Short History of Roses in England

Maggie Campbell-Culver’s The Origins of Plants provides a concise history of the rose in England.

“There is still only very scant knowledge of flower gardens and what was grown in them at this time [in first century AD], but the century marks the beginning of England’s long love affair with the rose.  This flower, together with what we now know as the Madonna Lily, played a significant role in our Christian development.

By the start of the second millenium, the rose was already very well known, having been growing throughout Europe for centuries.  Both the Greek and the Roman civilisations were cultivating it, and in its heartland in the Middle East, the Persians called it ‘a messenger of the garden of souls.’  The flower is so instantly recognisable and is so much bound up in our vision of the Garden of Eden, [p.61] paradise gardens, the cult of Our Lady and courtly love during this period that, like the Dianthus, it has become part of our Englishness.  ….  The rose happens to have a very complicated story as well.

Although the five native roses (briars) must have often been grown in garths or picked in the countryside (for their flowers and their hips), they were not significant in the development of the garden rose.  This springs from another five, the ‘Five Ancestors’ as John Gerard succinctly calls them.  The first is the beautifully perfumed Rosa gallica (now R. gallica var. officinalis), a native from France and southern Europe to western Asia and cultivated from time immemorial.  Known as the Apothecary’s Rose, its petals were used in potpourri and conserves.  Then there is R. moschata, the Musk Rose (and earlier known as the Holy Rose of Abyssinia), which is the white climbing rose from West Asia and is believed to have arrived here in 1590.  The third of Gerard’s roses is R. damascena, which was thought to have originated in Damascus, hence its name, but which grew all over the Middle East.  It was introduced here in 1573 and was used to make attar of roses.  R x alba, although very old, is thought to be a cross between R. canina and R. damascena.  Called the Great White Rose, it may have been a native of southern France, but again, it has been cultivated for so long that no one is quite sure.  The last of the five is the Common Moss Rose, R. x centifolia ‘Muscosa’, the old Cabbage Rose, which has been described as having up to sixty petals and as being the most fragrant in the world. (Origin of Plants, pp60-61)

The rose was first used as a royal symbol by Eleanor of Provence, who in 1236 married Henry III in Canterbury Cathedral and took the white rose as her symbol.