For most of us, the notion of an English garden is pleasantly idyllic, with nodding roses and sweet-smelling annuals. King Henry VIII (1491-1547), however, seems to have had an entirely different idea. Judging by the newly recreated Chapel Garden at Henry's palace at Hampton Court, His Majesty expected his gardens to be something more than places for quiet reflection and relaxation.
Opened in 2009 to honor the 500th anniversary of Henry's accession to the throne in 1509, the garden is not an exact replica of a specific historical garden, but a historically based plausibility. In other words, it could have existed, and all of the aspects of its design are accurate to the Tudor era. With bold color and geometry as well as imaginary creatures, this garden makes a brave statement about power, male aggression, and royal lineage among the Tudors.
Bordered with green and white striped enclosures, the beds are filled with plants and herbs common to 16th c. gardens. The garden is the work of well-known historical gardener Todd Longstaffe-Gowan (click here for a splendid overhead photo of the garden, complete with Henry himself in the middle, and more examples of Mr. Longstaffe-Gowan's work.)
But what most people will remember about the garden are the "Kyng's Beestes" that guard it. These fantastical carved male figures (and imaginary or not, they are all very obviously male) are drawn from Tudor heraldry, and would have been instantly recognized by members of Henry's court as representing the royal family. Even the paint colors were carefully chosen to reflect heraldic traditions, and are appropriate to the time. The Tudor Court was not one known for subtlety, particularly in design; even stone statues were often brightly painted.
The three beasts shown here are the Red Dragon of Wales, the Panther (shown as "'incensed', with flames coming from its mouth and ears, which represent its fragrant breath"), and the Golden Lion of England. Others include the White Greyhound of Richmond, the White Hart, the Black Bull of Clarence, and the Silver Yale of Beaufort. And no, I didn't know what a Silver Yale was, either –– it's a beast with "the body of an Antelope, a Lion's tale and horns which can swivel round to counter attack from all quarters."
Whether these beasts feel the need to counter attack present-day tourists to Hampton Court remains to be seen. But considering Henry's nature, I'm sure he would have loved this gaudy, bellicose anniversary "gift."
These photographs come courtesy of the blog of Patrick Baty, a master painter who specializes in historically accurate paints for projects ranging from these Tudor garden ornaments to Georgian churches and Victorian bridges. For more about this garden and photographs of the other "beestes" as well as examples of his other projects, check out Mr. Baty's blog here.
UPDATE: Even better! I just found this video on YouTube--a tour of the chapel court garden and an explanation of the beasts by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan, who designed it.