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Gardens with medieval features

The Kitchen Garden at Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex, in April
The kitchen garden at Alfriston Clergy House, East Sussex | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Now over 500 years old, medieval gardens are rare, but some of their typical features do survive. And some gardens, although more recently created, have also been designed in a medieval style.

How did medieval gardens grow? 

Medieval garden style was dominated by monasteries and manor houses. Herbs were grown for medicine and gardens were an important food source. 

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. 

Two women exploring the garden in spring at Cotehele, Cornwall
Visitors exploring the garden in spring at Cotehele, Cornwall | © National Trust Images/John Millar

Features of a medieval garden 

  • Gardens enclosed with wattle fences or quickthorn hedges 

  • Trellis walkways and arbours providing shade and privacy 

  • Raised beds to prevent plants becoming waterlogged 

  • Grass treated as a flowery meadow planted with low-growing wild flowers 

  • Turf seats usually built against a wall with flowers planted in the grass 

  • Physic gardens with regimented beds of medicinal herbs 

  • Orchards providing apples for the kitchen and for making cider 

  • Fishponds and stewponds (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 

  • Dovecotes to provide pigeons for the kitchen, feathers for cushions and dung for fertilising the garden 

  • Pleasances, or ornamental parks for recreation, relaxation and sport

A view of Fountains abbey in the summertime from East green
Visitors walking through the grounds of Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, Yorkshire | © J Shepherd

Where to see gardens with medieval features 

We care for some beautiful gardens that date back to the medieval period, between the Middle Ages and the 1500s. Rarely have entire gardens survived from this period, but individual elements like dovecotes and fishponds have stood the test of time and you can find them 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 the Trust 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.Visit Alfriston’s garden 
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. See the garden at Avebury 
Baddesley Clinton, Warwickshire  
This ancient moated manor dates from the 15th century and was the home of the Ferrers family for 500 years. Today, among the delightful gardens, the original medieval stewponds are a rare survival. These would have been connected by a system of wooden pipes to the moat and to the Long Ditch.  See Baddesley Clinton’s stewponds and more 
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 stewponds and the domed dovecote. Visit Cotehele’s historic garden 
Fountains Abbey, Yorkshire  
The remains of this 12th-century Cistercian abbey are incorporated into the landscape of Studley Royal where the original millponds and a medieval deer park can still be found. This special place is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.  Explore this World Heritage Site 
Ightham Mote, Kent  
A romantic, medieval, moated manor house near Sevenoaks, Kent. 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.  Find original fishponds at Ightham Mote 
Lavenham Guildhall, Suffolk  
The garden of this timber-framed building, one of the finest of its kind in Britain, contains plants used to dye the medieval cloth from which the village derived its wealth. Discover dye-producing plants at Lavenham Guildhall 
Small girl running between conical topiary hedges in the Cherry Garden at Ham House

Where will you visit next?

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