In the years of the 15th C before France was consolidated as a nation by a succession of kings the country was ruled and contested by several Royal houses vying for supremacy among them those based in Naples, Provence, Aragon, Savoy, Sicily and Anjou. Between them they parlayed and sought alliances with bigger powers, particularly the Holy Roman Empire and the Papal State. With borders and spheres of influence in constant flux strong defences were the key to maintaining power and control.
At Tarascon, on the banks of the Rhône stands a massive fortified palace that once was a stronghold of René d’Anjou whose kingdom, backed by the military and naval power of the King of Naples, comprised five separate realms – Anjou, Barrois, Lorraine, Catalonia and Provence. To maintain his claims to power René had to travel almost constantly between his realms and to the court of his allies in Naples so gardens of any kind were very low down on any list of royal household priorities. The Papal court, then based in Avignon, was also a necessary place to conduct strategic diplomacy. With cart-loads of tapestries, silver and gold plate, his Treasury, furniture, clothes, horses, courtiers, musicians, priests, cantors, clerks, scribes, knights, squires and arms to be transported every time the court shifted the various household officers in charge had plenty to worry about. Provisioning and logistics must have been foremost.
Yet, despite its powerful strategic position and magnificent interiors – some thirty palatial rooms luxuriously appointed with windows, privies and fireplaces the Château de Tarascon was a lesser Royal residence and more often than not stood empty but for the garrison and Captain. The seven storey castle still towers over the surrounding houses of the town and is in a wonderful state of preservation.
When René, his court and new queen, Jeanne de Laval, made a royal progress from to Lyon to Aix in 1454 it was decided to spend some months at Tarascon. The chateau needed up-grading as it had not been occupied for eight years. This work was directed by René’s captain Robert Crépin. Among his responsibilities work was undertaken to replant the garden within the walls. This took the form of a private, sheltered ‘garth’ where-in the queen and her ladies could relax and enjoy the pleasaunce provided by fruit trees, flowers, sweet herbs, bird song and tinkling water while they embroidered, read and gossiped. It is situated between the outer walls adjacent to the service range of buildings – the kitchens, buttery, larder, cellars, baker, brewery and apothecary so it has a domestic feel and is well away from the military and administrative centres in the main keep. Réne also ordered aviaries to be built to house turtledoves, quails and an ostrich! He also owned six camels but they were kept at a nearby rural estate.
It seems very likely that between occupations by the royal family the gardens, among many other things, were let go since there was no strategic use for them and maintenance would have been a cost against the expenses of the courtly household.
The present garden was made in 1993 following much research and investigation into the gardens of the Middle Ages. The design and planting were drawn from gardens shown in tapestries and illuminated books from the 15th C. (See the backgrounds to La Dame à la licorne and Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry for well-known examples.) The layout is a simple rectangular grid with a central water rill. Fig, pear and apple are the main trees supported by lesser known fruits from the Mediterranean such as azarole (Crataegus azerollus) and prune. The beds are planted informally in a manner called ‘mille fiori’ which we would recognise as a cottage garden mixture of flowers, vegetables, medicinal herbs, culinary herbs and plants with scented foliage. The original covered walk (chemin de ronde) that surrounded the garden has not been reconstructed.
From the evidence of tapestries and illuminated books and manuscripts the garden plants of the Middle Ages are (mostly) easily identified: roses, honeysuckle, dianthus, lilies, johnny-jump-up, mallows, cornflowers, strawberries, corn-cockles, endive, periwinkles, harebells, daisies (Bellis), marguerites (annual chrysanthemum), pimpernel, raspberries, primroses, yarrow, poppies, irises. Alongside these would have been scented herbs such as sweet rood-ruff, lemon balm, lads love, tansy and lavender. (See Medieval Gardens by Sir Frank Crisp (1924) for a very detailed survey of the garden plants of the era.) Given the size of the household it would seem pragmatic to buy in culinary herbs from the town market rather than grow them, while peasant women would have been instructed to gather the flowers from the forest, woods and pathways.
Wattle hurdles used as low fences around the beds, turf seats, pergolas and rustic bowers made of cut branches have not survived. Being short lived by the nature of the materials from which they were made it seems probable that successive gardens were simply swept away and a new garden made whenever the Royal entourage was expected to stay a few months, an example that could well be replicated again even in Republican times.
Though a replica of a 15th C garden, the impact is most striking. The setting inside the high walls and mighty towers – all intact – provides the atmosphere of confinement and isolation from the outside world that must have dominated life in the castle even for those at the peak of the social order. Added to which were the strictures of courtly behaviour and rigid rules of interaction between men and women at every level of the social order that must have severely limited the daily lives of the ladies of the court. It is easy then to appreciate how greatly a role the small garden played in easing the boredom and regimentation they felt.