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Ruralia Commoda – 14th century gardening manual on display in London

Cucumbers shake with fear at thunder; squash will bear fruit after nine days if planted in the ashes of human bone and watered with oil; and planting a radish, lettuce seed, nasturtium and colewort inside a ball of goat manure will result in tasty lettuces. These are just some of the more bizarre horticultural tips contained within the world’s first gardening manual, written more than 700 years ago and acquired by Henry VIII.

Ruralia commoda

The medieval gardening manual is now on display as part of the exhibition Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden at The Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, alongside some of the earliest and rarest surviving records of gardens and plants from the Royal Collection. As well as providing a wealth of gardening advice, the manual included a section on how to create a royal garden and may have provided inspiration for Henry VIII’s lost garden at Whitehall Palace.

Written in Latin between 1304 and 1309 by Petrus de Crescentiis, a wealthy lawyer from Bologna in Italy, Ruralia Commoda was the only publication of its kind during Henry VIII’s reign. It entered the King’s library upon the death of its previous owner, Richard Rawson, the King’s chaplain and advisor on his divorce from Catherine of Aragon, in 1543.

In the mid-1540s Henry VIII created the Great Garden at Whitehall Palace, which was destroyed by fire in 1698. No trace of the Whitehall garden remains, but it can be seen freshly planted in the background of the painting The Family of Henry VIII c.1545, making it the first real and identifiable garden in British art. The painting, which will be shown in the exhibition, is a powerful dynastic family portrait of Henry VIII, his wife Jane Seymour, their son Edward, and the two Princesses, Mary and Elizabeth, Henry’s daughters by Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. The inclusion of the King’s garden in the portrait reflects the new role of the garden as a symbol of royal status and prestige.

 The Family of Henry VIII c.1545

According to the manual, the size of the garden and the perfection of the trees and plants within it were an expression of a king’s status, wealth and mastery over his environment. A royal garden should occupy a plot of 20 acres or more, and the planting of fragrant herbs was recommended because they ‘not only delight by their odor, but … refresh the sight.’ The gardener should ‘between these plants … form turf in the fashion of a seat, flowering and pleasant.’ The royal garden should include walks and bowers, ‘where the king and queen can meet with the barons and lords when it is not the rainy season’ and should be surrounded by suitably high walls. In such a garden ‘the king will not only take pleasure, but … after he has performed serious and obligatory business, he can be renewed in it.’ Glimpses of this advice put into practice can be seen through two archways in the painting The Family of Henry VIII. The manual also recommends that a very pure spring be diverted into the garden – a huge, tiered, circular fountain formed the focal point of Henry VIII’s garden at Whitehall.

As well as providing advice on creating ‘gardens for kings and other illustrious and wealthy lords’, Ruralia Commoda covered estate management, from hunting and falconry to wine production and keeping neat fields. It also revealed how to grow giant leeks, produce cherries without pits, grow different coloured figs on the same tree, preserve roses before they bloom, and transform basil into mint. Among the more unusual plants illustrated within the book is a mandrake – the root resembled a human figure, which was thought to scream when it was dug up, killing those nearby.

Vanessa Remington of Royal Collection Trust, curator of the exhibition Painting Paradise, said, “This is no coffee-table book, but a real, thumbed-through and annotated gardening manual, showing that its various owners referred to it time and time again. Although it is impossible to know, it is tempting to think that Henry VIII may have sat in his library and looked through it for inspiration. What is important is that we can link the first painting of a real, recognisable, royal garden with the world’s first gardening manual.”

The exhibition Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden will run until October 11, 2015 – to learn more details, please visit the Royal Collection Trust website

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