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.

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