The Landscape Guide

Henry VIII and English Gardens: Hampton Court and Nonsuch

[See reference to Hampton Court in Garden Design in the British Isles]

The first person who with full comprehension turned to the new art which had arisen on the other side of the Alps and was now pressing over the Channel, was Cardinal Wolsey, the all-powerful and much-beloved minister of Henry VIII. Wolsey was at the height of his reputation ; and the king, young, socially inclined, and addicted to the lighter side of life, trusted him completely, and in a gay impulsive moment proposed to have him show another sort of ability, by devising wonderful buildings. As a fact, Wolsey had already had extensive alterations carried out in the gardens of York Place (later Whitehall), his London episcopal residence, but now he wanted to build himself a country house.

We can see, by the circumstantial way in which the question of site was handled—it was said that he summoned the best physicians in London to advise him, and also sent to learned men in Padua—how little one would have dreamed of building a house (about 1514) that was not under the protection of the state, or in a strong situation of its own. Wolsey finally selected Hampton Court, the most healthy place within twenty miles of London, on the highest bank of the Thames south of the city. It was taken for granted that the outside of this country house must be crowned by towers and battlements, and also that it should be surrounded by a moat. English architecture, like French, cut loose from the Gothic tradition quite late, and then only for a short time, But the ways of the Middle Ages were only given up very gradually, and even half-way through the century the nobility, especially in the North, entrenched themselves in their fortresses behind walls, towers, moats, and drawbridges. But although Germany adhered firmly to the tradition of the moat in the Middle Ages—even to-day we see a few examples here and there—in England and in France they ceased to be more than part of a scheme of decoration for a house, and later on they were filled up, since after they were no longer a protection, the science of the day said they were unhealthy in such a damp climate.

Wolsey worked feverishly at his castle, hundreds of labourers being set to work On it, so that by 1516 the place was so far finished that Wolsey could receive his master for the first time. For years Hampton Court was the centre of gay festivities, especially masquerades, which Henry liked better than anything. More than once the king paid his favourite a surprise visit with a company disguised under masks, among whom the clever host no doubt recognised his royal guest. Shakespeare, in his Henry VIII., gives a scene of the kind at Wolsey’s palace at York Place, but at Hampton Court they were more free, and had the advantage of larger gardens for music and revelry. But when the statesman was alone, he loved to take long walks in these gardens, to make plain to himself, and so to strengthen, all those plans for the guidance of the state that were entrusted to him, Thus does he appear before us in Cavendish’s biography:

My galleries ware fayer both large and long,

To walk in them whan that it lyked me best;
My gardens sweet, enclosed with walles strong,
Embanked with benches to sytt and take my rest;
The knotts so enknotted, it cannot be exprest,
With arbors arid alyes so pleasant and so dulce,
The pestylent ayers with flavors to repulse.

[A knott is a beds of interwoven pattern (see comments below)]

These gardens lay to the south-east, between the house and the river and on the other side there were orchards and vegetable-gardens. To the north, on either side of the wide road, there was a park, one enclosed with a wall, the other with a wooden fence, the whole embracing two thousand acres.

But Wolsey in the long run had not the strength to keep in check the overweening pride of the king. Henry soon outgrew his instructions, and Wolsey had always made himself hated by his contemporaries because of his ambition and his extravagant love of display. He had particularly shown this whenever he was travelling to his country place, and every man who had like ambitions now became his enemy. He was bound to fall as soon as these men could induce the king (whose favour was Wolsey’s sole support) once to behold his favourite with their eyes—that is, with jealousy and envy ; and they knew that Hampton Court was a very special attraction to their royal master, Wolsey did what he could to stay the impending storm by making a present of his estate to Henry. There is a story (misplaced before 1526) which says that when the king asked angrily, “Why should a subject build such a gorgeous palace? “ the cardinal, who was prepared for the blow, replied, “ To give it to his master.” But Wolsey continued to live at Hampton Court till his fall in 1529.

After the death of Wolsey, Henry made the greatest possible haste to take over the palace which he so eagerly desired, and from that moment it is closely connected with his life. It was the home of nearly all his wives, and rumour says that the restless spirit of Catherine Howard still wanders in torment through the halls, The king's first care was to have the cardinal’s coat of arms removed, and the Tudor arms carved instead; and, as he was passionately fond of every kind of sport, he had two closed courts on the north side made for tennis. The games, especially tennis, were importations from France, but they became extraordinarily popular in England. The government grew to look on them with an unfriendly eye, because they feared, not unreasonably, that men would be led away from archery, which was really useful to the state. But no restrictions made the slightest difference ; and in i 541 games were strictly prohibited in public places, and only allowed at private houses if the owners got a licence, which cost £100 a year. Of course rich people, like the king, laid down parts of their garden for these games. The king had also confiscated Wolsey’s town palace, unmindful of the fact that it belonged to the Archbishopric of York, and had given it a new name, White Hall (Whitehall), which it bears to this day; and here first of all a bowling-green was laid out, These places for games were sometimes covered rooms, sometimes open, turfed, and bordered with hedges. They now play an important part in the English garden.

After the king became the owner of Hampton Court, its appearance was greatly improved. The private pleasure-gardens were kept in the old place on the south-west front, with their lovely view of the Thames. This view one could get not only from the windows, but from a hill called the Mount, standing at the end of the chief pleasure-garden, at that time called the King’s Garden. In our story we have often met with mounts like this, and in the Northern countries they have remained true to their original purpose, and have therefore been kept up longer. In England the name “ Mount Pleasant “ has remained in cases where the actual hill has spread out wider, and ultimately disappeared.

Leland has a great deal to say on this subject in the book of travels which he wrote about England in the middle of the sixteenth century. In the tree-garden at Wressel (or Wrassal) Castle in Yorkshire there were apparently several of these spiral hills with topiary work, wind- ing round, with steps leading to the top, like the windings of a shell, to make an easy walk. It is not known whether the wish of Olivier de Serres to have these paths laid out as botanical gardens was ever carried out.

The Mount at Hampton Court adjoined what now goes by the name of the Privy Garden. Hedged paths led up in a spiral, and at the top there was an arbour, or at any rate a seat of some kind, with a lion bearing arms as its chief ornament. In the garden itself there were beds of interwoven patterns—” knotted’ beds “ is the technical name ; these were filled with garden flowers of every season—violets, primroses, pinks, mint, and other sweet- smelling kinds. Roses were bought for it “ at fourpence per hundred, sweet williams at threepence per hundred.” But beside the geometrical patterns they placed figures of animals in quite the old-fashioned way. Stephen Hawes, in his poem, Pastime of Pleasure, describes a garden of the beginning of the seventeenth century with interwoven beds of immense size, and tells how:

Rarnpande lyons stode by wonderfly

Made all of herbes, with dulcet swetenes
With many dragons, of marveylous likenes
Of divers floures, made full craftely
By Flora coloures with colours sundrye.

The separate beds were bordered in different ways—in the King’s Garden with horizontal stakes, striped green and white, as we can see (in a picture of the royal family) on the side wing at Hampton Court (Fig. 343).

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

FIG. 343. HAMPTON COURT—OLD GARDEN SCENES [note the heraldic beasts on posts]

Here we see yet another of the king’s darling devices—one he carried out in a most exaggerated way, viz. heraldic animals, stuck up on green and white striped poles : his bills have plenty to say about these costly ornaments, which are scattered everywhere in the orchard. Perhaps the animals in carved wood in the garden at Gaillon were of a similar kind. From the bills we also learn that between the beds there were little cobbled paths, and every here and there slight elevations for bronze sundials, The heraldic animals themselves were gilt, and sat upright, holding little banners.

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


The King’s Garden was at the back and apparently was closed in behind the hill by two summer-houses connected by a gallery. The so-called Pond Garden (of the present day) is very likely much the same as it was originally (Fig. 344), for it shows its old characteristics in a marked manner. It was a sunk parterre, with terraces at the sides, answering to the turfed seats of the gardens of the Middle Ages. In the centre was a large tank for fish, and round this again were the heraldic animals on their sticks. The actual arrangement of the plants that are there to-day, though old-fashioned and attractive, belongs to a later date.

Much as these, the first Renaissance gardens in England, are still admired, they were no doubt modest and very small. In many things people had to go short, and especially in water, which had to be fetched out of the Thames by night, if only to get the tanks filled.

The tree-gardens on the other side of the house were larger, and planted more like orchards ; whereas trees found no room, as a rule, in small flower-gardens. There were summer-houses among the trees, and perhaps they were set against the walls, as they were called towers. The gardens were intersected by canals, just as in France, and across them charming bridges were thrown, decorated with the inevitable heraldic beasts. The high brick walls, dividing the different parts of these tree-gardens, were covered with creepers, so prettily fastened to the walls that they completely concealed them, to the wonder and admiration of foreign visitors. These “ nut-gardens “ with their high walls, afterwards used as espaliers, are a pleasant feature which exists in the English “ kitchen- gardens” of the present day, and is almost the only one that has been able to survive the vanished past.

Flower- and fruit-gardens were not so completely separated that all ornament was reserved for the former. The orchard, or rather the tree-garden, was the shady place, and therefore the place chosen for walks. Leland in his description of England during the middle of the century has more to say about orchards, where the paths are decorated with topiary work, than about other gardens. Also in the official survey (1526) of Thornbury much more weight is attached to the tree-garden. Thornbury belonged to the unfortunate Duke of Buckingham, who was one of the first to excite the displeasure of the king, and paid for the impetuosity of his temperament on the scaffold. When his property was confiscated, the official valuer found on the south side, beside the inner fortifications, a garden surrounded by fine galleries, along which one went through to the church from the rooms, either above or below.

This Privy Garden, answering to the Italian giardino secreto, betrayed by its situation a relationship with the castle-garden of the Middle Ages. But it cannot have contained many things of value, for it is not mentioned again. On the east of it, however, was a lovely piece of ground, which one could reach either by way of the galleries or by a ‘4 private path,” and which was at any rate farther away from the castle. It was an orchard full of young saplings, with choice fruits, and many roses and other pretty things. There were avenues, too, for walks in the open. Round about, at a suitable height, there were other paths with seats, and thorn and maple trees, also terraces from which there were two views, one of the garden and one above and beyond it. From the outer side these terraces were enclosed, first by a trellis hedge, and then by quickset and sunk hedges. From the tree-garden several doors led into the different parts of a new park.

This picture is very like what we saw in the early French gardens : different sections, flower-gardens with galleries round them (and thus joined on to the castle), on the far side a plot of land larger than orchard or tree-garden, enclosed in raised ground, with a small fence beyond. But we must think of these gardens as small. At the beginning of the seventeenth century we find the critic Gervase Markham recommending that they should purposely be made small, because “ large cages make it no better for the birds.” It was long before Englishmen went so far as to consider that, when a new castle was being built, the garden was of primary importance. 

Henry VIII., who never ceased to regard with envy and concealed admiration his splendid rival Francis I., decided to build a place to compete with that marvel, Chambord on the Loire, and in its very name, Nonsuch (bestowed as a caliph might have bestowed it), he indicated that it was to excel all others. The building of this wonderful place began in 538 under the direction of an Italian.

But in England the influence of Italy was limited to architecture, as in France to ornamentation. In non-clerical building, England clung to Gothic ideas as fundamental, and carried them out more strictly than any other country and with better results. When Henry died in 1547 the castle was not finished, and so far there was not a word about gardens, though the king had had two parks enclosed. In Queen Mary’s reign the edifice was nearly destroyed, and during that joyless time the court seemed to have no inclination for cheerful society. But Mary herself loved flowers, and whenever she as a princess visited her little brother Edward at Hampton Court (his usual residence in his childhood) the gardener would hand her a bunch of flowers, and the accounts of her private purse invariably note that she gave a five-shilling piece to the man. This is a little genre picture that lends an attraction, slight, yet touching, to the sad figure of this pathetic woman. Nonsuch escaped destruction because it was bought by Henry FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel, who was one of the most conspicuous lovers of art and science in his own generation. His library and collections were famous far and wide. By him Nonsuch was raised to the glorious condition the king had aimed at; and he also laid out the gardens and made the place a “pearl of the kingdom” (Fig. 345).

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