The Garden Guide

Book: London Parks and Gardens, 1907
Chapter: Chapter 12 Historical Gardens

Westminster Abbey College Garden and Little Cloister

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Among its many charms and associations Westminster Abbey can lay claim to possessing one of the oldest gardens in England. The ground still occupied by the space known as the "College Garden" was part of the infirmary garden of the ancient monastery. It cannot trace back its history with the Abbey to the Saxon Sebert, but when Edward the Confessor's pile began to rise, and all the usual adjuncts of a monastery gathered round it, the infirmary with the necessary herb-garden of simples for treating the sick monks would be one of the first buildings to be completed. One of the most peaceful and retired spots within the Abbey precincts is the Little Cloister, which was the infirmary in early days. When the Great Cloister was finished in 1365, the Little Cloister was taken in hand. Payments for work on "the New Cloister of the Infirmary" appear in the accounts from 1377, and it was completed in 1390, and that year the centre was laid down in turf. The garden belonging to the infirmary covered all the space now occupied by the "College Garden," and joined the "Grete Garden," which lay to the west. It was probably, like all the gardens of that date, laid out in long, narrow, straight beds, in which were grown all the healing herbs used for the sick of the monastery. Probably there were fruit-trees, too, as in 1362 John de Mordon, the infirmarer, got 9s. for his apples, and the following year 10S. for pears and apples. No doubt the favourite Warden pear was among them, as in another record, between 1380-90, it is specially mentioned. The chapel of St. Katharine, which stood on the north side of the Garden, was destroyed in Elizabeth's reign. This, the infirmary chapel of Norman building, was as replete with history as every other nook and corner of the Abbey buildings. Here St. Hugh of Lincoln and most of the early bishops were consecrated, and here took place the unseemly dispute for precedence, between the Primates of Canterbury and York in 1186, which led to the settling of their respective ranks by the Pope. While so many changes have swept over the Abbey, and whole buildings have vanished, the herb-garden of early days has kept its place, and is still a garden, though bereft of its neat little beds.