A Garden for the middle classes: A tour around Blakesley Hall’s garden

Blakesley Hall was once a modern and fashionable middle-class home, located in what was the countryside, covering acres of land. While the Hall was certainly an impressive feature in the landscape, how much do we really know about its gardens? The original owner of Blakesley, Richard Smalbroke, a wealthy middle-class gentleman, would have wanted his garden to be just as impressive as his home, stopping onlookers in their tracks. In fact, Blakesley Hall was built at a time when the very concept of a garden was evolving and the Smalbrokes would have certainly been influenced by the changing fashions and ideals of the period.

The Herb Garden at Blakesley where useful plants would have been grown by the housewife.

The Tudors were very fond of formality and it was this which characterised gardening in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was a time when gardens were designed to demonstrate power, wealth and status, instantly letting onlookers know that you were ‘important’. Certainly, fashions filtered down through society, and a man like Richard would have wanted a garden that reflected his status, maybe even exaggerated it to complement his modern home. Our garden today is probably more formal than the one which would have originally existed at Blakesley, but it certainly reflected the designs which were popular at the time.

Up until the mid 1550s gardens were viewed as practical spaces to grow and produce food, and not as we know today, as spaces to ‘unwind’, relax and grow plants to admire simply for their beauty.

It was hard work in the Tudor garden. Notice the formality and straight lines of the beds and borders (Source: Tudor Garden 1485-1603).

The catalyst for this change was the Renaissance where new concepts were emerging from France and Italy, and pleasure or flower gardens, as they were known, were quickly becoming the new fashions of the day. While growing food remained important, the concept of how a garden should be used was slowly changing, and the very idea of a garden solely used for pleasure, was slowly being embraced by society.

Although a very wealthy middle-class gentleman, Richard couldn’t have afforded the kind of luxuries present at the local and wealthier residence of Kenilworth Castle, but would have nevertheless maintained a well-presented garden that certainly impressed onlookers. And not forgetting that because Blakesley was also a farm, most of the land would have been used to grow and produce crops, keep animals and to ultimately be functional.

The Elizabethan Garden at Kenilworth Castle, depicting the formality of the Tudor period.

Blakesley’s garden consists of many parts. From the intricacy of the knot garden, to the formality of the herb garden, families like the Smalbrokes would have used their outdoor areas for both pleasure as well as functional spaces. And the Smalbrokes did exactly this at Blakesley. Just as we beautify our own gardens today, by spending money on the latest plants, furniture or water features, other Tudor families would have also invested money and time into their outdoor areas, making them attractive and pleasant spaces.

We have no documentary or archaeological evidence about the type of garden that existed at Blakesley but we can be certain that there would have been a sizable kitchen garden present for food production. The kitchen garden formed the focal point of daily life and was therefore much bigger in size than the one we have today, probably the size of our herb garden. It was the life-hub of the household, providing necessary food all year round. Our kitchen and herb garden are separate today, but would have been interchangeable in the Tudor and Stuart periods, consisting of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, or useful plants as they were known in this period. The terms kitchen garden and vegetables would not have been used; rather useful plants was applied to all manner of plants and herbs at this time.

Blakesley’s Kitchen Garden used for food production.

Also known as the pottager, the kitchen garden was located very near to the house. It was both a formal and practical space, with straight lines and geometrically-laid-out beds, intertwined with paths creating a sense of balance which would have been very pleasing to the eye.  But the primary reason for rectangular beds separated by strips of land as the photo above illustrates, was practical so as to allow access to the plants so they could be easily tended to and looked after.  Essentially, this area was a utilitarian space but the period favoured function co-existing alongside beauty. Take a look at the photo below; gardens had a sense of regularity and often included repeated patterns and this is the style that the Tudors and Stuarts loved so much.

A room with a view. The Herb Garden at Blakesley with lavender in full bloom; a popular Tudor plant.

The population at that time had a great belief in the power of herbs as medicinal remedies so they were widely grown and used by all levels of society, particularly as medical doctors were rare. This was the Tudor housewife’s domain and she would have been responsible for growing and harvesting vegetables for her family, whilst working alongside her servants.

From the familiar lavender, to rarer herbs and plants like sweet cicely and borage, our garden reflects popular plants present in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sweet cicely produces a wonderful aniseed smell that freely floats through our garden and would have had many uses in Tudor times, but its main use was to aid digestion and soothe stomachs. And according to Nicholas Culpepper, the 17th-century herbalist, it was also “very good for old people that are dull and without courage”. Maybe a little harsh but the point here is that herbs and plants were widely grown and used medicinally because their use was believed to aid health and well-being. Another common complaint, the headache, was treated using a concoction of lavender, sage, marjoram, roses and rue. But fresh herbs were only available in season, so they had to be preserved for use throughout the year by making salves, syrups, candies and sweet waters.

Essentially the idea of distilling was to try and preserve the essence of herbs all year round. Without question, every lady who could have afforded a still room would have had one, using it primarily for the production of medicines for her family.

Moving on to the aesthetic area, the pleasure  or flower  garden as it was also known, is where intricate knot gardens and rows of tulips were planted for their wonderful display and bursts of colour in spring. Our Friends’ Garden represents this idea with the sole purpose of simply looking attractive, and not necessarily having a function as such.  Colourful, attractive plants played their part in alluring the attention of onlookers and fulfilling the Smalbroke’s desire for simple pleasures. Tulips were a very popular Tudor plant, not just because of their beauty but because they acted as a status symbol for the wealthy. Only the rich could have afforded Tulips and the bulbs were even used as a form of currency in Holland. The Smalbrokes would have most likely had tulips in their flower garden at Blakesley as well as other eye-catching plants such as foxgloves and roses. In short the knot garden at Blakesley is perhaps the most recognised Tudor creation and represents the period’s love of formality, intricacy and structure, and perhaps what best represents a Tudor garden.

Colourful tulips in the Friends’ Garden (Pleasure Garden).

It wasn’t until the 18th century that gardens experienced a rebirth moving away from the straight lines of the Tudor period to a natural curved design that we’re more familiar with today. Yet the period’s influence and legacy is still present today, and lives on through the formal flower borders and beds that we have in our very own gardens at home. So this summer when we sit out in our gardens sipping drinks and pottering around in our allotments, think about how much we owe to the Tudors for embracing the idea of the pleasure garden and bestowing this wonderful pastime on to us. Unquestionably, the Renaissance was truly a period of new discovery that helped to create the modern garden we’re familiar with and love so much today.

Published by annemariehayes

I am a museum employee who has a passion for writing and photography.

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