Sunday, January 23, 2011

Question from Marilyn R - "Treacle and water imperial" treatment

I am still plodding on with my research on Agnes Tilney, Katheryn Howard's step-grandmother, which i have mentioned before on this blog.

In 1528 she met Cardinal Wolsey’s servant, one Forest, and was pleased to learn his master was well, although some of his servants had been very poorly. The area was in the grip of the dreadful sweating sickness and in a letter later on the Duchess offered to minister to Wolsey should he fall ill. She had daily experience of such matters, she said, and was so successful in her cures that her neighbours would send to her “and if they be sick at heart I give them treacle and water imperial..."

Can anyone elaborate on what this concoction actually was?

Thank you


shtove said...

No idea, even though I did a bit of googling.

Question is - did it work?

Saw an Irish comedian recently who said: "Herbal medicine. Around for thousands of years. Then we tested it and the stuff that works is now called medicine. The rest is just warm vegetable soup and pot pourri."

Sorry for being unhelpful.

Foose said...

If you translate "water imperial" into Latin, aqua imperialis seems to be a standard mixture in period pharmacologies. Charles H. Lawall's Curious Lore of Drugs and Medicines describes it as a "compound preparation containing twenty-six ingredients" - in other texts, it appears to contain things like cinnamon, nux vomica, marjoram, thyme, etc.

"Treacle," in view of the Duchess of Norfolk's personality in the few records extant, has a comic Alice in Wonderland flavor. It's a bit baffling, too, since I thought treacle was a byproduct of sugar refining and sounds somewhat anachronistic in the context (although the Duke of Buckingham ordered something called "rum" for his table back in about 1507). But histories of food and drink do indicate that sugar-derived treacle from Genoa and the Continent were available in Tudor England, and treacle is a fairly frequent prescription against plague and other illnesses. Rooting around I found that the word treacle actually derives from theriacos (theriac), a Greek word signifying a poison antidote. In addition, it appears to have been substituted for the word "balm" in one Bible translation of the period. So I'm not sure what exactly was the composition and nature of the treacle that the Duchess recommended - whether the treacle was supposed to have medicinal virtue in itself, or acted as a sweetener to get the aqua imperialis down.

Lara said...

Am I the only one who now has "Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" running through their head?

Somewhat seriously though, I wonder if the combination ended up something like modern cough syrup?

Foose said...

Lara - yes, that was exactly what was running through my head, although I can't picture Agnes as Julie Andrews.

Lara said...

Ha! No, me either. :)

shtove said...

Wonderful information, Foose. Thanks again.

Cribbaquoy said...

There may be an Alice in Wonderland connection - there really was a 'Treacle well' near Oxford, at Binsey. But Treacle in this context means 'healing water' - 'treacle of heaven' in Middle english means God's healing grace. So I'm going round in circles a little - could it have been Holy water, or water from an acknowledged healing/holy well? Pre-Reformation England was full of such wells, after all.

Foose said...

That's interesting! Especially since the Duchess says that the treatment is for neighbours "sick at heart," which suggests less a physical illness than a state of mind. I suppose a Tudor mindset would see both situations as cases of imbalances of humors, though.

Marilyn R said...

Thank you all for your replies.
The whole extract is interesting:

Was glad to learn from Wolsey's servant Forest, whom she met on Lady Day while going in procession to her parish church, that Wolsey was in good health, and none of his servants dead, though some had been sick. Begs to be informed if he catches the sweat, and she will send Hogon and William Hastingis, who will keep him "as well as is possible after the temperate fashion." Has daily experience in her house of all manner of sorts, good and bad, and none have miscarried yet. Neighbours send to her when they are ill; "and if they be sick at heart I give them triacle and water imperial," which has saved many who have swooned repeatedly, and received the Sacraments. "And divers doth swell at their stomachs, to whom I geve setwell to eat, the which driveth it away from the stomach; and the best remedy that I do know in it is to take little or no sustenance or drink unto 16 hours be past." Wolsey should not let those who have had it come near him for a week after. "Vinegar, wormwood, rosewater, and crumbs of brown bread is very good and comfortable to put in a linen cloth to smell unto your nose, so that it touch not your visage." Hears that my lord of Norfolk has had the sweat, and several in his house are dead,—through default of keeping, as she believes. Hears that the King has given the two daughters and heirs of Master Broughton, the one to Master Cheny, the other to Wallop. "My Lord, I never saw people so far out of the way in no disease as they be in this; and about 12 or 16 hours is the greatest danger. There be some that sweateth much, and some that sweateth very little, but brynneth very sore; but the greatest surety is in any wise to keep your bed 24 hours." Signed.

From: 'Henry VIII: September 1528, 1-10', Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 4: 1524-1530 (1875), pp. 2036-2046. URL:

I assumed 'triacle' meant treacle - might be mistaken.

Foose said...

Culpeper's 1653 Complete Herbal does say that aqua imperialis "comforts and strengthens the heart against faintings and swoonings." (This ties in with the Duchess' statement about saving "many who have swooned repeatedly.") He has a lot of listings for treacle - London treacle, Venice treacle, treacle vinegar, treacle mustard, treacle made from the flesh of vipers, etc. - and specifies something called "treacle water" as being good for "strengthening the heart." But the exact nature of the Duchess' treacle can't be positively identified, I think.

She's certainly all over Wolsey. I guess in 1528 there was still confidence in his ability to arrange the king's divorce, which would account for this politic friendliness, but perhaps the Duchess liked him personally. On the other hand, the mention of the Broughton girls being handed over to Wallop and Cheny [sic] could be needling the Cardinal -- Anne Boleyn's influence was responsible for the transactions, as Wolsey was trying to secure them for their stepfather Russell. (See Ives' account of the affair in his Life and Death).

Unknown said...

"Starting in Tudor England, lemon juice was used in medicinal cordials called ‘Water Imperial’, along with cream of tartare, and would retain a healing reputation for centuries" this comes from