John Tradescant’s fame and skill as a gardener are unsurpassed in seventeenth-century England, but it is his clear-sighted honesty and loyalty that make him an invaluable servant. As an informal confidant of Sir Robert Cecil, adviser to King James I, he witnesses the making of history, from the Gunpowder Plot to the accession of King Charles I and the growing animosity between Parliament and court.
Tradescant’s talents soon come to the attention of the most powerful man in the country, the irresistible Duke of Buckingham, the lover of King Charles I. Tradescant has always been faithful to his masters, but Buckingham is unlike any he has ever known: flamboyant, outrageously charming, and utterly reckless. Every certainty upon which Tradescant has based his life—his love of his wife and children, his passion for his work, his loyalty to his country—is shattered as he follows Buckingham to court, to war, and to the forbidden territories of human love.
About the Author
Date of Birth:January 9, 1954
Place of Birth:Nairobi, Kenya, East Africa
Education:B.A. in history, Sussex University, 1982; Ph.D., 18th-century popular fiction, Edinburgh, 1984
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: April 1603
The daffodils would be fit for a king. The delicate wild daffodils, their thousand heads bobbing and swaying with the wind, light-petaled, light-stemmed, moving like a field of unripe barley before a summer breeze, scattered across the grass, thicker around the trunks of trees as if they were dewponds of gold. They looked like wildflowers; but they were not. Tradescant had planned them, planted them, nourished them. He looked at them and smiled as if he were greeting friends.
Sir Robert Cecil strolled up, his uneven tread instantly recognizable in the crunch of the gravel. John turned and pulled off his hat.
"They look well," his lordship observed. "Yellow as Spanish gold."
John bowed. The two men were near each other in age both in their thirties but the courtier was bent under a humped back and his face was lined by a lifetime of caution at court, and with pain from his twisted body. He was a small man, little more than five feet tall his enemies called him a dwarf behind his hunched back. In a beauty-conscious, fashion-mad court where appearance was everything and a man was judged by his looks and his performance on the hunting field or battlefield, Robert Cecil had started his life with an impossible disadvantage: crooked, tiny and struggling with pain. Beside him the gardener Tradescant, brown-faced and strong-backed, looked ten years younger. He waited in silence for his master to speak. It was not his place to prolong the conversation.
"Any early vegetables?" his lordship asked. "Asparagus? They say His Majesty loves asparagus."
"It's too early, my lord. Even a king new-come to his kingdom cannot hunt deer and eat fruit in the same month. They each have their season. I cannot force peaches for him in spring."
Sir Robert smiled. "You disappoint me, Tradescant, I had thought you could make strawberries grow in midwinter."
"With a hothouse, my lord, and a couple of fires, some lanterns and a lad to water and carry, perhaps I could give you Twelfth Night strawberries." He thought for a moment. "It's the light," he said to himself. "I think you would need sunlight to make them ripen. I don't know that candlelight or even lanterns would be enough."
Cecil watched him with amusement. Tradescant never failed in the respect he owed his master, but he readily forgot everything but his plants. As now, he could fall silent thinking of a gardening problem, wholly neglecting his lord who stood before him.
A man more conscious of his dignity would have dismissed a servant for less. But Robert Cecil treasured it. Alone of every man in his train, Sir Robert trusted his gardener to tell him the truth. Everyone else told him what they thought he wanted to hear. It was one of the disadvantages of high office and excessive wealth. The only information which was worth having was that given without fear or favor, but all the information a spymaster could buy was worthless. Only John Tradescant, half his mind always on his garden, was too busy to lie.
"I doubt it would be worth your effort," Sir Robert remarked. "There are seasons for most endeavors."
John suddenly grinned at him, hearing the parallel between his own work and his master's. "And your season has come," he said shrewdly. "Your fruiting."
They turned together and walked back to the great house, Tradescant a step behind the greatest man in the kingdom, respectfully attentive, but looking from side to side at every pace. There were things that wanted doing in the garden but then there were always things that wanted doing in the garden. The avenue of pleached limes needed retying before their early summer growth thrust wands of twigs out of control, the kitchen garden needed digging over; and radishes, leeks and onions should be sown into the warming spring soil. The great watercourses which were the wonder of Theobalds Palace needed weeding and cleaning; but he strolled as if he had all the time in the world, one step behind his master, waiting in silence, in case his master wanted to talk.
"I did right," Sir Robert said half to himself, half to his gardener. "The old queen was dying and she had no heir with as strong a claim as he. Not one fit to rule, that is. She would not hear his name; you had to whisper King James of Scotland if she were anywhere in any of her palaces. But all the reports I had of him were of a man who could hold two kingdoms, and perhaps even weld them together. And he had sons and a daughter there'd be no more fretting over heirs. And he's a good Christian, no taint of papistry. They breed strong Protestants in Scotland..."
He paused for a moment and gazed at his great palace set on the high terrace looking toward the River Thames. "I don't complain," he said fairly. "I've been well repaid for my work. And there's more to come." He smiled at his gardener. "I'm to be Baron Cecil of Essenden."
Tradescant beamed. "I'm glad for you."
Sir Robert nodded. "A rich reward for a hard task..." He hesitated. "Sometimes I felt disloyal. I wrote him letter after letter, teaching him the way of our country, preparing him to rule. And she never knew. She'd have had me beheaded if she had known! She'd have called it treason toward the end she called it treason even to mention his name. But he had to be prepared..."
Sir Robert broke off, and John Tradescant watched him with silent sympathy. His master often strolled into the garden to find him. Sometimes they spoke of the grounds, the formal garden, the orchards, the park, of seasonal plantings, or new plans; sometimes Sir Robert spoke at length, indiscreetly, knowing that Tradescant could keep a secret, that he was a man without guile, with solid loyalty. Sir Robert had made Tradescant his own, as effectually as if the gardener had gone down on the loam and sworn an oath of fealty, on the day that he had trusted him with the garden of Theobalds Palace. It had been a massive task for a twenty-four-year-old but Sir Robert had taken the gamble that Tradescant could do it. He was a young man himself, desperate to inherit his father's position at court, desperate for older and more powerful men to recognize his merit and his skill. He took a risk with Tradescant and then the queen took a risk with him. Now, six years later, both of them had learned their craft statesmanship and gardening and Tradescant was Sir Robert's man through and through.
"She wanted him left ignorant," Sir Robert said. "She knew what would happen to her court if she named him as heir; they'd have all slipped away from her, slipped away up the Great North Road to Edinburgh, and she'd have died alone, knowing herself to be an old woman, an ugly old woman with no kin, no lovers, no friends. I owed it to her to keep them at her beck and call to the very end. But I owed it to him to teach him as best I could...even at a distance. It was to be his kingdom; he had to learn how to govern it, and there was no one but me to teach him."
"And he knows now?" John asked, going to the very heart of it.
Sir Robert was alert. "Why d'you ask? Is there gossip that he does not?"
John shook his head. "I've heard none," he said. "But he's not a lad who has sprung up from nowhere. He must have his own way of doing things. He's a man grown, and he has his own kingdom. I was wondering if he would take your teaching, especially now that he will have his pick of advice. And it matters..."
He broke off and his master waited for him to finish.
"When you have a lord or a king," John went on, choosing his words with caution, "you have to be sure that he knows what he's doing. Because he's going to be the one who decides what you do." He stopped, bent and whisked out the little yellow head of a groundsel plant. "Once you're his man, you're stuck with him," he said frankly. "He has to be a man of judgment, because if he gets it wrong then he is ruined; and you with him."
Cecil waited in case there was more but John looked shyly down into his face. "I beg your pardon," he said. "I did not mean to suggest that the king did not know what he has to do. I was thinking of us subjects."
Sir Robert waved away the apology with one gesture of his long-fingered hand. They strolled together up the great avenue through the large formal knot garden toward the front terrace of the palace. It was done in the old style, and John had changed nothing here since his arrival as gardener. It had been laid out by Sir Robert's father in the bleak elegance of the period. Sharply defined geometric patterns of box hedging enclosed different-colored gravels and stones. The beauty of the garden was best seen if you looked down on it, from the house. Then you could see that it was as complex and lovely as a series of neat diagrams of cropped hedging and stone. John had a private ambition to change the garden after the new fashion to break up the regular square and rectangular beds and make all the separate beds one long whole, like an embroidered hem or scarf a twisting pattern that went on and on, serpentined in and about itself. When his master was less absorbed with statecraft John was going to suggest melding the beds one into another.
Once he had persuaded Sir Robert to follow the new fashion for the knot garden he had an ambition to go yet further. He longed to take out the gravel from the enclosed shapes and plant the patterns with herbs, flowers and shrubs. He wanted to see the whole disciplined shape softened and changing every day with foliage and flowers which would bloom and wilt, grow freshly green, and then pale. He had a belief, as yet unexpressed, almost unformed, that there was something dead and hard about a garden of stone paths edged with box-enclosing beds of gravel. Tradescant had a picture in his mind's eye of plants spilling over the hedges, of the thick green of the box containing wildness, fertility, even color. It was an image that drew on the hedgerow and roadside of the wild country of England and brought that richness into the garden and imposed order upon it.
"I miss her," Sir Robert admitted.
John was recalled to his real duty to be his master's man heart and soul, to love what he loved, to think what he thought, to follow him to death without question if need be. The image of the creamy tossing heads of gypsy lace and moon daisies encased by hawthorn hedging in its first haze of spring green vanished at once.
"She was a great queen," John volunteered.
Sir Robert's face lightened. "She was," he said. "Everything I learned about statecraft, I learned from her. There never was a more cunning player. And she named him at the very end. So she did her duty, in her own way."
"You named him," John said dryly. "I heard that it was you that read the proclamation which named him as king while the others were still hopping between him and the other heirs like fleas between sleeping dogs."
Cecil shot John his swift sly smile. "I have some small influence," he agreed. The two men reached the steps which led to the first terrace. Sir Robert leaned on John's sturdy shoulder and John braced himself to take the slight weight.
"He'll not go wrong while I have the guiding of him," Sir Robert said thoughtfully. "And neither I nor you will be the losers. It takes a good deal of skill to survive from one reign to the next, Tradescant."
John smiled. "Please God this king will see me out," he said. "I've seen a queen, the greatest queen that ever was; and now a new king. I don't expect to see more."
They reached the terrace and Sir Robert dropped his hand from John's shoulder and shrugged. "Oh! You're a young man still! You'll see King James and then his son Prince Henry on the throne! I don't doubt it!"
"Amen to their safe succession," John Tradescant replied loyally. "Whether I see it or not."
"You're a faithful man," Sir Robert remarked. "D'you never have any doubts, Tradescant?"
John looked quickly at his master to see if he was jesting, but Sir Robert was serious.
"I made my choice of master when I came to you," John said baldly. "I promised then that you would have no more faithful servant than me. And I promise my loyalty to the queen, and now to her heir, twice every Sunday in church before God. I'm not a man who questions these things. I take my oath and that's the end of it for me."
Sir Robert nodded, reassured as always by Tradescant's faith, as straight as an arrow to the target. "It's the old way," he said, half to himself. "A chain of master and man leading to the very head of the kingdom. A chain from the lowest beggar to the highest lord and the king above him and God above him. Keeps the country tied up tight."
"I like men in their places," Tradescant agreed. "It's like a garden. Things ordered in their right places, pruned into shape."
"No wild disorder? No tumbling vines?" Sir Robert asked with a smile.
"That's not a garden, that's outside," John said firmly. He looked down at the knot garden, the straight lines of the low clipped hedges, and behind them the sharply defined colored stones, each part of the pattern in its right place, each shape building up the design which could not even be seen clearly by the workers on the ground who weeded the gravel. To understand the symmetry of the garden you had to be gentry looking down from the windows of the house.
"My job is to make order for the master's pleasure," Tradescant said.
Sir Robert touched his shoulder. "Mine too."
They walked together along the terrace to the next great flight of steps. "All ready for His Majesty?" Sir Robert asked, knowing what the answer would be.
Tradescant waited to see if his master would speak more and then he bowed, and fell back, and watched Sir Robert limp onward, toward the grand house, to supervise the preparation for the visit of the Lord's Anointed, England's new, glorious king.
Copyright © 1998 by Philippa Gregory
Reading Group Guide
Touchstone Reading Group Guide
By Philippa Gregory
1. Authors often challenge themselves by writing from the point of view of characters of the opposite sex. Do you think Gregory does a convincing job of creating her main male character, John Tradescant? Do you think he is more or less realistic than the women in this novel, such as his wife, Elizabeth, or his daughter-in-law, Jane?
2. Sir Robert Cecil teaches John that "practice over principle" is the surest path to success and, in dangerous times, the wisest path all around. Do you agree with him? Why or why not?
3. John seeks a higher purpose and seems to find it when he realizes that collecting and displaying an array of rare plants is to honor the glory of God. Yet, his conventional and religious wife resents his traveling to achieve this goal. What is it that bothers Elizabeth so much? Do you think John's motivations for traveling change as the novel progresses? Do you think he is being honest with himself about those motivations?
4. There is much talk in Earthly Joys, particularly between John and his family, about the "Divine order" that keeps every man, woman, and child in a proscribed place of servitude and responsibility. How do you feel about this philosophy? How does John argue against Elizabeth who says, "You are a gardener-so stay at home and garden?"
5. Gregory sprinkles her historical fiction with colorful and delightful scandal. How does reading about the lives of famous men like Sir Robert Cecil, George Villiers, and Prince Charles in this context make you feel about history? If you were familiar with this time period before reading Earthly Joys, did the novel affect your understanding at all?
6. John describes his love for the Duke after they have sex as being wholly different from the love between a man and a woman (and, ostensibly, between John and his wife). Is their brief affair a continuance of John's belief that his master always comes first and must be served in all ways, or something more? Do you think he is being unfaithful to Elizabeth? Given his explanation of the event, does your opinion of John change after he becomes sexually intimate with the Duke? If so, how?
7. John has spent his whole life in willing servitude to great men, a fact that he is proud of. However, when King Charles comes to power, his feelings about men being destined to serve their "natural" masters begins to change. Why?
8. Throughout the novel, John and J clash often over their ideals and desires. Do you think John treats his son fairly? How might you deal with your own child if your fundamental beliefs and loyalties rested on opposing sides?
9. John Tradescant has three loves over the course of this novel: his first master, Sir Robert Cecil, his wife Elizabeth, and his greatest love, George Villiers. What do you think each of these people represent to John, and why does each retain his love and loyalty?