This year’s weather, with an incredibly warm and dry spring and Kenilworth largely avoiding the heavy rains of July that have hit the rest of the country, has already caused some challenges for Kenilworth Castle’s head gardener, Fiona Sanders, leading her to turn to an Elizabethan gardening manual for inspiration to keep the garden in peak condition over the summer – whether that might feature fair weather or foul – testing out the idea that eagle feathers may provide magical protection from the elements!
In the book “The Gardener’s Labyrinth”, written by Thomas Hill and first published in 1590, the author refers back to a method first recommended by Archibius, a Roman writer who lived around the first century AD. He writes:
“...tempests shall not be harmful to plants or fruits, if the speckled Toade inclosed in a new earthern pot, to be buried in the middle of the Garden or Field. Others there are, which hand the feathers of the Eagle or Seales skin, in the middle of the garden, or at the four corners of the same. For these three, as by a certain secret property (and for truth) by a marvellous regugnacy do resist the Lightnings, and that of these (the aforesaid) in no manner to be harmed or blasted, it to memory of the posterity committed, and by the experiences or trials or many skilful men confirmed.”
“Aside from the issue of cruelty to a toad, burying an earthen pot in the middle of our garden is not possible, as it is occupied by the beautiful Atlas fountain,” says Fiona. “However, as we have an aviary which would have been filled with exotic birds for Elizabeth I’s visit in 1575, we are going to put the Eagle’s feather technique to the test to protect the flowers from being damaged by whatever extreme weather the summer months throw at us.”
The feathers that Fiona will be hanging at the four corners of the Elizabethan Garden have been donated to English Heritage by the Hawk Conservancy Trust in Hampshire, having been naturally moulted by two of their American bald eagles. “We get many artists and bird enthusiasts asking for feathers from our birds, but we’ve never before had a request like this before,” says Gale Gould, Head of Marketing for the Andover-based charity. “However, two of our birds, Imber and Danbury had recently moulted a couple of feathers each, so we were happy to oblige.”
As the feathers come from a protected species, English Heritage has obtained Article 10 certificates to verify that they have come from captive-bred birds. “I doubt that my predecessors in the Elizabethan garden would have gone to such lengths, but we do know that the queen was fond of all kinds of hunting including falconry, and with only the highest levels of aristocracy permitted to use birds such as eagles for hunting, it is possible that stray feathers from the royal aviary might have been used this way four hundred years ago!”
The four feathers will be mounted, along with a number of other herbs and plants that the 16th century gardeners believed would bring good luck, at the four corners of the Elizabethan Garden, although their efficacy will only be proven at the end of the summer. However, if the dry spell continues for Kenilworth Castle, Fiona may well turn to another of the book’s recommendations – an Elizabethan hand-operated water sprinkler system called the Great Squirt – to offer the thirsty plants some relief!
Kenilworth Castle and the Elizabethan Garden are open daily from 10.00am to 5.00pm. Admission is £8.00 for adults, £7.20 for concessions and £4.80 for children, or just £20.80 for a family ticket (two adults and up to three children), or free for English Heritage members.
For more details, please call 01926 852078 or visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/kenilworth