Medieval Garden Intrigues British Archaeologists

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The Fitz Warin family owned Whittington Castle from 1204 until 1420. An extraordinary amount of information known about the Fitz Warins, thanks to legal documents associated with the castle. Based on that information and pottery evidence found during earlier excavations, Brown estimates that the garden was built sometime between 1300 and 1349.

"We know a great deal about the three owners in this period, all of whom fought for the Crown in campaigns against the French and the Scots," he said. "These were knights of the first order, wealthy men who survived to middle age and could afford to create a lavish home as a retreat from their military commitments."

Other archeologists are more cautious.

"The garden at Whittington might substantially change what was previously known about medieval gardens if we had some reliable dating evidence and more information generally about some of the features," said Mark Bowden, senior archaeological investigator for English Heritage. "Though the documentary sources seem to be particularly good for Whittington, I am not happy about tying the known archaeological features to dates suggested by the documents without corroborative evidence."

English Heritage, a government agency responsible for maintaining and preserving historic sites in England, helped fund the study.

Medieval Gardens

The archaeological evidence strongly suggests the Whittington Castle garden at its peak was both ornate and elaborate.

Nearby streams, no longer essential to the defense of the castle, were diverted to fill trenches about 13 feet (4 meters) wide and 6 feet (2 meters) deep so that the entire garden was essentially surrounded by a moat. Small footbridges needed to be crossed to reach the garden; another footbridge connected the garden and the viewing mount.

"Recent research has shown that water features, sometimes on a very lavish scale, were a common feature of medieval high status gardens, especially in the 14th century but possibly earlier," said Bowden.

A special pavilion or summer house, known as a "gloriette," would have perched on the top of the mount, said Brown.

The garden itself had an unusual orientation. "Medieval gardens were nearly always rectangular, with very few curves," said Brown. "The paths within the garden and the flower beds were laid out in a totally geometric pattern. That's what we expected to find. But the layout of the garden at Whittington is completely odd. The orientation is fundamentally different and clearly designed to be seen from the viewing mount."

"There has been a great deal of archaeological research recently into parks and gardens generally, and high status medieval gardens in particular," said Bowden. "This has transformed our traditional view of the medieval garden as small, private, and enclosed, and shown that medieval gardens could also be, by contrast, very large, open, and intended for symbolic display."

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