There’s nothing like a good view, and if you don’t have one naturally why not create one? Don’t have high ground? No problem – create it artificially.
Although man-made hills are often associated with fortifications – think motte and bailey castle – they became one of the key features of many Tudor and Stuart gardens, offering views down over the often complex designs but equally importantly looking outwards over the surrounding landscape. As Francis Bacon put it in his famous essay On Gardens of 1625: ‘At the End of both the Side Grounds, I would have a Mount of some Pretty Height…to looke abroad into the Fields.’
But mounds and mounts are sometimes more they might at first seem…read on to find out more
The idea of manipulating the landscape to create views is a very old one. The mediaeval royal palace at Clarendon in Wiltshire is probably one of the best researched early sites showing this. Rooms in the palace were clearly aligned to make the most of its situation looking out over the chalk downlands, but there are also deliberately raised terraces built against the walls which were almost certainly designed as viewing platforms. These probably date from the 13th century.
Was it done for entirely aesthetic reasons? Perhaps not because other general building work and particularly the digging of moats or fishponds, cellars or rubbish pits left lots of debris and earth which had to be put somewhere. Terraces built against the walls were one way of using and concealing this at the same time.
But these terraces were not free-standing mounts.
The earliest documentary evidence we have points to the one built for Henry VIII at Hampton Court in 1532 being the oldest known example. Unfortunately despite the fact that it was enormous, it is largely hidden in Wyngaerde’s view of the palace from the 1530s.
Apparently made from more than 250,000 bricks it was topped by a 3 floored banqueting house, the Great Round Arbour, which had the bulbous roof hiding behind other buildings.
It was described by Willem Schellinks, the Dutch artist on a visit in 1662: “One goes through a door up some steps to a very pleasant octagonal summer-house, which stands on a higher level; from which one has a view over the whole garden; in its middle stands a marble table on a pedestal, and its ceiling is painted with a heaven full of cupids. There is nothing but glass windows all around and under them are nicely carved benches. Below this place is a deep vaulted wine cellar.” The sloped sides were planted with shrubs. The mount survived until William III’s redevelopment of the gardens swept it away in 1690.
However Hampton Court now has a potentially much older rival.
There is a free-standing mount, 5m high, in the bailey or courtyard of Whittington Castle, near Oswestry in Shropshire. The Norman castle was originally a border fortress but after Edward I’s conquest of Wales it lost its strategic importance and seems to have become more domesticated with a mention in documentary sources from 1413 of “a garden with a ditch of water around it.”
Until quite recently the mount was thought either to be have been a feature of the castle’s defence system or perhaps like most other known mounts, built later in the 16th or 17th century. However, archeological surveys carried out by English Heritage in 2002 found the complete design of a 14th century enclosed garden preserved under turf in the outer bailey. The geophysics revealed that the mound was surrounded by paths, flower beds and water-filled ditches, and was probably topped by a ‘gloriette’ or summer house. The Director of the site investigation Peter Brown explained: “The lines of paths and rectangular plot-like features of the medieval garden are shown on the survey leading towards the mount. They are not aligned with the rest of the garden area, as might be expected. This garden was clearly meant to be viewed from the top of the mount.”
The conclusion the archaeologists drew is that the mound is probably a very early viewing mount contemporary with the garden, likely, on documentary evidence, to have been in place by 1349. Buzz Busby, English Heritage Archaeologist and Project Officer said: “The survey indicates that the garden at Whittington is unique for its date, both because of the completeness of its survival and its layout. It paints a fascinating new picture of a 14th century garden and is especially important because it may radically alter ideas about medieval garden design. Most of our knowledge has so far come from medieval manuscripts as very few remains of medieval gardens have ever come to light.”
However its tentative dating would make Whittington the oldest known garden mount in Europe by very many years and not everyone is convinced. Tom Turner in his recent masterly British Gardens: History, Philosophy and Design (2013) for one believes it [very politely] to be ‘improbable.’
For more information on Whittington see:
One site where a mediaeval castle motte definitely was converted to ornamental use is at Marlborough in Wiltshire. Known locally as ‘Merlin’s Mount’ where the great Arthurian magician was once supposed to have been buried, John Worldige [Systema Horticulturae 1677] considered it to be ‘the most famous’ of its kind although he did not know whether it was ‘first raised by Art or Nature.’ In fact, archaeological evidence now suggests that the 31m high mound is prehistoric, dating back to c2,400 bc, and was adapted for use as a motte by the Normans from around 1110. The elaborate spiralling effect is part of a late 17thc/early 18thc landscaping scheme. There was a gazebo on top and a flint and stone grotto was cut into the base, which was recorded in a series of illustrations by William Stukeley in 1723 and eventually published in his Itinerarium Curiosum of 1776.
Another ancient site was commandeered at Canterbury. Here it was a Roman burial mound from the 1st or 2nd century against the city wall that was incorporated into a Norman castle. Even though it was soon abandoned the area was still known as Dungeon Hill – or Donjon – until the 18thc. This was corrupted into Dane John giving rise to all sorts of alternative versions of its history in the 18th and 19thc.
In 1790 James Fitzsimmons one of city’s aldermen, took a lease on the site and turned it into gardens. Apart from laying out terrace walks, a formal avenue, and ornamental plantings, part of his improvement scheme was to raise the height of the mound by 4m, creating even more spectacular views over the city.
It became a public park soon afterwards. Read more about Dane John on our database and also on a local history website:
Aldby Park in Yorkshire is the site of an important Saxon fort and in the grounds are two mounds, usually associated with King Edwin the Northumbrian king who converted to Christianity. Bede’s account of this was apparently circumstantial enough to cause Aldby to be venerated as among the most sacred spots in Christian England. For such a theoretically important site there is very little easily available evidence, and there is no reference to this in the English Heritage listing for the site.
However we know much more about Aldby’s later history. The Tudor house was replaced in the early 18thc and the grounds were then was remodelled by Thomas Knowlton who was Lord Burlington’s gardener at Londesbrough. Knowlton’s bill of 1746 shows that he was responsible for laying out the terraces that stretch down the steep bank to the Derwent, for the walk along the top of the bank, and the paths which wind round the Saxon mounds and turned them into viewing platforms looking out over the Derwent valley. For a little more information and the link to English Heritage see our database, but if anyone knows more or has photographs then please get in touch:
One of the most famous mounts in the country is at Dunham Massey in Cheshire. It was long thought that it also the remains of a mediaeval motte: Dunham Castle and that it too was simply later used as a prospect mound.
The mount appears in both a Kip engraving and painting by van Diest of 1697 as a high circular earthwork, set out in concentric steps, each ringed with a hedge or a revetment wall. On top was a small building, presumably a summer house, giving an view over the gardens.
The mount survived the redesign of the park and gardens by the 2nd Earl of Warrington in c.1720-50, and it can be seen on the Harris “bird’s-eye” paintings of 1751. By this time the gazebo had been replaced by an urn on a plinth.
However archaeologists now belive that Dunham Castle was actually on another nearby site, and that the mount at Dunham Massey was deliberately built as a viewing platform in the 17thc.
Whatever its origins the mount is still there as an earthwork surrounded by trees, although it is now a mere 2m high and 24m across, much reduced in height from how it appears in the paintings. For more about this see:
It would not be surprising that the mount at Dunham Massey was a 17thc construction because mounts had begun to become a fairly common garden feature from the mid-16thc onwards. Several sorts gradually developed. Some were conical, others pyramidal and others stepped. Although they could sometimes be climbed by stairs, it was more common for them to be like the one recorded at Wressle Castle by John Leland in his Itinerary (1539): “a mount writen about in degrees like turnings of cokilshells to come to the top without payne.’ This spiralling type, for obvious reasons, would come to be known as a ‘snail mount.’
More about mounts and mounds in the next post………..