It’s not every day that an exotically multi-syllabled king of ancient Assyria gets mentioned in the context of Brtain’s historic parks and gardens. But I was writing a lecture about early plant hunting and decided to start with evidence from antiquity when I noticed a reference to ancient Assyria and discovered King Tiglath-Pileser I and so, as many times before, idled away a few hours investigating further…
…and in the process discovered that he had something in common with William Robinson the great Irish gardening writer, promoter of the wild and natural garden, and owner of Gravetye Manor in Sussex
You might not know about their shared love now but I hope you will have worked it out by the end of this post!
Tiglath-Pileser I was one of the greatest Assyrian monarchs, ruling from about 1114 to 1046 BC. He did not just conquer many rival states but he also left behind the first set of royal annals to record his achievements. He may have been an aggressive military ruler but he had a soft spot too…….which was ????
Tiglath-Pileser collected trees!
Tiglath-Pileser’s annals were made up of hundreds of clay tablets and one bears the inscription: I took cedar, box-tree, Kanish oak from the lands over which I had gained dominion – such trees which none among previous kings, my forefathers, had ever planted – and I planted them in the orchards of my land. I took rare orchard fruit which is not found in my land (and herewith) filled the orchards of Assyria. (A.K.Grayson, Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles,1976, p. 17).
Later Assyrian kings seem to have carried on the same policy. King Sargon warred with the Hittites and then laid out a park with “all the trees of the Hittite-land”. King Assurnasirapli lists 41 plant species starting with cedar that were collected during his campaigns. King Sennacherib imported olive trees and foreign spice plants and an inscription records his laying out of “A great park, like unto Mount Amanus, wherein were set out all kinds of herbs and fruit trees, — trees, such as grow on the mountains and in Chaldea, I planted by its (the palace’s) side. (D. Luckenbill, Ancient Records of Assyria, 1927, vol.2 p.162).
Trees seem to have had huge symbolic significance to the Assyrians. They were often associated with the gods, and the pine cone – or is it a cedar cone? – just like the figure in the first image in this post is holding- was a sign of purity. Perhaps because of that, trees and timber ranked with gold and silver as amongst the most desirable sought-after booty from war. “Exotic” woods were used to build Assyrian royal palaces and the associated royal gardens seem to have used “exotic”trees to show the geographical extent of their Empire. Of course, removing or felling trees in conquered lands had the added advantage of desertification which meant that recovery of the defeated enemy would take many years.
All a bit removed you might think from the good old English garden. But isn’t what Tigrath-Pileser did just what our empire builders did as well? Don’t many of the trees and plants in our historic parks and gardens also mark successful exploration or conquests?
Its interesting too that the tree that attracted most attention from the Assyrians, was the Cedar of Lebanon which also roused a great deal of interest from empire builders in Britain as well . It was a symbol of the imperial conquest of other lands and was much prized for the quality of its wood which was used for building, including most famously the Tempe of Solomon in Jerusalem. References to it go as far back as the beginning of written script, in the epic of Gilgamesh, in the third millennium BC:
They beheld the cedar mountain, abode of the god,
Throne-seat of Irnini.
From the face of the mountain
The cedars raise aloft their luxuriance.
Good is their shade, full of delight.
Gilgamesh shows the evils that befall you if you wilfully cut down forests: a good moral tale for today as well. If you don’t know about Gilgamesh there’s a short cartoon version at:
Although the cedar of Lebanon was apparently introduced into France at the time of the Second Crusade in the 12th century, surprisingly it does not appear in any western botanical books until a French apothecary, Pierre Belon, published an account of his clandestine journeys around the Eastern Mediterranean and Turkish Empire in 1553.
Cedars of Lebanon did not reach England until almost the mid-17th-century. The oldest one -and still alive today – was probably planted in the late 1630s by Dr Edward Pocock in the garden of his rectory at Childrey in Oxfordshire. In 1630 Pocock went out as the chaplain to the English merchants of the Turkey Company in Aleppo & served there for five years. He learnt Arabic and Hebrew, collected manuscripts and it would appear also seeds of the cedar tree.
His brother was chaplain to the earls of Pembroke and it is probable that seeds were planted in the grounds at Wilton at around the same time, because two trees cut down in Wilton Park in 1874, had 236 rings, suggesting a planting date c.1638.
Pocock either gave away other seeds or more must have come back via other travellers fairly soon after his return. They were soon widely distributed, although it is difficult to be precise about the details because there are several sorts of cedar – and indeed non-cedars such as the ‘Bermuda cedar’ or Juniperus bermudiana– which are referred to, almost interchangeably, by authors. Libanus cedar is discussed by Evelyn in later editions of Sylva, but he also refers to several other varieties and sometimes it is difficult to know which is meant.
After the Civil War cedars were planted everywhere, using seed that had been collected in the Levant. In the 1660s one was planted by Dr Robert Uvedale in Enfield where he was schoolmaster, and others by John Evelyn at Sayes Court, although they were killed by the severe winter of 1684. Another group of 5 are recorded in the catalogue of the new Botanic Gardens in Ediburgh in 1683.
Cedar of Lebanon seeds were included in the catalogue of William Lucas the London seed and plant merchant in 1677, and trees were commercially available from George Ricketts the London nurseryman as early as 1688.
About the same time one was planted at Fulham Palace by Bishop Compton, and four more at Chelsea Physic Garden. It is thought the Chelsea ones were planted as 3ft plants so must been started off several years earlier. One of the Chelsea specimens was the first known cedar in Britain to produce cones – but not until 1732.
Once ‘home-grown’ seed was availble from the mid-18thc no landed estate was complete without its cedars as a quick check on our database confirms. There are 362 mentions for ‘cedar’ there – unsurprisingly really since Lord Burlington planted them at Chiswick as did plant collectors Peter Collinson at his house in Mill Hill, and William Sherard at Eltham. Horace Walpole bought his from Christopher Gray’s nursery in Fulham in 1755 saying “they are the most beautiful of the evergreen race…[but] they are also the dearest; half a guinea apiece in baskets.” The Duke of Richmond planted a thousand five-year old trees at Goodwood and both Capability Brown and Humphry Repton used them extensively. We can get another sense of how widespread the planting of cedars was from John Claudius Loudon. He is his usual encyclopedaic self in Arboretum and Fruitecum  where between pp.2403 and 2432 he covers the detailed botany, history, literary references, and uses of the cedar, and lists dozens of ‘ancient’ cedars with their measurements both in Britain and elsewhere with many small illustrations. If you want to read Loudon’s comments in full you’ll find them at:
There was no let-up in the popularity of cedars during the 19thc. Their biblical associations kept them popular,
They became fashionable subjects in art as well as gardens. Edward Lear drew and sketched them many times when he was in Lebanon in 1858 describing them as ‘very solemn and beautiful’ and the country as ‘wonderfully fine: a kind of of Orientalized Swiss scenery.’ This, of course, ties in with the development of a taste for Alpine and Himalayan buildings, landscapes and planting generally, as well as the growing fascination with ‘Orientalism’. When Lear returned to England in 1860 and wished to do turn his sketches into a large scale oil painting of cedars, he used his on the spot drawings but also moved into the Oatlands Park Hotel where there was an old stand of cedars in the grounds which he used as ‘substitutes’.
Lear was not the only artist who was working on the same subject in the same place. Maria Matthias was in Lebanon too, and Francis Frith the pioneer commercial photographer was also taking and publishing images of the trees both in their native setting and in parkland settings in Britain.
One cedar famously formed the centrepiece of the mausoleum-lined Circle of Lebanon in Highgate Cemetery, whilst Queen Victoria paid for a wall to surround a section of the threatened groves – ‘the Cedars of God’ – on Mount Lebanon itself in 1876.
But I hear you mutter, what has all this got to do with William Robinson?
This extract from The Garden Beautiful: Home Woods, Home Landscape of 1906 should explain:’No trees introduced from other countries equal…our native ones, with the exception of the cedar of Lebanon.’ Like Tiglath-Pileser Robinson loved cedars. He thought them beautiful as specimen trees but, like Tiglath-Pileser he preferred his pleasures en masse…in woodland and forest plantings. That might explain why, like the Assyrian king, Robinson planted them on a grand scale. and gave the final grand flourish to the great British love affair with planting cedars by planting 1,000 of them around the estate at Gravetye in the 1890s. [Hobhouse, Plants in Garden History, pp.238].