Godolphin: a Great Garden of 1580?

by Steven Desmond

Those who love mysteriously enigmatic places are well satisfied with a visit to Godolphin, when they eventually find it. It suits the lover of quiet remoteness. The approach down a winding lane overhung with the branches of big mossy trees, the series of intimate granite-walled enclosures, the looming power of Godolphin Hill all contribute to the sense of ancient history uncompromised by the trappings of mass tourism.

One of the many mysteries of Godolphin is the great roughly-rectangular enclosure next to the house. The part nearest the house, the Side Garden, is cultivated as a garden. The rest is a grass field: the Garden Paddock. The whole compartment is framed in a sort of Cornish hedge with sycamores more or less evenly spaced along the top,[1] rather like a rustic colonnade, and slopes markedly from south to north, being part of the lower reach of Godolphin Hill.

Looked at on a plan, one thing immediately strikes the viewer: the whole compartment is placed at an odd angle to the house. This has the effect of leaving a wedge-shaped space between the northern edge of the Side Garden and the entrance front of the house. Why would anyone do that? It doesn’t seem to fit the pattern of any tradition of garden design that I can think of. Perhaps there is more to this than meets the eye.

Godolphin’s history has been investigated a great deal in recent years, so we can turn to the findings of its researchers in search of answers. Among the many, John Schofield and Peter Herring have generated a mass of fascinating information regarding the site, its owners and the chronology of development. We can say with reasonable confidence that the Godolghan (later Godolphin) family were here from the 13th century to the end of the 18th, for example. This information immediately attracts the researcher’s attention, because it suggests the survival of a body of documentary evidence which can be compared with the modern layout to generate answers to some of our questions.

Imagine how hope turns to sober reflection, therefore, when we discover that the earliest surviving plan showing the house with the Side Garden and Garden Paddock dates from 1786,[2] and that even that is a copy of a lost original. Although this document is well conserved in the Cornwall County Record Office at Truro, it isn’t easy to track down, as it is not in the Godolphin estate records but in those of the St Aubyn family of St Michael’s Mount. We don’t know why they got a copy, but it is as well they did in the present circumstances.

Whenever I see a document like this, two sensations come over me. The first is the feeling of pleasure as the plan is placed on the table in front of me. Requesting documents can be a hit-and-miss affair, as you never really know what it will really be like until it arrives (and if its condition is delicate it may not arrive at all), so when a thing of beauty like this is unrolled there is a powerful sense of revelation: now we’re getting somewhere. The Godolphin plan of 1786 is a moderate-sized sheet of parchment, skilfully repaired around the margins. It looks accurately surveyed, and is finished in colour.

The second sensation is one of caution, verging on suspicion. This is rooted in experience. Why was this document drawn up? Measured surveys are expensive, and not done on a whim. Plans like this are often a response to a significant change of circumstance, such as a new owner, a marriage, or an inheritance. So it appears with this one. The Godolphin male line faltered and finally failed in the 18th century, so that in the absence of a male heir, Frances Godolphin married the Duke of Leeds in 1785. I would expect that the new owner would despatch his steward with a team of bean-counters to assess the extent, condition and value of his new property and report accordingly. The best way of doing this is to walk the land, make a survey, draw a plan and compile a companion report in book form which states, for each numbered compartment, the land use and cash value. Copies of these documents are made, with varying degrees of accuracy, for interested parties. It seems straightforward that this document is part of that process. Was there once an accompanying explanatory report book? Perhaps. We cannot know. It may survive: we haven’t found it yet, but it may turn up in the future. It is rather in the nature of this kind of investigation that the vital piece of evidence turns up the day after the conclusions are published.

Detail of the 1786 survey plan showing the house and Great Garden at Godolphin see Journal cover for the plan in colour (Reproduced by kind permission of the Cornwall County Record Office, Truro) (Photograph: author, 2008

Detail of the 1786 survey plan showing the house and Great Garden at Godolphin see Journal cover for the plan in colour (Reproduced by kind permission of the Cornwall County Record Office, Truro – Photograph: author, 2008)

Having hedged ourselves round with these caveats, let us now consider what the document reveals. Gratifyingly, it shows a roughly rectangular compartment east of the house neatly corresponding with what we find on the ground today. This compartment projects into the deer park, and appears to be subdivided, rather unevenly, into nine smaller rectangular units. The artist has overlaid this grid pattern with a pattern of lines and symbols in various shapes and colours. The modern eye and brain immediately and inevitably start to interpret these images: this looks like a pond, that might be a hedge, perhaps this is a path, what if that were a circle of trees. How accurate are these interpretations? We cannot know. There is no key on the plan. If there was an accompanying explanatory document the report book I mentioned earlier no one knows where it is. We have, therefore, to accept that our interpretation is intelligent guesswork. This isn’t as hopeless as it sounds, because it is based on experience of similar documents elsewhere, and there is a long tradition in plan-drawing of colouring paths brown, vegetation green, buildings red and water blue (see any modern Ordnance Survey map), but nonetheless it is impossible to say with real conviction that a green line represents a hedge. The green line is evidence. Seeing it as a hedge is conjecture.

Having seen this important document, the researcher inevitably wonders if there are any others. A tithe map of the parish, around 1840, would be bound to show a feature of this scale, and the accompanying report, the arcanely named Tithe Apportionment, would tell us, in simple terms, the land use. In fact the relevant tithe map, for the parish of Breage[3] (the family monuments are in Breage church, curiously stuffed underneath the organ), is in too delicate a state to be handled in the search room, so it has to be viewed as a microfiche. This reveals a skeletal survey with minimal information, taking us little further forward, but at least helpfully corresponding with the 1786 plan. Oh for a tithe map showing the level of detail at nearby Trengwainton, in which the rows of crops are shown in the kitchen garden.

So we come back to the 1786 plan as a primary document. It shows the disjointed relationship between house and garden. How to explain this? It has been plausibly suggested that this is the result of the garden compartment occupying the ancient field-pattern, whereas the house and its outbuildings were rebuilt in the late 15th century on a north-south axis. This would explain the anomaly. Why, then, was this big garden space not realigned as part of that major exercise? We do not know. It has again been suggested that the older pattern was powerfully significant and that the garden was extended into it. Plausible, but unconventional. In truth, since there is no evidence of this process, we do not know.

Let us now return to the grid of nine within the large compartment. The plan clearly shows this distinctive pattern. It is not neatly regular by any means the individual units vary in size and shape. What might this signify? Given that the plan is dated 1786, could it be a Georgian kitchen garden? This is a superficially tempting idea, but frankly this layout does not resemble any such garden known to me. And if we walk through the garden as it is today, we immediately see that the rectangles are individually terraced, in a way which again is quite unlike the character of an 18th-century kitchen garden.

It does, however, resemble the ornamental gardens laid out in the late 16th century at several prominent country houses in other parts of England. The most famous of these was Theobalds in Hertfordshire, where a rectangular garden subdivided into nine rectangular units was laid out for Lord Burghley, Elizabeth I’s chief adviser, in around 1570. This garden lay to one side of the house, directly next to it but not on the axial route into the house through the entrance court. The garden projected into the park. There was another, smaller garden at Theobalds, in a separate position. To use the language of the time, the large, nine-square garden was the Great Garden, where distinguished guests were entertained, while the smaller garden was the Privy Garden, a private space for the use of the owner and his nearest and dearest.

Soon after the completion of Theobalds, other, similar examples were laid out. Sir Henry Cheney, an upwardly-mobile landowner, built himself a prodigy house at Toddington in Bedfordshire in around 1570. A plan in the British Library[4] shows an arrangement strikingly similar to Theobalds: an axial approach to the house through an entrance court, with the Great Garden (it is named as such on the plan) set off on one side, though aligned with the footprint of the house, and projecting into the park. Sir Henry’s intention in building and planting all this extravaganza seems to have been to attract the presence of Elizabeth I on her Progress, and thus secure his social advancement. He succeeded, but at ruinous cost.

The nine-square grid can also be seen on a plan of 1580[5] showing the garden at Holdenby in Northamptonshire, though it is not placed in the same approach sequence as at Theobalds and Toddington. This garden was made around 1580 for Sir Christopher Hatton, again in the hope of attracting Elizabeth I on a Progress. In this case the bid was not successful. It may be significant that all three layouts proved hugely expensive, and that all three are now long since lost, or at best relict.

The arrangement of a Great Garden placed on one side of the house can be found at several, perhaps many, 16th-century houses. Hardwick in Derbyshire (1590s) and Montacute in Somerset (c.1600) show the same relationship of axial courtyards and garden to one side. I think it is very likely that if a survey of such layouts were undertaken, we might find many more from the last quarter of the 16th century: in the summer of 2009 I happened to call in at Llanfihangel Court in Monmouthshire and found the same format relict on the ground and clearly shown on a painting in the house. This suggests that corroborative evidence is there, waiting to be recognised.

Where did this pattern come from? Ultimately from Italy, where the relationship of a geometric garden related to the footprint of the house was established as part of the Renaissance. Surviving examples of this kind of giardino grande include the famous Villa Lante at Bagnaia, near Viterbo, where the lowest part of the garden is subdivided into rectangular units separated by walks, with a fountain at the centre. This garden dates from around 1560. A short drive away, the giardino grande at the Castello Ruspoli in the little village of Vignanello is a regular pattern of rectangular units, each framed with a chest-high hedge with a gap halfway along each long side, enclosing a low pattern of box geometry. The units are separated by broad walks, and there is a water feature in the centre of the garden. This garden was made as late as 1610. Are these, then, late survivors of a 15th-century pattern? It is interesting to see the similarity between these revered Italian gardens and their English contemporaries at this time.

If we accept that these ideas came originally from Italy, how did they get to England? Probably not directly, but we know that from the beginning of the 16th-century French monarchs and nobles were physically bringing Renaissance ideas over the Alps in the form of Pinturicchio, Leonardo, Serlio and Cellini among many other artists. Grands jardins in the Italian manner were laid out to the designs of Italian masters and even maintained by Italian gardeners in the first half of the 16th century, with one significant difference: where the Italian prototypes had been formed as an interrelated unit of house with garden, French landowners tended to add these new gardens on to their asymmetric châteaux, so that there is typically an awkward, non-axial relationship between house and garden. Is it possible, then, that these ultimately Italian ideas came to England in the second half of the 16th century via France, and that the placing of the Great Garden on one side of the house is derived from having seen French examples? There is a logical chronology of ideas here, and no shortage of supporting examples, but we are unlikely to find decisive evidence that could prove the case.

View south across the present Side Garden at Godolphin, showing the terracing of alleys and quarters running up to the shelterbelt of sycamore which separates the garden from the park (Photograph: author, 2009)

View south across the present Side Garden at Godolphin, showing the terracing of alleys and quarters running up to the shelterbelt of sycamore which separates the garden from the park (Photograph: author, 2009)

All this suggests to me that the Side Garden and Garden Paddock at Godolphin are the decayed but essentially intact relic of an Elizabethan Great Garden, placed on one side of an axial approach through an entrance courtyard, divided into nine terraced quarters separated by alleys, and that this type of layout is modelled on the then-famous example at Theobalds, itself ultimately derived from continental models. If this is the case, it may be significant that Sir Francis Godolphin was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1580. This might be the motive for a blowout extravaganza garden in the latest style, as a sign of his elevation to the elite. Sir Francis was a prominent figure at court, and two of his sons worked for Lord Burghley, the owner of Theobalds. What is more, Sir Francis was very rich as a result of his go-ahead mining enterprises on the Godolphin estate. He could launch out on this great emulative garden without fear of the draining presence of Elizabeth and her gluttonous entourage, since monarchs are about as likely to visit Cornwall as the north of England.

The north-western quarter of the garden, nearest the entrance courtyard, retains the topography of an Elizabethan ornamental garden. It is a more-or-less level rectangle, somewhat longer than it is broad, broken in the middle by a cross-walk. It is framed on three sides by raised alleys, two of which fit the description of gardens in Gervase Markham’s English Husbandman[6] of 1613: about 18 to 20 feet wide. The end which has no raised alley drifts off into that awkward wedge of land between house and garden. Could it have been closed in with a gallery, overlooking this quarter, on the same level as the raised alleys and blocking off the unseemly view of the end of the house at its unsatisfactory angle? Such a feature would have been very fashionable in 1580.

But now we have come a long way from our earlier academic rigour, and we begin to wander off into the pleasant pipedream world of the might-have-been and the can’t-be-known. No one proposes to return the garden at Godolphin to a reconstructed Elizabethan garden wonderland. Those who want to see that sort of thing can view the English Heritage approach at  Kenilworth Castle, where Robert Dudley’s garden of 1575 for the visit of

Elizabeth I has been exhaustively (and conjecturally) reconstructed, right under the ruined windows of her Great Chamber. Endlessly fascinating and lovely, and provocatively bristling with controversy, this garden replaces the one made by the same organisation in the 1970s and now quite rubbed away.

View from the terrace of the reconstructed garden at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire (Photograph: author, 2009

View from the terrace of the reconstructed garden at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire (Photograph: author, 2009

I began by talking about the attractive mystery of the site at Godolphin. Part of the charm is that the visitor can walk through the garden imagining how it might have been. A gallery here, perhaps? Painted rails, sanded alleys, heraldic dolphins? Quite likely, but we shall probably never know, whereas people will always have imaginations. And what about the idea that there is a medieval garden underneath it all? That’s another question to which we do not know the answer. We may never know. That is an important ingredient of the mystery .

Steven Desmond is an independent landscape consultant specialising in the conservation of historic parks and gardens in Britain and Europe. His time is now divided between advisory work on historic gardens for clients such as the National Trust, lecturing for a range of organisations including the Universities of Bristol and Oxford as well as NADFAS, and leading specialist tours of historic houses and gardens in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany and Italy. He broadcasts on his subject for BBC Radio 4 and writes for Country Life. He is a Fellow of the Institute of Horticulture and a Professional Associate of the Royal Horticultural Society.


[1]The tops of these walls may have been intended as promenades. The sycamores may be planted or self-set. We do not know the answers to these questions.

[2] Cornwall County Record Office, Truro. St Aubyn archives of St Michael’s Mount, ref. RH/1/2936

[3] Cornwall County Record Office, Truro. Tithe map for the parish of Breage

[4] British Library, London. Ref. Add. MS 38065FH

[5] Northamptonshire Record Office, Northampton. Ralph Treswell’s map of Holdenby, 1580

[6] Gervase Markham, The English Husbandman, London 1613. Markham includes recommendations for laying out just such a garden, with a closely-argued case for alleys 18 feet wide, consisting of a 6-foot sand path flanked by matching strips of turf.