Wren 300, a city full of people

Herbs were an everyday necessity of seventeenth-century City life: they flavoured food, were medicinal, cleaned cloths and kept them free of pests.

'Paradisi in sole, paradisus terrestris : or, a choice garden of all sorts of rarest flowers : with their nature, place of birth, time of flowering, names, and vertues to each plant, useful in physick, or admired for beauty', by John Parkinson, 1656.
With research by Patricia Maitland

Not only were herbs important but other plant material too. Sedge, a grasslike plant, was strewn on the floors of domestic and public chambers to keep down the dust and mask smells of cooking, food waste, privies and unwashed people. Flowers were scattered on tables of the rich before a meal, and some were even eaten. According to church records, bay and rosemary were used in burials as well.

Herbs and medicine

In seventeenth-century England doctors were few. Their treatments were expensive and not usually effective in curing deadly diseases. The bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, and smallpox were constant threats, and killed thousands of people. The year before the Fire of London, the Great Plague killed about 100,000 people or one-fifth of London’s population.

The doctor's dispensary and the apothecary's shop, published 1657. Wellcome Library, London (L0035212) Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Both apothecaries (a type of chemist in the past who made and sold medicines) and housewives who cared for the health of their families, relied on many different types of medicinal herbs and their healing properties to treat all sorts of ailments, serious and minor.

Women would turn to recipes passed down from one generation to another, or published household manuals containing instructions and ingredients for every type of domestic need, whether health, hygiene, beautification or cookery. Botanical-based remedies – elixirs, balms and distillations – were used to cure anything from a cough to cancer, gout to stomach-ache… even the bite of a mad dog.

The ladies dispensatory : containing the natures, vertues, and qualities of all herbs, and simples usefull in physick. Reduced into a methodicall order, for their more ready use in any sicknesse, or other accident of the body. The like never published in English. With an alphabeticall table of all the vertues of each herb, and simple, 1652.
'The Accomplish'd Ladies Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery' by Hannah Woolley, London, 1683.

If however, you didn’t have a kitchen garden where you could grow your own flowers and herbs, or if it just didn’t produce what you needed, then you could turn as Gideon Harvey, physician and author, recommended in the 1670s, to the “physical herb women” who could supply you with herbs at the London markets for half a penny a handful.

Find out more about London herbs by Margaret Willes.

Herb women

Gathering herbs and selling them in markets and on the streets was a long-established London trade that was almost exclusively carried out by women. They gathered wild herbs from the countryside such as Hampstead, or grew them on plots of land outside the City. The herb market near St Paul’s Cathedral was destroyed in the Fire as well as other street stands, but better stalls were provided in the four new markets.

Wood-cut print of different sellers and tradespeople including on the far right a herb woman selling rosemary and bay ‘by permission of the Pepys Library, Magdalene College Cambridge’

We know the names of several herb women: Mary Merry at St Georges Church, Hanna Smith in Grub St and Bridget Rumney who for eleven years from 1660 held the appointment of ‘Herb Strewer to the King’, helping mask the foul odours that even palaces harboured. Bridget’s annual pay was £24 plus two yards of scarlet cloth for her livery.


Local churches were the focal point of sixteenth-century City life. Weekly worship and all the milestones of parishioners’ lives took place here: christenings, marriages and funerals. Many churches were lost in the Great Fire.

Read the stories of four that either survived or succumbed to the flames, and how they reemerged from the ruins.

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