Kenilworth Castle: A Garden Fit for a Queen

PUBLISHED: 16:11 10 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013

Kenilworth Gardens

Kenilworth Gardens

The gardens of Kenilworth Castle, originally designed for the visit of Elizabeth I in 1575, are being restored to their former glory as Marigold Webb reports.

The ruins of Kenilworth Castle are impressive. Roofless and windowless, tall sandstone buildings rise apparently at random across a green and grassy landscape. Eye and mind tell you immediately that this was once a place of great importance.

Historically the castle was indeed one of the great royal palaces of England. Owned by the crown, its upkeep was entrusted to favoured relatives or courtiers of the monarch. At the end of the 14th century John of Gaunt lived in the castle and carried out a major building programme. Lancastrian, Yorkist and Tudor monarchs all stayed there. It was the regional centre for a court that moved around the country; it was also a favoured hunting ground.

In 1563 Queen Elizabeth granted the castle to Sir Robert Dudley, shortly to become Earl of Leicester. 'Sweet Robin' as the Queen referred to Leicester was a trusted friend, confidant, lover and adviser to the monarch. From contemporary accounts Elizabeth was besotted by Leicester and he may well have dreamed of marrying the Queen. His own 10 year marriage had come to an abrupt end in 1560, when his wife Amy had been found dead at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Rumours abounded that Dudley had had her murdered, but the greater probability was that either it was an accident or suicide caused by desperation at her husband's attraction for Elizabeth.

Robert Dudley's brother Ambrose was Earl of Warwick, and Robert thought of himself very much as a Warwickshire man, and descendant of the Beauchamp Earls of Warwick. He became responsible for Kenilworth and its upkeep as a Midlands base for the Queen during her regular 'progresses' around her realm. Interestingly, other than fleeting visits, he only lived at Kenilworth when the queen and court progressed there. The majority of the time he was at court. In those days, if you wished to retain your influence and your head you had to be where the action was.

Royal progresses to Kenilworth took place in 1565, 1570, and finally in 1575. By 1575 Warwick was 43 and Elizabeth 42. If a marriage was to take place, this visit could be a last chance. Leicester pulled out all the stops to make Kenilworth a fit setting for the perfect host and suitor. In addition to building new residential apartments fit for a queen, he also constructed and planted a new Privy Garden, where the Queen and her closest friends could walk privately (privily), out of earshot of other courtiers and local inhabitants. This garden was to reflect Leicester's wealth and ambitions. Its content and planting was to be rich in symbolism. It was to be grand and in the latest style; it was to be the talking point of the Queen's visit. A gardener Adrian was especially imported from France to take charge of its creation.

It is this garden that is now being rebuilt by English Heritage, the present custodians of Kenilworth. The design relies on using a contemporary description given in a letter from Robert Langham to Humphrey Martin, a friend and fellow member of the worshipful company of Mercers. The garden is intended to be first viewed from above. At the foot of a great staircase coming from the state apartments, a long terrace has been created. Along its front there is a substantial balustrade with oak pillars interlaced with chestnut trellis. The oak pillars will be capped with gilded heraldic devices, the bear of Warwick, obelisks and spheres. From this vantage point the visitor gazes down on to the garden which is divided into four rectangular flower beds surrounded by clipped hedges. These surround a central fountain of white Italian marble. In the centre of each bed is a slim painted pyramid surmounted by an orb. The four flower beds are further subdivided into two making eight in all. On either side of the flower beds and along the furthest sides, walks have been planted where the Queen could relax in private and out of view.

The fountain portrays two back to back 'Athlants', facing east and west, supporting a large bowl from which rose the Bear and Ragged Staff of Warwick. From the bowl water cascades into a basin carved with nautical scenes from classical mythology. The Athlants were derived from Atlas whose mythical role was to support the Heavens. The pure waters of a fountain symbolised virginity

In the centre of the furthest garden boundary, beyond the flower beds a very substantial oak aviary which measures 20 feet high, 30 feet long and 14 feet in depth has been built. This is to be decorated with coloured glass, to simulate jewels, and gilded with gold following the description contained in Langham's letter. Inside evergreen hollies and holm oaks will provide cover and perching spaces for the birds. These will be chosen from species described in the letter as: 'English, French, Spanish, Canarian, and I am deceived if I saw not some African'. This aviary would have been the most important part of the garden to be seen on first viewing it and then again close at hand after descending into the garden.

The garden is approached by two staircases at either end of the terrace. The heads of the staircases are marked by two domed arbours, cut from solid oak. These arbours are to be covered with flowering plants of the period.

Plants in the garden are those described in Langham's letter, known to be favoured by Elizabeth I. Hedges are of hawthorn, privet and the symbolic eglantine rose. The gardens are planted with centrepieces of standard evergreen holly, bay and yew and the flowers include many sweet scented species such as perennial stock, sweet rocket, pinks, lily in the valley, wild strawberries, and herbs such as rosemary, thyme and sage. Pot marigolds (Calendula), African marigolds (were they really introduced by 1575) and Love lies Bleeding (Amaranthus) add a bright, even gaudy tone, in keeping with the jewelled glass in the aviaries and the heavily gilded heraldic statues on the balcony. They were the colours of the New Elizabethan age, showy, brash, portraying a new sense of importance in an era of discovery and new wealth. They may jar on today's softer colour palette, but they didn't on the Virgin Queen and her courtiers.

When I saw the garden in August 2008 it was still under construction. The hedges were still to be planted, the flower beds improved by more correct historical planting. The carpenters were topping out the arbour domes. The heraldic beasts, the fountain, and the pyramidical columns were still to arrive. However this winter will see steady progress ready for opening in April 2009.

I hope that this garden may last longer than Leicester's. We know that Adrian worked on until at least 1585, and he attended Leicester's funeral at Warwick in 1588, but Leicester visited Kenilworth less and less after 1575. Elizabeth's Lord Treasurer, William Cecil was a more careful and less flamboyant man than the Earl of Leicester, and reduced the royal progresses in the interests of economy. Shakespeare, interestingly, sets a scene on the terrace at Kenilworth, created in 1575, in Henry VI Part 2, which was probably written about 1595. He was a local man and may well have been impressed by this new garden created when he was a boy. However a picture dated 1620 shows a bare space where the garden had stood. Only the white marble fountain remained.

In 1575 Leicester rode out from Kenilworth to greet his queen and escort her back. Will the next Elizabeth arrive in April 2009 and who will ride out to guide and guard her passage? Adrian will no longer be there as gardener, but Fiona Sanders, the current head of the garden, is a knowledgable and enthusiastic replacement who I must thank for her kindness and attention to my questions both during and after my visit.

ADMISSION DETAILS: Kenilworth, Warwickshire, CV8 1NE.

The Garden will be open from April 2009. Admission will include entry to both the Castle and the Garden. Please check for further information either by telephone: 01926 852078 or visit their website: www.english-heritage.org.uk/kenilworth

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