Early Modern Gardens – Kenilworth Castle

Your Gentleman Administrator is a keen gardener, as such I’m interested when the opportunity to peruse historical gardens comes up. One such occasion was last weekend at Kenilworth Castle, in Warwickshire.

Tudor gatehouse at Kenilworth Castle

Gardens in the Early Modern Period were important places, both socially and politically. The reconstructed Elizabethan pleasure garden at Kenilworth Castle provides an example of how they could be utilised for both purposes. The original garden was built by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester,  for the visit of Queen Elizabeth in July 1575. The Queen would tour the country with her court each summer but being chosen to host the Queen was an honour that came at an astronomical price. For those she visited it was an opportunity to demonstrate the extent of their prestige and court favour. Dudley laid on an elaborate set of entertainments for this visit, of which two accounts survive, and the garden it seems was a key element.

Tudor brand marketing

Tudor brand marketing

The above picture shows one of many ‘bear and ragged staff’ emblems employed around this space. Dudley drew on his Beauchamp ancestry  and adopted the emblem as a sign of prestige. Its appearance around the garden shows that a nominally private space was also a political and social tool, this is a kind of Tudor ancestral brand marketing.

Dudley pulled no stops for this pageant. The key account, written by Robert Langham, describes the splendour of the garden in great detail and it is this along with archaeological evidence that enabled the reconstruction.Here is his description of central fountain:

In the centre, as it were, of this goodly garden, was there placed a very fair fountain, cast into an eight-square, reared four feet high; from the midst whereof, a column upright, in shape of two Athlants, joined together a back half; the one looking east, the other west, with their hands upholding a fair-formed boll of three feet over; from whence sun-dry fine pipes did lively distil continual streams into the reservoir of the fountain, maintained still two feet deep by the same fresh falling water; wherein pleasantly playing to and fro, and round about, carp, tench, bream, and for variety, pearch and eel, fish fair-liking all, and large : In the top, the ragged staff; which, with the bowl, the pillar, and eight sides beneath, were all hewn out of rich and hard white marble. One one side, Neptune with his tridental fuskin triumphing in his throne, trailed into the deep by his marine horses. On another, Thetis in her chariot drawn by her dolphins. Then Triton by his fishes. Here Proteus herding his sea-bulls. There Doris and her daughters solacing on sea and sands. The waves surging with froth and foam, intermingled in place, with whales, whirlpools, sturgeons, tunneys, conches, and wealks, all engraven by exquisite device and skill, so as I may think this not much inferior unti Phoebus’ gates, which Ovid says, and per-adventure a pattern to this, that Vulcan himself did cut : whereof such was the excellency of art, that the work in value surmounted the stuff, and yet were the gates all of clean massy silver.


And here it is (spot the ragged staff!)

The Fountain

The reconstructed garden is impressive and viewing it from the terrace on a balmy late Summers day it really did convey a sense of the grandness that Langham (if its he) described. Kenilworth Castle is full of other Tudor detail but the garden alone is worth the visit to those of you interested in getting a feel for the use of gardens in early modern times.

More early modern garden stuff at a later date.

Here are some more pictures (I like to think Elizabeth and her entourage would have been a little more decorous in regard to eating th wild strawberries than the tourists were last weekend. Gannets)


7 thoughts on “Early Modern Gardens – Kenilworth Castle

  1. Lucy

    Gardens are usually the thing I walk through in my rush to get into the house, but this is an excellent post on why I should stop and have another look.

  2. Jeane Westin

    Kenilworth garden was built by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester for Elizabeth I’s visit on progress in 1575 in which he held the biggest, most expensive party of the age. Hunting, fireworks, music, feasts, plays, mechanical fish and moving islands in a mad-made lake…were on display all with in eye to making a final bid for the queen’s hand. Robert had tried for almost two decades to marry her without success and the garden was meant to charm her into saying yes…at least we can surmise it was. That it failed is no fault of the garden’s, but the result of the queen’s determination to keep power in her own hands, though she kept Dudley close to her for as long as he lived.
    Jeane Westin, The Virgin’s Daughters, NAL, August 2009

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