the painting itself, and the innumerable cheap prints and copies which took the Queen’s image to the masses.

Let’s take only one detail: the plants embroidered on the royal bodice. Elizabeth is personified as the virgin goddess Astraea who dwelled on Earth in the Golden Age when the world was one vast (and surely English) flower meadow.
Furthermore, each plant has a specific meaning:

The Arum – for ardour (and devotion to duty)

The Cowslip – for grace and youth (the Queen’s, naturally)

The Honeysuckle – for fidelity and the bonds of love (between the Queen and her subjects)

The Pansies – for her wise thoughts

The Acorn – for immortality, and for the English oak which built the ships that destroyed the Armada and founded the Elizabethan empire

The Rose – the Tudor badge and the emblem of the Virgin

The Carnation – a woman’s love (for her people)

The Violet – faithfulness

This rich, compact but elaborate shorthand may suggest to you a new approach to assessing a perfume, reflecting on the ingredients and their arcane significance; what may still be concealed from us is the alchemical relevance of the scents of the flowers and their medicinal properties. Construct your own iconic perfumed image: per perfuma ad astra!

Image from Wikimedia commons

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