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Our Dark Garden

With due deference to everyone who has tweeted, retweeted, donated or sent best wishes to me and my quest for PhD funding, I thought that this blog post should talk about some of the medieval gardens I’ve been researching, and the variety of sources available for such a study.

The earliest contemporary written evidence for the creation of gardens in Wales is to be found in the biography of a twelfth century king, Gruffydd ap Cynan, of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. The Historia Gruffud vab Kenan says:

‘Then he increased all manner of good in Gwynedd, and the inhabitants began to build churches in every direction therein, and to plant the old woods and to make orchards and gardens, and surround them with walls and ditches, and to construct walled buildings, and to support themselves from the fruit of the earth after the fashion of the Romans’.

Some evidence for this reorganisation and improvement of Gwynedd has been identified, most recently by David Longley, and his research into the medieval landscape of the island of Anglesey. However, there are problems which mean that further work is still needed.

Archaeological excavations of medieval high status sites in Wales have tended to be small in scale, and to date very few high-status Llys (Royal Court) sites have been excavated. Exacerbating this is the fact that only some of the Llys site locations are known, as they fell out of use during the fourteenth century because they were no longer needed by the new administration.

The Edwardian castle at Rhuddlan (Latitude 53.288595; Longitude -3.463749) serves to highlight some of the issues which I have encountered during my research.

This castle was constructed from 1277 onwards to replace an earlier motte and bailey castle on a nearby site to the south, which in turn replaced a Llys, the location of which is most probably under the motte and bailey earthworks.

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Crown Copyright DI2010_1781
The motte and bailey castle is in the trees to the right of the image.

Edward I, as part of the provision for his wife, Eleanor of Castile, and her household, had constructed for her a garden within the castle precinct between July 1282 and March 1284. The location for this has been suggested as within the inner courtyard of the castle, where it would have been overlooked by the Royal apartments.

The documentation states that encircling the head of the castle well (which had a boarded roof), a little fishpond lined with four cartloads of clay brought from the nearby Rhuddlan marsh was created and set around with seats. The adjacent courtyard was laid with 6000 turves and the lawn fenced with the staves of discarded casks.

Rhuddlan Castle was taken into state care in the twentieth century and following World War II conservation works were carried out. As part of the conservation works the moat was emptied:

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Excavation of the moat in 1949.

Unfortunately I have not been able to find any archaeological documentation to accompany the photographs taken, meaning any environmental evidence, including medieval plants, which may have existed within the moat has now been lost. In addition, there has been no programme of survey or excavation within the inner courtyard of castle, meaning that the location of the garden and fishpond is not conclusively identified.

During my research, I re-examined the historical sources, and found mention of a second garden at Rhuddlan Castle in 1285. This was described as a herber (a pleasure garden) opposite the north gate of the castle, and significantly, outside of the castle precinct. Fieldwork I undertook earlier this year suggests that this herber lay within the ditch to the north of the castle and may well have been accessible from the River Clwyd immediately to the west. The location of the herber is at the bottom left of the first photograph under the trees.

Further research of sites such as the Edwardian Castle of Rhuddlan will revolve around planning the best recording strategies for these two garden locations, whether that is deemed to be survey or excavation. Given that there is in close proximity an earlier motte and bailey and a Llys site, both of which are likely to have gardens of one form or another associated with them, there is exceptional potential for understanding the change and development of Royal gardening taste of both English and Welsh Royalty during the medieval period.

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‘To Begin at the Beginning’…or ‘Has Anyone Seen That Confounded Bridge?’

Lines from Dylan Thomas ‘Under Milk Wood’ and Led Zeppelin ‘The Crunge’. Which probably seem to be an odd way to start a blog on Medieval Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes. However, in their own way, they have led to this blog being written. So, I thought I’d attempt to explain why I feel I should blog on this topic (although I am sure other topics will find a place at some point).

My name is Spencer Gavin Smith and I currently work as an archaeologist in the contracts section of the Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, who are based in Bangor, North West Wales.

My blog will be about the research I have been carrying out for my PhD thesis entitled ‘Parks, Gardens and Designed Landscapes of Medieval North Wales and North West Shropshire’. As it is still a work in progress, the blog will highlight why I’m carrying out the research, and how the disciplines of Archaeology, History, Literature and Art all entwine to make this topic so interesting to study.

I’m from the town of Wrexham in North East Wales, (Latitude 53.045083; Longitude -2.9931521). I went to both Welsh Language Primary and Secondary Schools, so I’m comfortable using either language. I chose to read Heritage Conservation at Bournemouth University for my Undergraduate Degree, and during my second year, I was, like most other students at that time of their University lives, casting around for a dissertation.

One day, I was in the University Bookshop and I saw a paperback entitled ‘The Revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr’, written by someone called R.R. Davies. I’d not done history at GCSE, and at A Level the curriculum I studied covered the 19th and 20th centuries. I was aware of Owain Glyn Dŵr – what school child, and especially one in North East Wales where he came from, couldn’t fail to have heard of him. But beyond a few basic facts I didn’t really know very much at all.

So I bought the book.

And within a few pages I was hooked. Not by any inherent nationalism fuelled by being in a University on the south coast of England but by the beautiful way the book was written. I ‘understood’ for the first time how history can be brought to life by the deft touch of someone who has a mastery of the sources at their fingertips. I curated that book – it became something I involved and devoted my time to in order to try and gain some understanding of a world which occupied the same space as I had growing up, but a very different time.

But, I found there was a problem with the book, and one I wanted to solve.  

Within the chapter on Owain Glyn Dŵr was a small section which dealt with his house, known as Sycharth (which probably translates as Sych ‘Dry’ and (g)arth ‘Courtyard’). According to R.R. Davies there was a contemporary poem which described the house and its surroundings, and the photograph of Sycharth published in the book showed that the site was still there and had not been built upon. In addition to the poem, in 1966 an archaeological excavation report had been published about work on the site.

Which all left me confused. If the poem described the site, and archaeologists had excavated there, why had R.R. Davies written so little?

I had my dissertation topic. Now to start on the research.