Kenilworth: castle ruins and Elizabethan garden

Kenilworth: castle ruins and Elizabethan garden

The Norman royal chamberlain established the castle on a low sandstone ridge where two ancient trackways met; King John added an outer circuit of stone walls and a dam to hold back a great defensive lake that made it one of the most formidable fortresses in the kingdom; John of Gaunt came, and had built a great hall and luxurious apartments for kings and nobles drawn to the place for its excellent hunting; Henry V built a retreat called ‘the Pleasance in the Marsh’ at the far end of the lake.  The glory days came in the late 16th century, when Elizabeth 1 granted the castle to her favourite, Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. He lavished money on building royal apartments and elaborate formal gardens for the Queen, and in 1575 laid on nineteen days of festivities for her enjoyment.  It all came to an end in 1650 when the castle was ‘slighted’ – turned into a ruin – by Parliamentary forces during the Civil War.

That, in a nutshell, is the story of Kenilworth, the imposing and impressive ruin that we visited on the way back from Stratford last week.  The ruins alone are atmospheric enough, but the Elizabethan knot garden, only recently recreated by English Heritage after being lost for 400 years, makes this a very special historical site, and worth visiting even if you are one of those unimpressed by castles.

The castle grounds are entered along a raised causeway, called the Tiltyard as it was used for tilting, or jousting, in medieval times. The causeway acted both as the dam which held back the waters of the great defensive lake, and as part of the barbican defences.  The lake was drained in the Civil War, and now the view from the battlements is one of meadows stretching across to a western ridge along wihich runs the A4177, still known locally as Mere End Road.

Entering the grounds, the view to the west is of the most recent structure – Leicester’s Building, erected by Dudley, Earl of Leicester, to provide private accommodation for Elizabeth I – flanked by the remains of the first castle  developed in the 1120s around an original Norman keep.

To the east stands the stable block built by Dudley in the 1550s with a timber-framed, decoratively panelled first storey in a vernacular style.

The first castle was adapted by successive owners: in the early 13th century King John added an upper floor, while Dudley added grand windows and arcades to show off his new garden beyond.

Adjacent to the Norman castle, John of Gaunt, son of Edward III, constructed a great hall and linked apartments. This part of the castle is regarded as one of the finest surviving example of a semi-royal palace of the later middle ages, an early example of the perendicular  architectural style that emphasised rectangular design.  Gaunt had a new kitchen built to replace the original 12th-century kitchens,  twice the size of that in equivalent castles.  It is still possible to discern the remains of the huge ovens, including a bread oven, among the ruins (above).

Leicester’s Building (above) was erected by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, in the 1570s. Childhood friend and long-term favourite of the queen, Dudley was the closest thing England had to a consort in the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, and Kenilworth was his magnificent rural palace.  The new block was four floors high and built in a fashionable Tudor style with to contain private accommodation for Elizabeth, including bedroom, withdrawal chamber and dancing chamber.  All enjoyed superb views across the mere.

Elizabeth stayed at Kenilworth many times, but  in July 1575, she stayed for 19 days – the longest stay at a courtier’s house in any of her royal progresses. A great deal is known about her visit because it was recorded in a letter by Robert Langham, a member of Dudley’s household, and in an account by poet and actor George Gascoigne, a man hired by Robert Dudley to provide entertainment during the royal visit.

The entire landscape around the castle had been improved: Langham writes that there were ‘many shady bowers, arbours, seats and walks’.  A bridge had been built to connect the chase and the gatehouse and there was a viewing platform over the mere.

During her visit, Dudley laid on several entertainments, including a magnificent firework display one night across the mere,  and a play  featuring Triton riding an 18 foot mermaid and moving islands carrying the Lady of the Lake and her nymphs.

George Gascoigne had written a masque Zabeta (a play on Elizabeth’s name)with a story that hinged on a debate about whether the chaste nymph, Zabeta, should wed, and concluded with a speech urging the queen to marry. Bad weather meant the masque was never performed, but Gascoigne improvised with a special farewell to the Queen which consisted of Elizabeth being intercepted by an actor playing ‘deep desire’ (dressed as a holly bush) who said to her:

Live here, good Queen, live here;
You are amongst your friends.
Their comfort comes when you approach,
And when you part it ends.

Elizabeth never returned to Kenilworth.  Five years later the suspicious death of Dudley’s wife, Amy Robsart, and the ensuing scandal, put an end to her relationship with Dudley.

Perhaps Dudley’s greatest creation, completed for Elizabeth’s visit in 1575, was the great garden to the north of the keep, described in such great detail by Robert Langham in his account of the queen’s visit that summer that English Heritage has been able to recreate it exactly. Although it was designed as a privy garden, closed to all but the queen’s closest companions, one day, while the queen was out hunting, the gardener allowed Langham to sneak inside.  The accuracy of his account is borne out by archaeological evidence, which confirms that an eight-sided fountain once stood at the centre of the garden, just as he claimed.

Dudley had a terrace constructed, flanked by two bears on pedestals, his symbol as Earl of Leicester, which still provides the best view of the garden. From here you can see how the garden is divided into four quarters with intricate geometrical patterns. In the centre of each quarter stands a pierced obelisk 17 feet high, an ancient symbol of rulership. There is no archaeological evidence for heavy stone structures having been placed in these positions, leading to the conclusion that the obelisks must have been made of wood and painted to look like porphyry – an expensive purple stone imported from Egypt.

Walking around the garden, you are assailed by sweet scents from the herbs and flowers – the emphasis in a fashionable Elizabethan gillyflower garden was on scents and tastes, rather than the blooms. So the knot gardens, delineated by low hedges of English privet, are planted with many varieties of ‘gillyflowers’ – carnations or pinks  – as well as eglantine rose in the hedges at either end, and sweet musk roses in the arbours.  The beds are edged with wild strawberries – the sweetest tasting ones, as we know from our allotment.

…Unto this, his Honour’s exquisite appointment of a beautiful garden, an acre or more in quantity, that lieth on the north there: Wherein hard all along by the Castle wall, is reared a pleasant terrace, ten feet high, and twelve feet broad, even under foot, and fresh of fine grass; as is also the side thereof towards the garden: In which, by sundry equal distances, with obelisks, and spheres, and white bears, all of stone upon their curious bases, by goodly shew were set…

– extract from Langham’s letter describing ‘The Magnificent Pageants presented before Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575’

All the plants now growing here would have been available in Elizabethan England, and the planting is designed to peak each year in July, the month of Elizabeth’s visit in 1575.

A garden then so appointed, as wherein aloft upon sweet shadowed walk of terrace, in heat of summer, to feel the pleasant whisking wind above, or delectable coolness of the fountain-spring beneath, to taste of delicious strawberries, cherries, and other fruits, even from their stalks, to smell such fragrancy of sweet odours, breathing from the plants, herbs, and flowers, to hear such natural melodious music and tunes of birds…

– extract from Langham’s letter describing ‘The Magnificent Pageants presented before Queen Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575’

The term gillyflower was applied to any of several scented flowering plants, including the carnation or clove pink (Dianthus caryophyllus), stock, and wallflower . However, the gillyflower of Chaucer, Spenser, and Shakespeare was the carnation. In The Winter’s Tale, Perdita is scathing about gillyflowers because they are cross-fertilized by humans, rather than by nature:

The fairest flowers o’ the season
Are our carnations and streak’d gillyvors,
Which some call nature’s bastards: of that kind
Our rustic garden’s barren; and I care not
To get slips of them. …

I have heard it said
There is an art which in their piedness shares
With great creating Nature … I’ll not put
The dibble in earth to set one slip of them.

Perdita also names other flowers that would be found in a Tudor garden such as this:

Here’s flowers for you;
Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram;
The marigold, that goes to bed wi’ the sun
And with him rises weeping: these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.

– The Winter’s Tale

Carnations were significant flowers in Tudor times, used symbolically in art. Legends told how they first appeared on earth when Christ carried the cross. As she walked behind Him, Mary’s tears dropped on the ground and carnations sprang up where they fell.  Because of this they came to symbolise undying love.

There is a painting by Raphael in the National Gallery, called Madonna of the Pinks which depicts Mary and the infant Jesus both holding pinks, symbolising her love. Another painting by Hans Holbein (above), dated 1532, shows Georg Giese, a merchant in Danzig, seated beside a vase of pinks, signifying the fact that he is betrothed.

Eglantine, or Sweet Briar, grows around the edge of the garden.  In Elizabethan times, as well as its delicate pink flowers, it was valued for its scent:

I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:
There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,
Lull’d in these flowers with dances and delight.
– A Midsummer Night’s Dream

As we strolled around the garden and ruined castle, to the west the sky grew dark, leaving only a dull reddish glow on the horizon.  Thunder rumbled in the distance, but no rain reached us.  However, later, as we drove back through the outskirts of Birmingham, the storm hit with thunder, lightning and torrential rain, making the outer lane of the motorway flooded and impassable for several miles.

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