The literature, art and architecture of Elizabeth I’s reign have been the subject of countless books. Yet the gardens of the period have attracted comparatively little attention. In large part, this is because gardens are organic and possibly the most ephemeral of art forms. In Gardens for Gloriana, Jane Whitaker sets herself the challenge of recovering a lost world – and, with it, of understanding the broader role of gardens in Elizabethan culture. Employing both horticultural and archival detective work, she has examined the surviving physical evidence, together with a wide variety of pictorial and documentary sources. These range from hand-drawn surveyors’ maps to the woodcuts and engravings used as illustrations in ‘how to’ manuals for gardeners, from private letters and diaries to printed works on husbandry and botany. ‘To look for complete physical survivals of Elizabethan gardens’, Whitaker rightly observes, ‘will invariably lead to disappointment.’ Nonetheless, ‘the excitement of taking a map of a sixteenth-century garden and tracing its features on the ground can be a rewarding experience, as can analysing the gardens through the perspective of rich contemporary art and literature.’ Indeed, all of these approaches, as Whitaker ably demonstrates, ‘can provide tantalizing glimpses into the past’.
Of the many sources consulted by Whitaker, it is the literature of the era that provides perhaps the richest evidentiary seam. The writings of Sidney, Spenser and Shakespeare are frequently invoked, as might be expected. Sidney’s The Lady of May (first performed in the grounds of Wanstead Manor, probably