The Carthusian gardeners at Mount Grace
practice an intensely private, solitary life of prayer, work, and
contemplation. Carthusians live apart not only from the world, but also
from each other. They rarely speak, eat most of their meals alone, and
do not converse during the meals they eat in company. If they meet
accidentally, they are expected to pull their hooded cowls forward to
cover their faces, and to pass without speaking. Once a week at Mount
Grace, the brothers gathered to walk outside the monastery for a few
hours, and during this brief outing we know they were allowed to speak
to one another. Did they talk about their gardens? Share cuttings and
advice? The records don't tell.
About ten hours of every
twenty-four was spent in devotions. The remaining hours were were taken up with
eating, sleeping and working. During the brief time each day that might be given
to leisure, a monk could garden. Within his private garden he planted what he
wished, and archeologists have found that each of the more than twenty private
gardens at Mount Grace had its own layout and uses.
know from medieval records that gardening had long been a well-established
tradition in England. Monks of various orders played an important role,
carrying seeds and plants from monastery to monastery, propagating and
selling plants, developing new varieties, experimenting with new
techniques, and learning all they could about how to use what they grew.
The Carthusians, for example, developed a
healing elixir that is still renowned today, and a cologne that has
been famous for nearly three hundred years. A surprising range of plants
was available to them, and sharing plants by these gardeners was as popular then as now.
The summer of 1994 marked
the first time in more than 450 years that anyone had set seedlings into the
small garden behind the cell at Mount Grace. It is a testament to horticultural
skills of those long-ago gardeners that, had a time-traveling monk accompanied
our walk through the plants of this garden in 1994, he would have felt right at
To travel from the house
to the garden, you pass through the cool shadows of a long, slate-roofed
walkway. This walkway would have sheltered the monk from the elements (no small
kindness in a Yorkshire winter) all the way from the back door of the house to
the cell's privy, tucked up tight against the back priory wall. But on this
sunny June day, we turn from the walkway into the well of sunlight that is the
(Larger ground plan)
The walls of this
are very high and very white in the sunlight, a situation no doubt welcomed by
its gardener, who had to cope with the disadvantages of a garden planted on the
north side of a tallish house.
east-west arm of the L-shaped yard contains a rectangular plot
edged with roofing slates to create a slightly raised bed. This
replanted garden, though tiny and simple, repeats several of the
motifs common to medieval gardens. Its plantings are geometric
and precise, creating symmetrical patterns of color and foliage.
Dwarf boxwood provides the almost architectural edging so
characteristic of medieval gardens. A stone-paved walk surrounds
the bed. In 1994, the
garden was planted with herbs that played a role in the daily rounds of
medieval religious life, and also with those known to flavor
The shorter, north-south
arm of the L is a tiny kerchief of daisy-dotted lawn, a "flowery mead." Standing
at its southern edge is the little cloister of this cell, a shadowy, glassed-in
walkway for quiet meditation.
A life of monastic
simplicity has its appeals, and never more so than when you find yourself in the
stillness of a golden afternoon, secure in a high-walled, sweet-smelling
sanctuary shared only with a fluffy, wide-eyed owlet and a few lazily buzzing
It was, of course, too
good to last. During Christmas week in 1539, under great duress, this little
garden was surrendered with the rest of the priory to the king, as ominous
signs and portents had warned would happen. The
monks, novices, and lay brothers who had made the monastery their home were
given pensions and sent away. Mount Grace was sold to a dealer in monastic
lands; over the next four hundred years it would have a number of owners, one of
whom would turn the southwest range of buildings into a small manor house.
Today, this manor house and its fine terraced front gardens are worth a visit in
themselves. Presented to the National Trust in 1953, Mount Grace is now
beautifully maintained by English Heritage.
Mount Grace Priory
Plants grown at Mt.
A Carthusian elixir