Walter Raleigh: prisoner, scientist and Tower of London gardener

See the Lost Garden at the Tower of London, where Sir Walter Raleigh experimented with and grew plants for his Great Cordial, the elixir that was used to treat royalty.

By Historic Royal Palaces

The White Tower, Tower of London (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) was imprisoned at the Tower of London three times: first in 1592 for falling out of favour with Elizabeth I, then twice under James I.

Ultimately, he lost his head in 1618 for displeasing the King. 

The Lost Garden at the Bloody Tower, Tower of London (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Raleigh was given relatively comfortable lodgings during his 13 years at the Tower between 1603 and 1616. 

As well as his own library, he was allowed access to a small garden where he grew plants for his experiments. He also converted a hen-house into a laboratory.​  

Sir Walter Raleigh's Study, Bloody Tower, Tower of London (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Raleigh spent his time studying, writing and developing his interest in science.​ 

Henry VIII's Kitchens, Hampton Court Palace (2017) by Simon JarrattHistoric Royal Palaces

Raleigh gained widespread fame for his 'Great Cordial’ and 'Balsam of Guiana’.

Although he was imprisoned in the Tower, the Great Cordial was used to treat members of the Royal Family.  

Henry VIII's Kitchens, Hampton Court Palace (2017) by Simon JarrattHistoric Royal Palaces


Included in the ingredients were the horn of a male deer, gallstones of goats, and ambergris made from the intestines of a sperm whale. 

Citrus limon, watercolour (2015) by Claire CollinsHistoric Royal Palaces

Alongside these less familiar ingredients were 40 plants and herbs that we still use today such as rosemary, marigolds, mint, marjoram, lemon balm and saffron. ​

The cordial also included more exotic plants such as citrus and was sweetened with two pounds of white sugar.

Medicine: pl.6 (c. 1580/1590) by Theodor Galle after Jan van der StraetNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

In 1612, Raleigh prepared a cordial for the young Prince of Wales who was seriously ill. ​Raleigh claimed that the cordial would only help if the sickness had 'natural origins'.

Raleigh's expertise was so respected that, when the young Prince subsequently died, it was suspected that he had indeed been suffering from an 'unnatural' sickness and may have been poisoned. 

The White Tower, Tower of London (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

The gardeners at Historic Royal Palaces have studied historic records to recreate Raleigh’s garden at the Tower of London. You can see some of the plants he would have grown and used in his experiments.​

However, you can’t try his Great Cordial –and you probably wouldn’t want to either!​

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