Today the visitor approaches the garden along the same privileged route taken by Elizabeth, through the classical loggia of the forebuilding, which leads on to the terrace. Reconstructed to its original height, the terrace affords the best view of the garden and the landscape beyond. Obelisks, spheres and Leicester’s symbol of the bear and ragged staff are set at intervals on pedestals. The division of the garden into four quarters with intricate geometrical patterns is best seen from the terrace. The rhythm of the planting is based on a contemporary drawing by the architect and garden designer Hans Vredeman de Vries. In the centre of each quarter stands a pierced obelisk 17ft high, an ancient symbol of rulership. There is no archaeological evidence for heavy stone structures having been placed in these positions, leading to the conclusion that the obelisks must have been made of wood and painted to look like porphyry – an expensive purple stone from Egypt.
At each end of the terrace are the ‘two fine arbours, perfumed by sweet trees and flowers’, reconstructed here from an engraving by the 16th-century French architect and designer Jacques Androuet Du Cerceau.The arbours enclose the terrace and provide a frame for the surrounding landscape. Langham describes the fine views which the east arbour provided of the deer in the park and the people in the court below.
Langham says little about the plants that grew in the garden, but he does emphasize their sweet scent. This suggests that it was a fashionable ‘gillyflower’ garden, popular in early Elizabethan England. Gillyflowers are perfumed perennials, such as carnations, pinks, stocks and wallflowers. Although there is no evidence that flowers were used in a symbolic way in the garden, some of the flowers that grow here, such as the eglantine rose in the hedges at either end, and the sweet musk roses in the arbours, are associated with the cult of Queen Elizabeth. All the plants now growing here would have been available in Elizabethan England, and the planting is designed to peak each year in July, the month of Elizabeth’s visit in 1575.
Langham mentions cherries, pears and apples, including many French varieties. This is because plant cultivation in France and Italy was far in advance of England at the time and different varieties were only just being introduced into the country. Adrian, the gardener, is thought to have been French, and would have brought with him knowledge of Continental gardening techniques. Today, however, the garden contains a number of traditional English varieties of fruit trees. One local variety is Black Worcester, a hard round pear that would have lasted through the winter. At the time, most pears were rather hard and were cooked, rather than eaten raw. Contemporary drawings show that gardens often had separate compartments for fruit trees, and there are plans to plant orchards in the spaces on either side of the garden.
The fountain is the spectacular centrepiece of the garden. Made of white Carrara marble from Tuscany, the newly commissioned fountain was made by the stonemasonry company Fairhaven and Woods, and stands over 18ft (5m) high. Langham described two ‘Athlants’ (the term comes from the name ‘Atlas’) supporting a sphere from which jets of water cascade down, topped by Leicester’s heraldic symbol, the ragged staff. Archaeological excavations proved that the fountain was in the centre of the garden, that it was eight-sided and that each panel had been four feet wide (Langham says that the panels were four feet high). White chips of Carrara marble were also found during the excavations.
The panels around the basin are carved with eight scenes from the Roman poet Ovid’s witty narrative poem the Metamorphoses. A racy account of the history of the universe from its creation, the Metamorphoses weaves the lives and loves of gods and mortals, describing their frequent transformations, often into animals and plants. The characters and stories represented on the panels are, in an anticlockwise direction, starting from the panel facing the terrace: Neptune; Caenis and Neptune; Thetis; Perseus and Andromeda;Triton; Proteus; Doris; and Europa.
Leicester was the patron of the first edition in English of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translated by Arthur Golding in 1567. Ovid’s earthy humour was enjoyed by the Elizabethans. As Langham writes, ‘Here were things, might inflame any mind to long after looking: but whoso was found so hot in desire, with the wrest of a cock was sure of a cooler: water spurting upward with such vehemency as they should, by and by, be moistened from top to toe.’
Water jokes were a popular feature of Renaissance gardens, and were often used in a ribald way. The water jets in the Kenilworth garden have been carefully placed so as to surprise unwary visitors.
Aviaries were rare in England and Langham described this one in immense detail. He admired the top cornice painted and gilded to look as though it had been ‘beautified with great diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires’ and described the varied songs and colours of the ‘lively birds, English, French, Spanish, Canarian, and I am deceived if I saw not some African’.
The classical details on the aviary are based on those of the porch to the gatehouse, which may have been designed at about the same time. All the birds in the aviary are domesticated, as it is now illegal to cage wild birds. The lizard canary has been chosen as it is the closest tame relation to the wild canary that would have been found in Elizabethan times. Other birds have been selected because they represent species newly introduced into Europe, such as African guinea fowl, brought in by the Portuguese.