A Centuries-Old Recipe Book and a Woman’s Medicinal Garden in the Tower of London

During a recent research trip to the Tower of London, I had the fascinating opportunity to tour the restored Bloody Tower and a representation of the medicinal garden that once thrived nearby. Although the garden now exists as a small courtyard with raised box beds, historical maps of the Tower depict it as a flourishing section of cultivated land stretching from the King’s House (home of the Governor) to the Bloody Tower. This garden, which was a vital component of the Tower of London, was also once tended by my ancestress, Lucy St. John Apsley, the Lieutenant’s wife, during her residence from 1617 to 1630.
One of the most intriguing aspects of this garden’s history is its connection to the renowned prisoner Sir Walter Raleigh, who was incarcerated in the Bloody Tower during Lucy’s early years in residence. From his window, Raleigh would have looked out over the physick garden, which was complete with a large hen house and tended by Lucy. The herbs and curatives grown in this garden served as the basis for the medicines she created to care for the prisoners, including Raleigh himself. An accomplished botanist, Raleigh occupied his time in prison with scientific experiments, including his alchemical pursuits in search of the Philosopher’s Stone. Lucy, fascinated by Raleigh’s work, even gave him her hen house to conduct his experiments, likely spending time with him as he worked alongside Henry Percy, known as “The Wizard Earl of Northumberland”.
Lucy Hutchinson’s memoirs, focusing on her mother’s life in the Tower, inspired me to delve deeper into Lucy Apsley’s world. The seventeenth-century remedies and recipes used by Lucy to tend to the prisoners were highly valued commodities, often exchanged among family and friends. One such recipe book exists within the St. John family, written by Lady Johanna St. John, Lucy Apsley’s niece, which contains a multitude of recipes, including one for Adrian Gilbert’s Cordial Water.
Adrian Gilbert, a well-known alchemist and amateur scientist, was the half-brother of Sir Walter Raleigh, and his cordial water was a complex concoction believed to cure various ailments. The connection between Sir Walter Raleigh, Adrian Gilbert, and Lucy St. John Apsley suggests that medicinal recipes and knowledge were likely exchanged among them, highlighting the importance of gardens like the one at the Tower of London in the development and dissemination of early modern medicine.
In Lucy’s time, the Liberty of the Tower of London housed over a thousand families, all under her husband’s jurisdiction, making it a bustling community. Lucy’s role in ministering not only to the aristocratic prisoners but also to the residents of the Tower, with her basket of curatives, paints a vivid picture of a compassionate and resourceful woman navigating the complexities of life within this historic institution. I used many of Lady Johanna’s recipes within my novel, The Lady of the Tower, along with the diary accounts of Lucy’s garden and her role of nursing the prisoners. The recipe for Gilberts Water would have been a mainstay of her curatives:
Adrian Gilberts Cordial Water
It is bad for nothing it cures wind and the colick restoreth decayed nature good for a consumption expels poison & all infection from the Hart helps digestion purifies the blood gives motion to the spirits drives out the smallpox for the grippes in young children weomen in labor bringeth the Afterbirth stops floods for sounding and faintings.
The gardens of the Tower of London, though altered over time, continue to hold secrets and stories of the past, offering glimpses into the lives of those who once walked its grounds.

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