Kenilworth Castle: The Elizabethan Garden

Discover an Elizabethan garden that has been expertly restored

English Heritage

Portret van Robert Dudley, graaf van Leicester (1586/1586) by Hendrick GoltziusRijksmuseum

In 1575, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, entertained Queen Elizabeth I at his home, Kenilworth Castle. He hoped to marry the queen and created a garden for her at Kenilworth, designed to gain her favour. Over time this garden was lost. 

Euro(Bri-E) Warwickshire KenilworthLIFE Photo Collection

A letter survives which provides an extraordinary eye-witness account of the garden from the time of Queen Elizabeth’s visit.

It was written by Robert Langham, an official who sneaked into the garden one day while the queen was hunting. He was clearly impressed by what he encountered.

‘...the fruit-trees, the plants, the herbs, the flowers, the change in colours, the birds flittering, the fountain streaming, the fish swimming, all in such delectable variety, order and dignity...’

During the recreation of the Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth in 2009Original Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

In 2009 Langham's letter, together with the findings from extensive archaeology and research, was used to recreate the garden from 1575. The recreation provides us with the most complete picture of an Elizabethan garden anywhere in England.

Recreated Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: Kenilworth Castle

In the centre of the garden there is a ‘very fair fountain’ as described by Langham. 

Detail of the fountain at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The fountain takes the form of two ‘Athlants’ (Atlas-like figures), who support a sphere that discharges continual jets of water. 

The central fountain at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Its base is octagonal and carved with eight scenes from the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

A detail from the base of the fountain at Kenilworth Castle gardenOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

‘There Doris and her daughters solacing on sea and sands. The waves surging with froth and foam, intermingled in place, with whales, whirlpools, sturgeons, tunneys, conches, and wealks, all engraven by exquisite device and skill …’

Robert Langham, 1575

Recreated Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: Kenilworth Castle

Langham’s detailed description of the aviary at Kenilworth is the first of an aviary in England. 

He describes how it contained birds from Europe and possibly even Africa, and how they were ‘delightsome in change of tunes, and harmony to the ear.’ 

The reconstructed aviary is now home to domesticated birds. 

One of the painted timber obelisks in Kenilworth Castle gardenOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Langham believed that the obelisks in the garden were made from porphyry, a rare purple marble from Egypt. He described them as ‘hewn out of hard porphyry, and with great art and heed (think me)’.

But they were more likely to have been made of painted timber, as now recreated. Obelisks were ancient symbols of power and immortality. 

The terrace on one side of the garden at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

On one side of the garden runs a terrace described by Langham as ‘a pleasant terrace, ten feet high, and twelve feet broad’. 

Reconstructed to its original height, the terrace affords the best view of the garden and the landscape beyond.

Detail of the terrace in the garden at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Set at intervals along the terrace balustrade are obelisks, spheres and the Earl of Leicester’s badge of the bear and ragged staff. Langham described how they were ‘all of stone upon their curious bases’.

One of the reconstructed arbours at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Langham noted that the two arbours at either end of the terrace were ‘perfumed by sweet trees and flowers’. 

The reconstructed arbours are based on a design from a 16th-century engraving and have been planted with vines, honeysuckle and the sweet musk rose associated with the cult of Elizabeth I.  

Aerial view of Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

The garden is divided into quarters, with intricate geometrical patterns of planting. 

The formal gardens at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

From Langham, we know that there were ‘redolent plants and fragrant herbs and flowers, in form, colour, and quantity so deliciously variant’.  

But as we have little information about the specific plants that were used here, the planting has been reconstructed from contemporary documentary and visual sources.

A detail of pinks (Dianthus) in the garden at KenilworthOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

In early Elizabethan flower gardens, the emphasis was often on scent and sweet-smelling flowers. Gardens were filled with ‘gillyflowers’, a general term used for perfumed perennials such as pinks, carnations and sweet williams.

A detail of strawberries in the garden at KenilworthOriginal Source: KENILWORTH CASTLE, ENGLISH HERITAGE

Langham also mentions the fruit in the garden: ‘to taste of delicious strawberries, cherries, and other fruits, even from their stalks’. In the recreated garden a small, very fragrant and sweet-tasting variety of strawberry has been planted.    

Recreated Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth CastleOriginal Source: Kenilworth Castle

Langham’s rapturous account ends by listing all the delights he has found in the garden at Kenilworth. He closes his letter with:  

‘at one moment, in one place, at hand, without travel, to have so full fruition of so many God’s blessings, by entire delight unto all senses (if all can take) at once’

Portrait of Elizabeth I, Queen of England (1550/1599) by AnonymousRijksmuseum

When Elizabeth I stayed at Kenilworth she would have used the garden as her own private space in which to relax and meet with her most trusted advisors. 

Today anyone can visit and enjoy a garden created for a queen.    

Credits: Story

Text by Emily Parker

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps