Have you heard of Henry Lyte? Don’t yawn when I tell you that his main claim to fame is that he published A Niewe Herball in 1578 which was his own meticulous translation of Rembert Dodoens Cruydeboeck of 1554, by way of its French version, Clusius’s Histoire des Plantes of 1557. Probably not top of your bedside reading pile even if it was groundbreaking for its day and you are a garden historian…. BUT… even if you’re not wildly excited by the prospect of reading his book, you can visit his house at Lytes Cary in Somerset which is an unexpectedly atmospheric gem of a house… and you can read an excellent recent novel about him and the garden he created there.
..and of course you can read the rest of this post!
Lets start with his background and the book
Henry was born around 1529 into a gentry family who had lived in the house since at least 1268, their estate taking its name from the nearby river Cary. Lyte became a student at Oxford about 1546 but, like most Tudor gentleman probably didn’t bother to take a degree. According to his son he also studied at Clifford’s Inn. Anthony Wood wrote of him: “After he had spent some years in logic and philosophy, and in other good learning, he travelled into foreign countries, and at length retired to his patrimony, where, by the advantage of a good foundation of literature made in the university and abroad, he became a most excellent scholar in several sorts of learning.” [Athenæ Oxonienses: Vol. 2, 1692, By Anthony à Wood]
Wherever Henry went as a young man, he was back at Lytes Cary running the estate by 1559, and serving as sheriff of Somerset for several years. He was with Elizabeth and the army at Tilbury during the time of the Armada, in command of a militia band from Somerset. And if that wasn’t enough also managed to create a garden, marry 3 times and have at least 13 children.
According to John Aubrey, Henry Lyte ‘had a pretty good collection of plants for that age’. and his garden was well known in its day for having all possible kinds of fruit.
The trees were listed in 1618 by his son, Thomas who was to become famous in his own right. There’s no time to go into that here but look up his story and that of the Lyte Jewel on the British Museum website if you want to know more.
The orchard contained “Apples, 3 skore severall sorts. Pears and Wardens, 44 sorts. Plummes, 15 divers kynds. Grapes, 3 severall sortes. Cherries 1. Walnuts 3. Peaches 1, and The Almond Tree,The Figge tree, The Quines tree, The Barbary tree, The Cornishe berrie, The Philbert trees, The black Bulleis,The Sloe”
Lyte’s first and most important work was his translation of the Cruydeboeck, or herbal, of Rembert Dodoens, originally published in Antwerp, 1554. Dodoens book had been translated into French by Charles L’Ecluse, better known as Clusius, in 1557, and it was Clusius’s version that Lyte used as the basis of his own work. In the days when copyright was unknown and what we would call plagiarism was the norm, Lyte was very honest, and careful to distinguish the original text from his own comments and additions by getting the printer to use a different typeface.
In his dedication to Queen Elizabeth he makes clear that he had written the translation because he wanted to “make my Countreymen partakers of such knowledge, as other learned and wise men in other Countries haue thought meete to be made knowen in the natiue tongues of their commonWeales.”
The herbal uses the same set of woodblock illustrations that were in Clusius’s book. There were 870 of them held by the printer in Antwerp, which is why Lyte’s Herbal was also published there. Most of the illustrations had already been used in earlier herbals by Leonhart Fuchs  and William Turner  with just a few new ones that were commissioned for Dodoens.
Lyte’s working copy of Clusius’s book is in the British Library, with the proud handwritten inscription ‘Henry Lyte taught me to speake English’ on the title page.
It is painstakingly annotated in English and Latin, with additions, corrections and marginalia not only related to the original text, but also to the works of two other great early botanists William Turner and Matthias Lobel. This is unsurprising since he almost certainly knew both of them, as well as most of the other leading herbalists and plantsmen of his day. Dodoens himself also sent Lyte additional material to incorporate into A Niewe Herball. Henry also managed to include some local Somerset references, noting for example, ‘the Cary Bridge Pear’ and ‘the Somerton Pear, an excellent pear, ripe before Kingsdon’s feast’
So why was it special? With the sole exception of William Turner’s Great Herbal no other had ever been produced in English. Almost earlier herbals were in Latin, and all were based on classical authors such as Pliny, Dioscorides and Theophrastus and limited to the plants discussed by them.
William Turner went much further, including many native plants that he had seen growing, but his herbal was not an attempt to be comprehensive. Dodoens tried to list all the plants that he knew – and had heard about – and Lyte added more, thus making the then greatest compilation of known plants in English, and made it available to a new generation of educated people: not just doctors and apothecaries, but anyone interested in plants.
As can be seen from the copy on loan from the BL in the Great Hall, the book was a massive undertaking, running to nearly 800 folio sized pages. In line with the fashion the book carried a printed the commendation – here by William Clowes which ends…
“…but Dodoneus aye shall haue his dewe,
Whose learned skyll hath offered first, this worthy worke to vewe.
And Lyte whose toyle hath not bene light, to dye it in this grayne,
Deserues no light regarde of vs: but thankes and thankes agayne.
And sure I am, all Englishe hartes that lyke of Physickes lore,
Wyll also lyke this Gentleman: and thanke hym muche therefore.”
Other editions, without woodcuts, were published in 1586, 1595, and 1619 and an abridged version appeared in 1606.
The whole first edition of Lyte’s herbal can be found to browse or download at:
And now the book about Henry and his book…..
Lyte’s ‘toyle’ certainly was great, and one sure way of understanding quite how much work was involved is to read The Knot, Jane Borodale’s novel about Henry Lyte. Lyte’s efforts over the translation, and both the lengthy difficulties he encountered & the importance he attached to its completion form a central part of the novel. But interspersed with this are the difficulties he encountered in his private life all of which are based on what little surviving evidence there is. The death of his wife , his remarriage to a woman who was unhappy trapped in the Somerset Levels, the illness and death of children, the legal suits instigated by his step-mother for possession of his estate, are all woven into a gently-paced but impelling narrative. And throughout we glimpse the symbolism and reality of the knot garden and orchard he is planting, often against the advice of his gardener.
Some purportedly historical novels are merely modern novels told in historical costume. This is not one of them. Instead it has a real and unforced sense of the reality of gentry life in rural Tudor England. Borodale is poetic in her language, delicate in her plotting, and slow of pace, but she also manages to incorporate a huge amount of background horticultural lore and more general popular belief. She creates a believable Henry Lyte and in the process makes a convincing case for a claim to his being one of the early fathers of English botany. For more information see:
And finally …. his house and garden. Sadly there is no trace of Henry’s hard-won garden at Lytes Cary, and we should be grateful that any of the house he knew survives at all.
Now listed as Grade 1 the manor house had started life as a medieval hall house, with a chapel known to have been completed in 1348. The Great Hall dates from the mid-15thc and further sections of the building survive from the early 16thc. However By the mid-18thc the family had fallen on hard times and the property was rented out and gradually fell into decay, then partially demolished.By 1835 two complete ranges had gone.
In 1907 Sir Walter Jenner and his wife Flora bought what was left of the property despite the decay and finding the Great Hall being used as a cider store and the Great Parlour full of farm implements.
The Jenners were remarkably sympathetic to the building’s architecture and spirit, and instead of commissioning a rebuild or a ‘modernization’ in a single style they sought to restore and extend the house in a way that might have happened had the Lytes still been there – gradually and organically. This meant leaving most of the core of the house largely untouched, and although they built an extension it was entirely in keeping with the atmosphere of the rest of the property.
They began by creating a grid of rectangular spaces of varying sizes and atmospheres, divided by yew hedges and stone walls, and connected by straight paths. It was very much in the style of Thomas Mawson and Arts and Crafts movement, and in the same spirit that Sir Walter’s brother was creating at Avebury Manor. The gardens are now listed as Grade 2 on Register of Historic Parks and Gardens of special historic interest in England. The plan above is now out of date [although it comes from the latest National Trust guide available] because the garden has now been extended.
Both the Jenner’s children died young and so the house was bequeathed to the National Trust “to commemorate the restoration of Lytes Cary after years of neglect…and to perpetuate the memory of my wife, my daughter and myself, all of whom devoted so much care to that end.” Their ‘modern’ extension is now available as holiday cottage but for 42 years the tenants were Jeremy & Biddy Chittenden who maintained & transformed the garden, and opened it to the public in the 1960s. Their former private gardens have now been added to the rest of the garden and would be to the right of 11 & 12 on the plan shown above.
Mrs Chittenden says: Our experience as tenants of Lytes Cary was a very happy one, as we got on extremely well with the National Trust and enjoyed learning about gardening through our many years there. We learnt a lot through Graham Thomas who became a close friend and I was very influenced by his ideas of “mixed borders” (which was quite a revolutionary idea in the early 60’s) and colour co-coordinating. I enjoyed redesigning the big border in 1996 with Graham’s original plans above my graph paper and a detailed account of how the border had evolved during its 34 years below my graph paper plus a few new ideas of my own which fitted in with the colour coding and general principals held by Graham.
It has completely changed now as its full of annuals which spoil Graham’s original concept which only had shrubs, roses and herbaceous plants in it although I used to fill the odd gap with a cosmos or tobacco plant where it seemed appropriate and fitted in with the colour scheme. But they now have about 50,000 visitors a year so need to keep the garden colourful for the 7 open months so the whole philosophy has changed since my day – I left in 2003.
It is beautifully maintained now, with about 60 volunteers and several trainee gardeners as well as the full time head gardener whereas it was just the gardener and me in my day…!
The front door of the house opens on to a very simple but effective formal approach. The Apostle Garden contains twelve yews planted by the Jenners to line the stone path that crosses the lawn, with a view to what appears to be a circular dovecot [as at Avebury] but which is in fact a water tower. Another set of yews line the wall separating this from the rest of the gardens.
The main border[seen in an earlier photo as well] is 35 m long and backs onto the same wall. Graham Stuart Thomas, the National Trust’s Garden Adviser, designed it in 1965, although it was rethought and replanted in 1996 by the Chittendens in line with his design ideas and colour scheme. Beyond that is a small white garden.
This leads to a raised walk at right angles, which gives views over the orchard, [again as at Avebury] as well as out over the surrounding countryside. At the end of the orchard it takes a right angled turn becoming a Long Walk – a plain grass path between two yew hedges, which run down the side of the orchard. A similar scheme exists at Hidcote.
The orchard itself is crossed diagonally by wide mown paths which meet at a sundial, whilst the fruit trees are underplanted with spring-flowering meadow plants and bulbs. The paths lead under a weeping ash tree which forms a ‘house’ at each corner.
The Long Walk leads in turn to a small Pond Garden, and then either through a hornbeam arch to the Vase garden…or turning back towards th house through the Seat Garden and across the croquet lawn.
The former private sections are reached through a stone archway.
Henry Lyte would probably recognize several features of the surrounding agricultural estate which still shows many traces of its history, with the remains of a deserted medieval village, areas of ridge and furrow, evidence of river manipulation and a field pattern and ecology that owes much to its long history of traditional mixed farming.
He’d probably also like the excellent little tea room and bookshop in the courtyard behind the house!