Book Reviews, Gardens, Landscape History

Book Review: Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens by Trea Martyn

February 24, 2014

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Two gardens, one queen and a competition fueled by passion, power and politics.  In the meticulously researched book, Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens, Trea Martyn recounts the decade-long struggle between Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and William Cecil, Baron Burghley to win the favor of Queen Elizabeth I by building lavish gardens and providing extravagant entertainments.

Elizabeth’s passion for gardens was legendary.  Each summer she and her court abandoned London for the countryside where they would lodge, often for weeks at a time, with noble families. These visits were highly coveted by Dudley, a close confidant harboring romantic intentions, and Cecil her chief political advisor intent on keeping Dudley at bay. To entice Elizabeth to visit, and amuse her once she arrived, they created gardens and landscapes of increasing complexity, each bolder and more elaborate than the next.  The end results were masterpieces of Renaissance design.

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Queen Elizabeth l and the Earl of Leicester at Kenilworth by Dirck Hals (1591 – 1656).

Of the two Dudley was the more flamboyant combining sensory experiences with landscape improvements on a grand scale.  On one visit he was rumored to spend what would today be more than ten million dollars improving Kenilworth Castle and grounds, building towers with deluxe suites and creating wide-open open spaces resembling piazzas.  Elaborate firework displays and entertainments lasted for hours and entire villages were submerged to create a lake on which a dramatic, emotionally-charged performance designed to woo the queen was enacted.  A sensational Italian garden, filled with exotic flowers, herbs, statuary and fountains added to Kenilworth’s allure.

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The painting of Kenilworth Castle (after a fresco dated 1620) is from the English Heritage Photo Library.

Not to be outdone Cecil hired English botanist John Gerard to oversee the gardens at Theobalds Palace.  Gerard, the leading expert on herbs and rare plants had contact with the greatest plantsmen in Europe and he slowly established the garden with such delicacy and seasonal subtlety that it resembled a paradise on earth.  Elizabeth, devoted to herbal cures, had a refined sense of smell and particularly enjoyed visiting Theobalds Palace during the spring season.

First published in 1597 Gerard’s Herbal was dedicated to Cecil.  His garden at Holborn was one of the earliest botanic gardens in Europe and the Herbal the most widely circulated botany book of the 17th century. Illustrations from two editions are seen below.

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Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry and Spectacular Gardens contains multiple plot twists as the two battle for Elizabeth’s affection.  She, ever the monarch, “played on off against the other” and in the process changed the course of English garden history.

Sadly, there are no remaining Elizabethan gardens in England.  Martyn notes that Theobalds Palace does not even exist on a modern map and is now subsumed by a public park, The Cedars, laid out in the 18th century landscape style.  While plans are afoot to develop a conservation plan for Theobalds Palace, the garden at Kenilworth Castle, overseen by English Heritage, has been recreated utilizing advances in garden archaeology and a 1575 description of the garden (the last year Elizabeth visited). It opened to the public in May, 2009 and additional information and a garden plan can be found at:  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/kenilworth-castle/elizabethan-garden/introduction/.

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Providing a new perspective on landscape history, Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry and Spectacular Gardens, reveals the importance of gardens and horticulture during Elizabeth’s reign.  As political currency gardens and landscapes provided a  powerful expression of status upon which to pursue both romance and drama.

The book is extensively notated with a select bibliography.  In the epilogue Martyns brings the past into the present, reminding the reader that the gardens were indeed fit for a queen.

This review appeared in Leaflet A Massachusetts Horticultural Society Publication, February 2014.

Copyright © 2014 Patrice Todisco  — All Rights Reserved

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  • Reply Christine M Dunn February 24, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    Absolutely love this one!

    • Reply Patrice Todisco February 26, 2014 at 12:41 pm

      Thanks! It’s a fascinating book that reveals a completely different perspective on garden/landscape history.

  • Reply Of Gardens March 12, 2014 at 4:21 am

    How interesting. Just last night I went to a lecture on another new book about Elizabeth sponsored by the Royal Oak Society. Elizabeth I is a favorite of mine, and I have read a number of book about her. That Dudley and Cecil competed with each other using gardens as their means of combat is a new concept for me. I will have to get the book.

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