A Part of History
In the Renaissance art of the 15th and 16th centuries, it was one of the two most often painted roses — Rosa alba being the other. As such, its red color (really a deep pink) represented the blood of Christian martyrs. In fact, the petals of this rose were dried and rolled into beads, then strung into what became the rosary and from which the rosary received its name.
The Apothecary’s Rose, known to botanists as Rosa gallica officinalis, is one of the most celebrated of all ancient roses.
The Apothecary’s Rose dates back much further in history than the Renaissance, however. Believed to have come from ancient Persia, not much is known about the rose prior to the 7th century when Islam swept through the area and zealots destroyed much of the texts of that time. Persian legends maintain that the rose’s red coloration came about because a nightengale so dearly loved the white rose, it grasped it tightly and the thorns pierced its breast; its blood turned the white rose red. Hence, the rose was called The Red Damask.
The rose came to Europe, depending upon whose text you read, either in the 12th or 13th century. Everyone agrees, however, it came via noble knights returning from the Crusades.
One story, the English side and by far the more colorful, says that the rose was returned to King Louis VII after the Second Crusade in Syria. Since England, in those days, also included Normandy, Brittany and Aquitaine, the rose made its way to King Henry II. (Henry II, as you may remember, was the first to implement the jury system in adjudication.) Henry had married Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, but had done so probably out of need to solidify the kingdom. As it sometimes happens, Henry had a mistress named Jane Clifford, later renamed (according to legend) The Fair Rosamond. Queen Eleanor got wind of this affair, concocted a poison to give her husband’s mistress, and disguised the deadly potion with the oil of the Apothecary’s Rose and R. alba. After Rosamond’s death, so the legend goes, a new rose sprouted outside the castle — one of both red and white stripes — called Rosa mundi. To this day, R. mundi, a genetic “sport” of the Apothecary’s Rose, will sometimes revert to its original heritage.
By the middle of the 15th century, civil wars in medieval England had broken out in a melee of power grabs for the throne — known to historians as the War of Roses. The Apothecary’s Rose had become the symbol of the House of Lancaster (and renamed The Red Rose of Lancaster); the white R. alba, the symbol of the House of York. After Henry VII (“The Great Administrator”) came to power in 1485, he chose to symbolize the “marriage” of the warring factions by creating a new symbol — the Apothecary’s Rose laid atop R. alba — and labeled it the Tudor Rose, to this day still the emblem of England.
The other story of how the Apothecary’s Rose came to Europe, the French side, is less dramatic. It is believed to have been returned to the Castle of Provins, a city close to Paris, by Thibault IV in 1250 upon his return from the Seventh Crusade. (Thibault died just three years later — apparently not because of the rose, however.) Provins became the European capital for the Apothecary’s Rose and it was renamed The Rose of Provins.