Saturday, October 8, 2016

Mary II of England: A Queen of Gardens

by Margaret Porter

“Her rooms should be abundantly furnished each day with all kinds of flowers.” – Prince William of Orange (later King William III), to his gardener Charles du Boisson.

“In Gardn’ing, especially Exoticks, she was particularly skilled.”– Stephen Switzer.

Mary of Orange, with citrus tree & pet parrot
Princess Mary of York, eventually Princess Mary of Orange, and ultimately England’s Queen Mary II was an enthusiastic plantswoman and garden-maker. From her early years, when her education was supervised by the botanically-minded cleric Henry Compton, she was an avid gardener. During her years in Holland she and her husband created extensive gardens at their palaces. And when the Glorious Revolution placed the couple on her deposed father’s throne, they imported Dutch styles for gardens and architecture to England.

From 1689 to 1696, the monarchs’ expenditure on their royal gardens totaled £83,000, in modern currency approximately £7,275,000 or $11,471,000. Three-fourths of the sum was spent at Hampton Court alone.

Hampton Court Palace, Surrey

Hampton Court Palace and Gardens, late 17th century

Because King William, an asthmatic, could not live comfortably at damp and draughty Whitehall Palace, he and Mary immediately settled on Hampton Court as their country palace.

They commissioned extensive alterations from Sir Christopher Wren. They also designated William’s Dutch confidant and Mary’s fellow plant collector, Willem Bentinck, Earl of Portland, as Superintendent of the Royal Gardens.

One of the Cibber urns
In 1689 Daniel Marot, responsible for some of the couple’s garden designs in Holland, and nurseryman George London laid out the first parterre on the East Front, filled with grass or coloured gravel in imitation of Le Notre’s work at Versailles. The large semi-circle was edged with lime trees for shade. The wrought iron gates by Tjou and great stone urns carved by Caius Gabriel Cibber remain, as does the Queen’s Bower, created by training wych elms over an arched tunnel one hundred yards in length, twenty feet tall, and twelve feet wide. The landscape was further adorned with thirteen fountains and numerous sculptures. The Privy Garden received a new parterre design. Names of the adjacent series of walled gardens indicate what grew there: the auricula quarter, the orange quarter, the flower garden, and so on. Tropicals and “exoticks” resided in specially designed glass cases.

Large sums were spent and great efforts made to fill the new hothouses and flower beds. As an example, records reveal a payment to “Jas. Road, Gardiner, for going to Virginia to make collections of plants, £234 11s 9d.” Dr. Leonard Plukenet, the botanical curator, received £200 per year, as specialist in “tropical and foreign plants, cuttings, roots or seeds.” In January 1691, the gardens consisted of patterns “laid in grass plats and borders…narrow rows of dwarf box in figures like lace patterns. In one of the lesser gardens a large greenhouse divided into several rooms, and all of them with stoves under them.”

Summer display of citrus and exotics, as in Mary's lifetime
These hothouses also contained the tender items brought over from Holland. The death of Gaspar Fagel, one of William’s advisors, coincided with the Glorious Revolution. His family sold the contents of his garden collection to William and Mary, which were transferred to Hampton Court over a period of two years. By September 1692 the last of the “orange trees, lemon trees, and other … trees” arrived in England. In 1892 some of the oranges were removed to Windsor. The rest of the collection survived in situ until 1921.

From mid-May throughout the summer Mary's arrangement of citrus trees, oleanders, olives, yuccas, and agaves—grown in large wooden tubs or in blue-and-white ceramic vases—is recreated on the terrace beside the former orangery. In colder months these are replaced with bay, laurustinus, holly, Portugal laurel, and Spanish broom.

Agave growing in 17th century reproduction tub

No attempt has been made to recreate Mary’s aviaries. She collected exotic birds as well as exotic plants—she had a pet parrot—and alleys of her bird cages were an attractive and melodic feature of her gardens.

Hampton Court Gardens in springtime, showing Queen Mary's Bower.

Kensington House, Kensington

From their joint desire for a compact “country palace” like the ones they had known and loved in Holland, William and Mary purchased Lord Nottingham’s residence at the edge of Hyde Park. As at Hampton Court, they commissioned alterations undertaken by Sir Christopher Wren. Mary expanded the original gardens to twelve acres, with flower beds arranged in formal Dutch style. New paths were laid and filled with gravel. The cost of adding trees, plants and flowers was £700, and the total cost of garden improvements (exclusive of labour) was £12,495. The house—not yet designated a palace—had a kitchen garden and an adjacent orchard. A visitor in the winter of 1691 reported that the grounds were not “abounding with fine plants,” as the citrus trees spent the cold months in Mr. London’s Brompton greenhouses a mile away, “But the walks and grass are laid very fine.”

Kensington House gardens, as they were circa 1690-91, in a later print.

Here, in the waning days of 1694, Mary died of smallpox. Her sister Queen Anne later added the orangery, now a popular restaurant. In Queen Victoria’s reign Kensington Gardens was developed as the extensive public park we know today, with water features and walkways and monuments.

Whitehall Palace, London

Despite their preference for other locations, this palace served as the monarchs’ official residence. Its Privy Garden, devised by Cardinal Wolsey, had been improved by Henry VIII and subsequent Tudor monarchs. Partly destroyed during the Interregnum, it was repaired and enhanced by the Stuarts. A typical pleasure ground, it consisted of grass squares with paths between, and contained a sundial of which Charles II was very proud. His mistress Barbara, Lady Castlemaine (later Duchess of Cleveland) spread her freshly laundered underthings there to dry, as noticed and remarked upon by Samuel Pepys.

When living at Whitehall, Mary seldom had leisure time for garden improvements. She served as Regent during her husband’s long absences in summer and autumn, when he waged annual war against Louis XIV’s armies in Flanders. Her days were filled with burdensome official duties and council meetings.

The King was abroad in April 1691 when fire consumed a portion of the palace. Stones and building material were salvaged to carry out a plan of Mary’s, as reported by Luttrell the diarist: “There is orders given for building a fine terras walk under the lodgings at Whitehall, toward the waterside.” In 1693 he writes, “The Queen’s terras walk . . . facing the Thames is now finished, and curiously adorn’d with greens which cost some thousands of pounds.” No matter the state of the Treasury, there was always money for Mary’s plants! During the winter of 1698 a far worse conflagration consumed the entire palace, leaving behind only the Banqueting House as a remnant and reminder of its former glories.

Arrangements and Art

Queen Mary’s fondness for flowers was evident not only in her gardens, but also in the elegant rooms of her residences. She and her husband patronised the great Dutch and Flemish botanical and floral artists, whose lush and colourful still life paintings decorated her rooms and became part of the royal art collection. She was sometimes observed watching Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer paint floral decorations at Kensington. And Mary’s own portraits often contain urns overflowing with flowers, or an orange tree.

Still life by Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer

Delft pagoda vases and planter, Kensington Palace
Mary was an innovator in flower display as well, commissioning various containers from the ceramic factory in Delft—in traditional forms and others made to her specifications. Samples of these distinctive blue-and-white glazed vessels can be seen at Hampton Court and Kensington Palace. Huge ceramic tubs held shrubs. Pyramids and pagodas were used to show off individual blooms—not only tulips, but all varieties of flowers. Arrangements in bowls tended to be asymmetrical and free-flowing, as seen in the botanical paintings, with only the leaves of the flower stalks as greenery.

Many Stuart-era formal gardens were eradicated by Capability Brown and his followers in the late 18th century—at Hampton Court and elsewhere. Garden historians have made great strides replicating the designs that Mary and her artisans created, to the delight of palace visitors in every season.

Delft planter at Hampton Court

All photos from the author's personal archives. Period prints and paintings via Wikimedia Commons and Google Images.

This is an Editor's Choice, originally published August 24, 2015.


Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, nonfiction and poetry. Queen Mary's garden pursuits are featured in A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans (available in trade paperback and ebook). Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.


  1. Fantastic piece, Margaret! The most memorable aspect of Hampton Court for me were the gardens. Thanks for sharing.


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