garden tales from a Brit abroad
The procession for the royal wedding will run along The Mall between Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey, offering the newly-weds splendid views over St James’s Park. It is the oldest and most popular of London’s royal parks, and has an intimate link with the British monarchy and the romantic liaisons of kings of old.
Originally woodland of sufficient extent to furnish food for a hundred pigs, according to the Domesday Book, and then a site for a Hospital for Leprous Maidens, the area was turned into a royal hunting ground in the early sixteenth century. Beginning in the 1660s, it became a formal, French-inspired park and hub of the London social scene under Charles II and his successors. Finally the naturalistic public park that we know today was created by John Nash around 1828.
It was in about 1531 that the possibilities of this marshy site first drew the interest of the monarchy, in the larger-than-life figure of King Henry VIII. He was in the midst of his battles with Rome over attempts to annul his marriage to Katherine of Aragon, and was taking action that led rapidly to the English Protestant Reformation. Having acquired adjacent land from Westminster Abbey on which to build a new royal residence (the grand Palace of Whitehall, which was subsequently destroyed by fire), he saw the fields around the hospital as a potential site for another in the long line of royal hunting grounds, and as a place to woo Anne Boleyn, his future queen.
By 1532 the king had demolished the leper hospital and replaced it with St James’s Palace. Lovers’ knots, entwining the initials H and A (Henry and Anne), were engraved around some of the fireplaces. The land to the south was turned into a small private garden and a traditional hunting park. He also installed a tilting yard (for a popular equestrian activity of the day), a cockpit and a bowling alley. The whole area was surrounded by a “sumptuous wall of brick” to create a private royal pleasure ground.
A more solemn history attaches to the site by the time of King Charles I (1625–49). He was confined in St James’s Palace before being walked through the pleasure grounds to the site of his execution in front of the Banqueting House.
Charles II’s triumphant restoration of the monarchy in 1660 after eleven years of the Commonwealth led to many political and social changes. He was careful to foster an image of himself as a man of the people, charming, nonchalant and seemingly uninterested in affairs of state, in contrast to his haughty father who made clear his belief in the divine right of kings. As part of his public relations strategy, Charles quickly had St James’s Park remodelled in the latest style, to turn it into a place where he could mingle engagingly with his subjects. As a result, as one writer has pointed out, of all the royal and famous people who are linked with the place, “Charles is more intimately connected with the Park than any other great personage.”
The new park was laid out in the style of French baroque gardens, with a grand canal à la française some 2,800 feet long by 100 feet wide, bordered by avenues and rows of single species trees (mainly elms), with more broad avenues radiating in a goosefoot pattern from the Palace of Whitehall, and two further grand avenues running along the north and south edges of the park, forming The Mall (site of the royal wedding procession) and Birdcage Walk respectively.
Given an ambiguous reference in a letter written around 1694, landscape historians love to debate who designed this new French-style park for the king. Received wisdom suggested for a long time that André Le Nôtre had produced the plan, although that now seems a rather preposterous idea. Whoever it was, St James’s Park became a vastly popular part of the social scene and achieved the king’s aim of allowing him to mix affably (and very visibly) with his subjects. Charles made great play of opening up the royal park to the public, although there is evidence that at least some people had had access during the Commonwealth.
Daily he would stroll along the avenues with his courtiers, or one of his mistresses, and was frequently seen feeding the ducks and pelicans that he had introduced onto the canal. The diarist John Evelyn rather disapprovingly records overhearing “a very familiar discourse” between the king and his mistress Nell Gwyn, who had been installed in a house close to the palace. So much did Charles enjoy his time wandering through the park that one of his courtiers remarked “there was as much of laziness as of love in all those hours which he passed among his mistresses …while a bewitching kind of pleasure called SAUNTERING, was [what] he [most] delighted in.”
While I doubt we will see William or Kate sauntering much in St James’s Park, its close links with the various love affairs of English kings makes it a perfect backdrop to their nuptials.
Anther time I may write a little more about the history of this splendid place, from the wish of one monarch to turn the park into a turnip field, and its role in finding “idle fellows” to fight King George’s battles against the rebellious provincials in the American colonies, to the part possibly played by Capability Brown in designing the current naturalistic layout of the park.