Welcome to Episode #60 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.
William Shakespeare uses Tudor Knot Gardens in his plays, most notably in Love’s Labour’s Lost, but also with a mention in Richard II. These iconic symbols of Tudor history are as intricate in design as they are in their history and folklore.
Here to help us explore exactly why Shakespeare would have invoked the reputation of a Tudor Knot Garden for his plays, as well as the history of the design, purpose, and flowers inside these specialty gardens is our guest, returning to visit with us for the second time, the delightful Brigitte Webster.
Brigette Webster is the owner and founder at Tudor and 17th Century Experience, a unique living history centre with authentic accommodations that let visitors step back in history to experience life in England’s 17th century. Offering designated open days, “taster days “, weekends and custom-made holidays, Brigette’s unique home lets guests travel back in time to fall in love with 17th century English history, featuring a real Tudor Knot Garden which she meticulously designed herself and that you can, by appointment, visit to walk through and experience this slice of history for yourself.
In this episode, I’ll be asking Brigitte about :
When did Tudor Knot Gardens first come into fashion?
Were these gardens used as kitchen gardens for housing herbs that were used in cooking, or were they decorative gardens?
Would Shakespeare have had a garden like this at his home at New Place in Stratford Upon Avon?
…. and more!
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin’d,
Her knots disorder’d and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?
Painting of the family of Henry VIII Left to Right: ‘Mother Jak’, Lady Mary, Prince Edward, Henry VIII, Jane Seymour(posthumous), Lady Elizabeth and Will Somers Behind the maid peeping through an archway can be glimpsed gardens, possibly of Whitehall Palace. Raised beds of flowers are shown with striped rails, while heraldic beasts on columns hold tiny pennants. Source
Henry VIII First Tudor Knot Garden
The Tudor Knot Garden was an idea that came over from Italy in the mid-16th century. They consisted of neat box hedges done in four square beds, but a true Tudor Knot Garden, like the one started with Henry VIII had some specific features unique to that time period which delineate early and late Tudor gardens historically.
One of the ways we know what Henry VIII’s garden would have looked like is from paintings from that time period, including one done in 1555 of Hampton Court Palace where the Royal family is depicted standing in a garden at Whitehall Palace.
The garden features what are now iconic green and white painted raillings around the square beds, which are a distinguishing feature different from the single color railings which would be used in later Tudor Knot Gardens.
The pattern of each square was achieved by low growing evergreen plants, thrift hyssop or lavender and filled in with colored gravel, sand or brick dust, called a closed knot. A knot is a garden square flower bed, in this decorative pattern.
Where Italian garden artists used Greek statues, Henry VIII had heraldic beasts, to emphasize his royalty and family strength. Later, under Elizabeth (his daughter) the heraldric beasts in English Tudor Knot Gardens would be replaced with classic statues representing Greek and Roman lore. Elizabethan Tudor Knot Gardens would also feature low growing flowers instead of the colored gravel or dust. This new style would not come to be known as “open knot garden” until after Shakespeare’s death when John Parkinson coined the phrase in 1629.
He poisons him i’ th’ garden for’s estate.
Tudor style Knot Garden, Sudeley Castle. Source
Recreational Spaces for Elite Homes
Tudor Knot Gardens were filled with beautiful plants, and some of them were herbs, but the purpose of the garden was not to be functional for eating, but instead to be what’s called a pleasure garden. You walked through it to relax, enjoy the outdoors, and sometimes to host elaborate parties.
The outdoor space contained many rooms or compartments including mazes, labyriths, or sometimes even bowling alleys, tennis courts, and other outdoor sports arenas. In addition to hosting outdoor sports and elaborate garden designs, they also contained walking paths where owners or guests could peruse the space at leisure.
While the space was sometimes called an herbar, it was not used for medicial or culinary herbs, both of which would have been grown in a separate space on the grounds of the home called a Kitchen Garden.
Go thou toward home
Gardens at Shakespeare’s New Place
A big part of the life of William Shakespeare was a constant ambition to be seen, and to actually acquire, status as an important man of status in his community. While he was obviously gaining fame in London proper, Shakespeare took great pains to be known as important and respectable man at home in Stratford Upon Avon. To that end, when he did purchase New Place it would have mattered to Shakespeare that his home include a Tudor Knot Garden, as the presence of such a garden was assocaited with high social standing. When anyone visited his home, a knot garden would have stated that he was a high gentleman.
While we do not know precisely what Shakespeare’s garden would look like, we do have contemporary records that attest to the presence of a garden there. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust maintains the grounds at Shakespeare’s New Place today and they specifically include a beautiful garden there.
…it standeth north-north-east
and by east from the west corner of thy curious-
knotted garden: there did I see that low-spirited
swain, that base minnow of thy mirth,…
Hampton Court Palace – Recreation of a Tudor Garden Source
Many exotic plants, that are normal today
If you are like Brigitte, you can study these gardens and learn about the plant contained inside them. Once you know which plants are there, you can identify the time period when the garden was planted. As Brigitte shares with us this week, early Elizabethan era Tudor Knot Gardens were distinct from later Elizabethan Tudor Knot Gardens. Here’s a sample of the plants from each:
Early Elizabethan plants:
Sweet briar, climbing rose, violets, madonna lilies, gilly flowers (carnation), wollflower, marigold, roses, cowslip, iris, poppy
Late Elizabethan Plants: (1600s)
Clamatis, Yellow jasmine, woodbine, outlandish flowers, stock snow drops, tulips, hyacinth, snapdragon, bell flower, love in the mist, cornflower, lily of the valley, sweet williams, and new species with double forms and different colors. 1600s, tobacco plant.
He’s walking in the garden—thus…
Dudley and Gardens at Kenilworth Castle
There are many famous Tudor Knot Gardens worth exploring including the ones present today at Hampton Court Palace, the ones planted by Henry VIII, and even the largest one Brigitte shared about this week: the tudor knot garden planted by William Cecil, Lord Burghley garden in Hartfordshire, with squares at least 70 feet in length.
One particularly romantic Tudor Knot Garden was the one at Kenilworth Castle, designed by Robert Dudley specifically for Queen Elizabeth. His is an example of the later design because it has flowers instead of colored gravel.
Another Tudor Knot Garden you can visit today is at Suffolk, Oddley hall. It is privately owned and you can view it, authentic, much smaller than Kenilworth, but it demonstrates a small one.
The Tudor Knot Garden that Brigitte is planning to design is based on the Henry VIII version.
Learn more about Brigitte at her website here.
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