Medieval Gardens: Form and Function

Standing as stone skeletons on cliffs or hilltops, we know castles are really only a shadow of their former selves.  On a day to day basis, castles fulfilled purposes beyond the defence of the realm and were also administrative centres where a myriad of activities would have taken place but the evidence of which have been erased by time.  We know, for example, many castles would have possessed gardens.  Medieval gardens might have produced foods like a kitchen garden, but also would have also been the source of herbs that were used in medieval medicine.  Garden spaces were pointed out to us at least two of our Battle Castle sites.  Medieval gardens did embrace key ideas about form and function.

At Conwy Castle the east side of the castle was dominated by a second barbican which provided access from the sea gate, meant to resupply the castle in case of siege.  This was the site of a garden overlooked by the royal apartments. Sometimes a flower garden, its function changed over the years and at one time even contained fruit trees.

East Side Barbican and Garden Site, Conwy Castle Wales

East Side Barbican and Garden Site, Conwy Castle Wales

My theory is that a good garden space is anywhere you find people absorbing sunshine.

Conwy Castle Sunshine Collectors

Conwy Castle Sunshine Collectors

Benjamin Michaudel, our castle architecture expert challenged us to imagine that this space in front of the Knights Hall at Crac des Chevaliers would have likely housed a garden.  With a healthy dose of imagination, the stone walls give way to rich textures of green.  Given that the knights who built the castle were of the Hospitaller Order and they provided medical services to pilgrims in the Holy Land, we can be sure that medicinal herbs would have to have been grown on site.

Courtyard Adjacent to Knights Hall, Crac des Chevaliers

Courtyard Adjacent to Knights Hall, Crac des Chevaliers

The National Trust in the United Kingdom gives a great summary of the characteristics of a garden through the medieval period until the 1500s.

  1. Gardens enclosed with wattle fences or quickthorn hedges
  2. Trellis walkways and arbours providing shade and privacy
  3. Raised beds to prevent plants becoming waterlogged
  4. Grass treated as a flowery mead planted with low growing wild flowers
  5. Turf seats usually built against a wall with flowers planted in the grass
  6. Physic  gardens with regimented beds of medicinal herbs
  7. Orchards providing apples for the kitchen and for making cider
  8. Fish ponds and stew ponds (where fish were purged of muddy water before cooking) to ensure a regular supply of protein during the many fast days of the Christian calendar
  9. Dovecotes to provide pigeons for the kitchen, feathers for cushions and dung for fertilizing the garden
  10. Pleasances, or ornamental parks for recreation, relaxation and sport

It’s a wonder to see how many of these features are still for us today.  We are still trying to keep the wildlife out of our green spaces with fences to deny access to deer and rabbits.  And I recently built a arbour in my own yards upon which I am trying to grow grapes with the hopes of creating summer shade one day from their leaves.  We’ve also seen a huge resurgence of raised beds, not to improve water flow but also make it easier to weed.  Garden design is timeless with the best designs embodying both form and function.

Be sure to visit the Garden Page of this castle and manor houses website.  They include images from medieval illuminations as well as castle gardens you can visit.  Do you have any castle garden pictures to share?  Post them to our Facebook page or Twitter feed!

The production team which created Battle Castle, is proud to announce today the release of a garden design App for iPads called Garden Sketch.  Like all the great designers and builders we’ve talked about over the years, we know it is hard to work without a plan.  We hope that you will check out the home page for Garden Sketch.  We offering on the App for free in the App Store until October 31, 2014.

If you wish to incorporate some medieval features in your garden, the website Wyrtig, provides some helpful tips.

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