The History of Trinity House Herb Garden

DMU’s campus is in one of the oldest parts of the city. Trinity Hospital, founded in 1330 to care for the poor and infirm, is now a university office. But a part of the past that still exists today is the herb garden. Once a vital source of medicine for hospital nurses, the garden now provides fresh herbs and heirloom varieties to students, staff and the public who visit the Riverside Café.

As part of DMU’s 150th anniversary celebrations, we take a look at the story behind the garden through the centuries.

Trinity Hospital was founded in 1330 to provide long-term care for 50 poor and infirm people in Leicester. In those days, hospitals were founded by wealthy benefactors eager to facilitate their own passage to heaven and Henry, third Earl of Leicester, certainly hoped that this good work would win him favor in the afterlife.

Henry died in 1345 and his funeral, held in the hospital chapel, was attended by King Edward III and his wife, Philippa of Hainaut. Henry’s son, also named Henry, expanded the hospital to accommodate 100 patients. On his death in 1361, the estates passed to his daughter, Blanche, married to the powerful John of Gaunt. When John and Blanche’s son Henry Bolingbroke became King Henry IV, the Duchy of Lancaster passed into the hands of the royal family, as did the patronage of the hospital. To this day, the Duchy annually pays money for its upkeep.

How was the hospital?

If you were a patient at Trinity Hospital, you’d have a bed in its 200-foot-long hall, within sight of the chapel altar. The sum of 1 pence a day was allowed per person for their care. The health of the resident’s soul was just as important as their physical health – so, while herbal remedies from the garden treated their physical ailments, their spiritual health was supported by regular masses and confessions.

A religious quarter, a Newarke or ‘New Work’ was built around the hospital and housed a college of priests as well as the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stood roughly where Hawthorn Building stands today.

Medieval Medicine

In the Middle Ages, medicine was based on the idea that the body had four “humors” linked to four elements. It was thought that if you were sick it was because you were out of balance and had too little or too much of one or more of the elements.

Blood (the air) was warm and humid
Phlegm (the water) was cold and wet
yellow bile (the fire) was hot and dry
black bile (the earth) was cold and dry

In medieval times, they believed that different herbs had different properties that would help restore balance. So a herb that was supposed to be ‘cooling’ would be used to counteract excess blood, for example.

British Library herbal 1

Medieval herb gardens

Another weapon in the fight against disease was the herb garden, the word drug literally means dried plant.

The typical garden would consist of raised rectangular beds with wicker fences, forming a grid pattern similar to a chess set with walkways between the wealthier monasteries may have used the decorative herb wheel. Raised beds allow for easier weeding and the soil is well-drained, as many grasses prefer free-draining soil.

Herbs would be administered based on their observed properties. In medieval times, people believed that plants gave “clues” to their properties of what they looked like, a belief called the doctrine of signatures. For example, the pit viper gets its name because its young leaves look like snakes’ tongues – and so it was thought to treat snakebites. (spoiler alert: it doesn’t).

Herbs did not only provide medicinal use, diet was considered to have an important influence on health – the ancient Greek Hippocrates said, “Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food”, for the simply say; eat well to stay well.

THUMB grass

What did people grow in their herb gardens?

Typical plants grown in a medieval hospice such as Trinity Hospital would include many that we recognize.

The garden was not only the medicine cabinet of the Middle Ages but a space where the spirit could be healed. Sight and smell were valued in the treatments of medieval doctors. Bad smells were thought to bring disease, while floral scents purified the air and lush landscapes promoted good health and mental well-being.

Herbs like Lady’s bedstraw were grown to be cut and brought into the home to lay on the floors and disguise odors with lavenders. They would release their scent when crushed underfoot.

Roses were grown for their fragrance and used in bouquets, which were carried and sniffed throughout the day with lavenders, southernwood, sages and mints.

Medieval plot is said to contain herbs like bay leaf, sage, fennel, thyme, dill, savory and rosemary for cooking and use in herbal remedies.

Less familiar herbs such as rue, agrimony, marshmallow and tansy were also found in the Middle Ages, as well as plants grown for their color such as dyer’s chamomile or woad.

INSERT grass

A restoration of the herb garden was carried out by heritage gardener Dan Kirk at DMU. Using heirloom varieties of vegetables and herbs, he recreated a traditional herb wheel planting design, with fruit trees set against brick walls and a lavender hedge attracting bees and butterflies.

In the beds are herbs and vegetables including:

• shiso Perilla red,
• Agastache Licorice Mint
• Coriander
• Fennel
• Dill
• Lovage
• Sweet Cicely – add a leaf to fruit baking and you only need half the sugar
• Peruvian black mint
• Chive
• Green mint
• Thyme
• Parsley

Dan works with Chartwells chefs who visit the garden during school term to harvest the herbs. They calculated that it only takes 139 steps from the garden to the kitchen. You’ll find herbs used in sauces, dressings, pesto, purees and more if you visit the Riverside Café.
The seeds come from The Real Seed Company, which produces heirloom and heirloom varieties specifically for the vegetable garden.
The herb garden is also used for mindfulness sessions, to enhance the well-being of students and staff – just as it was used hundreds of years ago as a space of calm and peace at school. ‘medieval ages.

* Have you been inspired to grow your own herb garden? check out our PDF guide here

Posted on Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Terri S. Tomasini