A garden fit for a king

The University’s Special Collections houses an exceptional collection of rare books and prints from the 17th century, which throws light on the life of diarist and writer John Evelyn, who documented major events during his lifetime – including the last major epidemic of the bubonic plague in Britain.

Born into a prosperous family in the year 1620, John Evelyn was a prolific writer and scholar and a contemporary of the famous diarist Samuel Pepys. A lover of books, Evelyn was also a highly regarded horticulturalist and a dedicated public servant with a huge variety of interests and friends.

Showcasing his love for horticulture and reputation as a gardener and expert on trees, the archive contains a 1706 copy of Evelyn’s most successful publication, Sylva, which had the distinction of being the first official publication of the Royal Society in 1664.

This love of horticulture and especially of trees was life-long and at times of stress or grief Evelyn clearly found peace and strength from it. 

This is shown in how Evelyn channelled much of his enthusiasm for horticulture into redesigning and perfecting the gardens at his beloved Wotton House, as well as in his writing. Towards the end of his life, the effects of a great storm which ravaged the gardens were described by Evelyn as ‘almost tragical, not to be parallel’d with any thing happening in our age.  I am not able to describe it …”

On another occasion, Czar Peter the Great, who visited London in 1698 to research shipbuilding methods, found himself at Sayes Court in Deptford, formerly Evelyn’s wife’s family home, where Evelyn lived for 40 years.

Peter, who had a well-deserved reputation for drunkenness and wild living, vandalised both house and garden, and in the process Evelyn’s prized holly hedge was ruined – Peter had enjoyed sitting in a wheelbarrow and being repeatedly pushed through it at speed. 

As Evelyn’s horrified steward wrote to his master, ‘There is a house full of people and right nasty’. 

After this disastrous tenancy, Evelyn asked his friend Christopher Wren and his gardener to estimate the cost of the damage, which they calculated as about £320 in total – a vast sum at the time.