30 January 2013

Civil War and the Royal Garden That Almost Wasn't

I've been reading a lot lately about the 17th century political upheavals in England that resulted in Civil War and the Glorious Restoration. What a chaotic time - rising taxes, social unrest, political disparity, growing national debt, a head of state who was really, really full of himself...(wait, we are talking of England 400 years ago, aren't we? Funny, sounds like another country I know...)

On 30 January 1649, King Charles I was beheaded outside Banqueting House in Whitehall, London. The assembled crowd is reported to have groaned as the axe came down. (British Library)
When Charles I lost control of the kingdom and his head on this day in 1649 and Oliver Cromwell took over as Lord Protector, many things changed that had a direct influence on the progress of garden design in England. The fashion of garden design was a man's purview and men were quite busy fighting, fleeing, or changing political sides to save their own heads to be much bothered about the garden at home. Then there was the rise of the Puritans, of whom Cromwell was one of the staunchest. The Puritans were a deeply religious Protestant faction which abhorred ostentation in any form. They were pretty much the party poopers of the 17th century, even going so far as to cancel Christmas.

During Cromwell's rule the monarchy was effectively abolished although one Cromwell supporter urged him to take the crown saying, "If the thing, why not the title?". Cromwell declined the crown but one thing he did take was land. Royal hunting parks, palace gardens and grounds, even the estates of Royalist nobles and gentry were seized and redistributed to men who served on the Parliamentary side of the Civil War. One of these royal parks was on the outskirts of London near a little hamlet called Kensington.

This 1645 map of London and its environs shows the royal hunting ground of Hyde Park to the west of the city. (mapco)

Hyde Park was recorded in Domesday, the 1086 inventory of William the Conqueror's new possessions, and shortly thereafter became the property of the Abbey of Westminster. Henry VIII acquired the Manor of Hyde when he abolished the monasteries in the 16th century and enclosed over 600 acres as a hunting park. The Keeper of Hyde Park under Henry's daughter Elizabeth was Sir Walter Cope, who lived in Kensington on an estate next door to the park on its western side. He sold the estate to a colleague called Coppin. Coppin built a lovely house, no doubt with lovely views of the park. From him it passed to his nephew then to a family called Finch. The house was renamed Nottingham House after Heneage Finch, the first Earl of Nottingham.

Map detail showing location of Nottingham House next to Hyde Park and sketch of what the house may have looked like (after Faulkner, HRP)

The Finches kept a low political profile and came through the Interregnum fairly unscathed but gained new neighbors. Hyde Park had been divided and sold to a handful of Cromwell-supporting courtiers. Whether because of the rapid change of events or because of the properties' location outside the city center where all the excitement was taking place, the new owners didn't develop their parcels and were no doubt left slack-jawed when, in 1660, the people had decided enough was enough and invited Charles's heir, Charles II, back to the throne. This Charles not only restored the monarchy, he restored lands and titles that had been claimed by Cromwell and his cronies. Hyde Park was once again royal ground.

Hyde Park lots divided during the Interregnum, also showing the extent of the Finch estate to the west
 (as drawn by WL Rutton, 1905)
For the next two decades the pendulum swung back and fun and frivolity were again permitted in the kingdom. Exiled Royalists returned from the Continent, Nobles and Courtiers again switched sides,  relative peace ruled the land and building began in earnest. Houses were remodelled or built after the style travellers had seen in Europe. Landowning was akin to power and the garden was a political statement. But another political cloud was brewing. Charles II's successor, James II, was too pro-French and pro-Catholic for the people's taste, and his ambitions to be an absolute monarch echoed too much those of his ancestor Charles I. The nobles got twitchy and finally gave him the royal boot in 1688 when they invited his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William to a joint rule of the land. Daniel Finch, who inherited his father's title and lands, became Secretary of State for William and Mary and was well known to them. 
William and Mary c. 1689 ( and Daniel Finch, 2nd Earl of Nottingham c. 1707 (
At this time coal was the primary fuel and the infamous coal fog of London aggravated William's asthma so the new monarchs began looking for a house in the country. They wanted something within easy distance of the political business at Whitehall but closer than Hampton Court, which Mary wanted to remodel. Meanwhile, the Finches had just about outgrown their house at Kensington (with 10 children and several servants, even a grand country house would start to feel a bit crowded). William found the house and, no doubt its location next to Hyde Park, agreeable and the house was sold to the King and Queen in 1689 when it became Kensington Palace. Expansion immediately ensued and grand new gardens were built by famed nurserymen London and Wise based on William and Mary's Dutch Renaissance garden at Het Loo.
The gardens at Kensington Palace c. 1705 (HRP)

Mary's successor, her sister Queen Anne, took 50 acres from Hyde Park to expand the gardens after 1705. Anne's successor, George I, took a liking to Kensington and concentrated on re-doing the house but it was his daughter-in-law Caroline who really took charge of the garden  when her husband became king in 1727. She implemented Henry Wise's plan under George I to expand the gardens eastward by annexing a further 250 acres from Hyde Park. Wise died in 1738 by which time Charles Bridgeman had established himself as a more-than-capable royal gardener and he continued with a plan of his own, honoring Wise's intent, much of which is still on the ground at Kensington Gardens today. At their peak in the mid 18th century, Kensington Gardens were regarded as the greatest royal gardens in the land.

It is Bridgeman who is credited with introducing the Serpentine style of garden design, the precursor to the English Landscape Movement begun by Bridgeman and William Kent and raised to new heights by Capability Brown, itself a politically-motivated response to the changing tastes, fashions, and political allegiances of the time.

Cary's map of 1795 shows Bridgeman's extensive layout of the gardens with Queen Caroline's Temple by Kent (1734) near the Serpentine, and the wiggly paths through the bosquets, then at the height of fashion. (mapco)

For those who enjoy the gardens at Kensington Palace and the recreation offered in Hyde Park on a daily basis, just imagine what London might be like without them. The many parks and squares of London, several of which were and still are Royal parks, are collectively referred to as "the Lungs of London", restorative green spaces in a rapidly expanding and congested city for people to retreat to for recreation and a taste of country air. There's no telling how those courtiers who bought the parcels of Hyde Park might have developed their lands but it's a sure bet the open, tree-filled park at Hyde and the magnificent royal gardens at Kensington would not now exist had the Protectorship continued and the monarchy not been restored when it was.

Google Earth image of London: the parks are clearly visible. What would London be like without them?
For those who think garden history is just about the plants and big gardens surrounding big houses, let this be an illustration of the effects and influence that politics have on the design of gardens. In this time of change and unrest in my own country, it'll be interesting to see what direction garden design takes in the next few decades.

*Kensington Gardens are open to the public from 6am daily, gates close at dusk. The grounds at Hyde Park open at 5am and close at midnight all year round. For information on visiting, events, and maps of the parks, go to The Royal Parks website at

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