The manual was written in Latin between 1304 and 1309 by Petrus de Crescentiis. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA
The world’s oldest gardening manual which was once owned by Henry VIII is to go on display, offering bizarre horticultural tips dating back more than 700 years.
Well-thumbed and annotated, it imparts green-fingered gems such as planting squashes in human ashes for quicker fruiting, using goat manure to grow tastier lettuce and the observation that cucumbers tremble with fear at thunder. Its illustrations include one of a mandrake, a plant with anthropomorphic roots and supposed supernatural powers familiar from Shakespeare plays and the Harry Potter books.
The manual, to be exhibited by the Royal Collection Trust at Buckingham Palace next year, is believed to have influenced the lost garden at Henry VIII’s Whitehall palace, a historical backdrop to the novel Wolf Hall.
Written in Latin between 1304 and 1309 by Petrus de Crescentiis, a wealthy lawyer from Bologna, Italy, Ruralia commoda was the only publication of its kind during Henry’s reign, and entered the king’s library after the death in 1543 of its previous owner, Richard Rawson, the king’s chaplain and adviser on his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
It was in the mid-1540s that the king completed the Great Garden at Whitehall Palace, which was originally called York Place and home to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, who expanded it to such an extent that only Lambeth Palace rivalled it in London. Henry VIII commandeered the house in 1530 and renamed it the Palace of Whitehall after removing Wolsey from power. Refashioned with tennis courts, a cockfighting pit and tilting yard for jousting tournaments, it would serve as the site for his ill-fated marriages to Anne Boleyn (1533) and Jane Seymour (1536).
Thomas Cromwell, Wolsey’s secretary and later lord great chamberlain, on whose life Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall is based, would not have seen the garden’s completion, as he was executed for treason and heresy in 1540.
As well as a wealth of gardening advice, the manual includes details of how to create a royal garden, which it is thought may have provided inspiration for the king. It stipulates that a royal garden should occupy a plot of 20 acres or more and incorporate fragrant herbs that “not only delight by their odor [sic] but … refresh the sight”. It should include walks and bowers “where the king and queen can meet with the barons and lords when it is not the rainly [sic] season”, and be protected by high walls.
In such a garden, the manual says, “the king will not only take pleasure, but … after he has performed serious and obligatory business, he can be renewed in it”.
No trace of the Whitehall garden remains after the palace was destroyed by fire in 1698. But it can be seen in the background of the painting The Family of Henry VIII c 1545, which according to the Royal Collection makes it the earliest identifiable real garden in British art.
Possible signs of the manual’s advice can be seen in the picture in the form of two archways, and the garden featured a huge tiered circular fountain, thought to be in keeping with the instructions that a very pure spring should be diverted into royal gardens.
The painting is a powerful dynastic portrait of Henry VIII, the late Jane Seymour, their son Edward, and princesses Mary and Elizabeth, the king’s daughters by Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. It will be shown along with the gardening manual and the earliest surviving records of gardens and plants from the Royal Collection in the exhibition Painting Paradise: The Art of the Garden at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, from 20 March.
Other gems to be found in the Ruralia commoda include advice on estate management, hunting, falconry, wine production and bee-keeping, and the secrets to growing giant leeks, producing cherries without pits, growing different-coloured figs on the same tree and transforming basil into mint.
The exhibition’s curator Vanessa Remington, of the Royal Collection Trust, said: “This is no coffee table book but a real, thumbed-through and annotated gardening manual, showing that its various owners referred to it time and time again.
“Although it is impossible to know, it is tempting to think that Henry VIII may have sat in his library and looked through it for inspiration. What is important is that we can link the first painting of a real, recognisable royal garden with the world’s first gardening manual.”