The Landscape Guide



Records of English renaissance gardens

Although France still shows traces, all too slight, of what her gardens were in Renaissance days, we find that England gives us an opportunity only now and then, and only in individual cases, of seeing on the spot what earlier gardens were really like. The reason is partly the great affection for horticulture that has been felt for hundreds of years by the whole nation. Also, the English have been much preoccupied with current events. A land-owner has generally been a very rich man, holding his house and garden for centuries in an unbroken family line: from one generation to another these have assumed totally different aspects.

There has been, moreover, a conscious reaching back to a former state of things, and many a supposed novelty—which is often a mere caprice—has been introduced only to prove similar to the old style. This is the present condition of affairs almost everywhere in the rather overwhelming abundance of English gardens, where flowers that suit a late kind of horticulture are combined with the modern fancy for what is old-fashioned : we find an inherited art, which is very attractive, but not historically sound.

The want of pictures makes it particularly difficult to decide about English gardens of the Renaissance, for in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there were very few pictures or engravings. It was not till the last quarter of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth that the copperplate engravers (who were making copies from nature and from every human art with amazing skill) streamed over from abroad and a few Englishmen joined them. There were, however, many literary works at the time of the Renaissance, and they make up to us more or less for the want of pictures. In their happy descriptions the English garden lives again, and takes a place in the story of the great revival.

During the time when Italy was rapidly developing, and France, a joyous competitor, was emulating her learning in early work.  England was so exhausted by devastating civil wars that no recognizable trace of important horticulture appears until the second decade of the sixteenth century. Henry VII of England took the home government into his own hands so entirely that he had neither time nor desire to cast his eyes abroad and see what could be done, And yet it was from there that the revival was to come. There is certainly a report of a series of royal gardens which his son Henry VIII. inherited in 1509. At the Tower of London, at Westminster, at Woodstock, and at numerous other castles, there were gardens with their own gardeners. Of these, no doubt, the greater part were still used merely for vegetables, and the small ornamental plots were just the castle-gardens of the Middle Ages, very little altered after the unrest of a hundred years.

The garden described by James I. of Scotland, which he wrote about when he was a prisoner in Windsor Castle from 1413 to 1424, can undoubtedly serve as a portrait of the same place a hundred years later. The prince in his prison chooses his words minstrel-fashion: beside the towers, he says, lies the lovely garden, in every corner are bowers of lattice-work, overshaded by junipers. Hedges of whitethorn shield the path from the beholder’s glance, and from the branches the nightingale’s song fills the whole garden, so that the very walls ring again.

Now was there mayde fast by the touris wall

A garden faire, and in the corneris set
Ane herbere grene, with wandis long and small
Raillit about, and so with treeis set
Was all the place and hawthorn hedges knet,
That lyfe was non, walkyn there for bye
That myght within scarce any wight espye.