Shakespeare’s Curious Knotted Garden.
At the beginning of Shakespeare’s early comedy, Love’s Labour’s Lost, Don Adriano de Armado, a fantastical Spaniard, writes an outraged letter to the King of Navarre. Costard, the swain, and Jacquenetta the country wench have been copulating in the King’s own Park!
The Place where? It standeth north-north-east and by east from the west corner of thy curious knotted garden
Later the Princess of France, visiting the King on state business, asks:
Was that the King that spurr’d his horse so hard
Against the steep-uprising of the hill?
I have directed Love’s Labour’s Lost twice, once in Clare College gardens as an undergraduate and once as Artistic Director of the Northcott Theatre in Devon.
Both times I had the feeling that Shakespeare was writing about a real place.
Shakespeare dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to Henry Wriothesley (‘Harry Southampton’ as he liked to be known) the young third Earl of Southampton and Baron of Titchfield. The obvious place to start was his country estate, if it was still there. I phoned the Hampshire Tourist Board:
Yes, the ruins of Titchfield Abbey were still standing, but no, there was no garden. The locals burn an effigy of the third Earl each year because he built a sea-wall which cut off the sea. They also believe that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet at Titchfield – a lot of nonsense of course.
That was enough for me to pack a picnic hamper and persuade my teenage daughter Amy that a Whitsun outing to Titchfield Abbey was worth it.
Secretly I feared we would find a super-market car-park. On the train down to the South Coast we skimmed the tourist bumph:
In 1232, Henry III granted the estate of Titchfield to the Premonstratensions, a French, white robed order of monks. Because ships at that time could sail right round the Isle of Wight and right up to Titchfield Harbour, it became an important embarkation point for France. Henry V stayed there in 1415 before setting off with his army for Agincourt and Henry VI married Margaret of Anjou in the Abbey Church in 1445. On his break with Rome, Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1537 and gave it to Thomas Wriothesley (1505-1550), later first Earl of Southampton, who converted it into a ‘right stately house’ called The Place. The second Earl, his son, a ‘fanatical papist’, was imprisoned in Tower of London for trying to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. The third Earl (1545-1581), his son, also an ardent Catholic in his youth, was patron to several writers, including William Shakespeare. He also was imprisoned for rebelling against the Queen, but freed in the reign of James VI and I. The line died out with the fourth Earl.
The taxi from Fareham swung past the The Mill Pub – built on the remains of an old cornmill – and into the magnificent ruins of the Abbey.
True, there was no garden, but I looked down in amazement at an overgrown, sunken patch of ground, grass waist high, that would have once made a perfect knot garden, that geometrical Tudor creation of interwoven flower beds. A beaten path through a garden led to a picnic table that seemed to be waiting for us.
I climbed into a stunted apple tree and, to my daughter’s embarrassment, declaimed some lines from the play:
Like a demi-God, here sit I in the sky,
And wretched fools’ secrets heedfully o’er-eye.
More sacks to the Mill! O heavens I have my wish
Dumaine transformed: four woodcocks in a dish
‘More sacks to the Mill!’
Could that be the Mill we had just passed in the taxi?
I turned to songs of Spring and Winter that end the play. Could all the people mentioned, Tom, who bears logs into the Hall, Dick, the Shepherd who blows his nail, Marian whose nose looks red and raw and Greasy Joan who keels the pot all be people who once lived and worked in this great household?
I noticed a line in the Spring Song: And Maidens bleach their Summer Smocks. The night before our Titchfield trip, Amy had spilt coffee over her dress. It had spent the night in very non-Tudor bleach. The spirits of the household seemed to be laughing with us.
Not sure if I was in 1590’s or the present, in a garden or a set, in life or in a play, I packed the picnic hamper. As we were leaving, something made me turn round.
There, beyond the garden wall, was the steep up-rising of the hill…
An extract from Love’s Labour’s Found.
If you are new to this blog, start with Shakespeare, Love and Religion
a three part overview of the life and work of Shakespeare, posted earlier.