Web Exclusive Part I: King John Sees Scents After 800 Years

The American Bar memorial at Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed on June 15, 1215.
The American Bar memorial at Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed on June 15, 1215.

This year, the world celebrates the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, signed by King John of England on June 15, 1215. The Magna Carta laid the foundations of freedom and democracy, and it eventually crossed the Atlantic to become the foundation of the U.S. Constitution. His present day namesake, psychiatrist turned perfumer John King, has created two perfumes to mark this legacy using ingredients available during King John’s reign. In this special feature, King speaks about how he applied perfumery ingredients and medieval inspirations from King John to create novel scents.

This is part one of a web series featured exclusively on www.perfumerflavorist.com and in P&F's weekly e-newsletter. Click here to subscribe to the newsletter for free and stay tuned for next Monday's part two of the series.

Living Up to My Name

What’s in a name? Plenty, if you want to be successful. Just a few examples spring to mind from my previous life as a medic and psychiatrist: the top people had names like “Dr. Fear,” “Dr. Angst” and “Professor Nutt.” Then there was “Dr. Miriam Seed” the infertility specialist, “Lord Brain” the neurologist—the list is endless and far too long to be explained by coincidence. At my hospital in London I recall a doctor whose name was “A. Doctor;” his career path was a foregone conclusion. So if in perfumery you are blessed with a name like “Flowerdew” or “Rose,” it must be a decided advantage.

Well I am no “Rose,” but even better: I’m “King,” so some great things should be expected of me. I have always felt certain sympathy for my predecessor King John, who was born in 1167. It may have something to do with the fact that I have worked most of my professional life in Worcestershire (King John is buried in Worcester Cathedral), and my house rests on the site of his old hunting grounds. It seemed logical to make my internet name kingjohnofengland, even at the risk of inheriting some of his notoriety.

The Beleaguered King

Make no mistake; King John was up against it in 1215. He had lost large areas of land to the French, been excommunicated by the pope and his barons were revolting against him. And he only had himself to blame because he was such a charmless character, completely selfish and politically inept (click here to view a particularly amusing sketch about King John's problems). However, I can’t help feeling he wasn’t all bad, and that given some guidance from a future guardian spirit, he could have made a better showing. So I thought I would revisit the 13th century to see what could be done.

Some Help for King John

In our new version of history, King John becomes aware of his shortcomings and instructs his apothecaries to make fragrant gifts for his people with the aim of restoring morale; a magnanimous gesture I’m sure you will agree, and very wise.

Well, the least we can do is to travel back in time and award his medieval artisans some help from the future, in the form of decent equipment. A fractionating still and supercritical CO2 extraction plant will do for a start. In other words, the aim of this project was to see what could have been achieved by applying modern technology to the fragrant materials in common use 800 years ago.

Herbs and Spices in the Middle Ages

The medieval world was much bigger than our own; travel was slow and the costs of transporting spices from afar rendered them more expensive than gold. On the other hand, there were plenty of herbs growing wild or in gardens such as lavender, rosemary, chamomile and lemon balm. These were often simply strewn on the floor so that their fragrance was released when trampled on (probably as effective as microencapsulation today).

Then, as now, odors were valued and credited with the power to ward off evil spirits long before their benefits were formally confirmed by modern researchers. So King John made an astute choice when he came up with the idea of perfume as a gift to his subjects.

But as far as exact compositions are concerned, we are still in the Dark Ages. In contrast to the detail of the Magna Carta, the amount of reliable information about 13th century perfume formulas could probably be written on the back of a postage stamp. According to John Bailey, a senior figure in British perfumery, there are few certainties, but one of the best sources is probably Roy Genders. Genders is a prolific author of books on scented flora. More importantly, he went to Cambridge and played cricket for Worcestershire so his Englishness is beyond reproach.

My basic idea was for two fragrances which would counterbalance one another; a hot one for men, and a cool counterpart for women. This reflects medical prescriptions in the Middle Ages, which were preoccupied with how to balance hot spices with cooler elements.

My fragrance: Hot Knights

Rich in medieval spices and hunks of oak from King John’s woodlands, here is a fragrance to warm up the action. It will liberate your powers and unlock your true potential. I based my accord around ginger and the related spice galangal, both of which were much used in the Middle Ages. Ginger has long been credited with aphrodisiac properties. Now I would be the first one to admit that such folklore should usually be taken with a large pinch of salt. However, there is arguably some rationale here in terms of spices conveying warmth, warmth also meaning affection, and associated with increased blood flow and so on. Spices such as ginger and pepper were also much appreciated in medieval cooking, the master chefs of the day being those who had mastered the art of their combination.

Another medieval spice was the mysterious grains of paradise. Ancient traders claimed that this ingredient originated from the Garden of Eden—this mythology probably contributing to its popularity. I tracked this obscure condiment down and tested it; it had a hot, peppery taste.

Finally, the hunks of oak were next. No more important material than oak existed, in medieval Britain (For further reading, click here to view "Formulation Story: The Scent of Heritage Woodland" by John King). It was vital in an age of timber-framed buildings and wooden ships. Most famous of all is the Parliament Oak in Sherwood Forest, a 1,000 year-old tree under which King John is thought to have held parliament. Oak symbolized strength and courage; heroes were men with hearts of oak. Oak wood absolute would be a key ingredient.

Short-lived Action: a Vital Property

Hot Knights should not extend into the days, making other knights jealous. A fragrance for brief encounters should be the essence of discretion. Like Jeeves, it should work its magic then vanish.

So in modern terms, it should be an ephemeral scent that is very light on base notes, which does not cause olfactory problems at the office next day.

I was influenced here by personal experience of hypnotic drugs with a short half-life, which get you off to sleep then disappear without causing drowsiness next morning. All too often hypnotic medications do not fulfill this ideal. Similarly traditional aphrodisiac perfumes, following the concepts of Paul Jellinek and others, are based on long-lasting musks or animalic ingredients. This is a mistake, in my opinion, because the close association between romance and the scent is destroyed if it is still hanging around on Monday morning. King John’s Provisional Formula: Ginger oil, galangal oil, oakwood absolute. Add a few grains of paradise, distill and combine the top fractions.

Stay tuned to the next part of this series where John King talks about how he kept his cool while creating the other half of the medieval scent duo: Cool Queen.

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