Palace gardens

Palace gardens

Hampton Court Palace Gardens

Full of contrasts, from wilderness to the formal

Chief Curator Lucy Worsley describes how historic royal gardens have developed from their medieval beginnings up to the present day.

Every royal palace needs a garden. Any king or queen will want a private outdoor space for walking and relaxation, and occasionally for impressing their guests and showing off their court’s inventiveness. 

Even at the medieval Tower of London, Henry III planted gardens, a vineyard and an orchard of Calihou pears. So royal gardens have been planned alongside palaces for centuries, and tend to be at the forefront of changing fashion. 

Hampton Court Palace

At 16th-century Hampton Court, Henry VIII created legendary heraldic gardens between the palace and the river. Here, heraldic beasts were mounted on poles, trellis fences created compartments within which plants were arranged in knot patterns, and a banqueting house with an onion-shaped domed roof stood upon a mound. The fishponds in the neighbouring section of gardens were kept full by the efforts of the labourers who were paid for ‘ladling of water out of the Thames to fill the ponds in the night times’.

In later years, Elizabeth I had the windows overlooking her father’s Privy Garden blocked up so that she could walk out unobserved, on cold mornings she would march vigorously to ‘to catch her a heate’.

The Privy Garden at Hampton Court was simplified in Charles I’s time, but he added many statues. His successor Oliver Cromwell added even more, including the delicate statue of Arethusa now in Bushy Park. Cromwell’s stricter Puritan supporters disliked the naked classical figures that Cromwell appreciated so much: one, Mrs Nethaway, commanded him to ‘demolish these monsters that are set up as ornaments’.

Charles II’s main contribution to the gardens at Hampton Court was the great avenue of trees planted to centre on the east front of the palace and the apartments intended for his Portuguese wife-to-be, Katherine of Braganza. The word ‘avenue’ was first used in a gardening context by Charles II’s courtier, the famous diarist John Evelyn, and this presaged the great landscape gardens of the 18th century. 

Hampton Court was once again in the forefront of the wave of Dutch gardening that accompanied the new King and Queen William III and Mary II from the Low Countries. It was William who transformed the Privy Garden, completed around 1701, for ‘In the least Interval of Ease, Gard’ning took up a great part of his Time, in which he was not only a Delighter, but likewise a great Judge’. 

To the north of the palace William embellished the Wilderness (despite its name, it was a fairly formal garden by modern standards), a network of paths and hedges where courtiers could pleasurably lose their way. 

It had perhaps been begun by Lady Castlemaine, Charles II’s mistress who retired to Hampton Court, but William probably completed it and added the famous Maze – the one surviving compartment of the Wilderness garden – after the model of its predecessor at his Dutch house of Huis ten Bosch.  

Kensington Palace

We don’t know what the gardens of Nottingham House (which later became Kensington Palace) were like in the 17th century, but we do know that Samuel Pepys admired them: he described his ‘going into Sir Finch’s garden’ and ‘singing there with the ladies’. It was ‘a might fine cool place […] with a great laver of water in the middle, and the bravest place for music I ever heard’.
Mary II inspired the beginning of the laying out of the baroque gardens at Kensington, but it was under Queen Anne that Kensington Gardens became some of the finest in the country, ‘beautified with all the Elegancies of Art […] a noble Collection of Foreign Plants, and Fine Neat Greens’. 

She also made a deer paddock, separated from the palace by ‘a stately Green House not yet Finish’d, upon this Spot is near 100 Men dayly at Work’. This ‘stately Green House’ was Hawksmoor’s famous Orangery, used by Queen Anne as a ‘Summer Supper House’. It also became used for parties; in 1718 there was ‘a Ball in the Green House’ to celebrate the King’s birthday.

Queen Anne’s elaborate gardens south of Kensington Palace were rooted up in the later 18th century and replaced with an early ‘landscape’ garden east of the palace, centred on the state rooms, with avenues, lawns and basin; these gardens were opened to the public on Saturdays in George II’s time. There was also am oddly-assorted small menagerie, containing a tiger, a ‘snailery’ and a ‘place for breeding tortices’.

Kew Gardens beginnings

Meanwhile, at Kew, Queen Caroline had already started to lay out what would become the famous Royal Botanic Gardens. Her son Frederick and his wife Augusta commissioned further ‘embellishments’ to the gardens from Sir William Chambers, including his famous Pagoda, and later the Orangery.

This royal landscape formed the basis of the Royal Botanic Gardens today; Queen Victoria decided to give the gardens to the nation in the 19th century. 

Behind Kew Palace, the little garden towards the river is a 20th-century creation inspired by the 17th century style, rather than an accurate reproduction of Fortrey’s garden. 

Modern gardens and gardeners

The palaces' gardens were a great attraction to the visitors who began to pour into Hampton Court Palace from Victorian times onwards, and the gardens went from strength to strength with impressive borders and colourful massed bedding plants.

Other interesting 20th-century creations at the palaces include Princess Margaret’s garden (with statues, trellises and deceptive mirrors) at Kensington, and the garden at Hampton Court where the apprentice gardeners were allowed to try their hands. 

Several great restoration projects clustered around the turn of the 20th century at Hampton Court: in 1996 the Privy Garden, restored to its Williamite period, was re-opened, and in 2004 Charles II’s Longwater Avenue was replanted.    

And finally... 

Here’s a surprising thought: today’s Head Gardener Terry Gough is the successor of the world-famous 18th-century royal gardener Capability Brown, who lived in Wilderness House near the maze at Hampton Court, and who planted the Great Vine.  

There’s quite a lot for us to live up to in looking after some of the nation’s finest royal gardens, but Terry’s fifty staff, our gardens volunteers and the experts on our Gardens Strategy Group all enjoy making the effort.   


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Further information

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