Medieval gardens: Middle Ages to c1500

Monasteries and manor houses dictated the garden style of the medieval period.

Monastic gardens provided medicine and food for the monks and for the local community. Herbs were cultivated in the ‘physic garden’ composed of well-ordered rectangular beds, while orchards, fishponds and dovecotes ensured there would be food for all.

The secluded garden, or  ‘Hortus Conclusus’, was associated with the Virgin Mary in the monastery garden but in royal palaces and manor houses it represented a garden of earthly delights. Enclosed within wattle fences, raised beds were filled with scented flowers and herbs. Trellis arbours ensured privacy and provided shade while the sound of fountains and bird song filled the air.

Style at a glance

  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

Where to see gardens with medieval features

Rarely have entire gardens survived from this period but individual elements such as dovecotes and fishponds have withstood the test of time and can be found in several of our gardens:

    Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex

    This rare 14th-century thatched and timber-framed Wealden ‘hall house’ was the first building to be acquired by us in 1896. Situated in an idyllic setting it has a garden laid out in the 1920s by the then tenant Sir Robert Witt to evoke a medieval garden, with old-fashioned roses, topiary, a potager for vegetables, a herb garden and an orchard.

    Avebury Manor, Wiltshire

    Parts of the Manor are believed to date back to the 12th-century Benedictine priory. Although the garden was completely redesigned in the 20th century with raised walks, flower gardens and an orchard by Colonel and Mrs Jenner, a few elements of the original garden, such as some of the walls and hedges, have survived.

    Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire

    This ancient moated manor dates from the 15th century and was the home of the Ferrers family for 500 years. Today, amongst the delightful gardens, the original medieval stew ponds are a rare survival. These would have been connected by a system of wooden pipes to the moat and to the Long Ditch.

    Buckland Abbey, Devon

    Originally dating from the 13th century, this Cistercian Abbey was transformed three hundred years later into a private home famously lived in by Sir Francis Drake.  The gardens were redesigned in the 1990s with features that may be found in a medieval garden such as a flowery mead, or meadow, and formal beds fenced in by trellis with a fountain pool at its centre. There's also a box-edged garden of medicinal herbs.

    Cotehele, Cornwall

    The atmospheric garden at Cotehele provides a romantic setting for the ancient house surrounded by formal gardens, while down in the valley garden, today planted with tender and exotic plants, evidence of Cotehele’s long history can be found in the survival of the medieval stew ponds and the domed dovecote.

    Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire

    The remains of this 12th-century Cistercian abbey are incorporated into the landscape of Studley Royal where the original mill ponds and a medieval deer park can still be found. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

    Ightham Mote, Kent

    A romantic medieval moated manor house described by David Starkey as 'one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses'. Set in a wooded valley, a sequence of water features may well be the original fishponds. Today the garden has been planted with formal beds, a nod to its medieval origins.

    Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk

    The garden of this timber framed building, one of the finest of its kind in Britain, contains plants used to dye medieval cloth from which the village derived its wealth. Madder and safflower produced reds and pinks, weld and cardoon provided yellows and greens while woad, elecampane and vipers bugloss yielded a blue dye. Teasels were used to finish the cloth. Regular exhibitions and demonstrations are given by the local Guild of Weavers, Spinners and dyers.

    Stoneacre, Kent

    A 15th-century half-timbered yeoman’s house, a perfect example of a Wealden hall-house surrounded by a glorious restored, if not historically accurate, romantic garden together with an orchard and meadow to give a flavour of its medieval origins.