How to design a historic royal garden

How do you create a garden fit for a king or queen? Find out how palace gardens have developed, from Henry VIII's great orchard outside London to Elizabeth II's rose garden near Belfast.

By Historic Royal Palaces

Privy Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

From Hampton Court Palace to the Palace of Versailles, monarchs have been creating gardens to impress their subjects and rivals for centuries.

20th-century design for the Pond Garden, Hampton Court Palace (1903)Historic Royal Palaces

This design is an early 20th-century re-imagining of the Tudor Pond Garden at Henry VIII's Hampton Court Palace. However, the original fishponds were not for ornament, but to supply food. 

The proposal is a nod to the original fish ponds, not a design for a Tudor swimming pool. 

As well as a pair of fish-shaped fountains, the design features heraldic beasts on poles decorated with a green and white colour scheme. 

Chapel Court, Hampton Court Palace (2015)Historic Royal Palaces

The Chapel Court garden is a recreation of how we believe Henry's heraldic Privy Gardens might have looked.

The basis for the new scheme is the garden depicted in The Family of Henry VIII, which hangs in the Haunted Gallery.

The portrait shows a garden at Whitehall Palace, bristling with 'Kyngs beestes' perched upon lofty painted posts. 

The beasts are set in a garden criss-crossed by green and white painted post and rail fencing, encompassing beds sprinkled with herbs and flowers.  

The Long Water, Hampton Court Palace (2017) by Aerial VueHistoric Royal Palaces

Water was always an important part of royal gardens, involving a lot of engineering, man power and money.  

The scale of major design projects like the Longford River and the Long Water, commissioned by Charles I and II at Hampton Court Palace, clearly demonstrated wealth and supremacy over nature. ​  

Privy Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Formal French garden styles such as parterres de broderie and the gazon coupe were the height of baroque fashion in the 17th century.   

Privy Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2017) by Aerial VueHistoric Royal Palaces

Parterres were placed under the principal windows of the monarch's apartments, where the king or queen could view them from above. 

These designs use plants to create an intricate effect. It was a style designed to show off man’s ability to manipulate plants into all manner of unnatural shapes and was reserved for the best and most talented gardeners. 

William III commissioned the fabulous Privy Garden and parterre at Hampton Court Palace before he died in 1702. 

18th century engraving of view of gardens, Hampton Court Palace (1749)Historic Royal Palaces

While gardens were created for the pleasure of the monarch, to impress dignitaries and reinforce royal power, they were also designed to entertain the court. 

This engraving shows courtiers strolling in the Great Fountain Garden in the mid-18th century. 

Her Majesties Royal Palace at Kensington (c1707-14) by After Leonard KnyffHistoric Royal Palaces

Formality and geometry were essential elements of royal garden design. 

This 18th-century print of Kensington Palace shows a geometric parterre during the reign of Queen Anne. 

The print shows the formality of the palace gardens, in contrast to the vast open space when Kensington was still in the countryside outside London. 

The Great Fountain Garden, Hampton Court Palace (2015) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

At Hampton Court, Anne encouraged a more restrained style of garden, said to be in the 'more plain and noble English Manner'.

Anne had the yews planted in the Great Fountain Garden and toned down the frivolity of the original design. This royal design with one central fountain and the avenues of trees, was simple and elegant.

It was intended to show England’s distinctiveness from the Catholic pomp of the European royal palaces.  

Queen Charlotte's Cottage, Kew Palace (2018) by Nick GuttridgeHistoric Royal Palaces

Royal gardens have always been at the forefront of changing gardening trends. When George III moved the royal court to Kew, the naturalistic style was in vogue.   

Queen Charlotte's Cottage is the equivalent of a modern-day summer house. Built in around 1771, it was a rustic retreat for the royal family to enjoy picnics or take tea during the summer months. ​ 

Lady Alice's Temple, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens (2018) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Statues and buildings have always been classical garden features for grand gardens, creating vistas and a circuit of walks.

At Hillsborough Castle and Gardens, Lady Alice’s Temple was given as a wedding gift to Lady Alice Hill by her brother, the 5th Marquess of Downshire in 1867. 

Yew trees (Taxus Baccata ‘Fastigiata'), Yew Tree Walk, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens (2018) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

A classical domed rotunda, with ionic columns, it's a place to sit and rest while wandering through the gardens. ​

Moss Walk, Hillsborough Castle and Gardens (2015) by Chris HillHistoric Royal Palaces

The temple also makes a great focal point and can be viewed from many different parts of the garden.​ 

Pond gardens, Hampton Court Palace (2017) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

Sunken gardens are a popular feature of royal gardens as they are designed to be viewed from above, from a palace window, or a raised terrace. 

The Pond Gardens at Hampton Court Palace (2019) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

The Tudor fish ponds were later made into sunken gardens for Mary II in the 17th century. They are planted with box hedging and parterres and filled with colourful bedding plants in spring and summer.​

The Sunken Garden, Kensington Palace (2011) by Robin ForsterHistoric Royal Palaces

At Kensington Palace, the sunken garden was opened in 1909. The garden was laid out by the historian and garden designer Ernest Law. ​  

In this video, the gardeners explain how they updated the sunken garden to create a contemporary memorial to Diana, Princess of Wales.

Visitors in the Granville Garden (2018) by Richard Lea-HairHistoric Royal Palaces

The Granville Garden at Hillsborough Castle and Gardens was developed in the 1940s by Lady Rose Bowes-Lyon, aunt to Queen Elizabeth II. The planting is a semi-formal combination of roses and herbaceous plants, including oriental poppies, peonies and irises.

HM The Queen and Princess Margaret used to visit the garden as children when staying with with Lord and Lady Granville. The Queen still likes to see the Granville Garden during her visits today.    

Wildflower meadow, Kensington Palace (2019)Historic Royal Palaces

Contemporary design is very environmentally-aware and this is reflected in the new wildflower meadow at Kensington Palace. ​  

​It's an informal planting scheme, designed to encourage bees and other pollinating insects.  

Designing royal gardens today is no longer about flaunting power and wealth, but about conservation and preserving these beautiful spaces for public enjoyment. 

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Find out more and visit the gardens in our care at the Historic Royal Palaces website

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