HOMES & GARDENS: Courtly Love in the Garden; in the First of an Occasional Series on British Gardens through History, Anne Jennings Looks at How Outdoor Spaces Were Tackled in Medieval Times

Article excerpt

Byline: Anne Jennings

Britain has for centuries been internationally recognised as a great gardening nation and we are right to be proud of this reputation. As well as producing innovative and exciting designers and skilled professional gardeners, Britain's horticultural heritage is second to none.

However, the more one studies the history of British gardening, the more one appreciates the enormous international influence that has played a part in the development of this nation's gardens, as far back as Roman times.

Most gardeners already appreciate the wealth of non-native plants that we grow in our gardens, and the activities of British plant hunters over the last 400 years provide material for an exciting story in its own right.

However, the fact that the design and layout of our gardens over the last 2,000 years has been influenced, and at times dictated by, those in Europe, North Africa and Asia is perhaps less well known.

Mediterranean influence introduced by the Romans disappeared to a great extent following their withdrawal around 500AD, only to recur in the medieval period when, via a French conduit, ideas inspired by the Moorish gardens of Spain and North Africa were soon to be seen in English gardens.

Following the invasion of William, Duke of Normandy, and his defeat of King Harold at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, England became dominated not only by the French ruler but also by his nation's culture.

The wealthy enjoyed a more luxurious lifestyle, they became better educated and their tastes became increasingly sophisticated.

Life within the walls of the medieval castle or fortress was very different from that experienced by poor villagers, and it was in these enclosed and protected environments that the earliest medieval gardens were made and enjoyed. Illuminated manuscripts and other images and writing of the period tell us what gardens looked like, but they also explain how they were used. Surrounded by walls, and divided into small 'rooms' by hedges, walls or fences, the gardens were clearly designed on an intimate scale, well suited to what we now perceive to be a time of romance and courtly love.

In reality these gardens provided the only safe outdoor environments where women in particular could relax and enjoy fresh air.

The ladies of court would talk, sew, eat and sing as they sat on raised benches that were often planted with turf or herbs, positioned beneath a rose covered arbour or bower for shade from the sun. A formal pool and fountain might add the delicate sound of water to this idyllic scene, and a flowery mead, planted with grass and wild flowers, would form a central green carpet.

The garden was often divided into four sections by paths, perhaps with the fountain forming a central focal point, and a planted pergola ran along the boundaries.

Narrow borders were planted with a range of scented herbs and flowers including pot marigold, hyssop, lavender, lilies and iris, and climbing plants like roses, honeysuckle and wild clematis decorated wooden structures.

Flowers were used in religious ceremonies, with the Madonna lily, Lilium candidum, representing the Virgin Mary, and the rose, probably Rosa x alba symbolising love, purity and peace. …