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.

For the Dutch, in their symbolism, often depicted the garden as a defended place: the country itself was a garden, and William of Orange its protector and gardener. Dutch gardens were noted for their ramparts. William was as noted a gardener in fact as his military opponent, Louis XIV. They had slightly different philosophies about what went on in a garden. In Louis’s world, the court was always present, following him around from palace to garden to the hunt and even to the field of battle and back again. Dutch gardens tended to have names like Sorgvliet or Buitensorg, Care Flies or Without Care (i.e., Sans Souci). William’s garden at Het Loo was a place in which to be away from court, with perhaps some chosen guest from court, but without the Versailles hoo-ha. I have seen it suggested that the Dutch use of evergreens in their gardens was favored because the garden had to look good when William was not out on one of his military campaigns—i.e., in winter. I think that over-clever, but it’s worth remembering (gardeners and generals being of all people the most obsessed with seasons) that the military schedule marched with that of the garden.

And gardens were famously places where wars might be reenacted, naval battles staged on lakes or sieges refought. Thus John Evelyn writes in 1674:

In one of the meadows at the foot of the long Terrace below the Castle (Windsor), works were thrown up to show the king a representation of the City of Maestricht, newly taken by the French. Bastions, bulwarks, ramparts, palisadoes, graffs, horn-works, counterscarps, &c., were constructed. It was attacked by the Duke of Monmouth (newly come from the real siege) and the Duke of York, with a little army, to show their skill in tactics. On Saturday night, they made their approaches, opened trenches, raised batteries, took the counterscarp and the ravelin, after a stout defence: great guns fired on both sides, grenadoes shot, mines sprung, parties sent out, attempts of raising the siege, prisoners taken, parleys; and, in short, all the circumstances of a formal siege, to appearance, and, what is most strange, all without disorder, or ill accident, to the great satisfaction of a thousand spectators. Being night, it made a formidable show. The siege being over, I went with Mr. Pepys back to London, where we arrived about three in the morning.

The site was known afterward as the Maastricht Garden, and, if the passage quoted sounds like something out of Tristram Shandy, that is only because Tristram Shandy is less utterly fantastical than may appear at first sight. The joke is not that two men should dream of reenacting a war in a garden: such would be well within Sterne’s memory. The joke is that two of the lower ranks should do so, and without the necessary equipment, in a space so confined as a bowling green. The joke is also to do with a change of taste, in both the matter of gardening and the conduct of war. The character of Tristram Shandy may be summed up in the expression: they belong to a dying breed, both in the sense that there is literally some problem they all have in the breeding department (do they have genitalia and can they be bothered to use them) and also that they live in the past. One supposes the effect of all those siege warfare terms which Sterne uses, and the names of all those battles, would have been for his contemporaries rather the kind of thing we mean when we say: Oh, that went out with the Boer War. The year 1761 saw both the completion of Tristram Shandy and the publication of Rousseau’s La Nouvelle Héloise. It was also the time in which Capability Brown was beginning to make a consistent landscape garden at Blenheim, removing the military garden, which seemed absurd to the taste of that time.

But the rise of the garden of sensibility, with its references to Rousseau, and the spread of the English landscaping style throughout Europe and America, while it may well have swept away a great deal of “Uncle Toby”-ism in a great number of gardens, did not effect a severing of the idea of war and the garden. It is true that the kind of display witnessed by Evelyn and Pepys has tended to be conducted at Earls Court or on the parade ground of Edinburgh Castle rather than in a garden as such. But military symbolism and associations have recurrently reminded us of the connection between the two activities of the servant of the state: to fight and to cultivate the land.

I take the example of Basil Patras Zula, born in Greece in 1796 the son of a chieftain who died when he was five, leaving him with the obligation, at the age of eleven, to succeed to his chieftaincy and to resist the Ottoman Empire. He was outlawed by the Turks, a price was put on his head, he saw exile in Italy but in 1822 was in action at Missolonghi. The atrocities he witnessed there revolted him to such an extent that he decamped to Smyrna, where he fell in with an English traveling milord, Sir William Eden, whose companion he became.

In 1828 the two of them arrived in Dublin, at Bilton’s Hotel, an establishment which encouraged its guests to attend morning prayers. It was there that Zula met Ann Linfoot, who was conducting prayers that day, and who was able to converse with him in Greek. No doubt it was charming—extraordinary—to find an unmarried, respectable, Greek-speaking woman in the Dublin of the day: within a year Zula had completed his training for a ministry in the Moravian Church, Ann’s church, and had married Ann.

He seemed to have turned his back entirely upon his duties as a hereditary chief, and to have substituted the duties of a priest. Five years later the couple went to a run-down parish in Kilwarlin, County Down. They rebuilt the church, rebuilt the manse, put up a school, and revitalized the congregation. But Zula began, whether through guilt at having abandoned his country or because of the recurrent effects of the trauma of Missolonghi, to go a little strange. He began to transform the church grounds into a Battle Garden.

Before describing it I want briefly to return to one of the functions of the maze, those stone labyrinths known as Troy Towns which are sometimes found beside the sea and beside lighthouses. There is a Troy Town on the Scilly Isles, but this kind of labyrinth is mostly to be found in Scandinavia. Some labyrinth folklore is to do with running: the girl takes her place in the center of the maze, and the young men run in to win her.

Conversely, the seaside labyrinths appear to have something to do with escaping. If you’re a fisherman, before you put out to sea you pay a visit to the labyrinth; the little people, the spirits, follow you in. At the center of the maze you spit on your hands and run like the clappers leaving a gaggle of confused little people in your wake, rush down to the shore, jump in your boat, and row like the devil until you’re certain you’ve escaped.

If there is contentment in the garden, there is also fear in the garden. The great landscaped park at Wörlitz near Dessau, in east Germany, most of whose elements are perfectly preserved, provided for every emotion or state of sensibility. There on an island in the lake you can see Sir William Hamilton’s Neapolitan villa with—slap bang next to it—Mount Vesuvius itself, which they would cause to produce smoke and a red glow at night, to induce a sense of the sublimity of nature. At other parts of the great circuit of experiences you might be set a difficult decision—a choice between an easy and a frightening path, with an inscription above it saying that here you were faced with a difficult decision. Only by taking the frightening path would you find…whatever it was, the bower of friendship or the grotto of cupid.

Sir William Chambers in his Dissertation on Oriental Gardening went in for terrible effects of this kind, raging torrents, gloomy valleys, dark passages in which forms “hold in their monstrous talons mysterious cabbalistic sentences inscribed on tablets of brass” and when you’d been thoroughly scared by these there was worse in store; suddenly the visitor would be given “repeated shocks of electrical impulse, with showers of artificial rain, or sudden violent gusts of wind and instantaneous explosions of fire.” There was a garden in France called the Terrible Desert, which was supposed to make you feel utterly desolate. Indeed there is still the Desert of Retz, a garden featuring a tower in the shape of a ruined column, which they are now turning into a golf club—a fact which makes one feel much more desolate than the original garden probably did. Ruins were, in this period of garden theory, supposed to make you feel the “disappointments and the dissolution of humanity.” You weren’t supposed just to say: oh how pretty.

But the Battle Garden at Kilwarlin owes nothing to Chambers or to Vanbrugh or anything mentioned hitherto, although it seems in function to resemble the seaside labyrinth. It is a recreation of the landscape of Thermopylae, and it places a battlefield between the church and the manse. There is the Pass of Thermopylae, there is Mount Oeta, and there is a stream-fed lake representing the Aegean Sea. From the lake the stream passes underground, and this is supposed to represent the hot springs from which Thermopylae gets its name. One part represents the Callidromos Range, and there we can find, apparently, the pass which the Greek traitor revealed to the Persians, and in this notorious area there were once flower-beds representing the letters of the Greek alphabet. Only alpha and omega now remain.

It appears that Zula, as he grew older, became obsessed with the fear that the Turks would come to get him, would seek him out in rural County Down. So he had the manse fitted up with several escape routes, including “a gazebo-like room built on columns with a trap-door in the floor through which instant flight would be possible to the churchyard.” Once in the churchyard, my guess would be, he intended to make his way to the secret pass in the Callidromos Range. And maybe there he could leap from letter to letter of the alphabet beds, until he had spelled out whatever charm he had in reserve against. The Turkish/Persian advance. Interesting that the magic spot should be the site of Greek betrayal of Greek, for the chieftain who leaves his occupied country must surely feel that he has committed treachery: the child with the price on his head, the child who failed.

The history of the military garden doesn’t end there—south of Oxford there is an enormous depiction of the Battle of Alma, in which the woods represent the order of battle. There is more to be said as well about the symbolism of individual flowers, and the way their histories are bound up with war. But I hope that by now I have said enough to establish, for a while at least, a little Pavlovian response, so that if I say Garden you will think War, and if I say War you will think Garden, and this might make Marvell seem just a little less quaint, just for the next few seconds, when he writes of General Fairfax in Upon Appleton House:

From that blest Bed the Heroe
Whom France and Poland yet does fame:
Who, when retired here to Peace,
His warlike Studies could not cease;
But laid these Gardens out in sport
In the just Figure of a Fort;
And with five Bastions it did fence,
As aiming one for ev’ry Sense.

When in the East the Morning Ray
Hangs out the Colours of the Day,
The Bee through these known Allies hums
Beating the Dian with its
[dian = reveille]
Then Flow’rs their drowsie Eylids raise,
Their Silken Ensigns each displayes,
And dries its Pan yet dank with Dew,
And fills its Flask with Odours new.
[flask = powder-flask]

These, as their Governour
   goes by,
In fragrant Vollyes they let fly;
And to salute their Governess
Again as great a charge they press:
None for the Virgin Nymph;
   for she
Seems with the Flow’rs a Flow’r to be.
And think so still! though not compare
With Breath so sweet, or Cheek so faire.

Well shot ye Firemen! Oh how sweet
And round vour equal Fires do meet
Whose shrill report no Ear can tell,
But Ecchoes to the Eye and smell.
See how the Flow’rs, as at
Under their Colours stand displaid:
Each Regiment in order grows,
That of the Tulip Pinke and Rose.

Tulip, pink, rose—three flowers, as it happens, which are believed to have hitched a ride on war. The rose (the most military of all flowers) being perhaps a damask rose, from Damascus, brought back with the crusaders; the tulip being one of several bulbs that made their progress through Europe brought back from Turkey by mercenaries after the fall of Constantinople; and the pink, a lime-lover, believed to have arrived in England with building-stone after the Norman conquest. It was still to be found in the nineteenth century on William the Conqueror’s castle at Falaise, and was said to be naturalized on Rochester Castle and other Norman ruins. For plants are like kings in this—that they like to get out of the house, and if a war seems the best way of achieving this end—well, they’re not too bothered about that either.

This Issue

June 24, 1993