This unfurled ‘page’ of lettering on a Beech tree literally means a book…

The German word for “letter” – Buchstabe – literally means “Beech stick” and refers to a time when an old form of lettering called runes was carved or punched into staves or sticks (Staben) made of beech wood (Buche) [Fagus sylvatica]. Our word stab comes from this pointed stick, too. 

Runes were used for divination and when making important decisions. The German / Old Teutonic was itself derived from Old Norsk bók meaning beech.  So, the beech tree is the origin of the English word book.  In Old English it was bóc

Buchstaben, then, literally means beech graffiti. And, lots of letters put together … a book / Buch / and back to beech. Love it!

The smooth bark is an ideal surface for carving.  As the tree grows in height and girth, the letters rise up the trunk and expand, giving clues to the tree’s age.

Extracts from the Oxford English dictionary (2nd edition 1989)


A com. Teut. Word
OE. bóc 
These forms indicate an OTeut. *bôk
The original meaning was evidently ‘writing-tablet, leaf, or sheet’
OE. bóc charter: in pl. tablets, written sheets, hence ‘book,’ a sense subseq. extended to the singular.

Gothic does not show *bôks, but an apparently derivative form bôka strong fem., in sense of ‘letter’ of the alphabet, pl. bôkôs litteræ, γράµµατα, writing, document, book.

The OED adds a note to dampen this lovely eponymous circularity of meaning:

[Generally thought to be etymologically connected with the name of the beech-tree, OE. bócbéce, ON. bók:—(see beech), the suggestion being that inscriptions were first made on beechen tablets, or cut in the bark of beech trees; but there are great difficulties in reconciling the early forms of the two words, seeing that bôk-s ‘writing-tablet’ is the most primitive of all.]

Never let truth get in the way of a good story, though.

Morus Londinium mulberry blogs by Peter Coles and friends


New series of mulberry tree walks

Leaning black mulberries in Fountain Court planted for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897

From the end of June through July I’ll be leading weekly walks, using London’s mulberry trees as waypoints to discover the capital’s hidden past. From Roman bathhouses and Thameside wharves to King James I’s silk project; from Chelsea’s fascinating veteran mulberry heritage to the City’s Monasteries and Inns of Temple …

More information and bookings:


Mulberry: a new book by Peter Coles

Few trees have had a greater global impact than the mulberry. As the sole food of the Bombyx silkworm, the leaves of the mulberry have brought prosperity to all those who learned the art of silk production over the past 5000 years. In this beautifully illustrated new book, Mulberry, I also chart the many other contributions the tree has made to civilization, from the first paper, to exquisite furniture and even modern medicine. And the blood-red fruit of the black mulberry has graced royal tables and inspired poets for centuries. Mulberry is published by Reaktion Books on 11 November 2019.

Milton’s other mulberry trees

by Stephen J. Bowe and Peter Coles

One of the best-known veteran mulberry trees in England is the so-called ‘Milton Mulberry’ in the Fellows’ Garden at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, which Peter Coles wrote about in December 2018 (read the article here). The tree was planted in 1609, most likely alongside several others, when Christ’s (like nearby Emmanuel, Jesus and Corpus Christi colleges) decided to support James I’s project to start an English silk industry, with mulberry groves to feed the silkworms.

Sculptural likeness of John Milton made from mulberry wood.
Pinto collection (Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery).

The veteran tree at Christ’s has come to be associated with one of the College’s most illustrious students, the poet and man of letters, John Milton (1608 – 1674). Milton was a student at Christ’s from 1625 and graduated in 1629, receiving his Masters’ degree a few years later, in 1632. The tree would have been at least 20 years old when the young poet knew it and already a  decent size, but hardly impressive enough to inspire poetry. Most of the major works for which Milton is known (such as Paradise Lost) were published much later.

The Milton Mulberry at Christ’s College was planted in 1609 [Photo: Peter Coles]

Stephen beside the Milton Mulberry. Jam made from the fruit is sometimes available to the public (just ask…). (Photo: Chris Taylor)

The King’s sericulture project soon ran out of steam, though, leaving behind a number of veteran mulberries up and down the country, which have survived from the 17th century and mostly used to produce copious quantities of jam.

The Christ’s College ‘Milton Mulberry’ is not the only mulberry tree to be associated with the poet though.

A ‘Milton’ Mulberry in Stowmarket

In the early 17th century Milton was a regular guest of his former schoolboy tutor, the Scottish Presbyterian, Reverend Thomas Young, who had been appointed vicar of Stowmarket (Suffolk) in 1628. Young was one of the founders of a group of five controversial Puritan clergymen, going by the name of Smectymnuus (an acronym based on their names), which Milton later defended in his own pamphlets.  The garden of the Old Vicarage (since renamed Milton House) boasts a splendid black mulberry tree, which could date back to this time, or be a descendant of an older tree.

The black mulberry at Milton House in Stowmarket may have been planted in Milton’s time.

The Stowmarket mulberry in the 19th century. [Watercolour by Stephen Bowe based on a 19th century print]
In Victorian times, when Reverend A.G.H. Hollingsworth was vicar of Stowmarket, he apparently made as much as ten gallons of wine using fruit from the tree. The tree was blown over in 1939, but mulberries are tremendous survivors and are able to re-grow from flattened trunks and branches that touch the ground – a process known as ‘layering’.

We will never know if Milton had a hand in planting the tree, but its association with the poet is ingrained in local history. Milton House is now home to Stowmarket Council, with the mulberry featuring on its website.

A ‘Milton Mulberry’ in Chalfont St Giles

Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St Giles is now a museum dedicated to the poet
[Photo: MortimerCat / Creative Commons]
In 1665, to escape the bubonic plague that was ravaging London, Milton moved with his wife and daughter to a modest cottage found for him by his former student, Thomas Ellwood, in Chalfont St Giles (Buckinghamshire). It is here that he wrote his major works, Paradise Lostand Paradise Regained.Built in the late 16th century, and now known as Milton’s Cottage, it has a Grade II listed historic garden and, until recently, featured an 80 year-old mulberry tree, grown from a cutting from the Christ’s College tree.

An 8- year-old scion of the Milton Mulberry in Cambridge had to be felled recently.

This tree had to be felled a few years ago, but a cutting was taken from it and planted out near to the car park, where it is now flourishing.  The cottage is now a  museum, displaying various artefacts associated with Milton, including early editions of Paradise Lost.

A scion of the scion of Milton’s Mulberry has been planted to replace the felled tree

The Charterhouse ‘Milton Mulberry’

Another celebrated offspring of the Christ’s Milton Mulberry is the ‘Queen’s Mulberry’ in Preacher’s Court at Charterhouse in London (see our previous article here).  The tree is thought to have been planted around 1840. There are six other mulberries at Charterhouse, but their provenance is not certain.

The 170 year-old Queen’s Mulberry in Preacher’s Court is a scion of the Milton Mulberry at Christ’s
[Photo: Peter Coles]
The Drovers Wood ‘Milton’ mulberry

As part of celebrations of the 400th anniversary of John Milton’s birth, a cutting from the mulberry tree at Christ’s College, Cambridge was planted at the Woodland Trust’s Drovers Wood, in Upper Dreinton, Hereford as part of the Hay Literary Festival.  No doubt more cuttings will be taken from the Christ’s college tree, further multiplying ‘Milton’ mulberries  – a scion for a scion.

If readers know of other ‘Milton Mulberries’ please let us know.

Canonbury’s heritage mulberry

By Peter Coles

Canonbury, that sedate corner of urban tranquillity just two miles due north of St Paul’s cathedral, is home to more curiosities than many parts of London. Some are well known, like the delightful, exposed stretch of the New River, a project started in 1602 and completed in 1613, to bring drinking water to central London from the River Lea near Ware in Hertfordshire (see also our article linked to Sir Hugh Myddelton, who oversaw the project).

And then there is Canonbury Tower – a very unusual Tudor brick tower built between 1509 and 1532 by Prior William Bolton of St Bartholomew’s Priory in Smithfield (on the site of St Bartholomew-the-Great). The Tower was part of his redesign of the extensive 13th century Canonbury Manor, which belonged to the canons of St Batholomew’s. This once covered all of today’s Canonbury Place, including a large park and gardens, complete with an octagonal house – another Canonbury curiosity, which can still be see today in Alwyne Villas.

canonbury house and tower

But few are aware that, hidden in a private garden behind the tower and the adjacent Canonbury House, is a sprawling, gnarled, black mulberry tree that might turn out to be one of the oldest in London.

The sprawling black mulberry may be over 400 years old

The gnarled and collapsed old trunk is hollow and split

A 16th century skyscraper

Canonbury Tower is fascinating in its own right. When Henry VIII seized Canonbury Manor during his Dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, it eventually passed down to his First Minister, Thomas Cromwell, who oversaw the Dissolution. Cromwell lived here for a year before his fall from grace and execution in 1540. In 1570 the Mansion passed to Sir John Spencer, a favourite of Elizabeth I, who became Lord Mayor in 1590. In the early 1600s, Sir Francis Bacon lived here and, later, Oliver Goldsmith.

The Tower has some extraordinary carved fireplaces, Tudor cubbyholes and a dark, oak-panelled room with a few remnants of the paraphernalia of freemasonry. Much of the Masonic symbolism added to the wood carvings and decorations was commissioned by Spencer, who was a prominent Rosicrucian. On Spencer’s death in 1610, the mansion passed down to his son-in-law, William Compton, Earl of Northampton, who had eloped with Spencer’s daughter, Eliza, who was hiding in a bread basket lowered from an upstairs window. The Manor has passed down in the Spencer-Compton family ever since and is still owned by the Marquess of Northampton.

Spencer was a friend of Francis Bacon, the philosopher and parliamentarian under both Elizabeth I and James I, who came to live at Canonbury Manor from 1616-25. Like Spencer, Bacon was a Rosicrucian, and the first Grand Master of modern English Freemasonry. The Tower became the home of the Masonic Research Centre from 1998-2012.

The oldest mulberry in London?

Did any of these illustrious early residents plant the mulberry tree? If so, it could be anywhere between 400 and 500 years old, placing it in the ranks of the oldest surviving mulberries anywhere in England – and certainly the oldest within walking distance of the City. There are very old mulberries in the ancient orchard at Syon House, which are also thought to be 16th or at least 17th century. Old mulberries were noted there in 1548 by William Turner, the botanist and apothecary to Lord Somerset who inherited the Bridgettine monastery after the Dissolution and built a house there. But, although well inside the M25,  Syon House is in Brentford, 13 miles away from the City. Meanwhile, another very old mulberry at Charlton House, which is thought to date from 1611, is 7 miles from the City.

Could the Canonbury mulberry really be Tudor and as old, or older, than the Syon House trees? It is impossible to tell for sure, without invasive analysis. But it does share many of the hallmarks of a very old tree: It has collapsed and much of the trunk is lying horizontally. Branches trailing along the ground have started to grow upwards like new trunks, some distance from the original bole. The core of this bole is hollow and split, with the familiar burrs of a black mulberry, making it very difficult to measure its girth to assess its age.

There is a black mulberry at Hatfield House that was possibly planted by John Tradescant when he was Head Gardener from 1610-15, but may well pre-date him by fifty years, as it has also been attributed to Princess Elizabeth, when she lived there before becoming queen . The Hatfield mulberry, though has been pollarded and, while hollow, is squat and not leaning or lying down.  Meanwhile, Christ’s College, Cambridge has records of purchasing and planting black mulberry trees in 1608. One of these – the celebrated ‘Milton mulberry’ – survives on a mound in the Fellow’s Garden and shares several features with the Canonbury tree.

There is, then, every possibility that the Canonbury mulberry is very old – the walled garden where the tree stands features in old plans of the Manor. Prior Bolton seems to have been familiar with mulberries and may have planted one or more at St Bartholomew’s Priory, which he rebuilt. There are records of a very old mulberry tree still surviving in the 19th century, adjacent to St Bartholomew-the-Great (with remains of the Priory) and some evidence for a mulberry garden next to the Infirmary.  There is a fine mulberry tree there today, although not more than 100 years old, but it does symbolise the ancient connection.

Another possibility is that Francis Bacon planted the Canonbury mulberry. Bacon was a cousin of Robert Cecil, son of William Cecil, the powerful Lord Burghley in the reign of Elizabeth I.  Robert was responsible for rebuilding the Tudor Hatfield House and gardens in the Jacobean style. James I had persuaded Robert to accept the Old Palace and manor at Hatfield in exchange for the splendid Theobalds, which Robert had inherited from his father.  We know that around 1611 Robert sent his gardener, John Tradescant, abroad to bring back mulberry saplings. He apparently planted around 500 at Hatfield, as part of James’s sericulture project, though only one survives today – and that is a corner feature of the Tudor knot garden, not apparently a vestige of a plantation. Robert Cecil and Bacon were not exactly on friendly terms, but Tradescant may have had a mulberry going spare for Bacon to plant at Canonbury – if there wasn’t one there already….


Thanks to Nicola and Gavin Ralston for inviting me to look at the tree. Nicola is writing her own account of the tree for the Canonbury Society, due out in March-April 2018.