Garden built to woo a virgin Queen

Pictures by Hattie Miles 

By Jeremy Miles

It was a garden built to woo a Queen. A lavish combination of flowers, fruit trees, birdsong and heady scents - the 16th century equivalent of a multi-media experience.

Created by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in his relentless pursuit of the hand of his long-time but reluctant admirer Queen Elizabeth I, it was a triumph of contemporary garden design.

Now it has been recreated as part of the great Kenilworth Castle Estate in Warwickshire. This medieval fortress turned stately palace, bestowed on Dudley by Good Queen Bess herself, became witness to one of history's most romantic encounters. 

Dudley, a deadly charmer rumoured to have murdered his own wife, was generally considered to be mad, bad and dangerous to know.  However he had been a favourite of Elizabeth ever since they had been imprisoned together in the Tower of London.

Having given him Kenilworth, she visited several times during her famous “progresses” around the kingdom. He spent years trying to melt her steely resolve to remain England’s Virgin Queen. 

The party thrown for her fourth and final stay at Kenilworth in July 1575 became the subject of legend. It lasted for three weeks and cost a reputed £1000 a day.

There were water pageants, huge firework displays and lavish entertainments and feasts. A major focus of the occasion was the beautifully constructed private pleasure garden within which Dudley hoped to finally get Elizabeth to accept his hand in marriage.

Now, after being lost for four centuries, this extraordinary acre of English horticultural history has found life again -  recreated in a £2.1 million reconstruction by English Heritage.

Painstakingly pieced together after years of research and archaeological investigations, it boasts a be-jewelled aviary with guinea fowl, pheasants and canaries, carved arbors, burgeoning topiary, pear, cherry and apple trees, a profusion of perfumed plants, wild strawberries and, as a centre-piece, a magnificent 18 foot fountain carved from white Italian Carrara marble.

The garden, overlooked by a long  terrace, is divided into four rectangular flower beds full of knot-work and will soon be surrounded by tightly clipped and lavishly trained geometrically shaped hedges. 

There are oak pillars and grand obelisks. The central fountain, carved by Cambridge-based classical sculptor Tim Crawley, features figures of Atlas facing east and west and is topped by the ragged staff of Warwickshire. Its octagonal base displays magnificent carvings based on racy tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses - so bawdy that Langham commented they “might inflame any mind” leaving one “hot in desire.”

English Heritage believes it has come as close as possible to recreating the actual garden designed by Dudley to impress the queen.

Though it didn’t work on the monarch, who turned down Dudley’s advances, English Heritage chief executive Simon Thurley describes the project as “unique” and “a world first”, saying: “This is to gardens what The Globe was to theatre…. a beautiful reminder of how sumptuous Elizabethan culture was.”

Head of gardens and landscape at E.H., John Watkins, insists that “If Elizabeth was to come to Kenilworth today she would recognise all the plants growing here. We’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that everything we have was available in Elizabethan times.”

At the core of the reconstruction is an eye-witness account of the original garden  - a letter written by a minor member of the Kenilworth court, Robert Langham, giving an extraordinarily detailed description of the private garden.

It is believed that  Langham had persuaded Dudley’s gardener to let him slip through a rear gate and survey this elite inner sanctum. His subsequent account, sent to a colleague, was his way of boasting of apparently high-placed connections. It would prove a god-send to the English Heritage team.

John Watkins describes Langham - a cloth merchant by trade - as “a sort of Elizabethan train-spotter” who, being used to measuring and calculating, provided astonishing descriptions of size and shape as well as content.

“Our biggest concern was whether Langham was a real person or if the letter was a complete fiction.” After commissioning specialist research he now  believes that Langham did indeed exist.

When subsequent archaeological excavations produced evidence that backed up not only the descriptions of the garden but measurements too, the reconstruction project was given the green light.

Unfortunately Langham’s account of the plants that were present doesn’t match his eye for the detail of design, shape and architecture

“He’s very unspecific and talks mainly about the fruit trees but also makes much of the Gillyflowers ( basically a name for 16th century perfumed perennials),” says Watkins.   

A mixture of  intelligent guesswork, studies of contemporary 16th century paintings, prints, engravings and tapestries and a study of horticultural history have been brought into play in a bid to capture some serious historic atmosphere. 

“We’ve done a lot of work looking at all the engravings and illustrations we can find from the period. We’ve spent the past five years trying to get inside the minds of Elizabethan designers and gardeners. 

“It was a fascinating period of history, a time when man was intent on dominating nature.

“One of the difficulties for 21st century eyes is the need to forget the Edwardian period and the soft romantic flowing lines of intermingling plants that came through Robinson and Jekyll. Elizabethan gardening was about  controlling plants and keeping them in their place.”

He points out how the Kenilworth garden is about colour, shape, sound and smell and how architecture and horticulture are inextricably linked.  

“If you stand on the terrace and look down you realise that the blocks of colour are very similar to the leaded ‘jewels’ that decorate the top of the aviary, particularly the double daisies. The colour forms that were available in the 16th century were quite something.” 

The garden will boast hollyhocks, marigolds, thrift, lily of the valley, wallflowers and of course pinks - a favourite floral subject in paintings of the era . 

In charge of planting is head gardener Fiona Sanders who describes the project as “absolutely fascinating”.

One of her previous jobs was working at the then newly established Eden Project. Valuable experience, she says, for planting a garden that was little more than a building site.

Looking around the newly planted Kenilworth, she comments that you get the sense that things are quickly growing into something very special indeed.  “It’s already striking to look at but in another couple of seasons it will feel much more enclosed, you’ll really feel that privacy.” 

Not everyone has been impressed by the garden though and in recent weeks it has become mired in controversy with critics claiming that there is scant evidence to support its authenticity. These squabbles have been captured on camera for a fly-on-the-wall documentary programme ironically made at the invitation of English Heritage CEO Simon Thurley.

He had clearly hoped the BBC2 series - called simply English Heritage - would create valuable publicity for his organisation. Instead it reveals in-fighting and questions the evidence on which the re-creation of the Elizabethan garden is based 

Undeterred, John Watkins says Kenilworth offers the single greatest reconstruction of an authentic Elizabethan garden in England today. 

Meanwhile Simon Thurley says he regrets ever asking the TV cameras to follow his team, saying such projects “start off fine but end up all about personalities and disasters.”

*The Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle is open daily from 10am to 5.00pm. Entry is free for English Heritage members. Non members £7 for adults (£6 for concessions), £3.50 for children and £17.50 for families (two adults and up to three children). Tel: 01926 852078.

© Jeremy Miles 2022