Medieval Garden Intrigues British Archaeologists

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
February 10, 2003
The buried remains of a 700-year-old garden at Whittington Castle in Shropshire, England, could substantially change historian's understanding of medieval gardens.

The 14th-century garden had one of the earliest and largest viewing mounts ever found in England, an unusual layout, and an elaborate ditched water system.

Viewing mounts were built to provide elevated views of a castle's garden, grounds, and surrounding landscape and symbolized the owner's wealth and high status.

The Whittington Castle mount, a 16-foot (5-meter) man-made mound, puzzled archaeologists for years. It was originally thought to be part of the castle's defenses or a viewing mount built later in the 16th or 17th century.

The discovery by historical researcher Peter King of a reference in records dating to 1413 to "a garden with a ditch of water around it," led archaeologists to conduct a geophysical survey of the area. Employing techniques such as magnetometry, ground penetrating radar, and soil resistivity surveying to look below the site's surface, the archaeologists traced the buried outlines of the paths and rectangular plots of the garden. The findings suggest the mount and garden were built sometime between 1300 and 1349.

"This makes it the earliest example to survive in the United Kingdom, as well as drastically altering the traditional view that the medieval mounts were very small, low affairs," said Peter Brown, an archaeologist who coordinates historical research at the castle.

Almost everything historians know about gardens of this era is based on medieval manuscripts and the hundreds of contemporary paintings that depict them.

The find at Whittington adds to a growing body of evidence accumulated in the last 15 years that the gardens of extremely wealthy families of the period were often large-scale landscape architecture projects.

"The common elements are a formal garden, use of water, vistas, and parkland with animals," said Brown. "These were statements of the owners' wealth and power, designed to imitate a vision of paradise, and to impress visitors." Many also included fruit orchards, he said.

Dating the Whittington Castle Garden

Whittington Castle was built in the 12th century as a military stronghold on the embattled border between England and Wales.

The castle played a major role in the defense of England during several centuries of sporadic fighting against Welsh raiders. It wasn't until hostilities ended in 1282 that wealthy landowners, well-compensated for their service to the monarchy, could turn their attention to such luxuries as gardens.

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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