Did King Henry VIII believe in unicorns? That is perhaps the conclusion to be drawn from a manuscript that reveals intimate details of the final years of Henry's life (1481â1547). We also learn from the same manuscript that he was partial to dragon's blood, and that he prescribed a cure for his fourth wife's âcolde and wyndie caussesâ.
Henry suffered from poor health in his later years. In 1536, in a jousting accident at Greenwich Palace, his legs were crushed under a fully-armoured horse, as a result of which he developed chronic ulcers. These were lanced by his physicians with red-hot pokers, but our manuscript shows that they also used more subtle methods and applied medicines made from natural ingredients. Made in the 1540s, Sloane MS 1047 contains a series of elaborate medical recipes, some of which were devised by Henry himself. It is interesting to observe in this particular manuscript the king's own endeavours as an amateur medical practitioner.
Detail of King Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons, by Hans Holbein the Younger, c. 1543 (The Worshipful Company of Barbers)
Many of the treatments in this collection are attributed to his four principal royal physicians: Walter Cromer (d. c. 1547); the Venetian Augustin de Angustinius (fl. 1520sâ1540s); William Butts (c. 1486â1545); and John Chambre (1470â1549). The latter two are famously depicted next to the king on Hans Holbein the Youngerâs painting Henry VIII and the Barber Surgeons. Henryâs physicians worked separately or collaboratively to create many of the more than 100 plasters, spasmadraps (dipped plasters), ointments, balms, waters, lotions, decoctions and cataplasms (poultices) that make up the contents of Sloane MS 1047. An account book for the years 1543â1544 indicates that they were rewarded well for their services.
Henry VIIIâs payments to âdoctorâ John Chambre, Augustin de Angustinius, and William Butts âphisiciounâ (England, 1543â1544): Add MS 59900, ff. 70v and 92v
Remarkably, more than thirty of the treatments are attributed to Henry himself. His recipes identify several of his royal palaces, including Fotheringhay Castle, Greenwich Palace and Hampton Court, as well as Cawood Castle in North Yorkshire, as the locations where he wrote and tested his recipes, suggesting that he took his apothecary equipment on his travels. A typical introduction to his recipes reads as follows:
âAn Oyntement devised by the Kinges Maiestie made at Westminster and devised at Grenewich to take awaye Inflammations, and to cease payne, and heale ulcers, called the gray plasterâ
Henry VIIIâs âGrey Plasterâ for leg ulcers (England, c. 1540âc. 1545): Sloane MS 1047, f. 44r
Henryâs treatments use numerous plant-based ingredients: fruits and flowers for making pulp of apples (âpulpe of appullsâ), water of strawberries (âwater of Strawe beriesâ), wine of pomegranates (âwyne of pomegranateâ), oil of lilies (âoyle of lylliesâ), powder of red damask rose leaves (âpouldre of redde damaske rose leavesâ), and water of honeysuckle flowers (âwater of honye suckle flowresâ); a wide range of plant leaves with sedative properties, such as henbane (âhenbayneâ), mandragora (âmandrakeâ), black poppy (âblacke poppieâ), and the poisonous nightshade; wood of guaiacum that was imported from the âNew Worldâ (tropical America) and referred to as âwood of lifeâ (lignum vitae) for its purported healing properties, and the red resin of the dragon blood tree that was known as dragonâs blood (sanguis draconis).
The Dragon Blood Tree in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280âc. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 89r
Henry and his physicians also made ample use of medicinal waters, metals, minerals and stones. Their recipes included aqua mirabilis (âmiracle waterâ), a water mixed with spirit-infused spices; ceruse, a mixture of white lead and vinegar that was a popular cosmetic skin whitener in 16th-century England; Armenian bole, a medicinal red clay from Armenia; terra sigillata, sealed cakes of mineral-rich earth associated with the Greek isle of Lemnos; and lapis lazuli, a blue stone that was highly sought after by illuminators and painters for making the pigment ultramarine, but that was also used for medicinal purposes and already recommended by the Greek physician Dioscorides (c. 49â90) for treating ulcers.
Lapis lazuli in an Italian herbal (Salerno, c. 1280âc. 1310): Egerton 747, f. 51v
Unicorn horn may be the most surprising ingredient in Henryâs treatments. The legendary animalâs single horn was ascribed great cleansing and healing powers in the late Middle Ages. The demand for it created a trade in which narwhal tusk and walrus ivory were sold off as unicorn horn. English kings and queens were regular buyers: Elizabeth I drank from a unicorn horn cup, and James I used a unicorn horn potion for his ailing son. No less than ten of Henryâs recipes require âcornu unicornuâ or âunicornis horneâ. One of these is the âPlaster of Hornsâ.
Plaster of Horns:
Take 4 ounces of finely powdered litharge of gold [a mineral mixed with lead oxide], 2 ounces of ceruse, unicornâs horn, hartshorn, oyster shell, red coral, and burn them all up. Take half a pint of oil of roses, and 2 ounces of white vinegar of roses. Put them all in a clean pan on a gentle fire, boiling them while constantly stirring, until it is like a plaster, and then prepare rolls out of them and keep them for your use.
(âEmplastrum de cornubus:
Take lytherge of golde fynely pouldered iiij unces, ceruse ij unces, unicornes horne, hartes horne, oyster shelles, redd corall, all thiese combusted, and well preparated of eche of them one unce, take half a pynte of oyle of rosys, and ij unces of white vineacre of roses. Putt them all in a fair basyn over a softe fyre, boyling and styrring them styll, tyll yt be plaster wyse, and then make it upp in rolles and kepe it to your useâ)
A plaster with unicornâs horn: Sloane MS 1047, f. 20v
The unicorn in the Historia Animalium (Italy, 1595): Add MS 82955, f. 191r
Henry also used his knowledge to provide medical advice to others. One recipe in Sloane MS 1047 is addressed to his fourth wife Anne of Cleves, queen consort from 6 January to 9 July 1540, and claims to âmollifie, and resolve, conforte and cease payne of colde and wyndie caussesâ.
âA plaster for my ladye Anne of Cleveâ: Sloane MS 1047, f. 30v
We do not know how successful Henryâs treatments were, but sources suggest that his medical advice was much valued. Sloane MS 4 contains a recipe for âA Medycyn for the pestylenceâ that is attributed to Henry (âKyng Henry the Eightâ) and claims that it âhath helpyd dyvers personsâ. Moreover, in a letter to Cardinal Wolsey, Sir Brian Tuke (d. 1545), Henryâs secretary, stated that the king gave him âremedies as any learned physician in England could doâ [âremedyes as any connyng phisician in England coude do'].
Sir Brian Tuke likens Henry VIII to a âconnyng phisicianâ (Hunsdon, 1528): Cotton MS Titus B I, f. 305v
In turning the pages of Sloane MS 1047, one can imagine Henry discussing new medical treatments with his royal physicians, learning from them and sharing his own experiences as both a practitioner and patient. Although Henry is often remembered for his tyranny, our manuscript reminds us that he was highly educated, greatly interested in medicine, and continued to learn and apply his knowledge until the end of his life.
You can now explore Henry VIIIâs treatments â and spot all his unicorn recipes â on our Digitised Manuscripts site.
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