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A salute to Henry VIII

I remember not being very impressed with Henry VIII when I was studying GCSE History. He beheaded his wives and seemed to cause chaos wherever he went. He also ate a lot of meat and pastries, drank a lot of wine and was well known for his ulcerous legs and obesity. Probably type 2 diabetes...

Apparently when he became King at the age of eighteen, he was quite fit and sporty. It's only later during his thirty eight year reign that he became a cruel and despotic tyrant - again, I reckon this is probably due to his poor blood sugar control and the fact that he had these awful leg ulcers. Oh, and probably partly due to the pressures of being King at the time.

But did you know that it's partially thanks to Henry VIII that Medical Herbalists can practice in the UK today?

Henry was really interested in Medicine and founded the Royal College of Physicians in 1518 and the Company of Barber-Surgeons in 1540. He introduced some major public health reforms and was also known for making his own ointments and salves.

Ol' King Henry actually advocated for the poor to have access to medicine, in an age where physicians and surgeons studied Latin texts and used dangerous substances like arsenic and mercury to treat their patients.

At the time, these surgeons and physicians had a very low opinion of herbalists and wanted them off the scene altogether. Herbal medicine, however, was the people's medicine and Henry drew up a document called the Charter of King Henry VIII which actually prevented the physicians from monopolising on healthcare and charging extortionate fees. The charter stated that anybody with the skills to use herbs could use them freely to treat people. This was quite a big step for the practice of Herbal Medicine being accepted and recognised as a form of accessible healthcare.

Herbalists flourished for many centuries and there were apothecaries on most street corners where people could go for over-the-counter remedies. By the seventeenth century, herbal medicine was used widely throughout Europe and in 1649, Nicholas Culpeper translated the Pharmacopoeia which was a Latin text produced by the College of Physicians to try to standardise the practice in apothecaries.

Culpeper studied to become a doctor at Cambridge, but ended up doing an apprenticeship at an apothecary and serving the poor of London. He was also instrumental in making herbal medicine accessible to the masses.

Herbal Medicine was flourishing until the early 1900s when the Flexner Report was published, establishing the current biomedical model as the gold standard in medicine. From this point, pharmaceutical medicines began to gain a monopoly over healthcare.

Today, Medical Herbalists undertake rigorous clinical training to become certified by the National Institute of Medical Herbalists. People are often surprised when I talk to them about what we study and how many hours of clinical training and pharmacy we do. Lucky for us, the Directive on Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products still allows us to prescribe a herbal medicine to a patient after having a consultation.

I do feel that the art and science of Herbal Medicine is under threat - mostly because of pharmaceutical companies extracting active compounds and then marketing them as safer and more effective then the whole plant medicine.

For now, we are protected somewhat by the law and traditional constitutions of this country. Our major enemy is the lack of awareness of what we do, which is why I love teaching people about the therapeutic properties of herbs. I feel that this knowledge needs to be shared widely, especially with the younger generations because it's empowering to walk around and know which plants you can use as remedies.

Herbal medicine helps you connect more with your environment, leading to better mental and physical health. It's also a really sustainable form of medicine and needs to form part of a more integrated approach to healthcare.

If you're interested in learning more about Herbal Medicine, why not sign up for my ten week Introduction to Herbal Medicine course here.

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