The Landscape Guide

Elizabeth I of England and gardens at Nonsuch and Theobalds

Elizabeth, with all her love of display, did not share her father’s greed, and did not desire to be the first in the kingdom in this matter of gardens and buildings, never to be surpassed by any of her nobles, whose relations with their queen were now of an utterly different kind. It would have been dangerous to rouse the king’s jealousy, for his pride could not brook that a subject should live in more splendid surroundings than his own, Elizabeth felt differently, and she encouraged the nobles to go on building—indeed she tempted them by proposing visits. Now although it was honour and glory to receive a visit from the queen, it caused many a sigh to some of her hosts, who were not over- burdened with wealth. For it was like a heavy tax; the queen travelled with her retinue, who ate up all the stores like a swarm of locusts; and after a royal visit there must often have been a long period of privation.

The queen loved Nonsuch particularly, though there may have been some slight regret when she remembered that it had once been a royal seat; but still in her usual way she allowed the earl to complete the building, and only bought it back after he was dead. Then it was her favourite till the last years of her reign. Hunting was at its very best in the park at Nonsuch, which was well stocked with wild animals, She loved to have hunting-parties on festive occasions, and even in her sixty-seventh year she was to be seen every day at the chase. It was at Nonsuch that she died. She would not check all the new growth in “ the splendid gardens, woods with their trees pruned in all manner of ways, meadows and paths “ (of which Robert Laneham writes), “ so shaded from above that you fancy Pleasure has chosen it for her seat, there to dwell with Health.” Paul Hentzner saw the place on his travels in September 1558, and especially praises the many pillars and pyramids made of marble, and the two fountains, one round, the other pyramidal, with birds spurting out water.[Evelyn's description of Nonsuch is on the CD. Like Theobalds, below, the palace and garden have been destroyed.]

The pleasure-garden was bounded on three sides by the main building, on the fourth by a high brick wall. It was divided in the usual way into square beds bordered with hedges, which in the second half of the century were beginning to take the place of the old wooden trellis, The avenues round were still for the most part fruit-trees, and there was no lack of water-tricks, as for example “ a pyramid, which splashes people as they go by.” In one little wood Hentzner admires an Actæon fountain.

The gossiping pen of Robert Laneham, a junior court official, describes the extravagant pomp and magnificence shown by a great man when he received the queen on a visit, In a letter to a London friend he tells of the festivities at Kenilworth arranged by Lord Leicester, the queen’s favourite, in honour of her visit in 1575 ; and Sir Walter Scott has given the account, in a poetical way, in his novel. The queen had presented Kenilworth to her favourite in the fifth year of her reign, and Leicester had added to the old castle, which was surrounded by a very wide moat, a new wing, and furnished it with wonderful things.

Laneham says that beside the new wing Leicester’s plan was carried out for a garden, which embraced an acre or more, and lay to the north.

Close to the wall is a beautiful terrace, ten feet high and twelve feet broad, quite level, and freshly covered with thick grass, which also grows on the slope. There are obelisks on the terrace at even distances, great balls, and white heraldic beasts, all made of stone and perched on artistic posts, good to look at. At each end is a bower, smelling of sweet flowers and trees. The garden ground below is crossed by grassy avenues, in straight lines on both sides, some of the walks, for a change, made of gravel, not too light and dusty, but soft and firm and pleasant to walk on, like the sands by the sea when the tide has gone out. There are also four equal parterres, cut in regular proportions; in the middle of each is a post shaped like a cube, two feet high; on that a pyramid, accurately made, symmetrically carved, fifteen feet high; on the summit a ball ten inches in diameter, and the whole thing from top to bottom, pedestal and all, hewn out of one solid block of porphyry, and then with much art and skill brought here and set up. Flowering plants, procured at great expense, yield sweet scent and beauty, with fresh herbs and flowers, their colours and their many kinds betraying a vast outlay; then fruit-trees full of apples, pears, and ripe cherries—a garden, indeed, so laid out that, either on or above the lovely terrace paths, one feels a refreshing breeze in the heat of summer, or the pleasant cool of the fountain. One can pluck from their stalks, and eat, fine strawberries and cherries.

Thus Laneham, and he cannot sufficiently praise the song of the birds and the view of field and river beyond the flowers and trees. “ It is Paradise, in which the four rivers are wanting, but so is the fatal tree. Certainly there is herein a witness to a noble mind that can in such wise order all.”

Sir Walter Scott makes Elizabeth and Leicester stroll through the pleasaunce in confidential talk; but his poetic fancy carries him too far when he leads us from terrace to terrace, from parterre to parterre. We can to-day identify the site of this castle-garden with its grass terrace and the four main beds north of the castle. The fruit-trees, at that time kept strictly to the orchard in Italy, are here an ornament of the pleasure-garden.

Lord Burleigh, clever and prudent, for many years Elizabeth’s Prime Minister, made for himself one of the most striking gardens in England at Theobalds, to the north of London, in Hertfordshire. Lord Burleigh, as he said himself, had only wanted to build a small house, but the constant visits of the queen forced him to enlarge it more and more, and in the end it became one of the stateliest castles of his time. He was sober-minded and sensible, and he succeeded in leaving behind him a great property for his successors, which no other minister, of Elizabeth did—a property not won by robbery and oppression, but from regular income and economy. But, economical as he was, he passionately loved laying out his gardens, his walks, his fountains, and this was done at Theobalds most delightfully and at great expense ; the avenues were so long that one could walk for as much as two miles without coming to the end. Fortunately many descriptions of the place are extant, though they are of various dates. Round the castle there were several gardens, all separate, and in no special relation to one another. The south front looked on the main garden, of very different dimensions from the one at Kenilworth, for it covered seven acres. The brick walls on three sides of it had a pleasing appearance, because of the light violet colour that some English bricks take on.

At first, as Hentzner notices in 1598, this garden was almost entirely surrounded by a moat, which was so wide that one could drive along it, but later this was closed in, or at any rate one never hears any more about it. A great porch looks out on this garden, with portraits of all the kings of England ; and another porch is made like a grotto. Here " there is water streaming out of a rock into a basin supported by the figures of two slaves; on the ceiling is painted the Zodiac with sun and moon in their courses, and on each side six trees, with bark, leaves and birds’-nests, all complete and natural.” The parterre is laid out in nine beds with hedges round them, and by the side are the trees of a lovely avenue : the leading feature is a fountain of white marble, with pillars and pyramid in wood. There is a labyrinth with a slight mound in the middle, called the Hill of Venus, " one of the fairest places in the world.” At the end of the garden is a summer-house, in front semicircular, and inside it are marble figures of the twelve emperors of Rome ; on the other side is a basin that partly serves as a fish-pond, and is also used as a cold bath in the hot season of the year. A little bridge leads from this small summer-house to another.

Hentzner was not able to see the house itself, because he arrived on 8 September, 1598, the very day of the funeral of its owner. Many a splendid fête had this garden seen, many a time had the queen been received here with the utmost magnificence, even on that occasion when she came to condole with her sorely-stricken host in his domestic grief. With a view to this visit George Peele, a contemporary of Shakespeare’s, and himself a poet, wrote a sort of masque, and in the “ Gardener’s Speech “ the queen is thus addressed : “ The hillocks removed and the plot levelled, I cast it into four quarters. In the first I framed a maze, not of hyssop and thyme, but that which maketh time itself wither with wondering; all the Virtues, all the Graces, all the Muses winding and wreathing about Your Majesty.”

In the introduction to this work Peele has given the customary description of a formal garden of the period, if possible perfectly level, a square, and this square further divided into four parts by cross-paths. Garden books of the time often describe places of this sort, but the literature is meagre enough in its content; for most authors are satisfied with quotations from ancient and perhaps a few modern works, often copied out quite without thought. When Andrew Borde and Thomas Hill, the latter a very prolific writer of that time, recommend the east and north sides of a house as most suitable for the garden, it is pointed out by Gervase Markham, writing somewhat later, that this. advice is only taken from Italian writers without the least consideration of local conditions. The accompanying woodcuts make it abundantly clear what special stress is laid. upon fences, of which there are two or even three (Fig. 346).

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


 These drawings also show the hedges and arbours (Fig. 347), and how the “ knotted beds,” like ribbons interwoven, have earned their name, and again how a tree is almost always the centrepiece of a labyrinth, and various other trifling characteristics. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


Such is the garden of which we get a fleeting glimpse every now and then in Shakespeare—the pretty knotted beds, the brick walls, the summer-house where the shoots that grow too fast are cut away, and the arbour of box where an eavesdropper can find good cover.

In Elizabeth’s time, that age of navigators and explorers, the simple scheme was much enriched by the introduction of new plants, and the culture of flowers was carried on zealously. When Harrison in 1587 re-edited Holinshed’s Chronicle, he added a spirited passage about the introduction of herbs, plants, and fruits which were being brought in every day from India, America, the Canary Islands, and all parts of the world, He says that there is scarcely one nobleman and hardly one merchant who does not possess a stock of these flowers, which are being one after another entrusted to our soil, so that we begin to think of them as our usual plants. He goes on to say that he has seen in many a garden three or four hundred or even more novelties, and nobody would have heard their names forty years ago. So now if people look at the gardens beside their houses, they find wonderful beauty there ; and it is not only flowers, called by Columella sidera terrena, but there are strange medicinal htrbs, that have been collected for the past forty years. People who have these, he says, can only think of their old gardens as dung-heaps or morasses, It was almost incredible, he thought, how much art could do to help nature, by enlarging flowers, doubling them, changing their colour. Our gardeners were so thoughtful and so skilled that they seemed like going round with Nature herself, and setting her in the right course as though they were her superiors. He says finally, and with evident pride, that although the gardens of the Hesperides have been renowned for their beauty, he cannot but believe that if the two could be compared by an impartial judge, the gardens of his day would bear off the prize.

This botanical interest, common to all countries, created a strong bond in commerce,. partly at home and partly abroad : in Germany this was especially felt, Princes, nobles, and--men of learning stood on the same ground. In England the learned men. took the lead, cultivating special botanic gardens for rearing foreign medicinal herbs; and John Gerard, the author of several botanical books, had a famous scientific garden in Holborn at the end of the sixteenth century. The Tradescants were a family of educated gardeners, who in Elizabeth’s reign had come over from Holland, and had won great esteem for the acclimatisation of foreign plants in England. Both father and son were commissioned by Lord Salisbury, Lord Burleigh’s son, to travel for him in countries over the sea; but Tradescant’s own wish to explore led him farther and farther, and his garden became a great sight : it was visited by king and queens and was in existence till 1749. On the Tradescant tombstone we read that they:

Lived till they had travell’d Art and Nature through;

As by their choice collections may appear
Of what is rare in land, in sea, in air.

This collection formed the basis of the Ashmolean Museum, founded at the same time as the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, but in England the public Botanic Gardens started much later.

With the seventeenth century the interest in gardens begins to make an appearance in belles lettres, quite independently of real practical work on the one hand and theoretical professional advice on the other. It is well worth noting, that the most important and the most far-seeing spirit of his age, Francis Bacon, was the first to direct attention to the matter in this way, though he was neither architect nor gardener. On the path now smoothed by literary dilettanti the development of horticulture in England began to make progress, which a hundred years later led to the real revolution in style.