The Sedley Project

Click for Liza Blake’s keys to the alphabet and brevigraphs used in the Sedley manuscript.

The archives of the Royal College of Physicians holds a manuscript recipe book (MS 534) written by Lady Sedley, dated 1686.

It is a fine example of the kind of household medical knowledge prevalent in the 16th through 19th centures, when most medicines would be made up at home from locally available ingredients. These were concocted using sets of instructions, called receipts or recipes, often compiled into collections like MS 534. In wealthy households the receipts were recorded in handwritten books, sometimes combined with more general cooking recipes and other snippets such as estate accounts, poems, or even charms to ward off witchcraft. These manuscripts, and the practices they describe, were handed down through families and shared within communities. 

Pamela Forde of the RCP on What to Expect in Lady Sedley’s Recipe Book

Even though his Royal College of Physicians manuscript has the name “The Lady Sedley” inscribed in it, connecting it to a known historical person remains a challenge. The composition of the book, the nature of its ingredients, the references to sources for the recipes, and the style of the handwriting all give us clues as to the location, social status, educational status and general life of the compilers. But these clues can be misleading, for many reasons. In the absence of firm data, the best we can do is make guesses about who the authors were and when they were writing or using these volumes.

The author was originally identified as Sir Charles Sedley’s wife, Katherine. A politician, poet and courtier, Sir Charles Sedley was notorious in his youth as part of a gang of courtiers which included the Earl of Rochester. But his enduring reputation among his peers was as a famous wit. This Katherine Sedley  was alive in 1686. However, recent research confirmed that from 1672 to her death in 1705, Lady Katherine Sedley was held in a convent at Ghent, suffering from severe mental health issues.

 

Pamela Forde on the identity of Lady Sedley

The Sedleys’ daughter was also called Catherine. However, she was notorious in her lifetime as one of King James II’s mistresses. He made her Baroness Darlington and Countess of Dorchester in January 1686, so she would be unlikely to have called herself Lady Sedley.

A more likely possibility is that it was written by Ann Ayscough, daughter of a Yorkshire gentleman. Ann became Sir Charles’ common law wife around 1672, after Lady Catherine was sent to Ghent. There are contemporary sources which state they went through some form of marriage ceremony and that she was known socially as Lady Sedley. Charles and Ann had two sons and their relationship lasted until Sedley’s death.

A final mystery is that the later recipes, from page 59, are obviously written in a second hand, which is less neat than the first. But there is no second inscription in the volume.

An Introduction to the RCP from Pamela Forde