Last Updated 26 Jan 2021

Elizabethan Gardening

Category Gardening, Gardens
Essay type Process
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Aspects of Elizabethan Gardening and Landscape Architecture The reign of Elizabeth I was a golden era in English history, a time which abounded in men of genius. Among the many branches of art, science, and economy, to which they turned their attention, none profited more from the power of their wits, than did the art of gardening. Not having shared her father’s personality, nor his desire to not let the people live in more beautiful surroundings than his own, Elizabeth encouraged this art and persuaded her subjects to build delightfully-complex and extravagant gardens by proposing visits.

The queen and her retinue would travel across the country and award the proprietors of the gardens she particularly liked. She also encouraged noblemen to support researchers, writers and other great minds who took on the task of contributing to the improvement of landscape architecture in one way or another. Lord Burghley was the patron of John Gerard, a remarkable English herbalist who published a list of rare plants cultivated in his garden at Holborn, still extant in the British Museum, and the famous work Great Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes.

To Sir Walter Raleigh, a notable poet and aristocrat of the time, we owe the introduction of tobacco and of our most useful vegetable, the potato. An age of navigation and exploring, the Elizabethan era prided itself with the culture of various new flowers and plants (many of which were medicinal herbs) brought from India, America, the Canary Islands and other newly-discovered parts of the world.

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While re-editing Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, in 1587, William Harrison states that he has seen over four hundred new species of plants entrusted to British soil and that, day by day, the people begin to think of them as belonging to their country. Lord Salisbury, Lord Burleigh’s son, commissioned a family of highly-skilled and educated Dutch gardeners (the Tradescants) to travel and bring back for his garden foreign species that could have been acclimatized.

Written in his lively conversational English style, full of his own personal ideas and fancies, Francis Bacon’s Essay on Gardens is familiar to everyone. Always practical and focused on what it was possible to do, Bacon wanted to put forward a scheme in better taste for the gardens he saw about him. During Elizabeth I’s reign, the persecution of the Protestants on the Continent drove many of them to find a safe refuge in England. They brought with them some of the foreign ideas about gardening, and thus helped to improve the condition of Horticulture.

The Elizabethan garden was the outcome of the older fashions in English gardens, combined with the new ideas imported from France, Italy, and Holland. The result was a purely national style, better suited to this country than a slavish imitation of the terraced gardens of Italy, or of those of Holland, with their canals and fish-ponds. There was no breaking-away from old forms and customs, no sudden change. The primitive medieval garden grew into the pleasure garden of the early Tudors, which, by a process of slow and gradual development, eventually became the more elaborate garden of the Elizabethan era.

What one currently understands by a “formal” or “old-fashioned” garden, is one of this type. However, as genuine and unaltered Elizabethan gardens are rare, it is generally the further development of the same style a hundred years later, which is known as a “formal old English garden”. The garden of this period was laid out strictly in connection with the house. The architect who designed the house, was also responsible with designing the garden.

There are some drawings extant by John Thorpe, one of the most celebrated architects of the time, of both houses and the gardens attached to them. The garden was held to be no mere adjunct to a house, or a confusion of green swards, paths, and flower-beds, but the designing of a garden was supposed to require even more skill than the planning of a house. “Men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection”, states Bacon in his essay, underlying the general idea of the period.

Sir Hugh Platt's opinion seems to have been the exception that proves the rule, as most other writers were particular in describing the correct form for a garden, but he writes: “I shall not trouble the reader with any curious rules for shaping and fashioning of a garden or orchard how long, broad or high, the Beds, Hedges, or Borders should be contrived... Every Drawer or Embroiderer, almost each Dancing Master, may pretend to such niceties; in regard they call for very small invention, and lesse learning. In front of the house there was typically a terrace, from which the plan of the garden could be studied. Flights of steps and broad straight walks, called “forthrights” connected the parts of the garden, as well as the garden with the house. Smaller walks ran parallel with the terrace, and the spaces between were filled with grass plots, mazes, or knotted beds. The “forthrights” corresponded to the plan of the building, while the patterns in the beds and mazes harmonized with the details of the architecture.

The peculiar geometric tracery which surmounted so many Elizabethan houses, found its counterpart in the designs of the flower-beds. William Lawson, a north-countryman of the time, of whom little is known except for his own experiences which he put down in his work, A New Orchard and Garden, mentioned that “the form that men like in general is a square”. This shape was chosen in preference to “an orbicular, a triangle, or an oblong, because it doth best agree with a man's dwelling”, as Shakespeare tells us in his play, Measure for Measure.

This sort of house gardens we can get a fleeting glimpse every now and then in Shakespeare’s plays, literary works in which he mentions details such as the knotted patterns of the beds, the high brick or stone wall with which the square garden was usually enclosed, the arbour of box where eavesdroppers could find good cover etc. Another common custom regarded covering the walls with rosemary. According to John Parkinson, an important English botanist of the time, at Hampton Court rosemary was “so planted and nailed to the walls as to cover them entirely. Gerard and Parkinson both refer to the custom of planting against brick walls. In the North of England, Lawson tells us, the garden-walls were made of dry earth, and it was usual “to plant thereon wallflowers and divers sweet-smelling plants”. With the seventeenth century, the interest in gardens began to make an appearance in belles lettres, quite independently of real practical work and theoretical professional advice. One of the most visionary spirits of the age, Francis Bacon, was the first to direct attention to the matter in this way, though he was neither architect, nor gardener.

Bacon formulated several noteworthy plans for organizing gardens: “The garden is best to be square, encompassed on all four sides with a stately arched hedge. The arches to be upon pillars of carpenter's work, of some ten foot high, and six foot broad, and the spaces between of the same dimension with the breadth of the arch. ” This “fair hedge” of Bacon's ideal garden was to be raised upon a bank, set with flowers, and little turrets above the arches, with a space to receive “a cage of birds” – “and over every space between the arches, some other little figure, with broad plates of round colored glass, gilt, for the sun to play upon”.

It is not likely that such fantastical ornaments to a hedge were usual, though it reminds one of the arched arcades and does not seem to be at all a new idea of Bacon's. When discussing in Gardener’s Labyrinth the various models of fencing a round garden, Thomas Hill, a well-known astrologer of the time, describes palings of “drie thorne” and willow, which he calls a “dead or rough enclosure”.

He refers to the Romans for examples of the alternative of digging a ditch to surround the garden, but “the general way” is a “natural enclosure”, a hedge of “white thorne artely laid in a few years with diligence it waxed so thick and strong, that hardly any person can enter into the ground, sauing by the garden-door; yet in sundry garden grounds, the hedges are framed with the privet tree, although far weaker in resistance, which at this day are made the stronger through yearly cutting, both above and by the sides”.

He gives a quaint method for planting a hedge. The gardener is to collect the berries of briar, brambles, white-thorne, gooseberries and barberries, steep the seeds in a mixture of meal, and set them to keep until the spring, in an old rope, “a long worn rope... being in a manner starke rotten”. “Then, in the spring, to plant the rope in two furrows, a foot and a half deep, and three feet apart... The seeds thus covered with diligence shall appear within a month, either more or less, which in a few years will grow to a most strong defense of the garden or field”.

These old gardeners had great confidence in all their operations, and but rarely in their works do we find any allusion to possible failure. Yews were greatly use for hedges, but more for walks and shelter within the gardens, than to form the outer enclosure. In the larger gardens there were two or three gates in the walls, well designed, with magnificent stone piers surmounted with balls or the owner's crest, and wrought-iron gates of elaborate pattern; or else there was one fine gate at the principal entrance, the rest being smaller and less pretentious, merely “a planked gate” or “little door”.

The main principle of a garden was still that it should be a “girth”, a yard, or enclosure; the idea of such a thing as a practically unenclosed garden had not, as yet, entered men's minds. But because the garden was surrounded with a high wall, and those inside wished to look beyond, a terrace was contrived. As in the Middle Ages, we find an eminence within the walls, as a point from which to look over them; so at the time, the restricted view from the mount did not satisfy, and to get a more extended range over the park beyond and the garden within, a terrace as raised along one side of the square of the wall. Some pieces of information regarding these aspects we can find in Sir Henry Wotton’s writings on architecture: “I have seen a garden into which the first access was a high walk like a terrace, from whence might be taken a general view of the whole plot below. ” De Caux, the designer of the Earl of Pembroke's garden at Wilton, made such a terrace there “for the more advantage of beholding those plots”.

Another is described at Kenilworth, in 1575, by Robert Langham: “hard all along by the castle wall is reared a pleasant terrace, ten feet high and twelve feet broad, even under foot, and fresh of fine grass”. The terraces, as a rule, were wide and of handsome proportions, with stone steps either at the ends or in the centre, and were raised above the garden either by a sloping grass bank, or brick or stone wall.

At Kirby, in Northamptonshire, a magnificent Elizabethan house, nowadays rapidly falling into decay, all that remains of a once beautiful garden, “enrich'd with a great variety of plants” (as John Morton portrays it in his Natural History of Northamptonshire), is a terrace running the whole length of the western wall of the garden. At Drayton, an Elizabethan house in the same county as Kirby, there is a wide terrace against the outer wall of the garden with a summer-house at each end, as well as a terrace in front of the house, and other examples exist.

The “forthrights”, or walks which formed the main lines of the garden design, were “spacious and fair”. Bacon describes the width of the path by which the mount is to be ascended as wide “enough for four to walk abreast”, and the main walks were wider still, broad and long, and covered with “gravel, sand or turf”. There were two kinds of walks, those in the open part of the garden, with beds geometrically arranged on either side, and sheltered walks laid out between high clipped hedges, or between the main enclosure wall and a hedge.

There were also the “covert walks”, or “shade alleys”, in which the trees met in an arch over the path. Some of the walks were turfed, and some were planted with sweet-smelling herbs. “Those which perfume the air most delightfully, not passed by as the rest, but being trodden upon and crushed, are three that is, burnet, wild thyme and water-mints; therefore you are to set whole alleys of them to have the pleasure when you walk or tread”. Thomas Hill, in one chapter of his book, mentions that the “walks of the garden ground, the allies even trodden out, and leveled by a line, as either hree or four foot abroad, may cleanly be sifted over with river or sea sand, to the end that showers of rain falling, may not offend the walkers (at that instant) in them, by the earth cleaving or clogging to their feet”. Parkinson also has something to say about walks: “The fairer and larger your allies and walks be, the more grace your garden shall have, the less harm the herbs and flowers shall receive, by passing by them that grow next unto the allies sides, and the better shall your weeders cleanse both the bed and the allies”.

The hedges on either side the walks were made of various plants box, yew, cypress, privet, thorne, fruit trees, roses, briars, juniper, rosemary, hornbeam, cornel, “misereon” and pyracantha. “Every man taketh what liketh him best, as either privet alone or sweet Bryar, and whitethorn interlaced together, and Roses of one, two, or more sorts placed here and there amongst them. Some plant cornel trees and plash them or keep them low to form them into a hedge; and some again take a low prickly shrub that abided always green, called in Latin Pyracantha”.

Regarding the cypress, Parkinson mentions that, for the goodly proportion it has, “as also for his ever green head, it is and hath been of great account with all princes, both beyond and on this side of the sea, to plant them in rows on both sides of some spacious walke, which, by reason of their high growing, and little spreading, must be planted the thicker together, and so they give a pleasant and sweet shadow”.

Gerard, writing of the same plant, says: “It grows likewise in diverse places in England, where it hath been planted, as at Sion, a place near London, sometime a house of nuns; it grows also at Greenwich and at other places; and likewise at Hampstead in the garden of Master Waide, one of the Clarkes of his Majesty’s Privy Council”. Another interesting aspect of the period’s gardening literature was the fact that, in several writings, there began to appear ideas for protecting and sheltering delicate and exotic plants, which a little later developed into orangeries and greenhouses, and finally into the hothouse and stove.

Sir Hugh Platt, particularly, in the second part of The Garden of Eden, not printed until 1660, recurrently mentions the possibility of growing plants in the house, and making use of the fires in the rooms to force gillyflowers and carnations into early bloom. “I have known Mr. Jacob of the Glassehouse”, he writes, “to have carnations all the winter by the benefit of a room that was near his glasshouse fire”. Holinshed, while admiring the rchards of his day, states that he has seen capers, oranges and lemons, and heard of wild olives growing here, but he does not say how they were preserved from cold. Gerard also describes both oranges and lemons, while also being, too honest, however, to pretend that they grow in England. A few oranges, nonetheless, were successfully reared in this country. In his treatise on the Orchard, Parkinson focuses on describing the surprising looking after and tending of the Orange tree, as opposed to the Citron and the Lemmon trees.

The former used to be kept in great square boxes and lift there to and fro by iron hooks attached to the sides in order to move them into a house or close gallery in the winter time. Other writers suggest that, if planted against a concave-shaped wall, lined with lead or tin to cause reflection, they might happily bear their fruit in the cold climate if these walls did stand so conveniently, as they might also be continually warmed with kitchen fires.

The experiment of growing lemons was tried by Lord Burghley. There are some interesting letters extant in which the history of the way in which the tree was procured is preserved. Sir William Cecil wrote to Sir Thomas Windebank around 1561, requesting to have a lemon, a pomegranate and a myrt tree procured for him, along with the instructions on how they should be kept, because he desired to enrich his collection of exotic vegetation (collection which the orange tree was already part of).

Although these foreign species of trees became widespread many years later, having been regarded as rarities for half a century, these fist instances of their importation are useful for us in forming a general idea about the level of cultural and scientific development the Elizabethans had reached. An indisputable proof of the progress gardening was making during this period was the growing importance of those practicing the craft in and around London, until at length, at the beginning of King James I’s reign, they attained the dignified position of a Company of the City of London, incorporated by Royal charter.

In that year all those “persons inhabiting within the Cittie of London and six miles compass thereof doe take upon them to use and practice the trade, craft or misterie of gardening, planting, grafting, setting, sowing, cutting, arboring, mounting, covering, fencing and removing of plants, herbs, seeds, fruit trees, stock sett, and of contriving the conveyances to the same belonging, were incorporated by the name of Master Wardens, Assistants and Comynaltie of the Company of

Gardiners of London”. The botanical interest of Elizabethan England was shared by most countries of the time, aspect which led to the creation of a strong bond in commerce and political relations. In consequence, this great delight in growing flowers for domestic decoration was a marked feature in English life at this period. Many travelers who visited the kingdom found themselves absolutely charmed with the English comfort and architectural artistry.

In one of his works, published in The Touchstone of Complexions, Thomas Newton, an illustrious scholar of the time, quotes the Dutch explorer and physician Levimus Leminius, who came to England around 1560: “Their chambers and parlors strewn over with sweet herbs refreshed me; their nosegays finely intermingled with sundry sorts of fragrant flours, in their bed chambers and privy rooms with comfortable smell cheered me up and entirely delighted all the senses”.

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Elizabethan Gardening. (2018, Feb 18). Retrieved from https://phdessay.com/elizabethan-gardening/

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