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(This article first appeared in the November 2011 edition of “Ramparts: The magazine of the Friends of Dudley Castle”)

Isn’t it strange? Dudley Castle is renowned world wide for something discovered during the excavations of the 1980s, yet that discovery is very rarely mentioned…


            I am, of course, referring to the world’s oldest condoms.  They were found in the Garderobe of the keep and made from either pig or sheep intestine. They date from the Castle’s occupation by Royalist officers during the Civil War from 1642 to 1646 who may have brought them from Europe. They were reusable and would be tied on with ribbons, but they were not cheap given their production method. A Nineteenth century recipe gives an idea of how much work went into their production:


        “Take the caecum of the sheep; soak it first in water, turn it on both sides, then repeat the operation in a weak ley [solution] of soda, which must be changed every four or five hours, for five or six successive times; then remove the  mucous membrane with the nail; sulphur, wash in clean  water, and then in soap and water; rinse, inflate and dry. Next, cut it to the required length and attach a piece of ribbon to the open end”


            Linen and leather condoms were also used in the  Sixteenth century. Condoms, however, were not only used as contraception but also as protection against “The French Pox” or Syphilis.


            Syphilis arrived in England around 1493. The term ‘French Pox’ was derived from the belief that the disease originally travelled from the New World and through France before arriving in England’. It was also believed to be   Christopher Columbus’ own ship that brought it to Europe from the Americas  but this was not suggested until several decades after the event. Other nicknames included: Hot Piss, The Clap, The French Disease, The French Embrace, and the Infinite Malady.



        Today we know that syphilis is caused by the bacterium Treponema Pallidum, however, in the past it was believed to be caused by an imbalance in the four humours, (blood, phlegm, yellow bile and black bile) which made up the body and as a punishment from God as retribution for the “licentious and beastly disorder” of the morally degenerate. Sufferers in history include Cesare Borgia (1475-1507) and Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley (1545 -1567) Mary Queen of Scots’ second husband.

Today it can be cured using antibiotics; treatment for syphilis in Tudor times involved the use of mercury. For  example, Gervase Markham, in the late sixteenth century, wrote in his book, The English Housewife:


 “Take quicksilver and kill it with fasting spittle, then take verdigris, Arabic, turpentine, oil olive, and populeon, and mix them together to one entire ointment, and anoint the sores therewith, and keep the party exceeding warm. Or otherwise, take of alum burned, of resin, frankincense, populeon, oil of roses, oil de bay, oil olive, green copperas, verdigris, white lead, mercury sublimate, of each a pretty quantity but of alum most, then beat to powder the simples that are hard, and melt your oils, and cast in your powders and stir all well together, then strain them through a cloth, and apply it warm to the sores; or else take of capon’s grease that hath touched no water, the juice of rue and the fine powder of pepper, and mix them together to an ointment, and apply it round about the sores, but let it not come into the sores, and it will dry them up”.


       Unfortunately, Lead and Mercury also prove lethal.



Hemingway, J. (2006) An Illustrated Chronicle of the Castle and Barony of Dudley. Friends of Dudley Castle.

Tannahill, R. (1989) Sex in History. Abacus

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