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The English Garden: History and Mystery Combined

Updated on June 27, 2014

Mystery and intrigue

The English garden has always had a curious, mythical quality. One of the most significant family names in history was Plantagenet, given to Geoffrey of Anjou, who married the daughter of Henry I of England. The name was actually a nickname, reputedly because of the sprig of yellow “planta genista” or common broom, that he wore in his hat. Their son, Henry II, succeeded the throne in 1154 and the Plantagenets occupied the English throne for the next three and a half centuries. Ironically, their inter-family feud became known as the Wars of the Roses. Garden symbolism is still potent today, so potent that its imagery has crept into our general language. We talk of problems as “thorny” issues. Professionals from the world of finance talk of “growth” and “hedge funds”. The garden is celebrated in story and song, a backdrop for drama, romance and intrigue. One of the earlier horticultural happenings in English history involved Eleanor of Aquitaine, the wife of Henry II. Henry loved a woman named Rosamond Clifford. He ensconced Rosamond in a palace near Woodstock, Oxfordshire. A garden surrounded the palace and in the summer, she could embroider to her heart’s content in the labyrinth, away from prying eyes. One, unfortunate day, a skein of embroidery silk unravelled as Rosamond walked to the heart of the labyrinth. Queen Eleanor, who was plotting against Rosamond, followed the thread. The rest is a mystery; Rosamond was never seen again, reputed to have been "put to rest" by Eleanor.

The unlikelihood of this baroque tale is heightened by the non-existence of formal gardens in the 1100s, when the dastardly happenings supposedly occurred. In medieval times, monasteries and convents usually had a garden attached for the purpose of growing medicinal herbs. This was possibly the genesis of the kitchen garden. However, English country gardens (and most likely, the suburban house and domestic gardens) are descended from the “grand” garden, as descried by Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) in his posthumously published book, De Re-aedificatoria. In the book, Alberti explains how the complete garden should encompass flower beds, giochi d’aqua or water fountains, the bosco sacro or sacred wood, the giardino segredo or secret garden, and the semplici or “simples”, for growing medicinal plants and herbs.


The garden and patriotism

The spread of mercantile wealth from Renaissance times onwards ensured that grand gardens flourished all over Europe, garden forms that eventually reached England. Poet and playwright, William Shakespeare, set the action of many of his plays in woodland and in cultivated ground. In his introduction to Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, essayist Charles R. Forker explains how, within the play, the Bard uses both England and “the garden” as metaphors, substituting one for the other according to the requirements of the play’s action. I quote: Shakespeare roots the motif of patriotism in the pervasive imagery of earth, land and ground. Indeed, the language of the garden permeates the entire text. Henry Bolingbroke subsequently executes two of Richard’s favourite courtiers, Bushy and Green.

The “garden” scene (Act 3, Scene 4) is symbolically placed in the centre of the play and abounds with references to nurture and fertility. The Gardener exhorts a servant to “Cut off the heads of too fast growing spray…the noisome weeds which without profit suck the soil’s fertility from wholesome flowers” (3:4.34-9). The various characters have differing attitudes to the ground and the land, according to their social and legal status. As Richard is exiling him, Henry Bolingbroke refers to England’s “sweet soil” (1:3.306). In Act 2, Richard’s uncle, the dying John of Gaunt accuses Richard of having become a landlord as opposed to a king of England, of having leased out the “blessed plot” of his inheritance and allowing it to degenerate into a “pelting farm”. Richard retaliates by calling him “A lunatic, lean-witted fool…” (2:1,125). Yet, by Act 3, when Richard is trying to quell the rebellion of his noblemen, he exclaims “Dear earth, I do salute thee with my hand, though rebels wound thee with their horses’ hooves…” (3:2.6-11). Later on in Act 3, when he senses his life is in danger, Richard describes his body as “that small model of the barren earth/which serves as a paste and cover to our bones” (3:2.153-4).


The garden and love

The entire action of Shakespeare’s play, Love’s Labour’s Lost, is set in the grounds of a palace where, Ferdinand, King of Navarre, and three of his men have “pledged” to spend three years in study, and in abstinence from excessive food, drink and the company of women. When Berowne protests against these harsh conditions, Longaville says of him (Berowne) “He weeds the corn and still lets grow the weeding” (1:1.96). Shakespeare uses the tangle of flowers, trees and plants growing in the park to metaphorise the thorny route by which the love-pairs woo and finally win each other. At the beginning of the play, Fernando refers to “thy curious knotted garden” (1:1.235) in his address to Costard.

When the Princess of Aquitaine and her ladies arrive, her servant, Lord Boyet declares “he rather means to lodge you in the fields” (2:1.85). The “he” that Boyet refers to is actually the King, who will not let any woman, no matter how noble, pass the boundary of the palace walls. “Fair ladies masked are roses in their bud,” declares Boyet (5:2.295).

In the trick that the Princess and her ladies play upon the King and his men, that is, exchanging the love tokens so as to confound the woo-ers as to the identity of the women – and the men have disguised themselves as Russians – the play is a warning against mistaking shadow and token for real substance. In their “organic” surroundings, the ladies are more in touch with nature – human nature – than the gentlemen who embrace the artificiality of learning within the confines of the palace.


The garden and beauty

The Merchant of Venice is Shakespeare’s “free market” play, set in a society where human relations are determined by the ability to buy and sell, barter and negotiate for goods, money and other advantages. The main action of the play takes part in the streets of titular Venice, the Court of Justice and within the confines of Belmont, Portia’s luxurious house. By my troth, Nerissa, my little body is aweary of this great world, (1:2,1) declares Portia, when we first meet her. Nerissa then chides her mistress for indifference to good fortune, yet Portia does have a grievance. Her father left her with the conundrum of choosing a husband by the device of a guessing game, in addition to a considerable material legacy. Act 5 is the final scene of the play, the one and only scene set in the garden in front of Belmont. We know by Lorenzo’s declaration that it is a beautiful, peaceful place: how sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears - soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony... (5: 54-7). It is in this garden scene that everything comes to rights, that all misunderstandings are vanquished, that the love-pairs are reconciled and reunited. Nature evokes serenity where buying and selling cannot.

The garden and tragedy

We can envisage the characters of “The Merchant” living happily ever after, but the “garden” scene of another Shakespeare play is actually a prelude to a series of tragic events. “O Romeo, Romeo! Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name…” (2:2, 33-34), declares Juliet, on a balcony that overlooks her father’s orchard. The surrounding is a metaphor of the fertility and abundance that will never be hers or her lover’s. Romeo can’t deny his father’s name any more than Juliet can “cut” herself away from her own family tree. The star-crossed pair try to supplant themselves from familial ties and tragedy ensues.

In Jane Austen’s novel, Mansfield Park, heroine Fanny Price observes her cousins and their friends in the formal gardens of Sotherton Court, the home of cousin Maria’s future husband, as they reveal their true feelings about one another. These are but a few of the instance of the garden in history and literature, and I look forward to finding many more.


Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare

Richard II by William Shakespeare

Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare


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    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      Hi Mary, These were very interesting facts about the English gardens and their place in history and literature, especially Shakespearian Lit. I enjoyed reading about them. Authors still use gardens in their stories today. When I read about Eleanor of Aquitaine and Rosamund, I thought of the maze in Stephen King's The Shining. The setting is not England, but the maze he describes surely could have been very much like the one that Rosamund found herself lost in.

      Thanks for my history and literature lesson. I enjoyed it. Take care.

    • CMHypno profile image


      4 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Fascinating hub about gardens Mary. I had heard the story of Henry II's 'Fair Rosamund' but not the part about the thread and Eleanor of Aquitaine doing her in. But as they say 'hell hath no fury like a woman scorned'


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