He was certainly an expert on dead-heading, but Henry VIII’s gardening tips
would also have included fertilising squashes with the ashes of cremated
humans and planting lettuce in a ball of goat manure, a new exhibition
The Tudor king’s personal copy of the world’s first gardening manual, believed
to be the inspiration for the lost garden of Whitehall Palace, is to go on
display at Buckingham Palace later this year.
Written more than 700 years ago, the Latin text includes instructions on how
to lay out a “royal garden”, including instructions on building walks and
bowers “where the king and queen can meet with the barons and lords when it
is not the rainy season”.
The leather-bound volume was part of the king’s library, which acquired it on
the death of its previous owner, Richard Rawson, the king’s chaplain and
advisor on his divorce from Catherine of Aragon in 1543.
Written between 1304 and 1309 by Petrus de Crescentiis, a lawyer from Bologna,
the Ruralia Commoda contained advice on how to grow giant leeks, how to
produce cherries without pits and growing different coloured figs on the
It tells gardeners that “cucumbers shake with fear at thunder”, while a squash
will bear fruit after precisely nine days if planted in the ashes of human
bone and watered with oil. To get the tastiest lettuces, the manual
recommends planting lettuce seed together with a radish, nasturtium and
colewort inside a ball of goat manure.
The leather-bound manual is illustrated with woodcuts (PA)
Its instructions for planning a royal garden are equally precise. It should
occupy a plot of at least 20 acres, its size and perfection an expression of
a king’s status, wealth and mastery over the environment. It should include
fragrant herbs because they “not only delight by their odour, but…refresh
the sight”. A bench made out of turf and flowering plants, a highly
fashionable feature at the time, was a must.
The overall effect was that “the king will not only take pleasure, but…after
he has performed serious and obligatory business, he can be renewed in it”.
Henry VIII’s garden, as imagined by the makers of the BBC’s Wolf Hall
The book will go on display in March at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham
Palace, as part of an exhibition called Painting Paradise: The Art of the
The book was acquired by Henry at around the time he built the Great Garden at
Whitehall Palace, which burned down in 1698. A portrait of Henry, Jane
Seymour and their children Edward, Mary and Elizabeth by an unknown artist,
which shows the newly-planted garden in the background, will be on display
next to the book.
Vanessa Remington, curator of the exhibition, said: “This is no coffee-table
book, but a real, thumbed-through and annotated gardening manual, showing
that its various owners referred to it time and time again.
“Although it is impossible to know, it is tempting to think that Henry VIII
may have sat in his library and looked through it for inspiration.”
Henry laid out the gardens at Hampton Court (pictured) and Whitehall
Palace at the time he acquired the book. Neither Tudor garden survives
The 11in x 16in volume is illustrated with woodcut prints, including a drawing
of the supposedly deadly mandrake root, resembling a naked man with leaves
growing from his head.
Ms Remington said: “What is really appealing about it is that on the one hand
it is full of sensible advice about how to prevent soil drying out, about
grafting and pruning, that we still do today, and on the other it contains
quirky tips that are very much of that era.
“It shines a new light on Henry, a different aspect of his king-making, one
that we haven’t really got any other evidence of.”
The manual, which has never been translated into English, stayed in the royal
library until 1757, when it was transferred to the British Library, and
later went through several private owners before being re-acquired for the
Royal Collection by Queen Victoria.
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