A Medieval Herb Garden at Mount Grace Priory
©Susan S. Eberly For many gardeners, England in June is the nearest thing to paradise. It offers the full range of gardens -from the fantastic, through-the-looking-glass topiary of Leven's Hall, to the glowing tapestry of roses among the abbey ruins at Bury St. Edmunds, to the remnants of the grand kitchen garden at Kentwell. But one of the most evocative of England's gardens is the tiny gem of an herb garden at Mount Grace Priory, on the western slopes of Yorkshire's Cleveland hills. There is something special, of course, about herb gardens. Perhaps they are so fascinating because as you begin to learn about such gardens, you open the door to a tradition that spans at least two millennia. What's more, it is a tradition uniquely documented by those ancient and often arresting manuscripts, the herbals. And then there is the mystery that has attached itself to the healing plants. As Walter de la Mare wrote, Speak not, whisper not, Here bloweth thyme and bergamot; Softy on the evening hour, Secret herbs their spices shower... Guardens, yards, and gardens The word garden originally referred, quite specifically, to an area of ground secured by walls or fencing; both yard and guard are implied. Until very recently, if you wanted to have a garden, you needed a strong fence to protect it (and sometimes the gardener as well) from both two- and four-legged marauders. The notion of the garden as refuge took root early on, during the violence and instability of the early Middle Ages. It is from those chaotic times that we gained the concept of the hortus conclusis, an "enclosed garden" symbolic of all that is self-contained, secure, and well-ordered. For the modern gardener no less than for his or her medieval counterpart, an herb garden can be a place in which you cultivate tranquility itself. While we moderns have probably given up on the idea that you can create order from chaos, in the herb garden you can at least construct a buffer against chaos. Any ardent gardener knows why all the world's great religions locate heaven in a garden, and few gardens offer more insight into this metaphor than the tiny garden at Mount Grace. Mount Grace Priory To reach the priory, you climb a low rise, and as you mount the first crest you are greeted by glowing green lawns, across which are scattered broken sections of biscuit-colored wall. Ahead is the shell of a small, belltowered church, and beyond it an enormous green square of lawn, the cloister garth. Mount Grace Priory, a Carthusian monastery, was born in political turmoil about six centuries ago. Its founder, Thomas de Holland, Duke of Surrey, backed the wrong king in 1399 and was beheaded by

for each monk at Mount Grace had in essence his own private home place. He alone occupied his cell's small. the brothers gathered to walk outside the monastery for a few hours.2 angry townspeople in Cirencester. As we explore the garden. and do not converse during the meals they eat in company.. but also from each other. first within the high outer wall of the monastery. two story house. Today only one cell -. sleeping and working. Once a week at Mount Grace.is intact at Mount Grace. "Great sorrowe was made in dyvers parts of England: for he was a fayre yong man. Mount Grace was dismantled with so singular a thoroughness that the monks took the very wainscoting of their cells away with them -. is a hand-written note: Please don't disturb the little owl -he is easily frightened. About ten hours of every twenty-four was spent in devotions. Did they talk about their gardens? Share cuttings and advice? The records don't tell. If they meet accidentally.. The remaining hours were taken up with eating. a monk could garden. The Carthusians practice an intensely private. and bedroom. well-lit workroom." But Holland's monastery survived its impolitic beginnings to flourish for more than two centuries before its suppression under Henry VIII. It is celebrated in part because it was at Mount Grace Priory that a unique manuscript was preserved -. taped to the one of the diamond-shaped panes of leaded glass. says chronicler Froissart. and contemplation. Inside. Carthusians live apart not only from the world. They rarely speak. eat most of their meals alone. When the suppression of the monasteries came. This cell includes a peaceful garden twice enclosed. . On the afternoon that we explore the cell and its garden.and the monk who lived here five hundred years ago would probably have responded to our visit with similar alarm. half-grown owlet perching anxiously on the stone sill of the window. a downy. Within his private garden he planted what he wished. the eyes of the anxious little owl never leave us -. During the brief time each day that might be given to leisure. work.perhaps to keep whatever they might out of the hands of the king. On the first floor he had a living room. and during this brief outing we know they were allowed to speak to one another. Behind the house. solitary life of prayer.the house and yard occupied by a single monk -. upon which.the complete writings of remarkable 14th century mystic Margery Kempe. they are expected to pull their hooded cowls forward to cover their faces. small chapel. All of the second story is taken up by a single. study. some of its charm is conferred by an unusual visitor. It was restored by archeologists at the turn of this century. and again within the wall of the cell itself. a small and graceful garden is enclosed by a stone wall that reaches twice the height of a man. and to pass without speaking. and archeologists have found that each of the more than twenty private gardens at Mount Grace had its own layout and uses. each with its own mullioned window set deep in the stone of the wall.

were soaked with tallow and used as candles. But on this sunny June day. care was given to planting herbs that would provide delicate scents and flavors. A surprising range of plants was available to them. the mother house of the Carthusian Order. for example. you pass through the cool shadows of a long. Monks of various orders played an important role. with its scent of new-mown hay as it dries. Hyssop (Hyssopus officinalis). The tall. to flavor honey. Plants are selected from those used in the daily round of religious life in medieval times. frothy plumes of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria). In most medieval kitchens. slate-roofed walkway. developing new varieties. And in the 17th century. we turn from the walkway into the well of sunlight that is the garden proper. Marjoram (Origanum vulgare) was grown for use in cooking. and sharing plants by these gardeners was as popular then as now. among the rushes on the floor to provide a pleasant scent to mask other more noxious odors. was often used as a strewing herb in churches. The modern gardeners at Mount Grace plan to vary the plantings in the herb garden from year to year. The summer of 1994 marked the first time in more than 450 years that anyone had set seedlings into the small garden behind the cell at Mount Grace. had a time-traveling monk accompanied our walk through the plants of this garden in 1994. Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) was grown to provide seed that could be chewed to relieve hunger during fasts. To travel from the house to the garden. lavender (Lavandula spica). fresh or dried. For this reason. offered its own benison when scattered among the rushes on the floor or hung in bunches along the walls and rafters. and as a strewing herb. The Carthusians. commonly known as Holy Herb. Chartreuse Liqueur and 4711 Cologne. tucked up tight against the back priory wall. compounded from 130 different herbs and flowers. named for the street number of the home in which the monk was given shelter. Chartreuse Liqueur. whose velvet rosettes now grow wild among the ruins.3 An Herbal Elixir and a Fine Cologne The ascetic Carthusians are responsible for two of modern life's more pleasant luxuries. first made in the 18th century at Grande Chartreuse. It is a testament to horticultural skills of those long-ago gardeners that. lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). We know from medieval records that gardening had long been a well-established tradition in England. experimenting with new techniques. developed a healing elixir that is still renowned today. Such plants have been represented in the herb garden at Mount Grace by clove pinks (Dianthus caryophyllus). the only sweetener at hand was honey. especially during the long Lenten season. carrying seeds and plants from monastery to monastery. Blue-green rue (Ruta graveolens). winter savory (Satureia montana) with its tiny. . 4711 Cologne. originated as a medicinal elixir. and learning all they could about how to use what they grew. the Herb of Grace. a member of this order concocted the world's oldest commercially produced fragrance. was used to sprinkle holy water on worshippers during Mass to preserve them from plague and other disease. he would have felt right at home. and a cologne that has been famous for nearly three hundred years. dried flower spikes of mullein (Verbascum thapsus). shell-pink blossoms. Sweet woodruff (Asperula odorata).plants that were scattered. propagating and selling plants. This walkway would have sheltered the monk from the elements (no small kindness in a Yorkshire winter) all the way from the back door of the house to the cell's privy. The garden may also contain medieval strewing herbs -. and thyme (Thymus vulgaris).

of course. east-west arm of the Lshaped yard contains a rectangular plot edged with roofing slates to create a slightly raised bed. The long. sweet-smelling sanctuary shared only with a fluffy. Read more  Church and Monastery Gardens http://www. over the next four hundred years it would have a number of owners. This remembered life of monastic simplicity has its appeals. Its plantings are geometric and precise.4 The walls of this hortus conclusis are very high and very white in the sunlight. and lay brothers who had made the monastery their home were given pensions and sent away. a situation no doubt welcomed by its gardener. Dwarf boxwood provides the almost architectural edging so characteristic of later. glassed-in walkway for quiet meditation.nationaltrust. Presented to the National Trust in 1953. a shadowy. The monks. this little garden was surrendered with the rest of the priory to the king. the garden was planted with herbs that played a role in the daily rounds of medieval religious life. The shorter. repeats several of the motifs common to medieval gardens. Wikipedia . as ominous signs and portents had warned would happen. creating symmetrical patterns of color and foliage." Standing at its southern edge is the little cloister of this cell. ornamental medieval gardens. this manor house and its fine terraced front gardens are worth a visit in themselves.htm  Mount Grace Priory National Trust Site . During Christmas week in 1539.uk/mount-grace-priory/  Mount Grace. and also with those known to flavor honey. and never more so than when you find yourself in the stillness of a golden afternoon.http://www. one of whom would turn the southwest range of buildings into a small manor house. In 1994. though tiny and simple. A stone-paved walk surrounds the bed.wyrtig.org. too good to last. under great duress.wikipedia. north-south arm of the L is a tiny kerchief of daisy-dotted lawn.http://en. It was. novices. a "flowery mead.org/wiki/Mount_Grace_Priory . Mount Grace is now beautifully maintained by English Heritage. who had to cope with the disadvantages of a garden planted to the north of a tallish house.com/EarlyGardens/British/EarlyBritishGardens/ChurchGardens. Today. wide-eyed owlet and the soft hum of buzzing bees. This replanted garden. secure in a high-walled. Mount Grace was sold to a dealer in monastic lands.

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