JANUARY 21, 2012
IMAGINE A TIME WHEN, to win a woman’s love, the ardent suitor had to create a garden more beautiful, more sensual, more unusual than his competition. Seen through Trea Martyn’s fascinating lens, the fate of England in the 16th century rested on just such a competition, waged by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester and William Cecil, Elizabeth’s Lord Treasurer. Cecil created his fabulous, strange gardens at his estate, Theobalds. Dudley spent the equivalent of millions of dollars on his gardens at Kenilworth Castle. Cecil was a constant, mild man; Dudley a bit of a hothead who longed to prove himself in battle. Endless songs and poems and puns about the competition were written for the Queen’s attention. Each spring, she would decamp from London with her court to visit friends and subjects – these trips were called the Queen’s progresses, and they very nearly bankrupted the hosts. The excess – the food, fireworks, fountains, plays, and myriad follies – were well documented, but Martyn brings these marvelous, strange parties and dinners to life. There is also a great deal of information here on the history of gardening (Italian gardens were all the rage during Elizabeth’s reign), the British infatuation with flowers, herbs, and plants from around the world, and the creation of herbal apothecaries (Elizabeth insisted on treating her ailments with herbal remedies). Great gardeners like Mountain Jennings, John Tradescant, Thomas Hill, John Gerard, and William Turner all make appearances in this capacious book. It is easier to root for Dudley, whose untimely death cut short his imaginative gardening – but Cecil was a worthy opponent, and Elizabeth played them both quite cruelly.