For decades during the reign of Elizabeth I of England, two men circled around the queen, competing for influence and power, vying with each other, plotting against each other, and often working with each other in common cause.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520-1598), was Elizabeth’s chief advisor, served in multiple high offices including Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer, member of Parliament, leader of the Privy Council. and diplomat. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (1532-1588), had known Elizabeth since they were children, was a suitor for her hand in marriage, a rumored lover of the queen, leader of the English army during the Dutch revolt against the Spanish in 1586-87, and known to be Elizabeth’s favorite.
The two men vied for influence and power. They used every asset at their disposal.
As historian Trea Martyn explains, in Queen Elizabeth in the Garden: A Story of Love, Rivalry, and Spectacular Gardens, the queen loved gardens. She had spent much time in the garden growing up at Hatfield House, and she had even been given permission to walk in the garden when her sister Mary imprisoned her in the Tower of London. And gardens, and the trees, plants, and flowers they contained, had a very different meaning in Elizabethan England than they do today. The names of plants and flowers could hold double meanings (William Shakespeare knew that). Gardens were places of rest and repose, but they could also be places where a romantic, and often dramatic, rendezvous could unfold.
And if Elizabeth loved gardens, then Cecil and Dudley would attempt to outdo each other to give her the most spectacular and memorable experience.
Dudley’s estate (given to him by Elizabeth) was Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire; the story of what Dudley and Elizabeth was popularized (and somewhat embroidered) by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Kenilworth. Cecil’s estate was Theobalds in Hertfordshire.
It’s difficult to grasp what the two men achieved with their gardens, partially because of what they were able to do. Dudley added a lake and staged an elaborate pageant that included mermaids; Cecil did a total makeover of his gardens with the aim of pleasing the queen at every turn.
These aren’t the only gardens that feature in Elizabeth’s story (and Martyn’s book), but they are the most prominent, and Martyn goes into incredible detail to describe them. In the process, she provides an unusual look at Elizabethan power politics (and romance) played out against the backdrop of international conflict, religion still established itself in England, and power politics among the courtiers.
Today, Theobalds exists as a park; the palace was destroyed during the civil war in the 1640s. Kenilworth, too, fell victim to the same civil war; the Parliamentarians blew up the northern wall to disable the castle’s military use; in the process, they destroyed the gardens. The famous lake was drained and turned over to soldiers for farming.
Queen Elizabeth in the Garden is a fascinating account of a familiar period, and yet told with an unusual angle that adds color and detail not previously recognized.
Top photograph: a recreation of the overall plan of Kenilworth Castle.
Bottom photograph: What the palace at Theobalds looked like.