UNTIL the fifteenth century the possession of a garden was chiefly confined to monasteries, but with the building of domestic manor-houses it became an essential appendage. At first it was of the simplest and most utilitarian natureconsisting of a moderate-sized square or circular enclosure surrounded, when possible, by a wall or, failing so stout a protection, by a wattle fence or thorn hedge. The size was very restricted, and so continued until well into the following century; but the smallest area must have sufficed for the limited number of herbs which were grown, while the cultivation of vegetables was almost entirely neglected. This appears clearly in Holinshed's Chronicle Of 1580:
"Such herbs, roots and fruits as grow yearly out of the ground have been very plentiful in the time of the first Edward and after his days; but in the process of time they also grew to be neglected, so that from Henry IV until the latter end of Henry VII and the beginning of Henry VIII there was little or no use of them in England, but they remained either unknown or supposed as food more meet for hogs and savage beasts than mankind."
The English apparently held the same opinion of all vegetables as the French hold today of the Broad Bean.
Only by monks were vegetables continuously cultivated, for the sound reason that to some Orders, such as the Benedictines who at first eat no meat, the produce of the garden was an essential addition to a diet which would otherwise have consisted entirely of fish from the ponds.
The medieval manor-house garden, therefore, was principally given over to herbs, and the few flowers which were grown were tolerated rather for their flavouring value than for their beauty. Violets, daisies and columbines were good for soup; primrose buds, daisies, red fennel and the violet for salads, while the latter flower, with the addition of sorel and mint, was much used for sauces. The only ornamental feature in an early garden was a raised earth mound covered with turf which was used as a seat.
Fruit trees were plentiful, but were grown outside the herb garden in order not to keep the light from the sun-loving plants. Most of the simpler varieties of fruits were cultivated such as apples, pears, cherries, medlars and mulberries.
An early description of an English garden occurs in the verses written by James I of Scotland while imprisoned in Windsor Castle from 1406-1423
"Now was there made, fast by the Towris wall,
A garden fair;-and in the corners set An arbour green, with wand is long and small Railed about, and so with trees set was all the place, and Hawthorne hedges knet . . ."
Sudbury Hall, Derbyshire
The verses following describe more arbours and alleys, and "the sharpe Greene sweet juniper", and these must have been the principal features of pleasure gardens. There is no mention of any flowers. Sometimes, however, these were allowed to encroach on the Herb Garden, and the lily and the rose would be found flourishing among the rue, the sage, the basil and the mint.
Herbs were as important a feature of a medieval garden as fruit. Not only were they used for cooking, but even more extensively for the curing of every conceivable ailment. There was also an occasional Love Philter or Poison Potion to be considered, but as far as one knows no garden herbs were especially grown for the distillation of these important draughts; also, as in the earliest days gardens were mostly confined to monasteries, there can have been no very urgent demand for them. For medicinal purposes, however, a large supply of herbs was absolutely essential, as the monks acted as doctors not only to the brethren but to the inhabitants of the surrounding districts.
During the latter half of the fifteenth century a distinction became apparent between the ornamental and the purely useful herbs. The "Nosegaie Garden" contained "the herbes and flowers used to make nosegaies and garlands of", while the humbler varieties were segregated in an enclosure which soon developed into the kitchen garden. The "nosegaies and garlands" must have suffered from a certain sameness, as the number of different varieties of flowers was very limited Rose, Lily, Violet, Clove-pink and Periwinkle appear to have been the only available species to choose from. The first three flowers of this short list had the additional merit of being credited with a curative effect on a variety of ills.
Blenhem: Ground Plan
The flowers were sparsely grown in beds which were either oblong parterres or raised mounds of earth, sometimes as much as a foot high, supported by boards, and ranged round the outer hedge or wattle fence of the garden.
With the sixteenth century came a great revival of interest and enterprise in gardening. Harrison complacently remarks that "the ancient gardens were but dung hills", and enlarges on the great number of plants which had been lately imported from abroad. "Many strange herbs, plants and annual fruits", he writes, "are daily brought unto us from the Indies, Americans, Taprobane, Canary Isles and all parts of the world."
Simultaneously with the importation of new plants came a considerable alteration in the structure of the garden. Until the time of the Tudors the general form and layout had been solely dictated by necessity, and little thought had been given to picturesque effect; but the Italian craftsmen brought to this country by Henry VIII did more than merely adorn the houses with classical detail; they introduced the fashion of the architectural and formal garden. At this period the raised terrace supported by a bank or wall was first introduced. From the terrace, steps would lead down to an Italian garden which would be ornamented with marble fountains and grottoes.
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (1715)
Duncombe Park, Yorkshire
In the few existing pictures of Nonesuch Palace, built for himself by Henry VIII, the formal layout of the gardens can be clearly seen. Between four parterres, which are separated by paths, stand three stone ornaments, two pillars surmounted by birds, which, as described by Hentzner, "streamed water from their bills", and a grand central feature, apparently a fountain; on either side of the house appear a variety of other rather astonishing objects. The restricted resources of nature were sometimes augmented by the introduction of highly coloured wooden figures of heraldic beasts. Henry VIII, having obtained possession of Hampton Court from Wolsey, had a large number of such animals set up on the top of green and white poles in what now became "The King's Privy Garden". He also ordered 38 stone statues of Kings and Queens, a quantity of dragons, lions, greyhounds, harts, and unicorns, 16 of the "King's Beasts", and 16 sundials. The gardens, which at that period can have covered only a few acres, must have indeed teemed with ferocious shapes, and the result must have been as remote from the true Italian garden as was the highly decorated Tudor house from the Italian villa.
But the average Tudor garden was a far simpler affair, in which statues and architectural features were unknown and the charm lay in the quiet shade of trees and arbours,"so soothingly described by Spenser
"And all without were walks and alleys dight With divers trees enrang'd in even rankes ; And here and there were pleasant arbors pight, And shadie seats, and sundry flowring bankes, To sit and rest the walkers wearie shanks."