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




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An introduction to early gardens in Britain
Gardens of Roman Britain

The Romans conquered Britain in 43 CE, and Roman legions remained for about four centuries, until the departure of the armies in 449 CE. The nature of agriculture in Britain was a matter of no small importance to the Romans, who were primarily interested in that damp, far-off island because of its fertile and highly productive fields of grain.

Tacitus wrote in the Agricola that Britain’s " soil will produce good crops, except olives, vines, and other plants that usually grow in warmer lands. Crops are slow to ripen, but sprout very quickly because of the dampness of the soil and the air."

During the centuries of contact between Britons, Romans, and Roman mercenaries from many regions of Europe, farmers and gardeners no doubt shared garden lore, plants, and techniques. As a result, many new plants appeared in Britain, some no doubt formally introduced by the Romans, and others arriving by other means that may have ranged from merchants to monastery gardeners to returning travelers.

Romans and Romano-Britons constructed a great many farmhouses called villas throughout England, especially in the southeast. In the farmsteads surrounding these homes were a variety of gardens, among them ornamental gardens, kitchen gardens, and medicinal herb gardens. Our knowledge of these gardens increases year by year, thanks to archeologists, and is further augmented by the study of the art and literature of that time.

In the first half of the 20th century, archeological investigation of Roman remains focused almost entirely on structures, and little attention was paid to analyzing land use in  their immediate vicinity.

It wasn't until the 1960s that the remains of what were undeniably Roman gardens were identified, first at Frocester Court, Gloucestershire, and then at Fishbourne, Sussex. These remains give us an idea of the kinds of homes and gardens favored by Romans and Romano-Britons: comfortable living and working complexes that often included a formal garden, laid out geometrically, with a central path or road, and beds of plants arranged on either side.


Model          Model Roman villa

Recreated Roman villas

Frocester Court reconstruction


Model of Fishbourne villa

At Frocester Court, a small villa was excavated to reveal a winged house and its garden. The house was fronted by a spacious veranda that may have looked out over a balustrade onto the beds of plants that paralleled the facade. The house was approached by a central driveway, with prepared garden beds on either side. Beyond the beds to the right was a large, graveled courtyard. Beyond those to the left was an area of unimproved ground which may have been an orchard.

Near Chichester is the palatial villa at Fishbourne, discovered during excavations in the 1960s. It may have been the home of Tiberius Claudius Cogidubnus, British ruler of the tribe known as the Regni, and a supporter of the Romans.

Surrounding this complex of domestic and administrative structures, built in about 70 AD, was a landscaped area of nearly ten acres that included several different kinds of gardens -- ornamental gardens, a kitchen garden, and possibly a "natural" garden.

While Fishbourne yielded little information about the specific plants grown, subsequent archeological exploration at other sites gives us some idea of the plants that were cultivated.



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F.D. Drewitt


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