It begins with a piece of land, which I wish to cultivate, and which I must therefore defend, against wild beasts and against my human enemies. And so the art of gardening was linked by birth to that of war, and Cyrus of Persia was admired by Lysander for the attention that he paid to both arts, in his pairi-daeza, his paradise, his walled garden. Lysander, being a Spartan citizen, was forbidden any manual craft. He was astonished to discover that Cyrus was in the habit of setting out and planting his own trees, that he never ate without first having worked up a sweat, doing something in the line either of war or of agriculture.
And this suggests a classical definition of gardening as being that activity with which I busy myself when I am not fighting (or otherwise serving the state). The faultless Athenian citizen Ischomachus (more of an overseer than a doer) told Socrates of a typical day, when he would walk from his city home to his farm, having sent his slave ahead with his horse. After supervising whatever was going on in the agricultural line, he would put the horse through its paces, imitating as closely as he could the skills needed in battle. Then, having returned the horse to the slave’s keeping, he would jog home, scrape off the sweat with a strigil, and settle down to the day’s meal.
What Lysander saw in Cyrus, what Socrates praised in his model Athenian, was typified for the Romans in the example of Cincinnatus—one moment plowing his field, the next assuming the dictatorship, then back to the farm again. Peace or war, prepared either way, like Churchill in the years of his eclipse, building his garden wall at Chartwell—the garden being a retreat, a buen retiro, only in the sense that a retreat is a maneuver from which I return refreshed, the better to face my opponents.
And within Cyrus’s retreat, his paradise, he had set out the trees according to the figure of the quincunx—the same figure which is recommended today in the planting of coffee (four bananas on the corners of the square, the coffee bush itself set at the point of intersection of the diagonals, so that the banana leaves protect the young coffee from the scorching sun), and which impressed Lysander and Sir Thomas Browne, the latter believing that it resembled the order of battle of both Macedonian and Roman soldiers. The trees thus shared a military discipline.
So the garden reveals itself, from the start, to be a complex idea offering an opportunity for complex and contradictory symbols. Peace and war are woven together, simplicity and magnificence, nature and art; beauty will be found together with monstrosity, contentment with fear. A cursory reference to the emblem books will not solve for us the meaning of some passage, for the meaning of the garden recreates itself afresh. Browne tells us that the Hanging Gardens of Babylon drove Nebuchadnezzar mad, since he looked from their great height and found that he possessed the land as far as he could see. Madness in the garden must have its own history, but as it happens I have chosen war.
War has this frightful utility: it gets you out of the house. Indeed, the kingly pursuits of gardening, hunting, and war get you out of the house, get you to see a bit of your kingdom, and—most interestingly of all for a bored king—get you to see a bit of other people’s kingdoms. What other kingly excuse for travel was there, apart from pilgrimage? And how were you to tell, without traveling, by what standards you should measure your own magnificence?
One had ambassadors, of course, such as William Bentinck, the first earl of Cavendish, who checked out Louis the XIV’s gardens on behalf of William of Orange (and was kept waiting until the fountains were in tip-top condition—there was no question of “Oh, you should have been here last week when the crocuses were at their best” with Louis). But in general it was better to find out for yourself.
The great royal gardens of France owe their existence to a war that took Charles the VIII down through Italy until, in 1495, he reached the kingdom of Naples, which was ruled at the time by the mad Alfonso II. Alfonso wasn’t just mad, he was mad about gardening, and he is said to have fled with packets of his favorite seeds, so that he could start new gardens in exile in Sicily. So Charles got to see, and to inhabit, a state-of-the-art garden—La Duchesca—and it had avenues, and fountains and baths and—oh—it had a hippodrome and there was nothing like it in France.
Then the fortunes of war changed, and Charles had to leave Naples—but not without loot, in the form of objects of art, and not without a gang of garden craftsmen who went back with him to found the Loire Valley style. I might add that one of the skills a garden craftsman needed in that era was engineering. Nor is it odd to find that Leonardo da Vinci was both a garden designer and a military engineer, for the two skills were essentially the same. The early Italian gardens began as fortified villas, but developed into decorative fortifications—you can see the history of the process in Florence, with the Forte di Belvedere representing an early stage and the Boboli Gardens a later. A military architect, skilled in the art of siege warfare, would have no difficulty in designing and erecting the kind of bastions needed for a garden. The extra skill which he would need, and which gave most trouble and caused most expense in France, was hydraulics. Water is part of the definition of paradise, and fountains were an essential part of magnificence.
Now just as we have lost the feeling of wonder, on looking at a fountain, at the technical skill involved in maintaining it, so we have lost that sense of a garden being a place protected from hostile nature. We have to imagine our way back into the period. For instance, to get from Paris to Fontainebleau you had to pass, according to John Evelyn, “through a forest so prodigiously encompassed with hideous rocks of whitish hard stone, heaped on one another in mountainous heights, that I think the hike is nowhere to be found more horrid and solitary. It abounds with stags, wolves, boars, and not long after a lynx, or ounce, was sited amongst them, which had devoured some passengers.”
The notion of the siege is bound curiously to another garden feature—the labyrinth or maze. A great many mazes in the European tradition were quite separate from gardens, and had different practical purposes, but it is striking how many of them are named after towns destroyed by siege. There are Troy Towns, “Walls of Troy” (there was also one called Lissabon, after Lisbon, a city destroyed by earthquake), and there were Jerusalems, Ninevehs, and Jerichos. At Temple Cowley in Oxford there was a Walls of Troy, and at Woodstock there was a labyrinth made famous in verse.
This was the place in which the Fair Rosamond was left by Henry II when he went off to war in France. Drayton tells us as follows:
Rosamond’s Labyrinth, whose Ruines, together with her Well, being paved with square Stone at the bottome, and also her Tower, from which the Labyrinth did run (are yet remaining) was altogether underground, being vaults arched and walled with Bricks and Stone, almost inextricably wound one within another; by which, if at any time her lodging were laid about by the Queen, shee might easily avoid Perill eminent, and, if neede be, by secret Issues take the Ayre abroad, many Furlongs, round about Woodstocke in Oxfordshire, wherein it was situated.
In garden history it is often pointed out that the hortus conclusus is the symbol of virginity, after a verse in the Song of Solomon, “A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse.” This generated many a medieval image, such as the famous Virgin and Unicorn tapestries. The Fair Rosamond represents the opposite of this tradition, the monster at the center of the labyrinth, the Minotaur-woman. It’s not her fault, exactly, since the king forced her virtue, but she is an object of horror, or so she feels in Drayton’s poem:
Well knew’st thou what a Monster I would be
When thou did’st build this Labyrinth for me,
Whose strange Meanders turning ev’ry way
Be like the course wherein my Youth did stray,
Only a Clue doth guide me out an in,
But yet still walk I circular in sinne.
The last line connects us to another feature of the labyrinth or maze: it is a place of penance in monasteries or churches.
Bishop Percy quotes Higden, a monk of Chester, on the Woodstock labyrinth:
This house after some was named Labyrinthus, or Dedalus work, which was wrought like unto a knot in a garden, called a maze; but it was commonly said, that lastly the queen came to her by a clue of thridde, or silke, and so dealt with her, that she lived not long after.
But the ballad the Bishop Percy prints has the story slightly differently.
Most curiously that bower was built Of stone and timber strong
An hundred and fifty doors Did to this bower belong
And they so cunningly contrived With turnings round about,
That none but with a clue of thread Could enter in or out.
The rest of the story is simple. Henry has left for the wars. His queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, comes to the labyrinth and calls out to Sir Thomas, who is guarding the Fair Rosamond. He comes out trailing his clew of thread. Her men overpower him, find their way to the Fair Rosamond, who is poisoned by the queen.
Whatever the labyrinth at Wood-stock Manor actually was, it was still visible in 1718 on the Blenheim estate. But eventually the Marlboroughs destroyed both Rosamond’s Bower and the remains of Woodstock Manor. Vanbrugh had wanted them preserved, but the duchess of Marlborough thought Vanbrugh wanted the manor for his own use, and she wasn’t having that. The modern Blenheim maze, which is in the old kitchen garden area, is a military maze, copying one of Inigo Jones’s designs on the main house, and this is appropriate enough since the whole of Blenheim is a great, shrieking military monument, with its memorials to treaties and victories and campaigns and its shrines to Winston Churchill.
But Blenheim as originally laid out had a Military Garden, built by Marlborough’s military engineer, and had bastions and curtain walls, as well as the trees planted in battlemented design. It was a his’n’hers garden—the Military Garden representing the duke’s and the flower garden representing the duchess’s tastes. Neither survived the landscaping by Capability Brown, and, as far as I know, there is little left in England of the seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century military gardens. There had been another at Castle Howard, and there were others during the period in which English garden design was dominated by Dutch taste.