In Murder at the Royal Botanic Gardens, the latest book in my Wrexford & Sloane Regency historical mystery series, chicanery is afoot among the exotic flora and specimen planting of London’s historic Royal Botanic Gardens. The plot revolves around the missing formula for a new botanical medicine that will save countless lives. But while my story is purely fictional, the Gardens at Kew have a long and storied tradition for advancing knowledge in botanical medicine, and its magnificent plantings have a very special place in British history.
The seeds for this spectacular enclave were sowed in the sixteenth century, when Henry VII established a palace and royal hunting grounds on a swatch of land by the River Thames in Richmond. It became a summer retreat for the royals, which, in turn, drew courtiers to build their own fancy houses.
The area had a setback under Oliver Cromwell, who sold off much of the royal property. However, it was reassembled under William III, and during the seventeenth century, the first of a succession of eminent English landscape designers began to shape the grounds. William Kent and Charles Bridgeman created the original layout of Kew’s gardens, and later the great Capability Brown added his own signature vision of the ideal Natural World.
By the eighteenth century, Kew had become the summer residence of the royal family, who resided in Kew Palace, which had been purchased from a wealthy merchant. Frederick, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Augusta of Saxe-Gotha—parents to the future George III—were not only patrons of the arts but also had an avid interest in gardens. In 1759, they hired William Aiton from Chelsea Physic Garden to create a small “Physick Garden” at Kew, and improvements and experimentation with a variety of plantings made it the leading arbiter of garden design in Britain.
Lord Bute, who had a great interest in landscape design, assisted Frederick and Augusta in envisioning a master plan for Kew. (He also served as a tutor for the young George III.) After George III acceded to the throne, he purchased the Dutch House—a simple brick building now called Kew Palace that still stands on the grounds today—in 1781 to serve as a nursery for his growing brood. His eldest son—“Prinny” for us Regency aficionados—studied botany and drawing there as a child.
But it was the fortuitous friendship that formed between George III and Sir Joseph Banks in the late 1700s that made the Royal Botanical Gardens such a unique treasure. (I’m a big fan of Banks—I love his curiosity, his sense of adventure, and his sense of fun—excerpts from his diaries of South Seas exploration show a fellow who loved to commune with the indigenous people and learn from their local knowledge.) Banks, who went on to be head of the Royal Society, one of Britain’s most august scientific societies, made several expeditions to exotic spots around the globe and brought back many plant specimens.
His original collection is the basis of Kew’s amazing variety of plant life. Today, it’s one of the most important botanical research sites in the world. Its seed bank holds more than ten percent of wild flowering plant species in the world, including nearly every endangered species. The Herbarium houses more than seven million preserved specimens, and its library holds more than 175,000 botanical prints and drawings.
I love working history and tradition into my books. The Royal Botanic Gardens, with its amazing contributions to science and healing over the centuries, provided a spectacular setting for a Regency novel.
The upcoming marriage of the Earl of Wrexford and Lady Charlotte Sloane promises to be a highlight of the season, if they can first untangle—and survive—a web of intrigue and murder involving the most brilliant scientific minds in Regency London …
One advantage of being caught up in a whirl of dress fittings and decisions about flower arrangements and breakfast menus is that Charlotte Sloane has little time for any pre-wedding qualms. Her love for Wrexford isn’t in question. But will being a wife—and a countess—make it difficult for her to maintain her independence—not to mention, her secret identity as famed satirical artist A. J. Quill?
Despite those concerns, there are soon even more urgent matters to attend to during Charlotte and Wrexford’s first public outing as an engaged couple. At a symposium at the Royal Botanic Gardens, a visiting botanist suffers a fatal collapse. The traces of white powder near his mouth reveal the dark truth—he was murdered. Drawn into the investigation, Charlotte and the Earl learn of the victim’s involvement in a momentous medical discovery. With fame and immense fortune at stake, there’s no shortage of suspects, including some whose ruthlessness is already known. But neither Charlotte nor her husband-to-be can realize how close the danger is about to get—or to what lengths this villain is prepared to go.
Andrea Penrose is the best-selling author of Regency-era historical fiction, including the acclaimed Wrexford & Sloane mystery series, as well as Regency romances written under the names Cara Elliott and Andrea Pickens. Published internationally in ten languages, she is a three-time RITA Award finalist and the recipient of numerous writing awards, including two Daphne Du Maurier Awards for Historical Mystery and two Gold Leaf Awards. A graduate of Yale University with a B.A. in art and an M.F.A. in graphic design, Andrea fell in love with Regency England after reading Pride and Prejudice and has maintained a fascination with the era’s swirling silks and radical new ideas throughout her writing career. She lives in Connecticut and blogs with a community of historical fiction authors at WordWenches.com. She also can be found at AndreaPenrose.com and on Instagram @AndreaPenroseBooks.