The History of Lavender in Britain

lavender maze
It is thought that the Romans brought lavender to Britain when they invaded. At the Roman palace at Fishbourne in Sussex where a Roman garden has been created, there are borders of lavender billowing along quite formal lines. After the Romans left not much was heard of Lavender until the Middle Ages, where in monastery gardens lavender was cultivated along with other medicinal herbs.

By the sixteenth century many of England’s large county houses had their own stills and were producing lavender water for the gentry’s toilettes and for the laundry. As it was thought to ward off bed bugs, lavender was sewn into bedclothes and the oil was rubbed into the wood. Henry VIII had borders of lavender, knot gardens and mazes were constructed at most of the grand houses and many humbler ones too.

Lavender tea was very popular - Elizabeth I was said to drink up to ten cups a day to cure herself of migraine, she also insisted on lavender conserves at her breakfast table. Lavender began to be farmed – imports from around Naples and France (brought in by the fleeing Huguenots) meant that the burgeoning industry grew rapidly. Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I, grew masses of white lavender. She filled the long borders at Wimbledon with it, cutting it to scent every room in the palace; she had white lavender pot pourri and bathed weekly in white lavender water.

After the restoration, home distillation of lavender water became a popular hobby and many country homes had drying rooms and still rooms. In London, during the plague, essence of lavender in alcohol was taken to avoid infection. Bunches of lavender were sold in the streets – their fragrance used to counter the stench in the capital.

Queen Victoria loved lavender. Perhaps because her beloved Albert courted her with a nosegay of lavender and heather, she insisted that all Royal households were impregnated with the clean, fresh scent of lavender. Lavender was used for polishing the wood, lavender soap was used for washing the laundry and lavender scented the Queen’s bath water. As the Queen did, so did many Victorians from all classes. There was an explosion of commercially available lavender products. Lavender soaps and oils, lavender pomades (for men’s hair), creams and waxes, lavender perfumes and waters all filled the shelves of the chemists’ shops. The lavender trade was centred mainly on Surrey. Today lavender is still popular; its clean, refreshing scent is used widely in toiletries, aromatherapy oils and household products.