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I’ve recently acquired a copy of Royal Kew by Ronald King, a detailed history of The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, near London (Wikipedia), which is home to the largest collection of plants in the world and has been since the early days of plant acquisition and classification. Captain James Cook, accompanied by Sir Joseph Banks, after his historic voyage of 1768-1771 in Endeavour on which he discovered the continent of Australia, brought back plant specimens and seeds to Kew. From this time forward, under the reign of George III, Kew Gardens became important in collecting and understanding the requirements of plants that could be useful to the, then new, British Empire.

It has continued its pre-eminence in botany ever since and has become an important tourist attraction in London to both gardeners and the general public alike. Virginia Woolf lived for a while in nearby Richmond and developed a love of its gardens that drew her back, time and time again, to experience its calming influence and to recharge her creative batteries.

I’ve just started reading Royal Kew and its level of detail is impressive as is its readability. I’ve excerpted the first two chapters (short, as chapters go) – they are a good indication of the quality of the book and are an excellent introduction to the very early days of Kew as well as the general society of England. I know that Kew is on my agenda whenever I might, once again, make my way to London.

Royal Kew

Ronald King

1985, Constable and Co. London

256 pp paperback

Chapter I

Pageant Of Kings

‘Through the wide wastes

Where the wildfowl called

The King came riding … ‘

The first question a gardener asks when moving to a new home is ‘What is the soil like?’ and this is perhaps the first question that ought to be asked about Kew. The answer will surprise most people. The natural soil of that beautiful garden is dry and hungry and water runs through it so fast that it is a common sight in the summer to see the sprinklers still at work when it is pouring with rain. The next question is, of course, ‘How on earth did that garden, which contains specimens of more of the world’s plants than any other, come to be founded on such an unsuitable site?’ The answer to that question is part of the story that this book has to tell.

The Kew soil which drains away so quickly is underlain by gravel, deposited in past time by the Thames. Although Kew never felt the weight of glacial ice, the edge of the ice sheets that covered most of England from time to time up to 12,000 years ago came almost into the London basin where Kew is situated, and through the basin itself ran a Thames far mightier and more turbulent than the present modest stream. Rolled along by its current, greatly swelled by melting ice when the climate became warmer and the ice retreated, and broken and ground by constant knocking against one another, were innumerable small stones which accumulated in the bed and along the sides. Gradually the water ran away into the sea, and the Thames diminished year by year, leaving these stones as beds of gravel. The highest and earliest, deposited when the river was very wide, are now some way from the water. Kew Gardens, on the banks of the modern river, is situated on the newest and lowest of these deposits, called the Flood Plain Terrace. The top soil of the Gardens thus has, as sub-soil, the most perfect natural drainage that could be devised, since water runs very easily through the interstices between the stones.

The gravel did not remain in its pristine state on the surface. Carried down by the river, spread over the land by winter floods, and blown from elsewhere by the wind, came year by year leaves, twigs, branches, roots and even whole trees, and other detritus, to rot and spread into what, as time went on, became a scanty top soil, in which trees, shrubs and other plants could root and flourish. By the time Britain appears in history the land later to become Kew Gardens had developed into an area of scrubby woodland with here and there a marshy patch or shallow pool where the drainage had become impeded. At this juncture, the Romans turned their eyes on Britain and, by a twist of fate, one of the places that they passed through, and on which a mark of their passage was left, was, in all probability, Kew Gardens.

Julius Caesar, after a reconnaissance in 55 BC, decided to invade Britain and the next year 54 BC landed on the coast of Kent in force. Marching west he learned, he says in his Gallic Wars, that the Thames was fordable ‘at one point only’, but gives no indication of where the ford was other than that it was about 75 miles from the sea. A number of crossing places have been suggested, including one at Kew, a little up-river from the present Brentford Gate of the Gardens, where a ford is known to have existed from very early times. This ford has one piece of evidence in its favour that cannot be matched elsewhere.

Caesar says that when his troops reached the ford they found the bank of the river ‘fenced by large stakes fixed along the edge and … similar ones … concealed in the river bed’. When the stretch of the Thames in which the ford was situated was deepened for navigational purposes in Victorian times the stumps of lines of stakes were found between Isleworth and Kew Bridge which seem to match up to Caesar’s description. Brentford Urban District Council erected a memorial stone in 19°9 on the north bank of the river to record this. The stone was inscribed on four sides; on that facing the river it bore the following:

54 BC At this ancient fortified town (Brentford) the British tribesmen, under Cassivellaunus, bravely opposed Julius Caesar on his march to Verulamium. The identity of the place has recently been established by the discovery of the remains of oak palisades extending both along this bank and in the bed of the river …

What happened when Caesar made his crossing? Let him speak for himself. When he reached the river ‘he found large enemy forces drawn up on the opposite bank …. He sent the cavalry across first and then at once ordered the infantry to follow. But the infantry went with such speed and impetuosity, although they had only their heads above water, that they attacked at the same moment as the cavalry. The enemy was overpowered and fled from the river-bank.’

Walking amid the crowds admiring the trim and orderly Gardens of the present day it is difficult to envisage these happenings of the past: the jingling of harness and the stamp of feet as the Romans came up, the staccato orders of the centurions, and the shouts and splashings as they took to the water, the scuffling and blows as they hacked their way through and over the palisades to meet in the shallows of the other side the desperate but less well-armed and disciplined Britons. Outmatched, the latter soon gave way and fled, leaving, as silence fell once again, only the dead and dying among the useless stakes, their blood, mixed with the mud stirred up by the fight, floating away in reddish streaks on the sluggish Thames current.

Kew makes no further appearance in history until Anglo-Saxon times, when there seems good evidence in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the ford at Brentford was used by both Saxons and Danes for the passage of armies that for long years fought for the domination of England. In the early years of the eleventh century King Edmund Ironside and King Canute crossed and recrossed the ford in the course of their battles several times, taking and retaking the settlement which had sprung up at Brentford and it seems likely that the saying ‘there cannot be two Kings in Brentford’ dates from this time.

Saxon and Dane divided England between them and in AD 1016 were united under Canute. Fifty years later they were conquered by the Normans. No trace of Kew, however, appears in the Domesday Book. It was still merely a featureless stretch of land within a loop of the Thames, occasionally hunted over, but otherwise unremarkable except for the river crossing. At the southern end of the territory, however, there was a place called Shene, a name which means ‘beautiful’, in the sense of shining. Here King Henry I, in 1125, had a substantial house, the land attached to which included Kew.

After Henry I the property at Shene, although apparently still a royal possession, was for two hundred years occupied by others. It was not until Edwards I’s time that the king began to use it as a royal residence and it begins to be mentioned in historical documents, but from this period the royal association is probably continuous, most likely because access to it was easy by river both from London and Windsor and it was a comparatively safe retreat from the plague and other London inconveniences.

Kew had its part in this because, apart from the ford, it was used as a landing place by royalty and presumably others. An entry in Henry VIII’s privy purse accounts for 1530 records that there was:

Paid to the King’s watermen, for their waiting from York Place to Keyho, with sixteen oars when the King’s grace removed from York Place to Richmond 10S. 8d.

There is a long-standing tradition that the pond that still exists on Kew Green, though now confined by concrete into a quiet pool, is the remnant of what was formerly an inlet from the Thames, and that it was in this inlet that royal and other passenger barges could conveniently be moored.

The name ‘Keyho’ in the foregoing quotation is only one variation on ‘Kew’. The name is probably of Middle English origin, a compound of caye or keye, meaning wharf or quay, and ho, derived from hoh meaning a spur of land, that is, the wharf or quay on the spur of land, the ‘spur’ being the land within the loop of the Thames. Many and remarkable are the changes that have been rung on it in various documents. It appears first in 1327 as ‘Cayho’. In 1330 it is ‘Kayho juxta Brayneforde’. In the year of the Black Death, 1348, it has become ‘Kayhog’, reverting in 1375 to ‘Kayho’. In 1439 it appears as ‘Keyhow’, but in 1441 has become ‘Kayowe’. Other later spellings are ‘Kayo’ (1483), ‘Kayhough’ (in the reign of Henry VII), ‘Cayo’ (1509), ‘Keyowe’ (1517), ‘Kayhoo’ (1522), ‘Kyoe’ and ‘Kaiho’ (1524), ‘Cayhoo’ (1530), ‘Kaio’ (1532), and ‘Kewe’ (1535). The last of these is the first appearance of what is virtually the modern name, but different spellings continue to appear long after this date, others being ‘Cao: (1536), ‘Keew’ (1538), ‘Keyomede’ (in the reign of Henry VIII), ‘Keyo’ (1546), ‘Kewe al Kyo’ (1592), ‘Ceu’ (1607), ‘Kewe-greene’ (1609) and ‘Kew al Kyo’ (1648): a total in all of 24 different spellings.

One document has survived from the fifteenth century which throws a tiny beam of light on the standing of Kew at that time. A Patent Roll dated 28 September 1483 sets forth that a grant was made for life to:

… the King’s servant Henry Davy of the Office of Keeper of the King’s Park called ‘le Newpark’ seven acres of meadow by the bridge of Chartesey, Co. Middlesex, for the sustenance of the deer within the park in winter and the custody of the King’s warren of the King’s lordship of Shene, receiving 6d, 3d, 2d and 3d daily from the same from the issue of the King’s manors or lordships of Shene, Petersham, Kayo, Hamme and the island of Crowet in the said counties with all other profits, and also 2d daily from the same issues for the repair of the paling and hedges of the same park.

From this involved sentence emerges the fact that Kew (Kayo) had achieved sufficient standing to be taxable, although at a lower rate than the neighbouring villages.

No record has survived of those who lived at Kew before the sixteenth century but a considerable amount is known about several of the people who had houses there in Henry VIII’s time, although we do not know precisely where they lived. None was more splendid than Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, who married Henry’s sister Mary. Charles’ father had been standard-bearer to Henry VII, and was singled out for this reason at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and killed by Richard III. Charles, who was rather like his monarch, tall, sturdy and valiant, with a tendency to corpulence and a strong animal nature, seems to have been a favourite of Henry VIII from the first.

As part of the devious political dealings of the time Mary found herself betrothed to the King of France, Louis XII, and in August 1514 was married to him by proxy in London. She joined the King in October but he died two months later, on the last night of 1514. Charles, on whom Mary’s mind had long been set, in spite of the fact that he had already at least one wife living, was already in Paris. Greatly to Henry VIII’s annoyance, the couple married without waiting for his consent or that of the King’s Council, many of whom wanted him put to death when they heard of it. The offence was eventually purged by the gift to the King of all Mary’s plate and jewels and a bond of £24,000 to repay by yearly instalments Henry’s expenses for the marriage with Louis. The couple had to live quietly for a time but by 1520 were back in favour and Charles accompanied Henry to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, which occurred in that year. From then on Charles took a prominent part in public affairs.

The residence of the Duke of Suffolk and Mary at Kew is mentioned in the Duke’s will but the Cygnea Cantio of Leland, the traveller and antiquary, is the chief authority for it. He describes ‘Chevo, vulgo Kew’ as a ‘villa elegans’, distinguished by the hospitable residence of Mary, the French Queen, saying:

Ad Chevam hospitio Piae Mariae Gallorum Dominae celebriorem

[Pious Lady Mary, the famous French hospitality to Chevam – Google Translate]

The house in which the couple lived was called Suffolk Place. Leland says that it was erected in the time of Henry VII and, according to report, was built by a steward of the royal household. Under the present Kew Palace, which was not built until the next century, is a fine vaulted stone crypt from an older building. Some have thought that this might be the foundation of Suffolk Place, but nothing definite is known to support this assertion, though it may well be true.

Another member of the royal circle who was resident at Kew was Charles Somerset, later Lord Herbert and Earl of Worcester. Born about 1460 he was an illegitimate son of Henry Beaufort, third Duke of Somerset. In his childhood he was probably an exile in Flanders, being knighted by the Archduke Philip before the battle of Bosworth. By his bearing in the battle he found favour with Henry VII, there being, among the accounts for Henry’s coronation, an entry of ‘three yards of cloth of gold’ for the ‘bastard Somerset’. He was appointed Chamberlain of Henry VII’s household on 30 May 1508 and reappointed by Henry VIII the day after Henry VII’s death, bearing as part of this office responsibility for the arrangements for the Field of the Cloth of Gold. He died in 1526, our knowledge of his residence at Kew being derived from his will which directed that, if he died at ‘Kaiho’ or anywhere near the Thames, his body should be carried by water to Windsor. The injunction was carried out: he was buried in the Beaufort chapel at Windsor.

The ending of the Wars of the Roses and the more settled times that followed the advent of the Tudors afforded opportunity for continental influences to spread more freely in Britain, first the New Learning of the Renaissance and then the religious turmoil of the Reformation. By the end of Mary I’s reign in 1558 many changes had, as a result, taken place in English society and much new effort had been stimulated. Some of the energy generated had begun to be turned towards finding out more about things that had long been taken for granted and had never been subjected to close scrutiny. The movement had its origin primarily in a desire to verify and establish correct texts for the authorities of the ancient world which had been rediscovered, but the work inevitably led on to further investigation which was eventually to evolve into modern scientific method.

Although it had not progressed very far by the 1550s, a start had been made in England in biology and in particular the study of plants, the science of botany. These events are not only related to the story of Kew in a general sense that modern Kew is concerned with botanical science, but in a more specific way because of a fortuitous but particular link with Kew which gave that place, for a short time at the beginning, a leading role.

Chapter II

Botany Comes To Kew

‘For out of oIde feldes, as men seith,

Cometh al this new corn fro yere to yere;

And out of old bokes, in good feith,

Cometh al this newe science that men lere.’

Chaucer, The Parlement of Foules

When the Roman Empire in the west went down before the barbarians, the botanical works of the great men of classical times, Theophrastus, Dioscorides and others, were preserved in the eastern Empire at Constantinople and much of the knowledge later passed into the Arab world. In the west, however, the study of plants virtually ceased for a thousand years. When it began again the first works were based on corrupt Latin texts illustrated by simplified and debased drawings which, as the originals from which they were copied were plants of southern Europe, were of limited use in northern European countries.

The invention of printing brought no improvement but in 1530 works began to be produced, at first in Germany, in which the illustrations of the plants had been drawn from the life and were clearly recognisable. Later works which followed in the course of the sixteenth century greatly improved the plant descriptions. A leading figure in England in this process was William Turner, who earned for himself the title of ‘Father of English Botany’.

Turner was born at Morpeth, the son, perhaps, of a tanner. He gained the interest of Thomas, first Baron Wentworth of Nettlestead in Suffolk and in 1526 became a Fellow of Pembroke Hall in Cambridge. He was one of the group of young men who became the spearhead of the Reformation in England, being closely associated with two of the most famous, the martyrs Ridley and Latimer. Ridley taught him Greek.

The Protestant principles that Turner imbibed at Cambridge led him to become a preacher in the fiery demagogic mode of the time, and he also wrote polemical books supporting these principles. Fortunately for English botany, his second love, he managed, by absenting himself from England at the right time, to escape the violent end to which Ridley and Latimer came in Mary I’s reign. They were burnt at the stake in Oxford in 1555. He did not, however, escape scot-free. His college work was ended in 1537 and Bishop Gardiner had him imprisoned, but he was able to go abroad at the end of June 1543.

Turner’s attitude to botany at this time is set out in his preface to the 1568 edition of his Herbal. He says that:

above thyrtye years ago … beyng yet felow in Pembroke Hall in Cambridge where I could learne never one Greke, neither Latin, nor Englishe name, even among the Phisiciones of any herbe or tre, such was the ignorance in simples (medicinal herbs) at that time, and as yet there was no English herbal but one, all full of unlearned cacographees and falsely naming of herbes, and as then had neither Fuchsius, nether Matthiolus, nether Tragus written of herbes in Latin.

This is a fair summary of the situation in the 1520S. He set out to remedy the deficiency himself.

He first went to Italy, a visit which was of great importance to him as a botanist as it brought him in touch with the greatest minds of the time working in the plant world. Bologna university was ahead of all others at this time. He met and talked with the leading writers and workers and himself became an accepted figure in the learned world. From Italy he went to Germany, returning home on the accession of Edward VI in 1547. His career now took a new turn. He was appointed physician to Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who was the greatest power in the land at this time, being Lord Protector, the King being a minor. Seymour had gained possession of Sion Abbey, on the other side of the Thames from Kew, the religious inhabitants of which had been dispossessed in the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s. As part of his job, Turner was given a house at Kew, to which he refers both in one of his letters and in one of the plant descriptions in the 1568 edition of his Herbal.

Living at Kew, Turner would have had to cross the Thames almost every day to Sion to attend his master. He complains bitterly about this in the Preface to his first Herbal, published in 1551, saying:

I have more than three years bene a dayley wayter (i.e. in attendance, in the sense still preserved in Lady-in-Waiting) and wanted the chefe part of the day most apte to study, the mornynge, and have bene long and sore vexed with sycknes … For these thre yeares and an halfe I have had no more lyberty but bare three weekes to bestow upon ye sekyng of herbes, and markyng in what places they do grow.

References in his books indicate that Turner grew exotic plants in his garden. It is an extraordinary and apt coincidence that the ‘Father of English Botany’ should have had such a garden at the precise spot where, two hundred years later, the national botanic garden was to arise. His garden had, of course, no direct connection at all with the later garden, although at least one important Victorian reference work was sufficiently misled by the coincidence to say, quite incorrectly, that ‘the foundation of Kew Gardens is attributed to William Turner’.

In 1550 Turner obtained preferment as Dean of Wells and left his residence at Kew. He did not enjoy his situation very long, however, before Mary I came to the throne and he had to flee abroad again for the duration of her reign. While he was at Kew Turner must have been a familiar and well-loved figure to the local people as he wandered through the lanes and the surrounding villages on his botanical excursions, although they may have thought that he was not quite right in the head as he went about ‘sekyng of herbes’. He was not a scientist in the modern sense, his primary intention being to interpret the true meaning of the past rather than to break new ground, but he went about his work in a methodical and painstaking manner which approximated to scientific method. He examined and checked all the authorities he could find and looked at his plants with the painstaking eye of the specialist in the light of what they said, and he tried to establish their true names.

He made no attempt to classify plants, his Herbal being arranged in alphabetical order, but with his efforts the methodical study of plants began in Britain.

As he wrote in English Turner’s usefulness was limited on the Continent and his influence thereby that much less, but he was the first in Britain to show an interest in the study of plants that was to occupy the time and energy of many able and eminent men of his own nation in the years to come, and which was eventually to create the climate of opinion in which the foundation and maintenance of a national botanic garden at Kew could be accepted as a legitimate and worthwhile charge on national resources.