The seventeenth century marked a transition from medieval to modern, the challenge to a religious worldview by a new secularism based on science which looked forward to a more ordered future rather than backward to theology and the wisdom of the ancients and the medieval magic, feudalism, occultism (prevalent 1480-1620) and general superstition. the spread of learning through a communicating European classically-educated intelligentsia referred to as The Republic of Letters as a resurrection of the letter-writing and postal service familiar to educated Romans.
The first half of the century was marked by a flowering of art, literature, and science most notable in north-west Europe as a ‘late northern Renaissance’. Poland’s Copernicus (1473-1543) with his publication De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) had set the stage for the seventeenth century by placing the Sun, not the Earth, at the centre of the universe, a theory championed by the persecuted Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), German Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Buoyed by the discovery of the New World Francis Bacon (1561-1626) helped launch a new scientific era with his Novum Organum Scientiarum (1620) which forged a new beginning by condemning the classical natural science of Aristotle to chart a new practical science founded on reduction and induction, experiment and observation, and peer collaboration. In England a gathering scientific community joined forces to form the influential Royal Society (which began the tradition of peer-reviewed articles) in 1662 including men like Robert Boyle (1627-1691), William Harvey (1578-1657), Robert Hooke (1635-1703) culminated with the towering figure of Isaac Newton (1642-1726/27) who, though possibly the greatest scientist of all time, spent much of his days devoted to alchemy and biblical interpretation. His life demonstrated this period of transition – from alchemy to chemistry, magic to medicine, astrology to astronomy, and the mysticism of numerology to mathematics.
In various disciplines major seminal works were being created that would found traditions and help define nation-states across Europe. These are just a selection: literature of England – Shakespeare, Milton, Donne; Spain – Cervantes; France – Racine, Moliere. In philosophy in Europe Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke. European art – Vermeer, El Greco, Rembrandt, Poussin, Caravaggio.
The decline of Spain and rise of France with French an international language of society and politics, more of these being fought on the high seas. Europe, especially the Central powers, was engaged in virtually continuous warfare starting with the highly destructive last religious war, the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648, beginning as a conflict between Protestant and Catholic states in the splintering Holy Roman Empire but gradually absorbing most of European countries and ending with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 which also ended the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) between Spain and the Dutch Republic when Spain formally recognized an independent Dutch Republic. England was embroiled in the Dutch-Portuguese War (1602–61), the Anglo-Spanish War (1625–30), the Anglo-French War (1627–29), the Portuguese Restoration War (1640–68), the Irish Confederate Wars (1641–53), the First, Second and Third Anglo-Dutch Wars (1652–74), the Franco-Dutch War (1672–8), and the Nine Years War (1688–97).
The Dutch East India company began its influence over the Indonesian Archipelago by taking Jayakarta in 1619 and founding Batavia which was based on the city of Amsterdam. English colonialism began in Ireland and English settlement of New England was more firmly established in 1630. From 1612 English and French colonies were founded in the Caribbean.
During this period England was also turned in on itself with constitutional and regime change that encompassed three Civil Wars (1642-1646, 1648, 1650-1651), the execution of Charles I (1649), Oliver Cromwell’s rise to power as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth (1653-1658), the restoration of Charles II (1660), the short reign of James II (1685-1688), and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when parliament deposed a king and brought William of Orange and his wife Mary (the daughter of James II) to the throne. This was a rejection of rule by divine-right and sovereignty of parliament that would permeate the French and American Revolutions especially through the liberalism of English philosopher John Locke (1632-1704). At the dawn of the eighteenth century in 1707 England and Scotland joined parliaments to create the United Kingdom of Great Britain.
The Jacobean reign of the Stuart dynasty began when king James I assumed the throne in 1603 as a man enthused by the arts and science. In a period of comparative peace up to 1618 (the start of the destructive religio-political Thirty Years War involving most of Europe) the gentry indulged their gardening interests.
The Stuarts were the longest ruling English family dynasty presiding over affairs of state from 1603 to 1707 (with a brief period of parliamentary rule under Cromwell from 1645 to 1660) in a period of revolution and religious conflict. Protestant James I hoped to persuade England, Scotland and Ireland to form a united Britain with a single common law and royal lineage, a vision that earned him the title ‘Little Arthur’ in memory of the great legendary fifth and sixth century King Arthur, acclaimed leader of all the ancient Britons. As James 1 of England and James VI of Scotland he was unacceptable to the English parliament and turned his attention to Catholic Ireland, populating the north with loyal commercially active protestants. James’s son Henry was carefully groomed for his future role as king but died tragically of typhoid when only 18 years old. This left James a son, the sickly stammerer Charles, and a daughter Elizabeth. Charles was to gain health and confidence but made an unsuccessful and unpopular attempt to marry into the Catholic Spanish Hapsbergs. He assumed the throne as Charles 1 in 1625 when James died aged 58.
James had been popular, improving commerce and manufacture, building up the navy and achieving peace in Scotland and Ireland. In contrast Charles was formal, aloof, and authoritarian, proving unpopular by marrying a Catholic French princess and allowing her to practice her religion. He took up residence in Edinburgh in 1633 but his coronation was regarded by the Scots as a formal and unpopular English affair while at the same time he was frustrated by puritan criticism in the English parliament since he believed in rule by the divine right of kings and his own conscience abolishing the parliament. Meanwhile in 1641 the Irish Catholics rose up against the English Protestants and in 1642 Civil War broke out in all countries as Charles’s royalist supporters fought the armies of both Scottish and English parliaments.
Revolutionaries called ‘Diggers’ resisted the unjust distribution of private property, extravagance, excess, and privilege claiming that God had created the Earth for all: it was suggested that waste ground be planted with apples, pears, quinces and walnuts for the benefit of all. Puritans and Calvinists mobilised religion in an attack on artifice as the symbol of a tainted and fallen world that could not challenge God’s perfect natural creation: it was a theme pursued in the literary works of John Bunyan, Milton, and Marvell. Defeated by the Scots in 1645 Charles I was handed over to the English who demanded a constitutional monarchy. Refusing their request Charles was imprisoned on the Isle of Wight as Puritan Cromwell’s revolutionary army established its authority across the country. Convicted of high treason, Charles I was compared to the Roman tyrants Caligula and Nero and publicly beheaded in 1649.
The 18-year-old Charles II was accepted as king in Ireland building up an army that was defeated in 1651 when he fled overseas to live in Aachen for 9 years. Rule in the other countries was by parliamentary committee with Cromwell assuming the title of Lord Protector uniting England and Scotland but assuming unwelcome king-like qualities until in 1658, when his son Richard in an unpopular move inherited his father’s position, lost credibility and the country was effectively without government. Charles II’s offer to return and govern the country was accepted resulting in a full-blown Restoration in 1660.
Charles II was a king who wore his crown lightly, enjoying sport and many mistresses but was nevertheless accepted in spite of taking a Catholic wife. In a massive London fire he popularly assisted, with his brother James, in putting out the flames.
For about 20 years England had been at war with the Dutch over trade routes. In 1667 the Dutch sailed down the Thames, crushing the English fleet of Charles II and, in a humiliating display of strength, towing the royal flagship back to Holland. Charles appealed to his French cousin Catholic Sun King Louis XIV for support in his battle with Holland and forged a secret alliance, the Treaty of Dover, but to no avail. Though Charles had fathered many illegitimate children he had no heir from his wife Catherine and it seemed likely that his Catholic brother James would inherit the throne. Hope for reconciliation between Holland and England was placed in the marriage between Charles’s daughter Mary and Protestant Dutchman William of Orange. Charles II’s unpopularity increased, the disapproval rising when he dissolved his critical parliament, now divided into Whigs and Tories. On his deathbed in 1685 James brought a priest to hear Charles’s confession and Catholic James II was crowned monarch.
James II was not put off by Protestant detractors as he encouraged the Catholic faith in Ireland and in 1768 his wife gave birth to a potential son and heir, again named James. Simmering Protestant rebellion changed to outright support for Dutch Protestant William and his wife Mary in Holland and William, taking his opportunity, invaded with a massive fleet of over 400 warships. It was a bloodless coup but William refused to accept a secondary role to Mary his English Protestant wife nevertheless accepting a Declaration of Rights that limited his power as king. The chastened James meanwhile laid siege to northern Ireland’s Protestant Londonderry, William eventually breaking the long siege, the two armies eventually meeting in southern Ireland’s Battle of the Boyne, decisively won by William. James II fled to France to live in a palace where his son James was raised as a devout Catholic, this was the palace formally occupied by Louis XIV who now moved into the famous Palace at Versailles.
Perhaps as a reminder of Dutch naval achievement William commanded the architect Christopher Wren to build the Greenwich Observatory. When Mary died of smallpox in 1694 there was no heir to the throne, the crown passing to Mary’s Hanoverian Protestant cousin Anne who became Queen when William died in 1707. This was an unpopular succession for the Scots but by the time Anne died in 1714 an Act of Union had been negotiated uniting Scotland and England into the Great Britain of today.
The Worshipful Company of Gardeners was given its Royal Charter in 1605. Gardening was now well established across much of society, the royal court, gentry, merchants and wealthier artisans and, as always, the source of social rivalry as a means of defining status.
Between 1550 and 1660 land tenure (see property and ownership) changed drastically as enclosure was introduced along with a lack of leniency with tenants made more difficult by the absence of landlords attending to business in the ‘city’.
The geometric more-or-less rectilinear knot gardens were now being replaced by more organic scrolling designs with sanded walks, the parterres that were now popular in France. Parterres became a specialist domain of horticulture incorporating different design elements and national preferences.
Inspiration for new garden design came from abroad. Aristocrats on the ‘Grand Tour’ admired the terraced hillside gardens of Italy with their sculptures, staircases, curved balustrades, fountains, grottoes, cypresses, and walled gardens with their graded levels of sensory experience. Producing such gardens required wealth, engineering skills and major excavation – and as many garden elements alluded to mythological and other symbolic ideas the gardens tended towards extravagant gestures of a wealthy educated elite.
To these design ideas can be added some Jacobean eccentricities like shell-covered mountains, a fascination with grottoes (often treated as a woman’s domain and decorated with shells which were a collecting fad of the time), automata, and fantastic mythological statues, nymphs, water goddesses and the like, along with elaborate fountains.Popular diarist and social commentator John Evelyn (1620-1706), a contemporary and friend of Samuel Pepys, probably influenced by Parkinson’s Paradisus, expressed on the one hand a desire for the garden as an Eden-like escape while at the same time becoming an authority on trees and their practical economic uses. He was an active member of the Royal Society who extolled in his Sylva,or A Discourse of Forest Trees (1664), the virtues of trees – as a source of timber for England’s increasingly powerful navy and as relief from London’s smoky atmosphere as the gathering industrial revolution soaked up the land’s fuel, especially in the Midlands.[U,pp.106-107] England captured the French designer André Mollet to assist them in the years 1620 to 1635.
With the Restoration came new ideas about the estate gardens as the scale was again extended, with the same grandeur but with long vistas joining parkland that would eventually merged, in the distance, with the surrounding countryside. Continental influence still prevailed as, in France, Charles II’s cousin, the absolutist monarch Louis XIV, employed the great designer André Le Notre to set out his long avenues and canals, the central axis cutting through parterre and woods to stab the horizon, the lateral avenues decorated with statuary, water features and fountains in a manner that would culminate in the great garden at Versailles. England’s elite produced more modest imitations of Versailles that included radiating avenues, canals, parterres, topiary and, above all, vistas terminating in statuary, obelisks or buildings, many of these creations persisting late into the 18thcentury.[U,p.117] There arose at this time a loose distinction between busy and enclosed Dutch gardens with their topiary, potted plants, espaliered trees, parterres planted with bulbs, and the sweeping open vistas of the French parc although in reality the styles were often blended, and with a liberal admixture of Italian classicism.
In any event, gardens on this scale required the specialist skills of much sought-after experienced designers who could take them through to successful completion. By the time Anne came to the throne in 1702 awareness there was a gathering concern for the exorbitant expense of laying out entire landscapes with elaborate parterres and long straight avenues of trees all requiring hundreds of labourers.
With the accession of William III and Mary II in 1689 there was a co-regency until Mary died in 1694, William ruling alone until his death in 1702 when he was followed by Queen Anne. William and Mary brought in Dutch horticultural expertise. William had horticultural and botanical connections and Dutch horticulture was, at this time, well in advance of that in England. William and Mary in their gardens at Het Loo had built up a vast potted collection of exotic plants and these were brought to England. In 1675 he removed the restriction on the Dutch east India Company on exotic plant importation. At the royal residence at Hampton Court, the garden reconstructed into a Great Maze and formal geometric Privy Garden of 1702 in a turfed parterre á l’Anglais (turf and coloured gravels) style that would soon to fall out of favour. There were three walled gardens (auriculas, container plants, exotics) and three hothouses with state of the art underfloor heating like the hypocaust used in Roman baths and buildings the beds in the hothouses kept warm with manure and tanners bark produced a great display of plants from Barbados, Canaries, East Indies and the Cape, the potted plants brought outside in summer.
Wealthy women closeted on their estates while husbands dealt with affairs of state were to play a major role in garden history from this time on. We glimpse an early English example in Mary Duchess of Beaufort’s (1630-1715) influence through the massive family estate at Badminton where she had a 100’ orangery constructed, a stove house that could rival the Queen’s, filled with the latest exotic novelties collected from the South African Cape, West Indies, Virginia, India, Sri Lanka, China and Japan sourced via her botanical contacts including Hans Sloane of the Chelsea Physic Garden her London neighbour. Her collecting started in the 1690s and provided a diversion during her widowhood. Among her botanical treasures were tropical fruits like banana, guava and paw-paw, and ornamental curiosities of the day like nerines, hibiscus and aloes. At Beaufort House, her London residence in Chelsea, there was a terraced sunken flower garden where she grew jonquils, fritillarias, tulips and anemones along with carnations and paeonies along with her favourites, a prize collection of auriculas. Badminton became home to her proud collection of South African ‘geraniums’.[U, p.109] Her botanical enthusiasm resulted in a personal herbarium donated to Sir Hans Sloane and later housed in the Natural History Museum, and a florilegium of drawings of her favourites by Everhardus Lychicus kept in the library at Badminton. Her best known plant introductions are the zonal pelargonium, Pelargonium peltatum, and the blue passion flower Passiflora caerulea.
Bishop Henry Compton (1632-1713), appointed Bishop of London in 1675, resided at Fulham Palace where he assembled plants traded with American colonists. He even passed his gardener George London (who had established a popular nursery at Brompton) to William and Mary at Hampton Court in 1689. The Brompton Park Nursery covered 100 acres between Hyde Park and Kensington held a stock of about 40,000 plants, reaching its height of prestige in 1693-4.(Hobhouse p. 135)Fulham Palace at that time contained ‘a greater variety of curious exotic plants and trees than had at that time been collected in any garden in England’ as his garden was described when he died in 1713 (Brown 1999, p. 61) In his stove houses he cultivated England’s first coffee plant. He was appointed Deputy Superintendent of the Royal Gardens to William III and Mary II and also Commissioner for Trade and Plantations. He corresponded with John Bannister in the West Indies and then Virginia receiving in return, plants (plants were also sent to Chelsea Physic Garden and Oxford Botanic Garden) drawings, seeds, and herbarium specimens from which the Bishop’s close friend John Ray compiled the first published account of North American flora in his Historia Plantarum (1688) (see Wikipedia).
Charcoal was used in blast furnaces and in the Midlands the Forest of Arden practically disappeared. Up to about 1730 Enclosure of fields was largely a matter of private agreement between lords but around the time of George II this became more a matter of Parliamentary Act as land between Yorkshire and Dorset was converted from open strip fields to the hedge-rowed squarish fields of today. It is this period of enclosure that entailed the final removal of much of the remaining forests, heathland, moors, marshes and fens which were cleared, drained, converted to fields and settled. ‘It is the totality of these new enclosures, beginning perhaps in the 17th century and increasing rapidly through the 18th and19th centuries, together with the industrial and urban development … that mark the last 250 years …’ (Taylor in Hoskins, p. 140)
The common man
While royalty enjoyed high fashion of Italianate gardens the small gentry, yeomen and farmers used gardens mostly to supplement their diet although there was also pride to be taken in the flower garden. Women played a specific role at all levels of society. On the estate, in true Roman fashion, it was the woman’s job to manage the staff of servants and labourers and the efficient use of domestic animals, dairy, kitchen, herb garden, vegetables, fruit trees, bees and more) while the husband was away and to entertain the guests when he was at home. She was also expected to know about medicines, potions, perfumes, oils, scents and soaps. [U p. 91, 99]
Mulberries were distributed across the land in the hope that a silk industry would result. Food for the table came directly from the, mostly nearby, land: meat from cows, pigs and sheep; geese, chickens, ducks; fish from local rivers; bread from locally milled grain; fruit from the orchard either fresh, stewed or preserved (apples, pears, cherries, peaches, apricots, redcurrants, blackcurrants, gooseberries, raspberries, quinces); honey from the bee hives; beer and some other alcoholic beverages (e.g. some wines, perry, cider) from the estate brewery. It was the luxuries that were bought in: spices, sugar and wine.[U pp. 98-99]
Banister’s plants included Magnolia virginiana, Acer negundo, Liquidambar styraciflua, Abies balsamica, Aiton’s Hortus Kewensis of 1789 crediting Compton with over 40 new introductions.(Hobhouse pp. 134-135)
John Evelyns works, especially his 1693 translation from the French of de la Quintinye’s The Complete Gardener were perceived as a great advance. and his Sylva commissioned by the Horticultural Society to address the lack of weed needed to maintain the shipbuilding industry of the British navy.
Thomas Hill The Gardener’s Labyrinth (1577) Francis BaconOn Gardens (1625) John Evelyn Sylva, or a Discourse of Forest Trees (1664). A classic and highly popular book on trees by the learned diarist, country gentleman, and commissioner to the court of Charles II John James The Theory and Practice of Gardening (1712) William Lawson The Country Housewife’s Garden (1618) Thomas Tusser Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie (1573)
Plant commentary & sustainability analysis
The period from 1500 to 1800 can be viewed a rural period of respite between survival in the Middle Ages and the onset of the Industrial Revolution. The upper classes enjoyed greater prosperity and engagement with the continent and arts, but the situation and political representation of the poor was dismal, leading to the Peasant’s Revolt and ultimately Civil War. Post Reformation affluence came in part from the monasteries but the creation of large open spaces often entailed moving people off the land. From the late 16th century there was greater attention to water management for the growing numbers of sheep, especially in East Anglia, through the creation of leats, channels, dams, and careful field flooding.
 Uglow, p. 104
 Uglow, p. 120
Hobhouse, P. 1994. Plants in Garden History. Pavilion: London
Uglow, J. 2005. A Little History of British Gardening. Pimlico: London