The new Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle

GHS visit, 17 June 2008

In 1975 a ‘Tudor’ garden was created at Kenilworth, based on Sir William Dugdale’s plan of 1656. Since then the advance of garden archeological techniques has meant that a much more authentic recreation of the original garden is now possible. In 1984 EH became responsible for the care and maintenance of the castle and its grounds, and they have recently put in hand the ambitious recreation of the original garden, based on a detailed contemporary description left to us in a letter written by Robert Laneham, who was employed by the Earl of Leicester, together with comprehensive archaeological investigations by garden archaeologist Brian Dix, and research carried out by John Watkins and others.

The original garden had been made by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to impress and delight Queen Elizabeth I on her nine-day visit to the castle in July, 1575. It was a privy garden for the Queen’s own use; Laneham had only been able to see it because he had found the garden gate open one day when the Queen was out hunting! Entering the garden through an archway from the castle above, the Queen would have seen the whole design laid out dramatically below her, and would then have descended to the high terrace walk. This walk now has fine copies of the original arbours constructed at each end of it, and steps lead down at either end of the steep grassy bank, as before, to the garden itself.

The garden was divided into four quarters edged with low latticed wooden fences and divided by walks of grass or sand. Each quarter had an obelisk in the centre, “rising pyramidically fifteen feet high” with an orb “of porphyry” on the top. The beds were planted with flowers, fragrant herbs, and fruit trees; apples, pears and cherries. The choice of plants in the modern garden at Kenilworth has been based on contemporary writings and illustrations, in particular from Thomas Tusser’s 500 points of Good Husbandry and Plants for Various Uses and from engravings by Vredeman de Vries.

An important discovery was that of the foundations of the great white marble fountain in the centre of the garden. Laneham describes how it “reared four feet high; from the midst whereof, a column upright, in shape of two Athlants … with their hands upholding a fair-formed bowl of three feet over, from whence sun-dry fine pipes did lively distil continual streams in to the reservoir of the fountain … wherein pleasantly playing to and fro … [were] carp, tench, bream and for variety, pearch and eel…” The design included statues of Neptune, Triton, and Proteus with their attendant marine creatures, also Doris with her daughters, and spouts of water could be turned on to spray unwary visitors; this fountain is being recreated.

He described the aviary (below) as being  “beautified with great diamonds, emeralds, rubies and saphires … and garnished with gold”, 20 foot high, 30 foot long, 14 foot broad; this has also been reconstructed. The terrace, aviary and obelisks are the earliest mention of such Italianate features in English gardens.

Truly Robert Dudley spared no expense in his efforts to please his Queen, and this was without considering the costs of pageants, and of boat trips across the mere (a lake about half a mile long adjacent to the south front of the castle) to feast at the Pleasance, a manor house surrounded by a double moat. Laneham finishes his letter with a paean of praise for, “a garden then so appointed, as wherein aloft upon sweet shadowed walk of terrace, in heat of summer, to feel the pleasant whisking wind above, or delectable coolness of the fountain-spring beneath, to taste of delicious strawberries, cherries and other fruits… to smell such fragrancy of sweet odours… to hear such natural melodious music and tunes of birds … all in such delectable variety … to have such full fruition of so many of God’s blessings, by entire delight unto all senses (if all can take) at once…”

Jennifer Meir

John Watkins reports that the replica 18-foot high fountain, carved from Carrara marble, is nearly complete, with one panel left to carve, “Perhaps the garden is not as temporary as some reports might have suggested, the experience of making the replica suggests that the original version of the fountain would have taken about three years to construct”.

The garden will reopen in May 2009.

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Painswick Roccoco Gardens, the Red House, Photo © Joab Smith