Sudeley Castle stands in a wide Cotswold valley, near the town of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, and the mellow golden castle is surrounded by green parkland, with richly wooded hills rising beyond. The situation is breathtaking, and the ancient castle and its gardens are a feast for any garden lover. It is in parts a living castle, in parts a romantic ruin, succeeding in bringing together both its history and its present. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn came in 1535, and Queen Elizabeth I visited several times. When the Queen arrived on 9 September 1592, she was greeted by ‘an olde Shepheard’ who gave her a lock of white wool representing her as the Virgin Queen, and symbolising the wool trade which was the principal strength of the Cotswold economy for centuries.
Today the gardens re-present their Tudor heritage, combining the old and the new in a sympathetic style reflective of a truly grand past age. Sudeley Castle was one of Gloucestershire’s most splendid medieval buildings. It was held by Ralph Boteler, created baron of Sudeley, from 1398 until 1469. He built the new castle on the site of an earlier manor house, and the plan of his buildings largely survives, though most of the inner courtyard, which contained the most important fifteenth century architecture, has disappeared or is now in ruins. Boteler sold the castle to King Edward IV in 1469 and it remained with the Crown for over eighty years. Edward IV first granted it to his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later Richard III, who upgraded the accommodation to a royal standard in the 1470s with new apartments of state, including the Presence Chamber, which survives as a ruin today. In 1547 Edward VI granted Sudeley to his uncle Thomas Seymour, at the same time creating him Lord Seymour of Sudeley. Seymour had secretly married Queen Katherine Parr, sixth and last wife of Henry VIII, shortly after the King’s death in 1547.
The Seymours moved into Sudeley , and Katherine, who was already pregnant, had a baby daughter there. Six days later, on 5 September 1548, Katherine died and was buried in the church, with the ten year old Lady Jane Grey officiating as chief mourner. After Katherine’s death, Seymour began to pay court to the Princesses, first Elizabeth and then Mary, and attempted to get the young King Edward into his power. He was imprisoned in the Tower in 1549 and executed, and Sudeley reverted to the Crown. In 1554 Queen Mary granted the castle to Sir John Brydges, who was created Lord Chandos of Sudeley. Sir John died in 1557, and was succeeded by his son Edmund. He undertook extensive re-modelling of the outer court with ground floor lodgings and a long gallery and guest suites above, and it is substantially his house which survives today. The date 1572 is recorded on a small window on the South West stair tower. During the Civil War in September 1643, Charles I briefly made Sudeley his headquarters. In July 1644 it was attacked by Parliamentary troops, and after suffering a bombardment was surrendered. Then in 1649 the Council of State gave orders that it was to be slighted.
The derelict castle then remained in the Chandos family until 1837, when it was sold to John and William Dent of Worcester. Much of the stone had been removed and used for building in the neighbourhood. Sudeley Castle as it stands today was re-built between 1837 and 1840 by the new owners in the spirit of the Romantic revival. Walking around the gardens, a visitor encounters first the Tithe Barn Garden. Here hollyhocks, foxgloves and wild roses are planted around the ruins of the fifteenth century Tithe Barn, and these flowers were frequently planted in Elizabethan gardens. The Wild Rose, or ‘Sweet Brier’ was grown for its attractive flowers and fruit. In front of the barn is a carp pond, which reflects the image of the castle across the lawns. Next to the Dungeon Tower is a mulberry tree planted by Emma Dent in 1865, although mulberries were frequently grown in the Elizabethan period. Beneath the mulberry tree are planted yellow and orange Crown Imperials (Fritillaria Imperialis).
These were introduced to England in the Elizabethan period, and John Gerard wrote that ‘this plant likewise hath been brought from Constantinople amongst other bulbous roots, and made denizens in our London gardens, whereof I have great plenty’. Primroses were grown in Elizabethan gardens, and were admired for their beauty, especially the garden double primrose, and they were also used for medicinal purposes. The leaves and flowers were boiled with rose and Betony water, with some sugar, pepper, salt and butter, then strained and given as a drink for cure of the ‘phrensie’. The roots were crushed and the juice sniffed to ease the pain of migraine.
In the inner courtyard, the ruins of the Banqueting Hall rise dramatically and the gothic windows above, once belonging to the castle’s grandest apartment, are now silhouettes against the sky. Roses and clematis are draped romantically and old sycamore trees surround this once fine building. Hidden within the inner courtyard is the Knot Garden. Planted in 1995, its design reflects the pattern on a dress worn by Queen Elizabeth I in a portrait which hangs in the castle. Elizabethan knot gardens were intricately designed, and usually close to the house, so that the pattern could be viewed from the windows of the apartments on the upper floor. This one uses 1200 box hedges infilled with coloured gravel. A Moorish fountain at the centre and pots of Egyptian papyrus give it a modern, eastern touch. The restoration of the slightly sunken Queen’s Garden was begun by the Dents in 1859, based on advice by W.A. Nesfield. Sited on the original Tudor parterre and enclosed to the east and south by a balustraded terrace, it has since been replanted to a design by Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall.
Double rows of yew hedges were planted around the garden in the 1860s, and are now mature, creating an enclosed space, just as the Tudor garden would have been enclosed with walls and arbours. The garden takes its name from the three queens, Katherine Parr, Elizabeth I, and Lady Jane Grey, who would have walked there. The Queens’ garden is a beautiful showcase for roses, interspersed with Echinacea and agapanthus, while the fountain in the centre plays. Along the southern wall of Saint Mary’s Church, the White Garden is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, planted entirely with white flowers as symbols of her purity, including Madonna and Regale lilies. White lilies were also a popular plant in Elizabethan gardens, and John Gerard wrote that ‘our English white Lilly growth in most gardens of England’. Roses, peonies and clematis surround two topiary ivy figures representing Queen Katherine Parr and Lady Jane Grey entering the church for their daily prayers. White tulips also grow here, and they were first cultivated in England during the Elizabethan period.
The East Garden, designed by Charles Cheshire in 2003, has a cedar arbour which trails white wisteria in the spring, replaced later in the summer with golden yellow Tibetan and Chinese lantern clematis. Beyond the church lies the Secret Garden, originally created in 1979 to celebrate the marriage of Lord and Lady Ashcombe. In 1998 this garden was re-designed by Charles Chesshire to celebrate the marriage of their son Henry to Lili Maltese, and in spring it displays a sea of over 2,500 tulips. A Physic Garden would have provided the house with plants for medicinal use, and the re-created garden at Sudeley displays some of the herbs which would have been used in the Elizabethan period. The garden is part of a new Herb Garden Walk created to display a range of traditional herbs used for culinary, medicinal and cosmetic purposes. Today the gardens are maintained using entirely organic methods, with an emphasis on managing them in a way which benefits the wildlife. They have been lovingly restored and redesigned to reflect the elegance and tranquillity of the castle and its ruins, as well as to echo through the ages and recreate the beauty of the gardens which have grown here in years gone by.