Would you expect to find a large red dragon in a garden in Bexley? Or a griffin lurking behind a hedge at a castle near Cardiff? To say nothing of a dolphin on a staircase in Kensington or an English leopard in a French camping site? Probably not: but then again, perhaps you’re not an aficionado of Tudor garden ornaments and especially Tudor heraldic beasts.
Having decided to write a post about them I made a mental list of the ones that I knew about – Hampton Court, Kew and the V&A but then I began to run out of steam, so I did what we all do and “googled”. And got a bit of a shock, because I found photos of a set of royal beasts at Hall Place in Bexley in south-east London. I’ve lived in London for 35 years but there are still parts of it I have never even visited and being a north Londoner my knowledge of south of the river is limited. All I knew of Bexley, for example, was what I could see from the main road down to the Channel Tunnel but I’ve been missing out as I discovered when I went to see the beasts for myself.
Hall Place is a C-shaped Tudor mansion on the banks of the river Cray that was built for Sir John Champney, one time Lord Mayor of London,and then enlarged in the 17thc.
Now owned by Bexley Heritage Trust, it has 65 hectares of landscaped gardens and grounds, with many splendid specimen trees. 18thc walls enclose the north garden, with ornate iron gates attributed to Thomas Robinson. Elsewhere there are a herb garden, tropical garden and long herbaceous borders, as well as model gardens and ….a topiary lawn.
Here, the last private tenant, Lady Limerick, planted a series of yews shaped into chess pieces, and later in 1953, to celebrate the coronation more yews were planted and have been clipped into topiary versions of the Queen’s Beasts. These days their resemblance to their heraldic namesakes is perhaps a little hazy but they are still impressively playful.
For more information about Hall Place see our database, or those of the London Parks & Gardens Trust and the Bexley Heritage Trust:
I’m sure Sir John Champney would be delighted to see them gracing his lawns, especially as he would almost certainly have seen some of their early predecessors at royal palaces in and around London.
The use of creatures, both real and mythical, as emblems of royal and aristocratic families, has a long tradition in heraldry, but the Tudors took the process one stage further. As a new dynasty trying to assert and entrench their claims to the English throne they deliberately used the mental associations of particular beasts in the ‘public imagination’ to link themselves to previous ruling families. And they did it in quite striking ways.
When Henry VII rebuilt the palace of Richmond after a fire in 1497 it became a spectacular showpiece and was used for the wedding celebrations of Prince Arthur, the elder brother of Henry VIII, to Katherine of Aragon. A witness reported: “There were under the King’s windows…most fair and pleasant gardens, with royal knots alleged and herbed; many a marvellous beast, as lyons, dragons and others such divers kynde, properly fashioned and carved in the ground, right well sanded and compassed in with lead, with many vines, seeds and strange fruit, right goodly well beset, kept and nourished, with much labour and diligence.” [A manuscript in the College of Arms, transcribed in the The Antiquarian Repertory, by Francis Grose and Thomas Astle, 1804, vol.2 p.316]
That sounds like elaborately edged flower beds laid out in the shape of animals. But elsewhere the same source says that there were pageants involving “a castle, right cunyngly devysed, sett uppon ceratin whelys and drawn…[by] iiii great bestis wth chaines of gold; two of the first bestis were lyons…oon of the other was an harte…and the secunde of the same was an ibex..[and in each] were ii men, oone in the fore and another in the hynde parte secretly hide and apparelled, no thing scene but their leggs”. There were also “great lyons and dragons and grehounds of leed paynted”.
Lions were a traditional symbol of the crown, dragons a symbol for Wales and the greyhound was a family badge for the Tudors, who were, of course, a Welsh family. The hart had been the badge of Richard II, and the ibex or antelope one of the emblems of Henry V.
Meanwhile in Westminster a bridge was set up to allow the royal couple to enter their barge. It was “made of tymbre, bestet with goodly posts, with lyons and dragons and other beats and fygures empaynted, carven and gilte, sett uppon their hightes and toppis.”
Stephen Hawes, a court official and poet, who would have known Richmond palace well wrote The history of graund Amoure and la bel Pucel, called the Pastime of pleasure in 1509. In it he describes a mythical palace with a “fayre tower…Gargeyld with greyhoundes, & with many lyons Made of fyne golde, with diuers sundry dragons” and the garden glorious…
With Flora painted, and wrought curiously
In diuers knottes, of marueylous greatnes
Rampande Lyons, stode vp wonderfly,
Made all of herbes, with dulcet swetenes
With many dragons, of marueylous likenes
Of diuers floures, made full craftely
By Flora couloured, with colours sundrye
Henry VIII’s grand new palace at Nonsuch was absolutely covered in heraldic beasts, and the gardens too were full of more of them on painted columns.
But the best known surviving representation of royal beasts in a Tudor garden is in the famous Holbein portrait of Henry and his family.
In the background on either side,can be seen glimpses of what is thought to be the Privy Gardens of Whitehall palace. Behind the servants are columns carrying royal beasts. Also notice the garden beds, edged with timber and painted in the Tudor family colours of green and white.
The gardens of Henry’s palaces of both Hampton Court and Whitehall can also be seen in sketches by Anthonis van Wyngaerde a Flemish artist who visited London in the mid-century. At Whitehall the royal beasts were set round a fountain in the Privy Garden, and 31 of them are recorded on an inventory carried out during Elizabeth’s reign.
There were a much large number at Hampton Court. Although the only easily available digital image is a little indistinct, the columns [if not the actual beasts] can seen in the middle distance.
Their existence can be confirmed by the surviving accounts: “Harry Corantt of Kyngston, carver” was paid for “makyng and entayllyng of 38 of the Kynges and the quenys Beestes, in freeston, barying shyldes wythe the Kynges armes and the Quenys ; that ys to say, fowre dragownes, seyx lyones, fyve grewhoundes”. He was also paid for “fyve harttes, foure Innycornes, servyng to stand abowght the ponddes in the pond yerd at 26s. the pece …[and]…a lyonand grey-hound in freestoon, that is to say, the lyon barying a vane with the Kynges armes”, together with “the pyllers of freestoon that the beastestandyth uppon”
Woodworker “Mych. of Hayles, kerver” was paid “20s. the pece by convencyon” for “couttyng, makyng and karvyng of 16 of the Kynges and the Ouenys beestes in tymber, standyng abowght the Mownte in the Kynges new garden, the Kyng fyndyng stuff thereto.”
These were all meticulously painted, as the accounts show: ” for payntyng of 30 stoon bests standyng uppon bases abowghtt the pondes in the pond yerd, for workmanship, oyle and covers, at 12d, the pece.”
Until recently it was thought that none of the originals have survived but “back in the Eighties, working on a refit at a pub in suburban Surrey, builder Andy Delahunty was alerted by the clang of sledgehammer on stone. He found the pub manager attending personally to the demolition of a pair of 4ft high stone lions that were too heavy to get into the skip” Luckily he persuaded the manager to let him have them. When he moved to France a few years later and opened a campsite the lions were put on display in the bar. However he wondered if they were of any historical interest and sent photos to friends, one of whom was Ralph Hyde, former Keeper of Prints and Maps at the Guildhall Library, London who in turn consulted John Goodall, of The Society of Antiquaries and eventually Todd Longstaffe-Gowan.
This was serendipitous because Longstaffe-Gowan was working with Historic Royal Palaces to recreate a small Tudor garden, complete with elaborately carved and brightly painted royal beasts in Chapel Court at Hampton Court.
The final outcome was that these figures were not lions but a matching pair of ‘leopards of England’, made from Taynton stone, from Oxfordshire, which is very hard and was commonly used by all Henry VIII’s stonemasons. They have now been returned to Hampton Court, and now stand in the refurbished State Apartments. (For the full story by Joanna Fortnam, see the Daily Telegraph, 11 Sept 2009)
There is an account of the Chapel Court garden by Todd Longstaffe-Gowan on Youtube.
and another by Patrick Baty, the historic paint expert, who worked on the project.
It was not just the royal family who used heraldic beasts in this way. So did every leading elite family. In the recreation of Robert Dudley’s magnificent Italianate garden at Kenilworth by English Heritage, his heraldic badge – the bear and ragged staff – is prominent on the terraces overlooking the garden.
However, the only original surviving set also come from an aristocratic family – the Dacres of Naworth Castle in Cumbria. The four beasts – a gryphon, a ram, a dolphin and a red bull were made in the early 1500s but presumably brought into the house from the garden before they rotted away, and they now stand rather grandly, if somewhat unexpectedly, on a staircase at the V&A. More information can be found at:
Imagery and emblematic associations became much more personalised in the reign of Elizabeth I, and so sadly the use of royal beasts declined, but interest did revive later and I’ll look at more modern royal beasts in the next post.