The Medieval Rose

The Medieval Rose

by Lin Saines, Rye Castle Medieval Garden Advisor 
All photos © Lin Saines

The Rose is frequently voted as the nation’s most popular flower, not surprisingly given the extraordinarily wide range of colours and forms available today.

The Medieval Pleasure Garden also contained Roses that were considered of great importance, but for very different reasons. As I have described in previous articles, the Pleasure Garden was designed as a Paradise Garden, where all five senses were used. The sounds of water and birdsong provided a calming atmosphere while many types of fruit abounded to taste, fragrant herbs could be touched and their leaves brushed through the hand to release their scent, and fragrant plants such as roses and jasmines were carefully placed near benches planted out with chamomile or turf.

These provided a soft, scented cushion for ladies to be seated on while listening to music, sewing or reading, all within the security of a garden hidden behind high walls or hedges for total privacy. It was a garden of delight and something not just for the eyes to behold.

We can recreate such gardens mainly through the study of tapestries, books and paintings of the period. Tapestries particularly can provide a huge amount of information through their botanically correct depiction of plants. Illuminated manuscripts, Royal Charters and “Books of Hours” also contain a wealth of information for the historian and gardener alike. Just as today, the time period these gardens were formed within was hugely responsible for the type of planting available and thought to be impressive or useful for a Pleasure Garden. The Crusader period of the 12th and 13th centuries particularly saw a huge influx of plants and ideas being brought to Europe by returning Crusaders from the Middle-East, most importantly Rose forms previously unknown to us. For instance, it is generally accepted that a French Nobleman, Robert de Brie, was responsible for introducing the beautiful “Damask” rose “Rosa Damascena” from the Damascus area into the Champagne region of France. This variety now named “Quatre Saisons” has beautiful silvery-pink and almost fully-double flowers that are intensely perfumed.

My personal favourite Damask, “Ispahan” takes its name from the ancient Persian capital and has all the attributes of an ancient Damask rose and flowers for a longer period than many, so is worthy of a place in any garden reconstruction.This photo shows my own “Ispahan” Rose and the enjoyment is doubled when it is considered that you are looking at a plant directly from the pages of ancient history. Damasks were first introduced into Medieval French Gardens and from there, inevitably, made their way over to England where they are still a hugely popular form of Rose and can easily be obtained from professional Rose Growers today.

Of course, these roses had more than just garden use.  For centuries Damasks were cultivated in huge hedges to provide rose oil for perfumery, rose pot-pourri for scenting the home and rosewater for cooking, bathing, and even for healing.  Rosewater has long been known to have healing properties and indeed was even carried to “The Front” in the First and Second World Wars to bathe the eyes of injured soldiers. The process of distillation to obtain rose oil is still carried on in many areas today in a similar fashion to previous centuries. Huge coppers are often set up directly on site and the roses sorted by hand.

Tiny rosebuds are taken out of the process and dried separately for pot-pourri, while whole heads of full-blown roses are added in huge quantities to the heated coppers and their precious oils distilled into bottles with tight-fitting lids. Rosewater is a by-process and obviously not as precious but nevertheless a very important part of the rose-growers’ economy even today. In Morocco the Rose Fields of the Dades Valley are completely taken over by an almost festival atmosphere during the harvest, where impromptu “Souks” are set up and much trading carried on by stallholders selling anything from food to carpets!

Apothecaries' RoseAnother Rose of the Middle-East and one incorporated into every Medieval Garden is the “Rosa Gallica” or the “Apothecaries’ Rose” and again, we have to thank a Crusader – Thibault the Count of Champagne – for its introduction into Europe in 1240. Perfumiers of France also have much to thank Count Thibault for, as this rose – now named “Rose of Provins”- started the perfume industry there in earnest. It also has wonderful healing capabilities and was grown not only in Pleasure Gardens but also in Monastery Gardens across France and then England, where its healing qualities were fully utilised. My photo, taken at an historical Garden reconstruction at Trerice Manor in Cornwall, shows the most popular way of growing the red “Apothecaries’ Rose” against a trellis for support.

Shortly after its introduction into France, a story called “Roman de la Rose” was written in 1260 by Guillaume de Lorris. It is an enchanting story about a young man’s search for love, using the Rosa Gallica as an allegorical subject of his love.  Illustrations from later copies of the book (around 1450) show the young man shut outside a high-walled garden while within it a lutenist plays for ladies seated on grass benches beside a bowl-shaped fountain, close to a herber filled with fruit trees and flowers. Thibaut de Champagne was a very famous Troubadour in his own time, and although those Crusader knights all seem so very far away now, by the wonders of modern recording and musicians who recreate period music with as much deep research as historical gardeners, it is now possible to hear the words and music of Thibaut which brings both the man and the gardens he helped to create very much nearer. Why not seek them out in CD form?

Cardinal de RichelieuA huge range of Gallica roses can be purchased today, including this beautiful “Cardinal de Richelieu” which, as its name suggests, is a later introduction.


White roses had their own place within Medieval Gardens, and “Rosa Alba”, the form grown throughout Europe following these earlier introductions, was a hybrid cross between the wild rose and the Damask import. Being white it held particular association with the Virgin Mary at that time, and its semi-double flower was transformed by the great stained-glass Artists of the Medieval period into beautiful “Rose Windows” that can still be seen today – I think my favourite must be the stunning Rose Window within Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris. So many pilgrims look at that window without realising the humble Medieval Rose is at the heart of its inspiration.

Queen Eleanor's Arbour, WinchesterMany gardens included Red and White Roses planted together, meshing into one another and proving a fragrant and colourful framework near a seating area or mixed with grapevines over a shady arbour, as seen on the right-hand side of this vine Arbour at the Winchester Castle Garden recreation.  We have had such plantings in our own Rye Garden for some time which is now due for a re-vamp. Allegorically, the colours had meanings understood by anyone entering the Garden – white being faithfulness or faith, green being hope, and red, just as today, meaning a token of love.

Rosa MundiFinally, one rose named just for love, it is thought, is the beautifully pink and white-splashed “Rosa Mundi” which is a truly ancient Rosa Gallica, a cousin of the red Apothecaries’ Rose, and said to have been named after “Fair Rosamund”, the mistress of King Henry II back in the 12th Century. It was thought that Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry’s wife, had Rosamund killed in a fit of jealousy but this has never been totally proved. My photo of “Rosa Mundi” was taken at the Trerice Reconstruction, and the full garden with willow and oak lath fencing is also shown here.

Tribute to BrianDuring our Medieval Garden replant I shall be adding a “Rosa Mundi” in memory of Brian Hargreaves, who illustrated my booklet about the Rye Medieval Garden, The Garden Beyond the Tower,   with some wonderful illustrations, as did his wife Joyce also.  Brian is a great loss to Rye Castle Museum and I thought he would most appreciate a living tribute to his work in this way.  For more details on the Medieval Garden, the above-mentioned booklet and my Still Room  display within Ypres Tower, please click on The Medieval Garden.



First posted in Medieval Garden on 19th March 2013
Last updated: 26th March 2013