For gardeners with a sense of history

OE wyrtig, adj: Garden-like, full of plants;
On anum wyrtige hamme, Homl. Skt. ii. 30:312




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Church and Monastery Gardens

Canterbury Cathedral, 1165 CE

Mount Grace Priory - A restored late medieval herb garden

The Plan of St Gall,  c. 820 CE
Walafrid Strabo's Hortulus

Medieval garden re-creations


A monk's garden recreated at
Mt. Grace Priory

Although we know something about the plants grown during the period between the departure of the Romans and the arrival of the Normans, our glimpses of early medieval gardens are frustratingly fragmented.

Early monastic establishments followed a ground plan derived from that of the Roman villa, whose central colonnaded courtyard evolved into the cloister. Cloister gardens, set within these rectangular bounds and often centered on a fountain, and were designed specifically to foster contemplation.

Monasteries had other gardens as well, kitchen gardens (hortus) for vegetables and seasonings, herb gardens (herbularius) for medicinal plants, and -- at the west doors of many of the great churches -- paradise gardens that produced flowers for decorating the church and also provided sanctuary to fugitives.

Many such gardens are mentioned in surviving monastic bookkeeping records and in chronicles; for example:

c. 940

The Gesta Abbatum Monasterii Sancti Albani (History of the Abbots of the Monastery of St. Albans) reports that a Danish hermit at St. Albans tended gardens with herbis et leguminibus, herbs and vegetables.

At about the same, on the continent, the "Plan of St. Gall" was drawn, presenting a model for an ideal monastery, complete with two gardens and an orchard.

c. 975

Benedictional of St. Ęthelwold shows Queen Ętheldreda (at right), founder of Ely Cathedral, holding a tall white lily.

1092 Eadmer reports in his Historia Novarum in Anglia that, after the Norman Conquest, King William Rufus and his men descended upon the nunnery at Romsey Abbey, ostensibly to view their "roses and other flowering herbs," but in actuality to inspect Edith of Scotland, then 12 years old and heiress of the royal Saxon family.

c. 1100


A scribe at the Benedictine abbey of Bury St. Edmunds created an herbal that would be recognized a millennia later for the beauty of its botanical illustrations.

Augustinian canons at St. Michael's Priory on the island of Steep Holm, in the Bristol Channel, grew leeks, Alexanders, and perhaps the lovely, single pink Balkan peony, Paeonia mascula.



William of Malmesbury writes that Gerard, Archbishop of York, died in a garden near his house, where he had gone, ailing and uncomfortable, to "enjoy the open air... to which the flowers of the plants, breathing sweetly, give life."


William of Malmesbury described Thorney Abbey in the Gesta Pontificum Anglorum:

...the eyes feast on the greenness of the trees, and herbs, and grass and everywhere presents the same delightful prospect. Not the smallest part of the soil remains uncultivated; here the land produces apple trees, here the fields are devoted to the cultivation of vines, which either creep on the earth or rise towards heaven supported by poles...


A ground plan showing the waterworks of Canterbury Cathedral incidentally shows the infirmary garden as well, with trellised or wattle fences and neat rows of plants.

Late 1100s

Gerald of Wales describes several location in Wales as having gardens, vineyards, and orchards, among them Cenarth Mawr, home of the church dedicated to St. Llawddog,  where you could find a "mill, bridge, salmon leap, an orchard with a delightful garden -- all stand together on a small plot of ground."

Early 1200s

It was the responsibility of the refectorer at Barnwell Priory not only to feed the members of the priory community, but also to perfume the air of their dining room with flowers, mint, and fennel.

The tenth prior of Barnwell, Henry of Eye, had been the gardener at Barnwell in the early 1200s, and was remembered for his success with apples, various kinds of pears, and a vineyard.


A number of sources make it clear that both monks and nuns were avid gardeners. Some of the more horticulturally inclined of the religious houses sold seeds and plants, and supplied medicinals as well. By the year 1200, the sale of gardening tools, seeds, and plants was a major industry, with centers at Oxford, London, and Paris.

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Botanists are among those who know that, in spite of the rude shocks of life,
it is well to have lived, and to have seen the everlasting beauty of the world.
F.D. Drewitt


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