The Tudor Society

5 March – Tobacco comes to Europe

On this day in Tudor history, 5th March 1558, Spanish physician Francisco Fernandes brought back live tobacco plants and seeds from Mexico to Europe.

In today's "On This Day in Tudor History", I talk about the introduction of tobacco in Europe and how it was viewed as a cure-all, and how tobacco smoking became fashionable at Elizabeth I's court.

I went into more detail on tobacco and smoking in Tudor times in my Claire Chats video on the topic, so do watch that - click here.

Also on this day in Tudor history, 5th March 1549, a bill of attainder was passed against Thomas Seymour, Baron Sudeley, uncle of King Edward VI, finding him guilty of 33 counts of treason. Find out more in last year’s video:

Also on this day in history:

  • 1496 - King Henry VII of England issued letters patent to John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), the Italian navigator and explorer. Under this commission, Cabot set off to find Asia and instead discovered parts of North America.
  • 1563 – Birth of Sir John Coke, politician and influential administrator during Charles I's reign.
  • 1572 – Death of Edward Hastings, Baron Hastings of Loughborough, nobleman and soldier. In July 1553, when Lady Jane Grey became queen, he was involved in assembling supporters of Princess Mary in the Thames Valley and became one of Mary's trusted confidants. In the reign of Elizabeth I he was imprisoned in the Tower for hearing mass, but was released after taking the oath of supremacy.
  • 1575 – Birth and baptism of William Oughtred, the mathematician responsible for developing a straight slide-rule, a gauging rod and various sundials. He also introduced the "×" symbol for multiplication and the abbreviations "sin" and "cos" for the sine and cosine functions.
  • 1618 – Burial of Robert Abbot, Bishop of Salisbury, in Salisbury Cathedral.


On this day in Tudor history, 5th March 1558, Spanish physician Francisco Fernandes brought back live tobacco plants and seeds from Mexico to Europe.
Fernandes had been sent to Mexico by King Philip II of Spain to investigate the country’s produce. In 1492, people had been seen by members of Columbus’s crew carrying some kind of lighted firebrand and perfuming themselves with herbs in Cuba, then in the mid 1490s, snuff-taking had been observed and in 1502, the chewing of tobacco had been seen in South America. All this had aroused curiosity in the Spanish voyagers.
The chewing and smoking of tobacco was enjoyed by both the native population and the Spanish visitors in South America and also what is now Texas in the 1540s, but the tobacco plant was not known in Europe until Fernandes took it back with him in 1558, although some sources suggest it arrived in France two years earlier.
But what about England? When did tobacco arrive in England? Well, contemporary chronicler John Stow, writes of explorer Sir John Hawkins and his crew bringing tobacco to England in 1565, although he states that it was “not used by Englishmen in many years after”. Hawkins and his crew would have known about smoking tobacco using a pipe, and may have done it themsleves, but it is another Elizabethan explorer who is famous for making it fashionable in England – Sir Walter Raleigh. It is claimed that Sir RAFERalph Lane, who was given the task of establishing a colony at Roanoke in North Carolina by Raleigh, gave Raleigh an Indian tobacco smoking pipe and showed him how to use it in 1586 when they arrived back in England. However, George Latimer Apperson in his “The Social History of Smoking”, points out that Raleigh would already have known the Indian practice from his captains, Amadas and Barlow, who brought back Native Americans in 1584 who smoked, and from Thomas Hariot, who Raleigh sent out to investigate Virginia’s natural produce. In Hariot’s report, he wrote of the tobacco plant and how it was sucked through clay pipes into the stomach and head. Hariot wrote of how it “purgeth superfluous flegm and other gross humours, openeth all the pores and passages of the body” and that it preserved the body from obstructions and that the smokers’ bodies were “notably preserved in health, and know not many grievous diseases wherewithall we in England are oftentimes afflicted.” He then went on to report his own experiences of smoking it and Apperson believes that it is highly probably that he encouraged his patron, Raleigh, to try it.
Hariot is not alone in believing tobacco to be good for one’s health. Spanish physician and botanist Nicolás Monardes wrote of how Spaniards in the New World were taught the medicinal virtues of the tobacco plant by the natives, and in his 1569 book, he wrote of these virtues. He believed that it was a cure-all, that “it doth marvellous works, without any need of other surgery”, and that it could cure over 20 conditions, including the common cold and cancer. Monardes’ work was translated into English in 1577 by John Frampton. In 1595, “Tabaco”, a work by poet and pamphleteer, Anthony Chute, lauded the health benefits of tobacco, writing “I think that there is nothing that harms a man inwardly from his girdle upward, but may be taken away with a moderate use of tabaco.”
In 1600, according to legend, Sir Walter Ralegh presented Queen Elizabeth I with a pipe and persuaded her to try smoking. It made her sick and she believed she had been poisoned. However, it still caught on and became fashionable at court. It’s easy to see how it became popular, when it was smoked by royal favourites like Sir Walter Raleigh and said to have such wonderful health benefits. It was used at the time by smoking it, snuffing it, or by applying it topically. Playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe was interested in it and in Edmund Spenser’s “The Faerie Queen”, Belphoebe gives Timias tobacco to cure his wound.
As tobacco smoking became more and more popular, some people became concerned about its adverse effects. In 1602, an anonymous English doctor, using the name Philaretes, published an anti-tobacco treatise “Worke for Chimney Sweepers or a Warning for Tobacconists”, the first publication to present the health risks of tobacco. In it, the author pointed out that seeing as the illnesses seen in chimney sweepers were caused by soot, that tobacco could have similar effects.
In 1604, King James I imposed a tax on tobacco and wrote his treatise “A Counterblaste to Tobacco” in which he described smoking tobacco as “'A custom loathsome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black, stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” He also argued that it did not balance the humours, with its smoke being “humid”, that the smoke turned liquid in a person’s nose, making medical conditions like the rheums worse rather than better, that it would lead to the English people’s destruction, and that it was just a panacea. The Puritans also argued against it, seeing it as something that corrupted the body.
Its addictive nature had also been noted, with Francis Bacon noting its rise and how difficult it was to break the habit of smoking it.
Interestingly, in 1615 or 16, Thomas Hariot, who had reported the positive effects of smoking tobacco to Sir Walter Raleigh, suffered from a cancerous ulcer on his lip and his death in 1621 is thought to have been caused by cancer from his use of tobacco.
So, something that was introduced into Europe on this day in Tudor history, 5th March 1558, went from being seen as a fashionable cure-all to being a health concern within 50 years.
Trivia: While tobacco was seen as a cure-all, potatoes and tomatoes, as members of the nightshade family, were viewed with suspicion on their introduction to Europe. Herbalist John Gerard believed tomatoes to be poisonous and Europeans believed that potatoes caused ailments such as leprosy and scrofula.

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5 March – Tobacco comes to Europe