Thursday, 25 October 2018

Sir Walter’s Lost Garden revived for Raleigh 400 at the Tower of London


A Beefeater admires the newly installed 'Lost Garden' at the Tower of London 

‘This is a sharp Medicine, but it is a Physician for all diseases and miseries,’ famously pronounced Sir Walter Raleigh in the last moments of his extraordinary life. On the scaffold in Old Palace Yard, Westminster, watched in silence by crowds of Londoners, he had just asked his executioner to let him feel the blade on the axe. A few minutes later it would take off his head.

The Tower of London's Raleigh 400 display reveals Sir Walter the scholar and scientist

People talk about Sir Walter Raleigh as an explorer, courtier and poet and of course about his love of potatoes, tobacco and fine clothes.  But did you know that he himself gained a reputation as a gifted physician in later life? Kept as a special prisoner for 13 years in the Tower of London on the orders of King James, he was allowed his own laboratory where he conducted scientific experiments. The British Library has in its collection a manuscript in Raleigh’s own hand containing chemical and medical recipes.

Caring for a range of fragrant herbs, fruit and flowers in Raleigh's 'Lost Garden' 
Images credit: Historic Royal Palaces

Deprived of freedom, but living in relative comfort, Raleigh used the courtyard outside the infamous ‘Bloody Tower’ to grow plants from the New World and experiment with ingredients for an ‘Elixir of Life’.

Anna Beer, in her 2004 biography of Raleigh's wife Bess, notes that the couple were known for their skills in the making of remedies and that Raleigh himself during his time in the Tower of London probably discussed his medicines with the help of the South Americans Leonard Ragapo and Harry whom he had befriended.

Images in Raleigh's rooms at the Tower of London tell us of his work as a botanist 

From 20 October, in the 400th anniversary year of his death, visitors to the Tower of London can explore Raleigh’s ‘Lost Garden’, occupying the same spot where the original apothecary garden once stood. A new permanent display at the Tower, the garden features a range of fragrant herbs, fruit and flowers.
‘Take in the varieties, smell the scents and discover how they were used by Raleigh and his wife, Bess Throckmorton to create herbal medicines,’ say the curators.  ‘Green-fingered families can even have a go at concocting their very own elixir using the same herbs seen in Raleigh’s garden.’

Much of Raleigh’s chemical and botanical knowledge came from his travels, particularly from his exploration of South America in the area now known as Venezuela. At one time he was thought to have discovered curare – the ‘arrow poison’ – but this has been shown to be untrue.

Myrtus communis: the common myrtle

Raleigh is reputed to have been the first person to introduce myrtle into this country from Spain. The plant’s leaves contain essential oils which are valued for both medicinal uses and culinary applications.    

It is thought that he brought the seed of a fine species of cherry from the Azores, planting it during his time in Ireland. The tree, known as the Affane cherry after the parish in  which it was first grown, is celebrated for the quality of its fruit.  

Marmalade, made with Seville oranges for which we may thank Sir Walter!  Has no marmalade manufacturer ever thought of marketing jars of 'Sir Walter's choicest'

According to various sources, including The Horticultural Register of 1832, Raleigh is also recorded as having introduced the first orange trees into England. The trees, planted at Beddington in Surrey, began bearing regular crops of Seville or 'sour orange' in 1595, but were killed by frost in 1739.

While a prisoner in the Tower of London during the reign of King James I he created a range of cordials and herbal remedies. One of Ralegh’s cordials was believed to be good for women who had recently given birth. It contained flowers of borage and rosemary, marigold and red gilly - the gillyflower was a small carnation, and the dark red flowers were often used to perfume wines. Additional ingredients were saffron and juniper berries, pearl and ambergris and musk, all mixed with the syrup of lemons and red roses.

Raleigh was particularly celebrated for his ‘Balsam of Guiana’ and his ‘Great Cordial’. Such was the reputation of the latter that when King James I’s son Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, was taken ill with typhoid his distraught mother Queen Anne used it to try and cure him.  In vain.  He died on 6 November 1612, leaving Raleigh equally devastated; he had hoped that the Prince would release him from captivity on becoming king.  

You can read about the 'Great Cordial' at 

The Historic Royal Palaces website includes a feature on Sir Walter Raleigh at


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