Queen of Hungary Water: some experiments in perfumery

Queen of Hungary water is a distillation that is mentioned repeatedly in general herb and perfume books as one of the first alcohol-based perfumes. These works generally date the water to the late 1300s. This delicious-smelling concoction presents a number of problems for the re-creator.

Because it is traditionally associated with Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary, sister of Casimir the Great of Poland, Hungary water is generally assumed to have been created within her lifetime, 13?? -1370. The lady had quite a reputation. (In the mid 1300's, the Holy Roman Emperor used certain jocose epithets to describe her to embassadors from the King of Hungary-- the resulting brouhaha almost plunged all of central and Northern Europe into war, averted only by the  1364 conference of rulers at Cracow.) There is also some possibility that the water is really associated with her daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, Queen of Hungary, wife and widow of Louis the Great. According to various traditions, the water was created as either a treatment for rheumatism or gout which the queen suffered in her old age as Viceroy of Poland, or as a beauty treatment which was so successful it led a king of 25 to propose marriage to her near the end of her life, making her a sort of Polish Ninon de Lenclos.

The water may have been used as a face and hand wash, as a rubbing alcohol for palsied or 'withered limbs' and/or even consumed. The  Household Cyclopedia, a nineteenth century source that claims to quote the original recipe, calls for a glassful a day, half to be drunk and half to be rubbed on the affected part. (I've tried making a Hungary Water cordial. It tastes, as you would imagine, like perfume. However, many period and near-period mead recipes call for rosemary as one of the spice/herb ingredients.)

Certain postperiod books, such as the Household Cyclopedia (circa 1880), give recipes for Hungary Water that are simple rosemary water, which the English distilling treatises do mention, but not by the name 'Hungary Water'.

Original Receipt for Hungary Water.

The original receipt for preparing this invaluable lotion is written in letters of gold in the hand-writing of Elizabeth, queen of Hungary. Take of aqua vitae, four times distilled, 3 parts, the tops and flowers of rosemary, 2 parts. To be put together in a close-stopped vessel, And allowed to stand in a warm place during 50 hours, then to be distilled in an alembic, and of this, once every week, 1 dr. to be taken in the morning,either in the food or drink, and every morning the face and the diseased limb to be washed with it.

From The Household Encyclopedia, By Henry Hartshorn

Other recipes, more complicated, call for rosemary, orange, mint,  and/or orange flower water [a conconction generally only associated with Spain in period], etc.

Sophie Hodorwicz Knab writes of a Polish perfume called Lavendogra, supposedly a corruption of the name Queen of Hungary water, which is a distilled 'water' (hydrosol) of lavender and rosemary, and claims that it was known in the middle ages. Hildegarde of Bingen (12th century German Abbess) is said to have been fond of using lavender water. On the other hand, distilled spirits are not mentioned her Physica, and lavender is given only a short entry.

Nancy M. Booth gives a modern recipe for the water in Perfumes, Splashes and Colognes, which includes lemon or orange peel, orangeflower water, glycerin [a modern ingredient, a by-product of the soap production process),  vodka, essential oil of lemon, essential oil of bergamot, essential oil of rosemary, and chopped fresh peppermint leaf.

Rosemary Gladstar published a version of Queen of Hungary water using vinegar instead of alcohol, but this recipe seems to originate with her, despite her claim to a connection with the 'Vinegar of the Four Thieves' which was apparently known in the 18th century. (All citations to a vinegar-based Queen of Hungary water on the web seem to point back to the Rosemary Gladstar version with her creative history.)

The Oxford English Dictionary, online version, gives the following quotations referencing Hungary water:

1698 VANBRUGH Prov. Wife V. vi, Your bottle of Hungary water to your lady. 1706 PHILLIPS (ed. Kersey), Queen of Hungry Water, a Spirit of Wine fill'd with the more essential part of Rosemary-flowers. 1727-41 CHAMBERS Cycl.,Hungary Water,..a distilled water, denominated from a queen of Hungary, for whose use it was first prepared;..made of rosemary flowers infused in rectified spirit of wine, and thus distilled.

I have not yet found any recipes for Queen of Hungary water or mentions of it in surviving period English documents that I have access to. Nor have I been able to pursue outright mentions of it in non-English documents yet-- I don't speak Polish! 19th century novels mention such waters as being peddled by Gypsies; and gypsies orginally travelled across Europe claiming to be under the protection of the King of Hungary.

There is a possibility that the water is not associated with Elizabeth of Hungary at all-- it may be a gypsy product whose association with the Queen is as mythical as the gypsies' letters of protection from the King of Hungary, and it may only have come into use in the 17th and 18th centuries. On the other hand, it may simply be that it was an Eastern European fashion that did not spread to England until later on.

However, Roy Genders in Perfume through the Ages suggests that the recipe may be at least dateable to the 1600s:

"The first alcoholic perfume was obtained from a distillation of rosemary. . . These initial experiments were made in Hungary, in 1370, from a recipe given to Queen Elizabeth of Hungary by a hermit who told her that it would preserve her beauty until her death." -- p. 122
He cites Beckmann's History of Inventions, a translation of a book first published in Frankfort in 1783.

Gender's recipe (which is the source for the recipe for Hungary Water in the Compleat Anachronist on Cosmetics) is as follows:
"[Hungary Water's] composition consists of a gallon of grape spirit; two ounces of otto of rosemary; one ounce each of otto of balm and lemon peel; a half drachm of otto of mint; and one pint each of extract of rose and orange flower. Should the orange flower extract proove difficult to obtain, it can be omitted and the esprit de rose increased to two pints. Hungary Water may be applied to the handkerchief and will refresh a tired mind, but its primary use is as a face wash or to add to bath water, when it will act as an invigorating tonic."--p. 122
Gender's version of the recipe--like all the recipes he gives-- is quite clearly postperiod practice. Not only does it conflict with all the definitions given in the OED quotations, but there are no sources given, the recipe is in a 19th-20th century format, and orangeflower extract  is included. Most sources claim that orangeflower extract (i.e.Oil of Neroli) is post-period, being named after a Italian princess; and the first quotation for it in the OED is from 1676. Orange flower water is mentioned in a number of recipes in the Spanish period text, Manual de Mujeres, but I have found no mentions of this water outside of Spain.

Gender's source, Beckmann's History of Inventions, has a number of things to say, not least that he doubts the attribution to Elizabeth of Hungary on the grounds of implausibility. He also says,
" John George Hoyer says that the receipt for preparing this water, written in Queen Elizabeth's own hand, is still preserved in the Imperial library at Vienna. But it has been already remarked by others that he does not properly remember the account given of the receipt."
Beckmann cites a text by John Prevot (d. 1631), published in 1656 (Selectiora remedia multiplici usu comprobata, quae inter secreta medica jure recenseas).
"For the gout in the hands and the feet. As the wonderful virtue of the remedy given below has been confirmed to me by the cases of many, I shall relate by what good fortune I happened to meet with it. In the year 1606 I saw among the books of Francis Podacather, of a noble Cyprian family . . .,  a very old breviary, which . . . he said . . .  had been presented by St. Elizabeth, queen of Hungary, to some of his ancestors. . . . In the beginning of the book he showed me a remedy for the gout written in the queen's own hand, in the following words, which I copied:--

'I Elizabeth, queen of Hungary, being very infirm and much troubled with the gout in the seventy-second year of my age, used for a year this receipt given to me by an ancient hermit who I never saw before nor since; and was not only cured, but recovered my strength, and appeared to all so remarkably beautiful that the king of Poland asked me in marriage, he being a windower and I a widow. I however refused him for the love of my Lord Jesus Chrsit, from one of whose angels I believe I recieved the remedy. The receipt is as follows:

Take of aqua vitae, four times distilled, three parts, and of the tops and flowers of rosemary two parts; put these together in a close vessel, let them stand in a gentle heat fifty hours, and then distil them. Take one dram of this in the morning once every week, either in your food or drink, and let your face and diseased limb be washed with it every morning.

It renovates the strength, brightens the spirits, purifies the marrow and nerves, restores and preserves the sight, and prolongs life.'"
At this point, it is helpful to point out that St. Elizabeth of Hungary was not either of the queens of Hungary living in the 1380s, but lived from 1207 to 1231.

So, we may be able to date the above recipe to at least 1631, the date of John Prevost's death, or 1659, the date of the publication of Prevost's work. If Prevost is to be believed, the receipt can be dated back to 1606 and possibly earlier, depending on who wrote the recipe in the book.

It is in the highest degree unlikely that St. Elizabeth penned the recipe; not only did she die too young for the story, she probably knew nothing of distillation. Though there are rumors that Hildegarde of Bingen had a still in her possession and distilled lavender water during her lifetime (circa 1098 - 1179),  and the techniques of alembic distillation came to Europe from the Arabic world between 1150 and 1250,  Elizabeth would have been unlikely to know of them.

The result is the most likely recipe is for distilled water of rosemary flowers and tops. The rosemary is first soaked in aqua vitae, a highly-distilled base alcohol, and the result redistilled.. The source of the based aqua vitae is not mentioned.  According to period and post period texts such as Gervase Markham's English Housewife, Plat's Delightes for Ladies, and John French's Art of Distillation, waters are created by starting with wine, beer or aqua vitae (twice or thrice distilled alcoholic liquor), adding your ingredients, and distilling.

Aqua vitae (water of life) was credited with many healing properties by the alchemists and the apothecaries, and by every herbal published after it became common.. Because of alcohol's antiseptic and sedative properties, it may actually have been helpful in some cases of illness.

Banckes' Herbal of 1525 suggests a cosmetic wash made from rosemary tops and flowers boiled in wine: "boil the leaves in white wine and wash thy face therewith, thy beard and they brows, and there shall no corns grow out, but thou shall have a fair face." Other rosemary uses listed in Banckes' is a rosemary tea "much worth against all evils of the body" and a topical application for gout: "if thy legs be blown with the gout, boil the leaves in water and then take the leaves and bind them in a linen cloth about they legs, and it shall do thee much good". Banckes' also suggests lavender tea for the palsy, another problem Hungary water allegedly cured: "If [lavender] be sodden in water, give that water to drink to a man that hath the palsy and it will heal him."

Gervase Markham, in his English Housewife, praises rosemary water highly, and recommends it for some of the same purposes as Queen of Hungary water:
"Rosemary water (the face washed therein both morning and night) causeth a fair and clear countenance: also the head washed therewith, and let dry of itself, preserveth the falling of the hair, and causeth more to grow; also two ounces of the same, drunk, dirveth venom out of the body in the same sort as mithridate doth; the same twice or thrice drunk, at each time half an ounce, rectifieth the mother [uterus], and it causeth women to be fruitful: when one maketh a bath of this decoction, it is called the bath of life; the same drunk comforteth the heart, the brain, and the whole body, and cleanseth away the spots of the face; it maketh a man look young, and causeth women to conceive quickly, and hath all the virtues of balm."
It thus appears that rosemary water (or rosemary and lavender water) could well be credited with the medicinal effects attributed to Queen of Hungary water.

Recreating the waters

Home distilling of alcohol is illegal in the US, so using the recipes presented by Prevot, etc. would be difficult. Plat's Delightes for Ladies (1627) gives a recipe for distilling herb waters ("How to distill Isop, Thyme, Lavender, Rosemary, &c after a new and excellent manner") that may or may not involve the use of alcohol. Though the directions do not mention adding alcohol, they break off with 'and distill as before in Cinnamon Water', and the cinnamon water recipe involves alcohol. Since I have not yet invested in a distilling apparatus, however, I opted not to try this possible method.

Plat does give an alternative:
"Spirit of Wine, tasting of what vegetable you please. Macerate Rosemary, Sage, Sweet Fennel seeds, Marjoram, Lemmon or Orenge pils, &c. in spirit of wine a day or two, and then distill it over again, unless you had rather have it in his proper colour. for so you shall have it upon the first infusion without any farther distillation; and some young Alchymists doe hold these for the true spirits of vegetables."
So Plat gives us evidence for tincturing (though in brandy) as a method.

I decided to pursue two alternatives: starting with the aquae vitae (in this case, vodka), either adding the whole fresh or dried ingredients and letting them soak (forming what is technically known as a tincture), or adding essential oils (which are generally formed by distillation to begin with).

Beckmann actually mentions this second method being used in his time: "the greater part of it is nothing else than common spirit, united with essence of rosemary in the simplest manner. In general, it is only mixed with a few drops of the oil." (However, he specifies that "Hungary water is spirit of wine distilled upon rosemary, and which therefore contains the essential oil and powerful aroma of that plant.")

In the interests of trying to approximate what Queen of Hungary Water may have been like, I've tried several different recipes and methods.

- 1/4 cup fresh or dried rosemary tinctured in 4 oz. vodka for several weeks, and the results strained and mixed, 1 part tincture to 3 parts distilled water.

Fresh rosemary takes a long time to tincture to the ‘rosemary’ fragrance; it starts off with a strong ‘green’ smell that is very different from the plant or the essential oil-- I suspect this is the 'grosser part' that French refers to in his treatise on distilling flowers. Dried rosemary gave a more 'rosemary-like' scent. This scent had more body, was longer lasting and less inclined to separate than the version with fresh rosemary. Mixing with undistilled water was more likely to produce sediment or cloudiness in this mixture, as the tincture is already light brown.

- Rosemary oil (5-10 drops) added to a 4 oz.  half-vodka, half-water mixture. (Using distilled water will prevent cloudiness from forming)

- Rosemary and lavender oils (4 drops each) added to 4 oz half-vodka, half water mixture (Lavendogra).

- Dried Rosemary leaves and lavender flowers (and a sprig of myrtle) tinctured in grain alcohol. This was my adaptation of the suggested 'lavendogra' recipe given by Sophie Knab, and it was quite pleasant.  It also needed to be mixed with water. Mixing it with undistilled water caused severe clouding in the mixture-- distilled water produced a much more attractive product.

- Recipe from Perfumes, Splashes and Colognes, slightly modified due to my own absent-mindedness: ingredients include: Peel of one orange, 1 c. orangeflower water, 1 c. vodka, 1/2 t. essential oil of lemon, 2 t. essential oil of bergamot, 1/2 t. essential oil of rosemary, 4 tb dried peppermint leaf.  
This produced something similar to the modern citrus-oriented scent that was recently marketed by Crabtree and Evelyn as Hungary Water.

- Recipe from Perfumes, Splashes and Colognes with commercial lavender water substituted for orange flower water and whole ingredients used instead of oils: Peel of one lemon, 1 c. lavender water, 1- 1 1/2 c. vokda, 1/2 c. rosemary, 2 tb dried peppermint leaf, 1/4 c. dried bitter orange peel.
The result was, predictably, less citrusy and more like the lavendogra experiments.

-- I've also made rosemary vinegar by steeping one part rosemary in 5-6 parts cider vinegar, but I find it better for cooking than perfume.

In addition, for fun, I've tried some other recipes: Carmelite Water (also dated to the late 1300's) using the same ingredients, though creative measurements, as the recipe from Perfumes, Splashes and Colognes, Lavender Water made from dried lavender flowers tinctured in vodka, and tincture of Lemon Balm in vodka.

Note: There have been some contentions that vodka is 'not period'. Most vodka is now made from a grain base, rather than the potato base more popular in the 19th century. Distillation of ale and beer, both grain based alcohols, was done by at least 1615 (c.f. Markham and French). Vodka is generally associated with Russia and Poland; a distilled aqua vitae product known as vodka was in use in Russia by the late 1500s, according to Bread and Salt: A social and economic history of food and drink in Russia, by  R.E.F. Smith and David Christian. (NY: Cambridge  University Press, 1984). . In addition most modern vodka is multiply distilled and not significantly aged, which is also supported by Markham, French and Plat. All these sources give recipes for 'compound waters' (with multiple ingredients) though none for Hungary Water.

While the documentation more heavily supports brandy (spirits of wine) I felt that it was reasonable to substitute vodka as my aquae vitae, and the result produces a more clearly colored and more 'perfume-like' result.


The 'Queen of Hungary Water' as given in modern recipes cannot be documented as a period product. However, distilled water of rosemary can be documented to period, as can waters of lavender, mint, etc. Compound waters can be documented to period, therefore a combination such as either the lavendogra or the modern Queen of Hungary Water recipes is plausible.  If Beckmann can be believed, a product made by tincturing rosemary leaves and flowers in alcohol and distilling the result was associated with a 'Queen of Hungary' in a source from 1659 or earlier, though it was a gout treatment. As a result, making and using an approximation of rosemary water can be considered reasonable though not fully documentable.

An approximation of distilled water of rosemary can be made either by tincture in brandy or vodka, or by adding essential oils to water/vodka mixture.  I found that tincturing produced a more full-bodied scent than simply adding essential oils to water and vodka. The result can be used as scent, or, less diluted as a face astringent or muscle rub. (When using it as a scent, some people like to add a little glycerin to prevent it from drying the skin.) For SCA wear, rosemary water has an advantage over lavender or rose water that fewer people are allergic to rosemary in the air, and it does produce a period scent.

Bibliography and further reading:

Copyright 2000, 2003 Jennifer Heise, jenne.heise@gmail.com. Please do not distribute without permission.
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