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Image for the news item 'A King, a Prince, and a mobile Mulberry tree' on 1 Jun 2021
Left: HRH The Prince of Wales planting a black mulberry tree, May 1921; right: the mulberry tree today

The origin of the well-known English nursery rhyme Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush is uncertain, but it may lie in the doomed attempt by King James I and VI to establish an English silk industry in the early seventeenth century. The objective was to break the near-monopoly on silk production that China had enjoyed for more than a millennium, but despite the nationwide dissemination of cheap seeds and plants, the enterprise failed. This has often been attributed to the fact that only black mulberries were planted, the Chinese having cunningly concealed from Europeans the fact that silkworms only thrive on the white variety. It is much more likely, in fact, that our frosty northern winters were to blame, and an examination of the participation of Cambridge colleges in the scheme – at least four are known to have given it a go – would seem to support this.

The archives of Corpus Christi College, for instance, record that in the year ending Michaelmas 1609 they paid six shillings to ‘the Frenchman for a 100 of white mulbury settes’. At about the same time Emmanuel (with more spacious gardens) bought 300 ‘mulbyrie plants at the kings appointment’, at a cost of eighteen shillings. Given the coincidence of price and timing, it seems highly likely that we acquired our seedlings from the same source, and that they were also of the white variety. Emmanuel’s young plants probably failed fairly soon, for a few years later the college tried again with more mature specimens, the accounts for April-October 1612 recording the setting of ‘fourtie mulbyrie trees’. We can only speculate as to exactly where they were planted, for none of them is now standing, unlike the gnarled survivors at Jesus, Christ’s and Corpus Christi colleges.

Emma does, however, possess a black mulberry planted in more recent times. On 31 May 1921 the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, visited Cambridge to receive an Honorary Degree, and as the Vice-Chancellor, Dr Peter Giles, happened also to be Master of Emmanuel, the Prince was entertained here. Dr Giles’s daughter Elspeth recorded that the Prince ‘came to our house and we all shook hands and talked with him in our drawing room. Then he went into the garden and was introduced to a number of leading undergraduates and after that he planted a mulberry tree for us!’ Photographs of the ceremony show the Prince wielding a shiny new spade while standing on a piece of clean carpet, and since he smoked throughout the proceedings the soil was no doubt enriched with cigarette ash.

Although the mulberry tree was planted in the Master’s Garden, near the west wall of the old tennis court building, it is not there now. The Garden Committee minutes for 25th February 1943 record that permission was to be sought from the Governing Body to remove the old Mulberry tree in the Fellows’ Garden, ‘so as to permit proper growth of the young Mulberry’. At some point, then, the tree had been moved from its original site and replanted close to a more ancient specimen (a Jacobean relic, perhaps) in the Fellows’ Garden. Moving the tree has created a conundrum: can it still be regarded as having been planted by the Prince of Wales? The authors of the 1996 guidebook Emmanuel College Buildings and Gardens clearly felt it could not, for although they accord the tree a planting date of 1921, the Prince is not mentioned. The College took more care when choosing the sites for the trees planted by HM The Queen and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh during their 1984 ‘Quatercentenary’ visit to Emmanuel.

Emma’s centenarian black mulberry can be found between the swimming bath and the Oriental plane tree, and we are fortunate to have other specimens of this most attractive tree growing in the garden of 14 Park Terrace and Camden House. Mulberries have in recent years acquired the status of a ‘superfood’, but even without this fashionable endorsement, the delicious fruit produced by the college’s mulberry trees can be highly recommended.

Amanda Goode, College Archivist

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