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

Royal scents Cool Queen (left) and Hot Knights (right) by perfumer John King.
Royal scents Cool Queen (left) and Hot Knights (right) by perfumer John King.

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 two of a web series featured exclusively on www.perfumerflavorist.com. (Click here to read part one)

My fragrance: Cool Queen

Light as a summer breeze, crisp as the virgin snow, a perfume for ladies of refinement and noble birth. Featuring fresh greenery from the palace gardens, it keeps you cool in any situation. - John King

Cool Queen was the logical answer to Hot Knights. A perfume light as a summer breeze, crisp as the virgin snow, for ladies of refinement and noble birth. It would be the choice of gift from father to daughter, where the lord did not particularly want to see his daughter swept off her feet by any passing knight, no matter how hot blooded. In modern terms, it would be a fragrance for the emancipated woman of the upper social classes, a sort of medieval Charlie but more refined.

I based my original idea around lemon balm oil (synonym: Melissa officinalis). This would ensure that King John would be ahead of the game and get credited with considerable foresight, for lemon balm would shortly afterwards become the basis of Carmelite water, a forerunner of eau de cologne.

Carmelite water, invented by French nuns in 1379, was destined to spread rapidly in popularity and “become an important addition to the toilet preparations of cultured men and women of medieval Europe,” to quote Genders.

By tipping King John off, we ensure he steals a march on the French and gets it into England well in advance. Or rather, an improved version of it, for the problem with Carmelite water is, it has too many spices.

Carmelite Water Formula

Lemon balm leaves … 2 lbs

Angelica Roots … 2 lbs

Lemon peel … 1/4 lb

Nutmeg … 2oz

Cloves … 2oz

Coriander seed … 2oz

Cinnamon … 1 stick

The above is to be distilled slowly with half a gallon of orange flower water and a gallon of alcohol.

My working plan: Leave off the spices and add a touch of mint to cool it down. The use of mint would foreshadow another famous product based on lemon balm, Hungary water, made for the Queen of Hungary around 1370 to preserve her youth and beauty.

Like ginger, lemon balm is surrounded by folklore. The London Dispensary (1696), states: “An essence of balm, given in canary wine every morning will renew youth, strengthen the brain, relieve languishing nature and prevent baldness.” Although fairly unlikely, such beliefs are testimony to the reverence which natural products have always inspired, and which I have yet to see afforded to any aroma chemical. Natural Melissa (officinalis) should be a winner.

King John’s Provisional Formula: Melissa (officinalis) oil, Angelica roots oil, garden mint oil, orange flower water.

From Concept to Marketable Product: CPL Joins In

Convinced as I was about the above formulas, I realized I needed expert help from industry to develop a marketable product. As with the motor industry, where there is a gap between the concept car and a practical production vehicle, so it is with perfumes.

Who to approach? I briefly considered the Grasse companies but quickly abandoned that idea. After all, King John was at war with the French in 1215. I needed an English company who were prepared to support a project which might well have more intellectual interest than sales potential.

The obvious choice was Contemporary Perfumers Ltd. (CPL Aromas), which has a strong track record in perfumery education. It supported the early initiatives of David Williams in the UK, whose classes I attended in London. Later, it underwrote the pioneering courses at Plymouth University. It is now an international creative house and following a phone call to the company’s senior creative perfumer, Beverley Bayne, I was pleased to secure its cooperation.

CPL Aromas is headquartered in the UK at Bishop’s Stortford just south of Cambridge (when the Magna Carta was signed, Cambridge University had just been founded as the second center of leaning after Oxford). It was quite far for me to travel, but I have often observed that the value of an experience is proportional to the distance travelled. Most of my medical research was done when I was travelling every week 200 miles from London to Leeds.

Regulatory Compliance

King John’s instinctive feeling was that he should be allowed free rein to specify whatever formulas he pleased, without interference from European regulations and restrictions. But I had failed to realize that the same changes that made many doctors retire, had also affected the perfume and flavor industry.

Perfumers, like doctors, were once proud and independent professionals who decided what materials they would use, and others followed suit. Now it seemed they were obliged to tread very carefully in the brave new world of corporate power, which was ruled over by the modern barons of perfumery—the regulatory authorities.

So although I insisted that natural Melissa oil be used, it was politely pointed out that IFRA [International Fragrance Association] had banned it. Although I asserted my divine right to galangal oil, there was a shaking of heads. Surely, I protested, a few grains of paradise would do no harm? But it was to no avail. It was the Magna Carta all over again.

Refining the Formulas: Celia Cirimbilli from CPL Aromas Explains How It Was Done

“It is always a pleasure to work on a creative project such as this, and one with a few challenges too. In the 13th century there were of course no synthetic molecules, so naturals should make up most of the formula.” -Celia Cirimbilli

"For the Hot Knights submission, I chose a CO2 extract of ginger and combined this with other spices including white pepper, nutmeg and saffron. All of these spices were well known in medieval times and available through trading," said Cirimbilli.

Supporting the spicy complex is a woody base suggesting oak. Care was required here since many woody materials are intrinsically long lasting including, unfortunately, oakwood absolute. I achieved the required ephemeral quality mainly through the use of citrus oils, fresh and light. Finally, for radiance and lift, I added a touch of musk. It wasn’t one of the modern white musks of course, which would be far too persistent, but a special ancient reconstitution which would have been very familiar to mediaeval perfume lovers.

In Cool Queen, the Melissa is represented by a lemon balm accord which is fully IFRA compliant. It is intended for noble women so I designed a perfume quite different from what one can buy today. Around the lemony accord are flowers that one can find in every English garden, plus angelica roots to create a herbal shading. I modified this with a little English distilled chamomile oil, which imparts a slightly apple like nuance. Chamomile of course has been around in Britain since Roman times.

An important note in this perfume was the cooling touch of peppermint, another traditionally English crop. Finally, sandalwood, much appreciated since ancient times, gives a “refined and elegant base note.”

So far so good, but why not all natural? Cirimbilli said: “That would be perfectly possible, even with increasingly stringent regulations, but I think the results might not be as outstanding. We are not talking about volume aroma chemicals here–there are no white musks or Iso E Super. You have to bear in mind that synthetic materials, used with skill and discretion, can confer uniqueness, which is what you want. Also, some synthetic molecules are found in nature. An example is undecavertol, which contributes part of the cool-as-a-cucumber quality in Cool Queen.”


I was pleased with the CPL submissions. Hot Knights presented a zesty flourish of spices and woods, surprisingly full bodied. It would enable all my mounted warriors to cut the mustard with a new panache. Cool Queen offered an original green note, reminiscent of herbs freshly picked from the palace gardens that’s perfect when opening parliament, or when simply relaxing at one’s summer residence.

In regards to the synthetic versus natural conundrum, I recall Luca Turin’s analogy that if synthetics are the bones of a perfume, naturals are its flesh. Using all naturals, you are likely to get an invertebrate. You need both for a beautiful beast to be born.

Commercial Potential

Perfumes of the past can be a tricky area. I recently bought two soaps with a link to the Titanic, the first being a genuine Vinolia soap from 1910, perfectly preserved with the original spicy scent still lingering. The second was a reproduction, boxed with a nice picture of the ship but a modern fragrance. The first cost me £3 ($5) and the second £6 ($10). Clearly the mere fact of authenticity does not necessarily impress the buying public very much. This echoes the experience of a fellow Briton, David Pybus, who tried without success to resurrect genuine perfumes from the ill-fated liner.

If not authenticity, how about humor? Seriously, English chivalry is a venerable tradition, the knight in shining armor one of our most compelling symbols. To join the ranks of Richard the Lionheart and Sir Galahad, not to mention Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir Paul McCartney, is every Englishman’s dream. “Time you were knighted!” I will say to them, but if the queen hasn’t remembered you this year, never mind. Have some Hot Knights fragrance to compensate. Whilst for the ladies, it’s time that they were treated like a queen.

On that note, Cool Queen is contained in a 40ml bottle by John Gill of Sussex, in a choice of green or blue glass. A silver plated solid brass closure and antique metalwork complete the design. Hot Knights, at higher concentration, is contained in a 12ml flask, to fit neatly under one’s armor. The addition of giant magnum sizes will allow impressive displays.

Back to the Future

Though inspired by the past, above all these perfumes should be memorable for the future. I will have achieved my aim if a few generations hence, someone says, “Look what I found at an auction today, dad, it’s one of those Magna Carta perfumes. It really takes me back to 2015.”

But most of all I will have achieved my aim if I clear the name of that much maligned king. So that it may be said: “King John was not a bad man And no bad king was he. He ordered that his artisans Establish one or two new brands, And now there are a thousand fans Of his perfumery.”

P.S. Scholars of English history will know that even after signing the Magna Carta, King John remained defiant. So you will not be surprised to learn that I have made a non-compliant version of Hot Knights for the private use of myself and some of my trusted henchmen. Yes, grains of paradise and all. If you want to smell it, meet me after dark in the palace cloisters. And don’t breathe a word to anyone.

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