Magnificent Elizabethan-era Garden Unearthed At Coleshill Manor
Archaeologists performing exploratory excavations for the HS2 high-speed rail project in Coleshill, Warwickshire have unearthed the foundations of a spectacular Elizabethan-era ornamental garden at the Coleshill Manor site. Measuring approximately 1,000 feet (300 meters) long at its farthest extension, the garden was found adjacent to the remains of 16 th-century Coleshill Manor, which was discovered with aerial photography two years ago.
This aerial drone photo clearly shows the outline of the Elizabethan-era Coleshill Manor and garden site, found on the HS2 high-speed rail route in Warwickshire, England. (HS2 Ltd.)
Coleshill Manor Garden: “Warwickshire’s Hampton Court”
The newly revealed garden has been dubbed “Warwickshire’s answer to Hampton Court.” The latter reference is to England’s most renowned surviving Elizabethan garden at the Hampton Court Palace, Henry VIII’s old stomping grounds in southwestern London. The comparison is not particularly apt at the moment, however, since the Coleshill Manor garden had been buried and for centuries and is currently nothing more than an expanse of dry and barren earth.
But the form and structure of the garden remained intact and well-preserved. Excavations revealed the outlines of gravel access paths, multiple raised planting beds, foundation pieces for a garden pavilion, and signs of various ornaments that had been arranged to form geometric patterns.
“This is one of the most exciting Elizabethan gardens that’s ever been discovered in this country,” declared Paul Stamper, a historian with expertise in English gardening and landscaping history. “The scale of the preservation at this site is really exceptional and is adding considerably to our knowledge of English gardens around 1600.”
The Coleshill Manor garden represents a relatively rare discovery, and a surprising one at that.
“There have only been three or four investigations of [Elizabethan] gardens of this scale over the last 30 years, including Hampton Court, Kirby Hall in Northamptonshire, and Kenilworth Castle, but this one was entirely unknown,” Stamper explained. “The garden doesn’t appear in historical records, there are no plans of it, it’s not mentioned in any letters or visitors’ accounts.”
In the United Kingdom, developers are required by law to pay for archaeological surveys before new infrastructure or building projects are allowed to proceed. If the new HS2 rail lines had not been scheduled to pass through the Coleshill area, the developers from Laing O’Rourke and J. Murphy & Sons would never have contracted Wessex Archaeology to perform aerial surveys and follow-up excavations, and the house and garden at Coleshill Manor would not have been discovered.
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In this instance, a visionary high-tech project designed to ensure a more sustainable future for England has opened a new doorway into its storied and colorful past.
A 3D reconstruction of Coleshill Hall the largest room in what was once Coleshill Manor. (HS2 Ltd.)
Oasis Of Calm In The English Countryside
The house at Coleshill Manor was likely constructed in the 14 th or 15 th century AD. The styling and design principles used as models for the Coleshill garden date it to approximately the year 1600, when records reveal the manor was owned by local dignitary Sir Robert Digby.
A blue-blooded aristocrat by birth and an Oxford-educated lawyer by practice, Digby married the wealthy and influential Irish heiress Lettice FitzGerald sometime in the late 1590s, and it seems he ordered the installation of the ornamental garden on his estate sometime shortly after that.
It is clear that Sir Robert and his new wife went to great effort to ensure their garden would be the most extravagant in all of central England. Scholars speculate that Digby may have installed the garden as a way to show off his wealth and privilege after marrying into the famed FitzGerald dynasty. But he could have commissioned the ornamental garden as a gift for his new bride, or he might have installed it at her request.
While the estate at Coleshill Manor was grand and majestic, the Digbys only occupied it on a part-time basis. They spent the majority of their time living in Ireland, where Digby served as a member of the Irish Parliament representing the borough of Athy in county Kildare, where the FitzGerald estates were located. In between serving in the Irish government and attending to his business affairs back in Warwickshire, Sir Robert assisted his wife in her ongoing lawsuit against other members of the FitzGerald family, whom she accused of defrauding her of her rightful inheritance following the death of her grandfather, the family patriarch.
Given the stress involved in Sir Robert’s work in the Irish Parliament, and the bitterness and tension evoked by the couples’ long-lasting lawsuit against Lettice’s family, the Digbys and their children (they had 10) likely treasured the peaceful times they spent at Coleshill Manor immensely.
The tranquil environment of the manor house was undoubtedly enhanced by the proximity of the lovely and secluded ornamental garden, where the members of the Digby clan could spend time resting, relaxing, and reflecting whenever they felt the need.
A Wessex archaeologist holds up post-medieval-era pottery found at the Coleshill Manor site. (HS2 Ltd.)
Sustainable Development and the Progress of Archaeology
The ongoing construction of the HS2 high-speed rail line, which at its completion will link London to Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, and all points in-between, has created a golden opportunity for archaeologists to explore the English countryside with renewed vigor and purpose.
“From our original trench evaluation work, we knew there were gardens, but we had no idea how extensive the site would be,” said Stuart Pierson, Wessex Archaeology’s Project Officer for the HS2 survey at Coleshill Manor. “As work has progressed, it’s been particularly interesting to discover how the gardens have been changed and adapted over time with different styles … we’ve had a big team of up to 35 archaeologists working on this site over the last two years conducting trench evaluations, geophysical work, and drone surveys, as well as archaeological excavations.”
It is unusual for archaeologists to have this type of access to previously unexplored land, and to have the significant funding required to perform a thorough and complete investigation when early survey work produces positive results.
As the HS2 project progresses there will be much area to cover in the months and years ahead, and archaeologists are bound to discover many more wondrous reminders of historically distant times. The Coleshill Manor site is a remarkable archaeological find in its own right, but it also offers an exciting preview of things to come.
Top image: Aerial drone photo of the Coleshill Manor site, which certainly shows the size of the old property but leaves the visualization of the long-lost garden to our imagination, for now. Source: HS2 Ltd
By Nathan Falde