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Shakespeare & Beyond

Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Modern perfumes and the Myth of the Tudors


John Parkinson. Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris. 1629. Folger Shakespeare Library STC 19300 Copy 1

Does a rose by any other name smell as sweet? Can we capture the perfumes of the past to savor in the present? This blog post looks at two 21st-century perfumes – Tudor Rose & Amber and Elisabethan Rose 2018 – that try to market their scents by evoking early modern English royalty.

These perfumes attempt to transport the wearer through an olfactive time machine to Renaissance England, and to refashion a whole epoch of British history, distilled to its most enduring and distinctive scent: the rose. But how does one create a perfume that can claim to smell of “Tudor” or “Elisabethan” rose?

The perfumes: Tudor Rose & Amber and Elisabethan Rose 2018

Tudor Rose & Amber was released in March 2015 by the London-based perfume company Jo Malone as part of a quintet: Rock the Ages. Five different colognes represent different eras of scented British history noted for their fashions, literature, and the arts—with the first being 1485-1603, Tudor Rose & Amber. Encased in a crimson velvet, the bottle suggests the sumptuous fabrics and rich colors worn by Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in their portraits by Holbein and Hilliard.

Let’s take a deep dive into how it smells. The perfume consists of rose absolute, clove, ginger, and amber accords. The top notes of ginger and clove are warm, heavy, and (for me) conjure memories of Christmas. Then the rose—a deep red, big-blossomed rose—unfurls and takes over. Master perfume Christine Nagel added an unexpected metallic note to “evoke the Tudor sword…a bloody Tudor sword.”

According to Jo Malone, the fragrance’s rose note derives from the “the heraldic Tudor rose,” “still used today as a royal symbol of England.” This description collapses time and space, but importantly retains the fantasy of royalty.

As for Elisabethan Rose 2018, it was introduced by the London perfume house Penhaligon’s (established 1870) as a new formulation of a formerly discontinued scent (first launched in 1984). An Elizabethan white lace ruff wraps the neck of the bottle, and an embossed wax seal of the Tudor rose is stamped into the middle of the label.

When you smell Elisabethan Rose 2018, a dewy, red rose slowly emerges out of warm and spicy notes of almond oils and cinnamon, before drying down to a musky-wood scent, akin to a brisk walk through the woods in October that causes a bit of a sweat. The overall composition is complexly woven, soft florals and piquant spices interwoven with redolent rose oils with a deeper skin-scent underneath.

The symbolism of the rose

It is not surprising that the rose is the heart of both perfumes. It is the sweet aroma that Shakespeare evokes in Romeo and Juliet’s famous question: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet” (Act 2.2.46-47). Shakespeare’s Fair Youth of The Sonnets is also frequently likened to a fragrant rose: “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/ For that sweet odour which doth in it live” (Sonnet 54, lines 3-4).

Damask roses
John Gerard. The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes / gathered by Iohn Gerarde of London, Master in Chirurgerie. 1597. p. 1079: Roses. Folger STC 11750 copy 6.

As Holly Dugan explains in The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England, the aromatic damask rose was introduced to England during Henry VIII’s reign and “by the end of the sixteenth century, rosewater was retroactively imagined as a fully English commodity” (49), eliding the Syrian origins of the damask rose and the Egyptian, Arabic, and Middle Eastern innovations of distillation. That imagined history of the Englishness of the rose continues to this day in popular perfumes. Elisabethan Rose 2018 claims: “Behold the famous Tudor rose – the flower of England.”

That these perfumes are linked distinctly with royalty, too, depends on early modern aromatic mythologizing of the Tudors. Dugan recreates the rich bouquet of competing accords of the scent of roses for Henry VIII, Queen Mary, and Queen Elizabeth I, depicting Henry’s rosewater-scented court as the king appropriates the Catholic associations of rose fragrances for his own political, religious, and sexual self-fashioning. The scent of sanctity is repurposed as the smell of (royal) success.

Scandals, power, and ambition

If you’re familiar with Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (2009), you may have noticed how she deftly employs little whiffs of the past to create the sumptuous court of the Tudors: the personal aromas of the king and his consort allude to their desires and internal characteristics.

Crowned Tudor rose
Early 17th century English binding with crowned Tudor rose. Folger STC 4632.2

In Wolf Hall, Henry VIII’s perfume is defiant and brash: “He moves in a perfumed cloud made of the essences of roses; as if he owns all the roses, owns all the summer nights” (81). This is Henry as deus ex machina, a perfumed deity descending from the heavens in a cloud, owning and desiring all that is beautiful, fresh, and vibrant. His new mistress Anne Boleyn’s skin is described as “faintly perfumed: amber, rose” (273) and when she stretches her arms “she smells of green leaves and lavender” (293); her aromas already complement Henry’s own rose perfumes, and she is as fresh as all the summer nights.

The damask rose is the visual and olfactive signifier of the Tudor dynasty. Then and now all the scandals, power, and ambition we associate with Henry VIII and Elizabeth I could be distilled to the essence of the rose. In fact, rosewater is a key ingredient in a recipe for one of the first celebrity fragrances, “King Henry the eight his perfume”, found on p. 143 in the popular and frequently reprinted A closet for ladies and gentlevvomen. or, The art of preseruing, conseruing, and candying (1608), which the Folger has in its collection. The royal recipe calls for rosewater combined with fine sugar, musk, ambergris, and civet.

In the early modern period, the rose was imagined as English and linked to the monarch’s body, and even now, modern perfume houses continue to capitalize on this sixteenth-century construction of the sweetly scented and seductive monarch.