My review of Queen Elizabeth in the Garden by Trea Martyn
In Orlando, Virginia Woolf describes the Elizabethan world as a place where colours were brighter and life was lived more intensely:
The age was the Elizabethan; their morals were not ours; not their poets; nor their climate; nor their vegetables even. Everything was different. The weather itself, the heat and cold of summer and winter, was, we may believe, of another temper altogether. The brilliant amorous day was divided as sheerly from the night as land from water. Sunsets were redder and more intense; dawns were whiter...
The rain fell vehemently, or not at all. The sun blazed or their was darkness.
Imagine a time when, to win a woman’s love, the ardent suitor had to create a garden more beautiful, more sensual, more unusual than his competition. Seen through Trea Martyn’s fascinating lens, the fate of England in the 16th century rested on just such a competition, waged by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer. Cecil created his fabulous, strange gardens at his estate, Theobalds. Dudley spent the equivalent of millions of dollars on his gardens at Kenilworth Castle. Cecil was a constant, mild man; Dudley a bit of a hothead who longed to prove himself in battle. Endless songs and poems and puns about the competition were written for the Queen’s attention. Each spring, she would decamp from London with her court to visit friends and subjects — these trips were called the Queen’s progresses, and they very nearly bankrupted the hosts. The excess — the food, fireworks, fountains, plays, and myriad follies — were well documented, but Martyn brings these marvelous, strange parties and dinners to life. There is also a great deal of information here on the history of gardening (Italian gardens were all the rage during Elizabeth’s reign), the British infatuation with flowers, herbs, and plants from around the world, and the creation of herbal apothecaries (Elizabeth insisted on treating her ailments with herbal remedies). Great gardeners like Mountain Jennings, John Tradescant, Thomas Hill, John Gerard, and William Turner all make appearances in this capacious book. It is easier to root for Dudley, whose untimely death cut short his imaginative gardening — but Cecil was a worthy opponent, and Elizabeth played them both quite cruelly.
What makes this such a different and interesting non-fiction read, is how Trea Martyn brings Queen Elizabeth's love of gardens to life. Highlighting the gardens of Kenilworth Castle and Theobolds Place, her two favorite men: Robert Dudley and William Cecil, both love her differently and quite fervently. In a way of displaying their loyalty to her and love for her, they both decide to gather the best architects and gardeners of the day to build Elizabethan gardens fit for a queen! Cecil and Dudley, already rivals, set into motion a sixteenth century love triangle to marvel all love triangles!
As Dudley and Cecil's gardens are being designed and built, highlights of Elizabeth Tudor's reign come into play. Trea Martyn draws numerous correlations between the symbolism of herbs, gardens, and flowers and what they represent historically to the events of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Along with beautiful illustrations and an extensive notes and bibliography section in the back of the book.
Many historical key players visit her majesty including an interesting horticultural discussion between Nicholas Hilliard and Elizabeth Tudor. Honorable mentions go to her men of the privy council and a newly favorite of mine, John Dee.
I highly recommend ‘Queen Elizabeth in the Garden’ to anyone who enjoys reading about one of the most inspiring and fascinating women in history and the men who she kept around her make for pretty entertaining reading as well.
Please feel free to leave any questions or comments,