October 12, 2012 8:58 pm

The history cook: The Queen’s Closet Opened

This 1655 cookery book may tell you how to treat plague, but it also had an ulterior motive: the makeover of an exiled queen
A copy of the 1655 cookery book 'The Queen’s Closet Opened'

The popularity of the 1655 cookery book The Queen’s Closet Opened shows that our fascination with the private lives of the famous is nothing new. Purporting to reveal the domestic secrets of Henrietta Maria, the French wife of the executed King Charles I, The Queen’s Closet tantalised 17th-century readers with a glimpse into the world of royalty.

When the book first appeared, Charles had been dead for six years, England was being ruled as a Commonwealth under Cromwell and the widowed Henrietta Maria was living in exile in France. During the 24 years of her marriage Henrietta Maria was never popular with the English – she was too French, too Catholic and believed to exert too much power over her husband. The hope was that by associating her with traditional female preoccupations and accrediting many of the recipes to well-known English aristocrats, The Queen’s Closet would help to recast her image.

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Written by “W.M.”, known to contemporaries as Henrietta Maria’s personal secretary Walter Montagu, The Queen’s Closet was part of a new trend for domestic cookery books. Before the 17th century these were luxury items, aimed primarily at professional cooks, but increased literacy, improved printing and an expanding merchant and landowning class created a new market for housekeeping advice.

The book’s three sections deal with medical remedies, confectionery and general household cookery. There are recipes for improving beauty, curing sickness and helping with childbirth.

The Renaissance woman was advised to rub herself with the crushed shells of 52 eggs where she “would have the hair off” or, “for stinking breath”, to drink the flowers of rosemary “seethed” in white wine. In some cases, however, the cure sounds worse than the ailment. Piles, for example, were to be treated with “a spoonful of white dog’s turd, frankincense, honey, rose oil and egg yolk … put into the fundament”, and cures for plague involved putting the rump of a plucked, live “cock chick” on any open sores until the bird “gapes”, “labours” and “dies”. Perhaps if facing likely death from plague, being rubbed down with the bottom of a live, featherless chicken was a welcome distraction.

Responsibility for health had long been part of a housewife’s duties, but being skilled in the art of confectionery was a relatively new trend. Sugar was the ultimate symbol of conspicuous consumption, so expensive it was available only to the wealthiest members of society. By the 17th century, production in the colonies had increased the supply. It remained a luxury – a pound would cost a labourer the equivalent of two days’ wages – but now the rich, not just the super-rich, could afford it. The section on confectionery has recipes for candied fruits, marmalades, lozenges, cordials, quidonny (fruit pastes), wines, cakes and biscuits.

Celebrity lifestyle was a source of fascination in the 17th century, and so too was the celebrity exposé. Any contemporary reader of The Queen’s Closet would have understood that the title made satirical reference to the scandalous publication in 1645 of Charles and Henrietta Maria’s private letters. Published as The King’s Cabinet Opened, the letters were seen as evidence that Henrietta Maria dominated the King and actively supported English and Irish Catholics. The Queen’s Closet altered the public perception of Henrietta Maria. During the Commonwealth the book offered a nostalgic reminder of the royal past, and by the time the monarchy was reinstated, the exiled, Catholic, French queen had been reinvented as an English housewife and idealised mother.

Published in many editions over the years, The Queen’s Closet Opened was a commercial success and a PR triumph – royalty was back in fashion, and in power.

Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; ‘The Queen’s Closet Opened’ by kind permission from the British Library collection.

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To make paste of apricocks

Take your Apricocks, and pare them, and stone them, then boil them tender betwixt two dishes on a Chafing-dish of coals; then being cold, lay it forth on a white sheet of paper; then take as much Sugar as it doth weigh, and boil it to a Candy height, with as much Rose-water and fair water as will melt the Sugar; then put the Pulp into the Sugar, and so let it boil till it be as thick as for marmalet, now then stirring of it; then fashion it upon a pye-plate like to half Apricocks, and the next day close the half Apricocks to the other, and when they are dry, they will be as clear as Amber, and eat much better than Apricocks itself.

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Cock water for a consumption

Take a running Cock, pull him alive, then kill him, cut him abroad by the back, take out the entrails, and wipe him clean, then quarter him, and break his bones; then put him into a Rose-water still, with a pottle of Sack, Currens, and Raisins of the sun stoned, and figs sliced, of each one pound, Dates stoned and cut small half a pound, Rosemary flowers, Wilde Time, Spearmint, of each one handful, Organs or Wilde Marjoram, Buglofs, Pimpinel, of each two handfuls and a pottle of new milk … Distill these with a soft fire, put into the Receiver a quarter of a pound of brown Sugarcandy beaten small, four grains of Ambergreece, forty grains of prepared pearl, and half a book of leaf gold cut very small… let the patient take two spoonfuls of it in the morning, and as much at going to bed.

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