Apothecaries’ 400th Anniversary

English Apothecary Shop 17th Century after Faithorne. Undated illustration

December 6th 2017 saw the 400th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter by King James 1 to the Apothecaries and signalled their legal freedom from the Grocers Company. It has colloquially been called Grexit.

The Grocers had always imported the raw materials for making medicines in bulk, en grosse, hence their name. Within the Company, one of the oldest and richest London Livery Companies, there had always been a group who were more interested in compounding medicaments and filling prescriptions rather than in the business of grocery.  By the early seventeenth century this group wanted to form a company of their own which would have the power to regulate apothecaries’ work and police the purity of the drugs they made.

This secessionist group was led by Gideon de Laune, the son of William de Laune a Reformed Church minister and physician who had escaped the Huguenot persecution in France in 1572 and had settled in Blackfriars. Gideon was Apothecary to Anne of Denmark, James’s wife. Also attending the Royal family were Theodore de Mayerne (1573-1654), another Protestant refugee from France and Anne’s Physician, and Henry Atkins (1558-1635) President of the Royal College of Physicians 1607/8 and 1616/17. Atkins wanted the College to have more control over the apothecaries and thought that this could be obtained if they were separate from the Grocers.

Gideon de Laune by Cornelius Johnson 1593-1661

In 1610 the grocer-apothecaries promoted a Bill in Parliament for separation for the Grocers. This fell when Parliament was dissolved in 1611. A second attempt was made in 1614, signed by seventy-six grocer-apothecaries, but this again failed with Parliament’s dissolution. It was called the Addled Parliament and only sat for six weeks. The King acceded to a new apothecaries’ petition in 1615 and a charter was drawn up for royal signature which was delayed by wrangling among the Crown’s legal officers. In the summer of 1617 Bacon was made Regent of England while James made his first visit to Scotland since his accession. Bacon prepared a third charter which was signed on James’ return.

The legal work in preparing the apothecaries’ case was most skilfully done and it has always been thought that this was under the guidance of Francis Bacon. On Bacon’s fall from grace in 1624 he acknowledged that he had received financial favours from both parties to the dispute.

The Grocers backed by the Mayor and City of London fought the secessionists vigorously with petitions and counter claims.  However the drive and ambition of de Laune, underpinned with excellent legal advice and backed by Royal favour and the President of the Royal College of Physicians, ensured that the Apothecaries had their own Society.

John Ford

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