A medieval garden and park
In a northamptonshire village on the River Nene sits a garden that harks back at least 600 years. A reconstructed medieval garden, it belongs, fittingly, to one of England’s longest continually-inhabited houses, the Prebendal Manor in Nassington. What was once an uncultivated 6-acre plot, with a semi-derelict farmhouse and agricultural buildings, is now a beautifully maintained historic building and home. In the garden are the plants, colours, scents, birdsong and insect life that would have been familiar to the residents six centuries ago. The work of restoration was carried out by owner Jane Baile, who bought the property in 1968. “It was terribly rundown and dilapidated,” she says. “There was no garden at all, so it’s particularly satisfying to see it now. I love it when the roses are out and there’s colour everywhere.” Today, an elegant, tiered yew topiary leads towards the substantial Tithe Barn. Lightly fenced small gardens are set in and around a large lawn. There is a circular labyrinth, 33ft (10m) in diameter, near a 16th century dovecot. Across an abundance of flowering plants, there are extensive views over the adjacent 4-acre Pleasure Park to the empty farmland beyond.
The Grade I listed Manor is the oldest surviving dwelling house in Northamptonshire. “It was a Royal Manor for centuries, even before Henry I presented it to the Bishops of Lincoln in the early 12th century,” explains Jane. “King Cnut stopped here in 1017. He complained about the accommodation, and the timber hall was improved soon after.” “The building had been turned into a farmhouse, but was derelict when we arrived,” she says. “It was easy to see it had enormous potential. We had no planning constraints, so were able to do extensive archaeological investigations over the years.” Her first investigation was in 1984, with further ones conducted in 2003. “Outside, we had to do a huge amount of clearing. There were nettles everywhere. Trees needed to be cut down, stumps and animal enclosures removed. “I’d met Michael Brown, the garden historian, designer and horticulturalist,” she continues. “I was inspired by his enthusiasm and knowledge. I decided I’d like to create a garden suitable for the Manor in its heyday, from the 13th to 15th centuries, so asked him to design for me. He’s researched extensively to ensure the designs and plantings are authentic. There’s little topsoil here, so the small raised beds, typical of the period, were ideal. Where necessary, we imported soil.” European medieval gardens were influenced by the opulence of the Moorish and Byzantine gardens knights saw during the Crusades of 1095-1291. Returning home, they sought to emulate them. Stylised representations of these gardens are shown in paintings and tapestries, and described in manuscripts. “Michael drew on these widely,” explains Jane. “Once we’d agreed the structure, the first priority was clearing and cleaning the ground, making paths and fences, then planting trees and vines. That took about a year. Then we began planting in earnest, using only plants introduced before 1485. Some were easy to obtain. Others, such as Peony mascula, were more difficult, and came from friends or specialist nurseries.”
Pleasure and practicality
The medieval garden, which measures approximately 2 acres, is typical of the sort that would have been attached to a wealthy establishment such as the Prebendal Manor. It is designed to combine the practical and the aesthetically pleasing. The south-facing site, on a slight slope towards open country, is ideal. Nearby rivers and streams provide plentiful water, in addition to the ponds and several wells in the garden. The well near the
Great Hall has water to a depth of 8ft (3m). Although the planting reflects the medieval style, many of the decorative flowers and herbs remain garden favourites today. There are roses, pinks, lavender, bay, sage and thyme. Others are less likely to be cultivated deliberately now, but are well known as wildflowers or weeds. These include herb robert and Scotch thistle. In medieval times, all plants were grown for a purpose, and most had a variety of uses. Onions were important for the kitchen, but also valued for their dyeing properties. Decorative flowers, such as pinks and marigolds, were also eaten and used to make tonics. The highly-poisonous alkaloid, deadly nightshade, Atropa belladonna, was valued for its medicinal properties by careful physicians. It was, however, rather dangerous to the high-born ladies who used it as a cosmetic to dilate their pupils. The opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, white bryony and lilies-of-the-valley all
“What wond’rous life is this I lead! Ripe apples drop about my head; The luscious clusters of the vine Upon my mouth do crush their wine” Andrew Marvell, ‘The Garden’
have a decorative appearance in Jane’s Poison Bed. This belies the risks they presented when used medicinally by physicians of the period. Other plants in the bed include monkshood, hemlock, foxglove, mandrake and henbane.
One of the first parts of the garden to be developed in 1996 was a herber with turf seats. A herber was a planted garden, often entirely enclosed. The screening helped deter animals, and also created privacy, something always in short supply in medieval households. Jane’s first herber backs onto a boundary wall and one side of the imposing dovecote. Trellis screening makes up the other two sides. Scented roses clamber through and around the screening, as seen in medieval depictions. In an era with little sanitation, plants with pleasing fragrances were especially appreciated. The enclosed nature of the herber encourages scent to linger, to be enjoyed by those sitting within. More fragrance is provided by underplanting with wild strawberries, catmint and sweet-smelling herbs, while the central grass sward is dotted with daisies. A sweet bay tree, Laurus nobilis, towers to almost 20ft (6m) in one corner. Thistle, geranium and violet provide structure, colour and more perfume. Fruit is provided by a fig tree. A previous resident of the Manor, the physician Nicholas Colnet, inspired the development of Jane’s second herber. He received the Manor after attending Henry V during the Agincourt campaign in 1415. Wealthy enough to maintain
three servants and a chaplain, his will mentions his copy of the early 14th century medical book, Lilium Medicinae. He would have known all the plants in the herber named after him, and probably used them regularly. A third herber was inspired by a visit to the Cluny Museum in Paris. “We saw a painting there, The Virgin and Child with St Madeleine, dated 1475,” says Jane. “We based our next design on this.”
Shady places and flowering plants
Pale complexions were valued by ladies in wealthy medieval households. This meant shady areas were always desirable in their gardens. At the Manor, there are several tree seats, their canopies shaped to provide shade and shelter. One is within a substantial sweet bay. Another is set beneath the Glastonbury thorn bordering Henry, The Poet’s Garden. Inspiration for this came from a 13th century manuscript describing the garden belonging to the writer and Anglo-Norman historian, Henry of Huntingdon. Living from circa 1088-1157, he was raised in the wealthy court of Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln. Henry succeeded his father as the second Archdeacon of Huntingdon, approximately 25 miles from Nassington.
The garden named after him contains a large variety of flowering plants. These include Rosa mundi, iris, yellow daisy-like inula, ox-eye daisies, allium and Madonna lilies. There are also familiar herbs, such as borage, rue and fennel. Less common is birthwort, Aristolochia clematitis, with attractive, pale yellow flowers. “This was widely used during childbirth throughout the medieval period,” says Jane. “Sadly, it probably only made the event more life-threatening. Its deadly effects have only been documented and identified in recent decades.” The plant was recommended by Dioscorides, the Greek physician and botanist, in the first century AD. Roman texts recommended it as a medicine to be ingested to treat asthma, spasms, pains and the expulsion of the afterbirth. Its name reflects its common usage, taken from the Greek aristos, meaning best, and lochia, meaning childbirth. On the southern perimeter of the garden is the Rose Walk. On one side, it is bordered by wooden screening that supports climbing roses. These are densely underplanted with perennials and annuals, including geranium, campion, peonies, ferns, pulmonaria, primula and aquilegia. Vines are set at both ends of the perimeter. The walk leads into, and looks out across, the adjoining Pleasure Park, separated from the garden by an ancient wall.
In the park
On entering the 4-acre Pleasure Park, there are more edible treats, with an orchard and Nut Walk, made from trained hazel, Corylus avellana. Records confirm an orchard at the Manor centuries ago, providing fruits for cooking and
brewing. The Nut Walk makes a shady tunnel, leading down to two ponds with lots of fish, “probably tench” suggests Jane. The park is home to many established trees, flowering hedges and more fruit trees. These include blackthorn, crab apple, cherry, pear, quince and medlar. There is also a gaggle of geese, which wander at liberty when there are no visitors. Vines were comparatively common in the Middle Ages, when the climate was slightly warmer. Jane’s vineyard is set on the south-facing slope of the park. Here, it backs onto the heat-retaining wall of the garden near the Tithe Barn.
A journey in time
Visiting the Prebendal Manor and garden provides an insight into life 600 years ago. The Tithe Barn is home to a display of photographs and information about the history of the site. Jane and Michael have combined authenticity with accessibility, and a visit opens up the medieval way of life to everyone. “It’s a very high-maintenance garden, especially the constant repairs to the wooden structures and the weeding, and so forth,” says Jane. “It really needs three full-time gardeners, and I don’t have them. But the garden is a great delight for me and for the visitors.”
Owner and restorer of the Prebendal Manor, Jane Baile, admiring Rosa gallica, the apothecary’s rose. In recognition of her restoration and research into the origins of the manor, Jane was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 2012. Yew topiary Colnet herber Tithe barn Cluny herber Dovecot Vineyard Pleasure Park Fish ponds Enclosed herber Poison bed Labyrinth
The Manor Turf seat Henry, the Poet’s Garden Entrance Rose arbour Nut walk
Both the opium poppy (above left) and black henbane (above right) were used for pain relief by medieval physicians. Both are poisonous. A corner inside the Enclosed Herber, filled with scented white Rosa alba and red apothecary’s rose, a fig tree and sweet rocket, Hesperis matronalis. ›
Foxgloves, Digitalis purpurea, poppies including Papaver rhoeas and P. somniferum, varieties of geranium, echium and campion all flourish in Henry, The Poet’s Garden. This is based on a 13th century manuscript describing the Square Garden belonging to the 12th century poet, Henry of Huntingdon.
A substantial tree seat, created within a sweet bay tree, Laurus nobilis. Seats such as this allowed medieval ladies to sit in the shade, ensuring their complexions remained fashionably pale.
The Rose Walk forms one side of Henry, The Poet’s Garden. It leads away from the formal garden into the Pleasure Park, orchard and nuttery. Rosa alba and R. Gallica intertwine around sturdy oak screening. The walk is densely underplanted with annuals and perennials.
Birthwort is an example of the medieval Doctrine of Signatures, based on the idea that plants could be used to treat problems in parts of the body they resembled. The bulb of these small yellow flowers was believed to look like the womb, so it was used during childbirth. Today, it is regarded as one of the most poisonous of plants.
An old damask rose, Rosa gallica ‘Versicolor’, also known as Rosa mundi, has a heady scent. It grows in Henry, The Poet’s Garden at the Prebendal Manor.
A highly-scented pink rose in Henry, The Poet’s Garden.
Plums forming on one of the fruit trees in the orchard. The early sun lights the green sward of the Pleasure Park. Pale complexions were a mark of status in the medieval period, so shady walks like this one at the Manor were ideal to protect high-born ladies from the effects of the sun.