York curators advise public not to enter into "illicit affairs" if powerful Tudor perfume takes effect
A perfume dubbed Décapitation, honouring Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s allegedly unfaithful fifth wife, has been launched in York – the city where she was said to have had an illicit liaison during a visit in 1541.
The fragrance contains scents enjoyed by the nobility of the mid-16th century, including rose, lemon, violet, cherry and musk in “strong tones” which would have once wooed a “virile Tudor male”.
“The Tudors were strong proponents of the idea that ‘cleanliness was next to Godliness’,” says Sarah Maltby, one of the co-organisers of Barley Hall’s current Power and Glory exhibition, telling the story of Henry VIII and his subjects including Thomas Culpeper, who was beheaded after his affair with Catherine.
“So while the streets of 16th century York would have been unpleasantly odorous – and clothes would often be washed in water polluted with butchers’ waste and sewage – the higher social classes took great care to keep their bodies clean and fresh smelling, with herbs and flowers sometimes added to the bath water,
Historic researchers and specialist European perfumiers have helped the hall team to create a “unique” fragrance which, they believe, captures the essence of the femme fatale.
“We don’t want to cause our visitors to embark on an illicit affair after experiencing the intoxicating bouquet,” stresses Maltby. “We hope that it will set the scene for those visiting York this summer to feel fully immersed in the city’s rich history on this sensual journey through time.
“The perfume will be regularly diffused into the room where we have displays of dresses from major costume dramas, and a replica of Catherine Howard’s dress from the Heaver Castle collection.”
The clear, innocent rose smell of the initial application aims to recreate the metaphorical mask worn by Catherine while she was with the husband whose self-believe she may have damaged, before fading to reveal a “truly sensual” scent as it mingles with each visitor’s body chemistry.
The perfume will be available to sample throughout the summer as part of an exhibition focusing on the king’s only visit to the city, in 1541, when the city’s leaders begged for his forgiveness for their role supporting the Northern uprising. A traditional Tudor feast is laid out in the Great Hall, where Henry might have dined.
“Although he was an athlete and jouster of some renown during his younger days, injury took its toll,” says Maltby. “By the time he arrived in York, he was the portly figure that we most often see represented in portraits.”
The components of the fragrance
- Rose: Henry VIII described Catherine as his ‘rose without a thorn’. It was the most fashionable perfume of the day
- Violet: An essential flower for any true femme fatale in Tudor England, the violet represented death and bereavement
- Lemon: Lemons were more widely available in the late Tudor period, with some almanacs suggesting that the acid fruit symbolised a broken betrothal
- White musk: This is the modern counterpart of deer musk, which was a common base in Tudor perfumes and thought to be an aphrodisiac during Tudor times
- Cherry blossom: Representing star-crossed love – the perfect undertone for Catherine’s perfume
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Three museums to discover Tudor times in
Mary Rose Museum, Portsmouth
A favourite of King Henry VIII, the Mary Rose sank off Portsmouth in 1545 during an engagement with a French invasion fleet, in full view of the King, the screams of the men onboard, ringing in his ears. The new £35 million Mary Rose Museum opened its doors to visitors in May 2013.
Museum of the Order of St John, London
Built in 1504 and steeped in history, St John’s Gate was the entrance to the Priory of the Order of St John, the English Headquarters of the crusading Knights Hospitallers, from 1140 until Henry VIII’s reign.
Discover the fascinating, dramatic and often gory stories from one of the best known and most turbulent periods in history - the time of the Tudors and the Stuarts - during a tour on September 6.