Elizabeth in the Garden, By Trea Martyn

Gardens fit for a Queen: how the rivalry between Dudley and Cecil took root
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The Independent Culture

One refreshing thing about Elizabethan courtly and political culture, as evoked by Trea Martyn, is that no one dreams that politics could be purely about policies and transparent honesty. Instead, sycophancy, extravagance, treachery, fantasy and the cult of personality are all quite normal.

Her book centres on the development of two historic gardens, at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire, and at Theobalds in Hertfordshire, in the first decades of Elizabeth I's reign. Soon after Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, was granted Kenilworth, he set about creating a pleasure garden within the walls. At Theobalds, William Cecil (later Lord Burghley) turned the manor house he had bought into a palace with grounds to match.

Martyn argues that these gardens were a vehicle for the rivalry between the two courtiers, each man vying to surprise, delight and flatter a sovereign known to love novelty and outdoor entertainments.

Both gardens are long lost, so reports of the spectacular masques and surprises laid on for the royal progresses of 1572 and 1575 provide much of Martyn's material. She uses it freely, imagining scenes as the gardeners prepare, and the thoughts of the main participants. In oddities such as Elizabeth sinking back on cushions or Dudley "rendezvous-ing" with her, the book veers towards fiction.

There is an impressive bibliography but no notes, leaving the reader unsure where the fleshing out of records ends and invention begins. The chronological leaps and the descriptions of phantasmagoric entertainments lend a not unpleasant sense of vertigo.

How rivalrous Dudley and Cecil were is for historians to dispute. Judging from this book, it seems as though Elizabeth needed them to play distinct roles – Dudley as suitor, Cecil as adviser – and that they were often complicit. No doubt the development of the gardens, with their emblematic planting, arbours, fountains and knots, was hastened by the wish to please Elizabeth.

That may account for much of Dudley's efforts at Kenilworth, but Cecil was clearly smitten for its own sake by his more ambitious garden at Theobalds. He liked riding there alone "upon his little mule". He was fortunate in having John Gerard, the famous herbalist and plantsman, as his gardener. For gardening readers, the chapter in which Martyn dwells on Gerard's methods may be among the most interesting, if at times puzzling, sections of this enjoyable book.