Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants by Jennifer Potter, Paperback | Barnes & Noble
Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants

Strange Blooms: The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants

by Jennifer Potter

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Now in paperback, this beautifully written and gorgeously produced book describes the remarkable lives and times of the John Tradescants, father and son. In 17th-century Britain, a new breed of "curious" gardeners was pushing at the frontiers of knowledge and new plants were stealing into Europe from East and West. John Tradescant and his son were at the vanguard


Now in paperback, this beautifully written and gorgeously produced book describes the remarkable lives and times of the John Tradescants, father and son. In 17th-century Britain, a new breed of "curious" gardeners was pushing at the frontiers of knowledge and new plants were stealing into Europe from East and West. John Tradescant and his son were at the vanguard of this change—as gardeners, as collectors, and above all as exemplars of an age that began in wonder and ended with the dawning of science. Meticulously researched and vividly evoking the drama of their lives, this book takes readers to the edge of an expanding universe, and is a magnificent pleasure for gardeners and non-gardeners alike.

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Atlantic Books
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5.10(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.60(d)

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Strange Blooms

The Curious Lives and Adventures of the John Tradescants

By Jennifer Potter

Grove Atlantic Ltd

Copyright © 2006 Jennifer Potter
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84354-335-0


Education of a Gardener

John Tradescant's origins – as boy and gardener – remain tantalizingly obscure. The oldest surviving document from Tradescant himself is a letter he wrote in November 1609 to 'Good Mr Trumbull' complaining about the frustrations of travel. Diplomat William Trumbull was just then taking over as English Agent at the Brussels court of the archdukes Albert and his wife, the Infanta Isabella, who ruled over the Catholic Spanish Netherlands through her father, King Philip II of Spain.

The letter does not tell us why Tradescant was travelling to the Low Countries, only that he had become entangled in red tape and that his attempts to buy his way out of trouble had failed. 'I humbly thank your W[orship] for all your Cortisies,' he wrote to the diligent Trumbull, 'but your good Will and labours hath not efected what you desired to dooe for they have put me upon the Rack.' The problem was one of mounting costs with more than a hint of palm-greasing. In total Tradescant's outlay had amounted to 40s, 'besids 24s the pasag to flusshing' – and it seems he had nothing to show for it in return.

The letter is much more revealing about Tradescant the man than it is about his business. Among the neat, carefully phrased letters from other supplicants, it stands out for its blotched and awkward handwriting, haphazard spelling and complete absence of punctuation – even full stops are sorely absent. Its tone of mild pessimism also establishes Tradescant as a man for whom life did not always go as smoothly as his later career might suggest.

This first sighting of Tradescant on Dutch soil is interesting nonetheless because of enduring rumours that the Tradescants were either Dutch or Flemish by birth. It was the peevish antiquary Anthony Wood who first made this claim, in connection with the eventual inheritor of the Tradescant rarities, Elias Ashmole. As a close Oxford acquaintance of Elias Ashmole, Wood was widely believed when he said that Ashmole had acquired the rarities 'of a famous Gardener called Joh. Tredescaut a Dutchman and his Wife'. Although Wood was here referring to the younger Tradescant – demonstrably English-born – the foreign label stuck, along with other invented honours that swelled their reputations (that the elder Tradescant had gardened for Queen Elizabeth, for instance, and that one or the other first brought the pineapple to Britain).

The Dutch theory is attractive on a number of counts. Dutch parentage would help to explain how the elder Tradescant was able to travel freely and easily through the Low Countries unaided, stocking up his master's garden with 'strang and rare' shrubs, roses and flowers. When shopping in the French capital, by contrast, he needed an intermediary to help him find his way about. Tradescant's woeful spelling might provide further evidence of foreign blood, although it could equally point to a relatively humble education in England. There is no suggestion that he knew and used Latin for anything other than plant names, later in life.

A Dutch connection (of blood or training) would also help to explain Tradescant's extraordinary gardening talents and his fondness for the exotic and the strange. Until the sixteenth century at least, gardening in England was much more primitive than on the continent, where France and Italy led the way in matters of style while the Netherlands took the lead in horticultural practice. Dutch ports such as Antwerp provided the gateway through which many coveted rare plants and exotics slipped into Europe, among them the tulips from Turkey and elsewhere that set the Netherlands ablaze with tulip fever in the 1630s.

Against this, neither Tradescant nor any obvious member of his family appears among the lists of aliens applying for letters of denization or naturalization, nor among the lists of strangers with which a xenophobic England was periodically obsessed. Records are fallible, of course, but it is remarkable how many of his foreign-born contacts do appear in the lists. In all the bills and accounts so meticulously kept at Hatfield House, Tradescant's nationality is never specified, unlike 'Henrick Mansfeild a dutchman' who brought over cherry trees, medlars and walnut trees; or fountain-builder Salomon de Caus, often referred to simply as 'the Frenchman'. For accounting purposes John Tradescant was as manifestly English as Mountain Jennings, Cecil's other gardener and prime earth-mover of his grand new garden.

So any Dutch blood mentioned by Elias Ashmole to Anthony Wood must have come from earlier generations. Much more likely is the view put forward by previous biographers that the elder Tradescant was born into a largely yeoman family that had lived in Suffolk since at least the first quarter of the sixteenth century. Working on leads unearthed by Mea Allan, Prudence Leith-Ross diligently tracked members of a family variously named as Treylnseant, Treyluscant, Tradeskante, Traluscant and Tradescant around a small area of north-east Suffolk, through wills and fading parish records of baptisms, marriages and burials. From the mid-1520s, when a William Treylnseant was living at Wenhaston, some five miles inland from Walberswick, members of the family moved slowly northwards, settling for a time at the inland parish of Henstead where Tradescant was one of a handful of names that appear frequently in the early part of the parish register, according to a local historian compiling a parochial history of Suffolk. All the names in fact belong to John Tradescant's immediate family, for here yeoman Thomas Tradescant fathered many children in the 1550s and 1560s, John's siblings and half-siblings from his father's two marriages.

Thomas's first wife Elyner, whom he married in 1543, produced perhaps as many as ten children, although few survived into adulthood and several died soon after birth (the registers are damaged in places but family wills add missing names). Elyner herself died in 1564 and that same year Thomas Tradescant married John's mother, Johane Settaway, who began immediately to procreate: a first-born John Tradescant, baptized in December 1565 but dead before the end of the month. The following year saw the birth of his brother Nicholas, then shortly afterwards the name 'Tradescant' abruptly vanishes from Henstead's parish register when the family moved again to Corton, a small fishing village four miles beyond Lowestoft perched high on the cliffs above a fast-eroding coastline.

Here at Corton, it seems, the elder John Tradescant was born sometime around 1570 (his dead father would be described as 'Thomas Tradescant of Corton') but, maddeningly, the Corton parish register does not start until 1579 so the chain cannot be guaranteed. Although John Tradescant appears to have moved right away from his Suffolk family roots, his own son John would remember the connection in his will, leaving 5s apiece 'to my two namesakes Robert Tredescant and Thomas Tredescant, of Walberswick in the Countie of Suffolk', and 2s 6d to each of their surviving children. His widow Hester gave them all a further 2s 6d each, describing the two men as 'my late husbands Kinsmen'.

Whether these Suffolk Tradescants came originally from the Low Countries is not recorded. London's Huguenot Library produced one solitary listing for Tradescant: a Catherine Tradescant from Woodbridge in Suffolk, a member of the Walloon congregation of Norwich whose will was listed among those of other 'strangers' proved in the mid-1700s. As the Walloons originated from the French-speaking part of what is now southern and eastern Belgium, this brings us no closer to detecting Dutch or Flemish blood.

Perhaps, after all, the secret of Tradescant's 'Dutchness' lies buried in the Suffolk countryside. Throughout much of the Middle Ages, Suffolk's prosperity flowed from the export of wool to the continent where it was finished by skilled Flemish weavers in the great textile centres of Bruges, Arras and elsewhere. An influx of Flemish settlers to East Anglia – especially during the fourteenth century – brought these cloth-making skills to eastern England, as families were driven out by floods and later by Europe's fomenting religious divisions that pitched Catholics against the growing Protestant tide. After the weavers came the horticulturalists and market gardeners, who settled around Colchester and Norwich in particular, their numbers swelling sharply from the 1570s when the Low Countries began to suffer the economic dislocation of political unrest that would eventually split them into the Protestant north and the Catholic south.

By the time of John Tradescant's birth, the populations of eastern England and the Low Countries were thoroughly interlocked. In a study of English travellers abroad, John Stoye singled out the younger son of a Norfolk family, about 1550, who worked as a merchant's factor in Bruges where he spent the greater part of each year, while his Dutch wife kept house for him in England. After her death he took a second wife with landed estates at Antwerp and with her capital built a large trade between England and the Low Countries. There he stayed until the wars finally brought him home. 'This intimate connection between neighbouring peoples appeared part of the natural order,' commented Stoye.

The trade went the other way just as easily, as evidenced by the correspondence (in Latin) between two men who knew Tradescant well: John Morris, Master of the Watermills in London, writing to his friend Antwerpborn Johannes de Laet. Morris's father was a Dutchman by birth but a free denizen by choice, who had worked for Queen Elizabeth's handsome dancing Chancellor, Sir Christopher Hatton. De Laet, also a free denizen of England, chose instead to return to continental Europe, where he settled in Leiden, although his son Samuel married the daughter of a Dutch merchant who had settled in London. Perhaps the well-travelled John Tradescant would have shared Morris's view that he was a citizen of the world rather than of England. Foreign birth mattered, of course, to those forced by law to pay their taxes twice over, and those who suffered from English prejudice, incipient xenophobia or simply fear of competition. But in John Tradescant's time, nationality was not the only – nor even the most important – way of defining yourself.

There remains the puzzle of where and how the young Tradescant learnt to garden, a journey that would take him from an undistinguished Suffolk coastal village where the rector stored manure in his chancel to the Lord Treasurer's grand new garden at Hatfield House. Sadly, Tradescant's friend, the apothecary and incomparable garden writer John Parkinson, gives us no clues to Tradescant's early career, merely noting that he was 'sometimes belonging to the right Honourable Lord Robert Earle of Salisbury, Lord Treasurer of England in his time, and then unto the right Honourable the Lord Wotton at Canterbury in Kent, and lastly unto the late Duke of Buckingham'. How Tradescant came to be Cecil's gardener is passed over in silence.

Yet Robert Cecil employed only the very best artists and artisans to craft the properties that were the outward sign of his political power – men who came with a solid reputation, such as Salomon de Caus, engineer to the king's eldest son, Prince Henry, or rising stars such as architect Inigo Jones. John Tradescant's appointment as one of Cecil's named gardeners at Hatfield suggests he was either known personally to Cecil or had been recommended by someone of standing.

There are places close to Tradescant's birthplace and further afield in Suffolk where he might have learnt the gardening skills that would carry him to Hatfield and world renown. Less than five miles west of Corton lies Somerleyton Hall, owned by the Jernegan family for nearly three centuries until 1604 when it was bought by the energetic builder and farmer John Wentworth, who sparked local resentment (and a lawsuit) by his enclosure of common land. Wentworth adorned his house and park with fine gardens, woods, fishponds, water gardens, orchards, walks and a plantation of 256 fir trees, reputedly 'the most incomparable piece in the Realm of England' until it was flattened by a hurricane half a century later.

There were even family connections to the place. The Tradescant relatives included a Thomas Tradescant (probably John Tradescant's older half-brother) who was first described as a 'single man' of Somerleyton and later of London. Tradescant's widowed mother took as her second husband a William Stanton whose family held land in Somerleyton. As Wentworth started on his new garden about the time Tradescant went to work for Cecil, this makes the connection unlikely.

An earlier Suffolk garden and therefore more promising as a possible link is Hengrave Hall to the north-west of Bury St Edmunds. The house was built between 1525 and 1538 for Sir Thomas Kytson, a fabulously wealthy wool merchant, merchant adventurer and former sheriff of London who kept a staff in Antwerp. Kytson died in 1540, leaving a second wife, who gave birth to his posthumous son (another Sir Thomas) who embarked on a second round of garden improvements in the late 1570s and 1580s – just when the young Tradescant was setting out on his career as a gardener.

Originally moated (a large fishpond survives, and a formal garden now threatened with weeds), Hengrave Hall was approached by a long straight causeway raised above ditches on either side and lined with a triple avenue. 'It sounds Dutch,' wrote Norman Scarfe in The Suffolk Landscape.

And when the builder's son, in 1575, wanted to improve the setting of his house, he got a 'Dutchman gardener' over from Norwich to look at the orchards, gardens and walks, clip the knots, alter the alleys, and re-plant. Three years later, the Queen and Leicester and the entire court were here in late August, and treated to a spectacle 'representing the fayries, as well as might be'.

Kytson's gardens at Hengrave were of a magnificence that foreshadowed Cecil's at Hatfield House. As well as a great and a little park, he had a vineyard or orchard, gardens, a hop ground, a hemp ground, a bowling alley and multiple fishponds. He kept seven boats for the moat and ponds, finishing his waterworks by 1583 when he paid a final bill to 'Martin Plomer, at London, for bringing hoame of the water to all the offices at Hengrave house'. It is possible to imagine Tradescant as a boy-gardener coming to work for just such a Suffolk grandee, perhaps initially apprenticed to one of East Anglia's Dutch gardeners who may conceivably have taken him travelling through the Low Countries and shown him the best places to buy plants.

The Kytsons and Robert Cecil had a friend in common who may have helped the talented young gardener's progress from Suffolk to London and Hatfield: (Sir) Walter Cope, a political figure of some importance and one of Robert Cecil's closest acolytes. Tradescant would later buy trees for Cope in the Low Countries, which could imply a favour returned. From a letter that Cope wrote to Lady Kytson warning her of the dangers of recusancy, Cope was clearly on intimate terms with the family. Before gaining employment with Cecil, Tradescant may even have gardened for Cope at the magnificent new mansion he was building in Kensington around 1605, known originally as Cope's Castle. When John Chamberlain, a chronicler of the times, visited in 1608 he was not allowed to touch a thing, 'not so much as a cherry', as the family was expecting a visit from Queen Anne.

Another possible route to Cecil was through Sir Noel Caron from Bruges, 'Holland Ambassador' at the courts of Queen Elizabeth and King James from 1590 until his death in 1624. Well loved as a philanthropist and founder of an almshouse for poor but honest women, Caron was another keen gardener who sent gifts of fruit to his English counterparts. In 1606 he sent black and red cherries, plums and pears to Robert Cecil, thanking God he had found such a fertile place for his garden, where everything grew in abundance. Caron's much-admired garden, intriguingly, was in South Lambeth where he became one of the major landowners. After Caron's death, John Tradescant would move into one of his properties, founding there his famous garden and proto-museum that was to become popularly known as 'the Ark'. Given this later property link between Tradescant and Sir Noel, the Dutch ambassador remains a possible conduit to Cecil but real evidence is lacking, just as it is for other potential employers. Caron's patronage nonetheless secured advancement for other protégés such as the excitable artist and connoisseur, Balthazar Gerbier, whom he first introduced to English society.


Excerpted from Strange Blooms by Jennifer Potter. Copyright © 2006 Jennifer Potter. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Jennifer Potter is the author of three novels and two works of non-fiction, Secret Gardens and Lost Gardens, written to accompany the television series. She reviews regularly for the TLS and writes on travel and gardens for a wide range of national newspapers and magazines.

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