A few long car and train rides gave me enough time to entertain myself with two books that had been floating around my desk for a while. They were Margaret Willes’s The Making of the English Gardener (Yale, 2011) and How Carrots Won the Trojan War (Storey, 2011) by Rebecca Rupp. I’m glad I finally got around to enjoying them, as I met some unexpected and interesting characters. I’ve decided to introduce you to a few of them, in case you haven’t yet met.
Robert Dudley: 1st Earl of Leicester and, in my opinion, sycophant-spectacular
Dudley was one of Elizabethan England’s trendsetters, planting the grandest of gardens and showing them off to his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth. One visit she paid him at Kenilworth Castle, however, backfired. Old Bess noted that she couldn’t see the gardens from the chambers she was placed in and Dudley, wrought with worry for his social standing, commanded his gardening staff to make haste and plant an entirely new garden below the Queen’s windows – overnight.
Sir Walter Raleigh: explorer, poet, and nearly-inadvertent assassin
A chapter in How Carrots Won the Trojan War makes me sure that the gardens at Kenilworth did not include the potato. Elizabeth and her court abhorred them, thanks to a dinner made of potatoes sent from Ireland by Sir Walter Raleigh. The kitchen cooks, who were unfamiliar with the tuberous crop, disregarded the starchy roots and instead served up their greens, which induce nausea, dizziness, coma, or even death. It would be years until a potato was once again welcomed to Windsor Castle.
Francis Bacon: philosopher, statesman, and post-mortem gardener
Bacon could very well be the only gardener I know of who planned a garden from the grave. After Bacon expired, his devoted servant Thomas Bushell laid out a garden in keeping with the procedures outlined in New Atlantis, a book by Bacon published a year after his death. Water played a huge part in this garden, coursing through grottos, springs, and little devices designed to create bird chirp sounds among the flora, as described in The Making of the English Gardener.
Madame de Pompadour and Giacomo Casanova: Soldiers of love armed with vegetables
These famed continental romantics turned to celery when it came to matters of the heart. Madame is said to have spooned celery soup to her Louis XV, and Casanova is believed to have included the watery stalks in his daily diet. Why? Celery was believed to be a potent aphrodisiac. In conjunction with some scientific findings Rupp includes in the book, Madame and Casanova mightn’t have been wrong.
If you find these folks and follies interesting, you should open one of the two books for a whole lot more. Rupp’s fast-paced style is the stuff of afternoon reading. Willes should be taken up by those looking to immerse themselves in a long, comprehensive study — you can’t hurry a history lesson, certainly not one on the gardens of England.