Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Gardens Through the English Eras

I'm delighted to welcome Debra Brown to my blog. As well as writing the wonderfully evocative, The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, Debbie is the founder of the EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors) of which I am proud to be a member. So without further ado - let me hand the stage to Debra.

Thumbing through my precious copy of the newly released Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors, I came across an interesting contrast by author Judith Arnopp. She wrote:
Medieval literature depicts noblemen striding about the world, galloping into battle in the service of the king, embarking upon arduous pilgrimage and living and breathing upon a vastly dangerous, stimulating stage. These men are shown to be invincible, self-assured, and in control, and there were few limits placed upon them.
“The women in this literature are portrayed very differently; they rarely travel, they never fight and are usually to be found within the vicinity of the castle walls. Their role is to marry, provide heirs, and be an asset to their husband. Life for most medieval woman was closeted; we see them safe within the walls of the castle, sewing, strumming musical instruments, listening to minstrels’ songs or to tales of courtly-love.
”The favoured place for these activities was the garden, and many manuscripts illustrate this. We see women sitting among the flowerbeds, sometimes planting and maintaining the gardens or, more often, we find them in a lovers’ tryst. Other times they are shown sitting in the shade of a tree listening to a minstrel’s tales and, paradoxically, the stories they are listening to are of other women also dwelling within the safety of their own gardens.”
A woodcut of a woman in a medieval kitchen garden
Though Judith’s lovely post goes on to discuss women and the garden as a literary device, at this point I was temporarily lost in the beauty of imagined gardens. This kind of beauty seems to be a part of us all—who doesn’t visit a garden from time to time or if given the time and resources, surround their home with greenery and colorful blooms?

If we could bring together persons from past centuries and ask them to draw a picture of “the typical garden”, what might they draw? Though of course at times and for many peoples the picture would be a muddy plot or a strip filled with common vegetables, herbs, or grain, M.M. Bennetts tells about the change in what an Elizabethan woman might sketch and why the difference. She tells us:

“…in 1520, the Church owned roughly one-sixth of the kingdom. By 1558, when Elizabeth ascended the throne—roughly twenty years after the Dissolution of the Monasteries—three-fourths of that land had been sold off, primarily into the hands of the gentry and the increasingly monied middle class. And this substantial change in land ownership brought with it equally substantial shifts in political, cultural, and economic power within the kingdom….
“Translated into plain English, there was now a land-owning gentry and burgeoning middle class who found themselves able to spend more of their resources on pleasures and comforts, rather than on self-defence and necessities as they previously would have done.
“So rather than the conversation between husband and wife going something like, ‘I see York is getting resty. I think we really should build another defensive tower and a moat...’ the conversation now could go something like, ‘Hmm, I fancy having a garden over on the south side of the house. With a rose pergola. What about you?’”
A recreation of an Elizabethan Garden in the grounds of Kenilworth Castle
Photo courtesy of English Heritage.
And what did these Elizabethan gardens look like? M.M. describes them thus:

“Always the gardens of the period were walled or enclosed in some way—by walls, hedges, fences, or even moats—and generally built off the house, often accessible only from the family’s main room or parlour.
“Enclosing the space ensured a measure of protection from wild animals (hungry deer) or thieves, but it also protected the plants from prevailing winds and provided a warmer microclimate. Then too, in plans of Elizabethan manor houses, one will occasionally find several unconnected walled gardens leading off from the different rooms in the house—some for pleasure, others for the medicinal herbs or vegetables, still others with their walls covered in espaliered apples, figs, and pear....
“Also, Elizabethan gardens were always laid out formally, geometrically designed and as often as not symmetrically, with knot gardens being the most common feature of the late 16th century garden. Indeed, one could rightly call the knot garden a very English passion.”

What about the 17th Century woman who did not have the means for a defensive tower or moat to scrap? The average 17th Century housewife? Deborah Swift relates:

“The concept of a “pretty” garden would have been anathema to most women of the 17th century, as gardens were primarily about producing food and herbs, unless you were very wealthy, in which case the gardening was left to your servants. The 17th century author of The English Housewife, Gervase Markham, claimed the “complete woman” had:
‘skill in physic, surgery, cookery, extraction of oils, banqueting stuff, ordering of great feasts, preserving of all sorts of wines…distillations, perfumes, ordering of wool, hemp and flax: making cloth and dying; the knowledge of dairies: office of malting; of oats…of brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household.’
“Guess that did not leave much time for planting pretty flowers!” Deborah says. “Because kitchen gardens were about supplying the table, and as much ground as possible was covered with edible plants, every garden was different, planted according to the whims of the women of the household.”

M.M. Bennetts tells us:

…with the onset of the Civil War in 1642 and the subsequent Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, gardening, such as it had been, ground to a halt for many different reasons. Armies tramping across the countryside, particularly armies of Levellers, aren’t good for the preservation of gardens. Taxes were high and remained very high under Cromwell which meant substantially less disposable income….
“With the Restoration of Charles II, the idea of a pleasure garden was once again permitted. But now, after their experience on the Continent, the large landowners and fashionable gardeners sought to recreate versions of the most splendid garden of their age: Versailles. And this formal style, full of grand canals, classical statuary, fountains, and extensive geometrical beds edged in box, held sway into the early years of the 18th century.
A garden party at the time of King Charles II.

“But vast, formal gardens are very expensive to maintain—they are not only labour intensive, they also take up so much land that might be otherwise profitably employed. And it was the garden writer and designer, Stephen Switzer, who suggested a cheaper alternative in his Ichnografia Rustica, published in 1718. He was writing mainly for the owners of villas—successful businessmen mostly—whose smallish estates were near London.
“His proposal was that one should open up the countryside so that one might enjoy ‘the extensive charms of Nature, and the voluminous Tracts of a pleasant retreat, and breathe the sweet and fragrant Air of gardens.’ He went on to suggest that the garden be ‘open to all View, to the unbounded Felicities of distant Prospect, and the expansive Volumes of Nature herself.’
“Switzer examined costs and expenses; he proposed that the designs be more rural and natural and relaxed, that garden walls were an unnecessary expense, etc. In short, Switzer proposed the landscape movement which would transform the gardens of England….
“… as the eighteenth century progressed, influenced by their experiences of the Grand Tour, by writers such as Pope and Walpole, and by visiting other gardens, England’s landed classes began to favour a less formal and more naturalistic approach to landscape design. In developing the uniquely English concept of the landscape garden, William Kent, Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown, and the other great landscape architects of the period were responding to a complex assortment of social and aesthetic ideals among their clients.
“As well as the integration of forestry, farming, and sport into the landscape, the ambition was in many respects to create an almost ‘natural’ appearance, where trees, water, open grassland, and carefully placed structures (bridges, temples, and monuments were popular) created a carefully balanced microcosm of the English countryside.”
Capability Brown designed garden at Harewood House, nr Leeds.
It is interesting to see how and why gardens changed over the centuries in these excerpts from various chapters. Castles, Customs, and Kings records much of life in changing Britain from Roman times through World War II. Battles, queens, fashions, and medicine are but a few of the topics covered. Tom Williams says of the book, “As an author who is unashamedly old-fashioned in my approach to historical writing, I rather enjoyed it. It did tell me things I didn't know and sparked an interest in some people and places I hadn't heard of before, but it is in no way a textbook. It's an amusing trot through British history and excellent bedtime reading….”

Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Kobo. It will soon be available at additional online bookstores.

Thank you so much Debra, for dipping into Castles, Customs and Kings in such an interesting way. 
And, dear reader, you might be interested to know that I have two pieces in the book!


  1. You quoted me Debbie, how lovely - thank you :)

    1. I hope people will read your entire post, Judith. It is really interesting!

    2. I second Debra, so many fascinating posts of which yours is a shining example. G x

  2. And thank you so much to Grace!

    1. The pleasure is all mine - thank you so much for a wonderful post.
      G x


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