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Gothic Gardens

If you built a cathedral — the most expensive and complex creative project a society could conceive of — would you then leave its setting entirely unlandscaped? I think not. But what kind of planting and shaping of the land went along with the making of such great churches? It’s a question suprisingly rarely asked, and the answers are tantalising.

We know quite a lot about medieval formal gardens, of course. They’re depicted in illuminations, mentioned in literature, their expenses listed in surviving accounts rolls. Recreations of them even exist. We know too that cloisters might be planted with elaborate formal herb gardens. But what of the wider setting of the great church? Was the surrounding graveyard simply a well-tended lawn, as it is today? If so, who cut the grass, and was it green, or studded with carefully chosen, even symbolic, flowers, like the gardens of Our Lady depicted in medieval paintings?

‘Our Lady’s arbour’: that’s the name given to the cloister garth at Hereford cathedral in late medieval sources, a very popular place of burial for the local laity. But Mary and gardens and architecture are linked in more intriguing ways. I can think of two gardens that were apparently positioned directly next to major Lady chapels, at the east end of Norwich cathedral and Westminster Abbey respectively. They would thus have been located adjacent to both a major work of architecture and the exclusive burial ground of the monks. Did they play a commemorative role? How did they relate to the building and the burials?

And what of the sense we get, in the 1240s, that the landscape around the newly-completed Wells cathedral is being designed to some extent: clerks, lay and canons burial grounds seperated out, with the laity ‘in the churchyard towards the west, begining by the small elms planted there by the place where the guest chamber used to be’, that is, somewhere hard by the new west front. Of course, simply building Wells involved substantial landshaping, flattening and terracing a large plot next to the old Saxon cathedral — which itself responded to and channelled the ancient St Andrew’s Pools beyond.

All these thoughts are thrown into striking relief by a new article by John Goodall ‘The chantry chapel at Guy’s Cliffe, Warwick’ (in Coventry: medieval art, architecture and archaeology in the city and its vicinity’, BAA Conference Transactions XXXIII, Leeds 2011), in which he describes the secular ‘cult’ of the hermit/knight  Guy of Warwick, with its chapel by a cliff next to a river and not far from a meadow containing a ‘fayre spring’. It’s a beguiling landscape setting, and Leland tells us that Richard, Earl of Warwick in the C15 ‘enclosed the silver wells in the meadow with pure white slike [sic] stone like marble, and there set up a pretty wood, antra in Saxo, the river rolling with a pretty noise over the stones’ (307). Goodall makes it clear that this particular Earl probably wasn’t in fact responsible for the work, but what sticks in the memory is the sense of an already charged landscape being improved and shaped, presumably in a fashion that didn’t look too artificial. If this was possible, what else might have been?

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