Nature's Alchemist: John Parkinson, herbalist to Charles I

Nature's Alchemist cover

Nature’s Alchemist: John Parkinson, herbalist to Charles I


I began to write about healing began with an exploration into our herbal history. An ancestor, John Parkinson, was herbalist to Charles I. I fell in love with the fascinating books about plants for health and beauty that he wrote in the early seventeenth century. The 1629 volume Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris was the first book about decorative plants in English. John Parkinson’s  life work was the Theatrum Botanicum, which gave the history and medicinal properties of over 3000 plants. It took him almost 50 years to complete and was published in 1640.

The start of the 17th century was a dazzling age of discovery. John Parkinson was a pioneer of the age whose passion for plants produced a pair of books that ‘changed the entire face of herb lore.’ Drawing from his experience as an apothecary, and his famous garden in London’s Covent Garden, he meticulously recorded the beauty and uses of traditional plants as well as the new varieties tumbling in to the port of London.

GET THIS BOOK: The original hardback edition is now out of print but some copies are still available direct from the author and on the internet. If you would like a signed copy, contact Anna directly.

From ‘Nature’s Alchemist: John Parkinson, Herbalist to Charles I’, by Anna Parkinson, pub. Frances Lincoln, 2007

The closure of the monasteries in England by Henry VIII in 1537 left a vacuum that profoundly affected the lives of ordinary people in the country. Deprived of monks they were also deprived of local centres of medical knowledge, based as it was on the use of plants. Growing up amongst farming people of Lancashire, John Parkinson was uniquely equipped to become the expert apothecary and herbalist who made good this knowledge gap in the early 17th Century. His medical herbal Theatrum Botanicum, published in 1640, was used to train doctors and apothecaries for almost a century and a half. He was also instrumental in fostering the development of English gardens through his first book. Paradisus Terrestris, Paradisi in Sole, the first English book about decorative gardening, based on his own garden in London’s Covent Garden, was published with a dedication to the 17 year old Queen Henrietta Maria in 1629. But despite his fame, and his achievements, John Parkinson’s religious convictions haunted him throughout this tumultuous age. He survived three sovereigns to become Royal Herbalist and complete his life’s work, and then lived to see everything he had worked for collapse around him…