Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Shakespeare's Apricocks

Shakespeare’s natural world has been much commented upon over the centuries.  As in so many matters, his grasp of gardening, in particular, has been declared at times to be exceptional.  One popular 19th century commentator even went so far as to assert that he must surely have worked as a gardener at some point during his youth.

While he may never have been a gardener, he does seem more than superficially knowledgeable about the gardens of his day.  One detail of such matters that he got wrong, however, is as much to the point as any.  In Richard II the Duke of York’s gardener and his helper have a conversation which includes the following (iii.4.30-37):

Gardiner.
Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks,
Which, like unruly children, make their sire
Stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight:
Give some supportance to the bending twigs.
Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.

It was Shakespeare’s habit to bring in common folk, of this sort, for comic relief and/or information.  These get off easily compared to most.  They’ve been brought in simply to give excuse for a series of gardening metaphors.

What Shakespeare got wrong here, is that there were no apricot trees in England in the 14th century.  While it is unlikely that the playwright was particular about such anachronisms, we as readers are a bit richer for this one.  For not only were there no apricots in the garden of the Duke of York but there were no apricots in any gardens at least until the 1520s.  Even then it is an educated guess that the trees were first introduced into England through the gardens of Henry VIII.[1]  The first certain mention of the tree in the country is found in 1548, in William Turner’s The Names of Herbs.

Malus armeniaca is called in Greeke, Melea armeniace, in highe duche Land ein amarel baume, in the dioses of Colo kardumelker baume, in frëch Vng abricottier, and some englishe më cal the fruite au Abricok. Me thynke seinge that we haue very fewe of these trees as yet, it were better to cal it, an hasty Peche tree because it is lyke a pech and it is a great whyle rype before the pech trees, wherfore the fruite of thys tree is called malum precox. There are in Colö great plentie of hasty peche trees.[2]

The “we haue very fewe of these trees as yet” makes clear that the tree was still rare in 1548.


In fact, the apricot tree and its fruit would not become common until the reign of Charles I, when a new variation was brought back to England by the famous botanist John Tradescant (the Younger).  John Marston would mention the fruit in a play[3] early in the century but he was so smitten with the plays of Shakespeare, and borrowed so much from his master, that we do not have any reason to feel confident he’d ever actually seen the tree.  The first mention of the fruit in a major play seems to have been an infamous scene[4] from John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, first published in 1616.  Even at that late date it was clearly associated with the gardens of the nobility.  It was a fruit with class distinctions.

The passage from Richard II is actually quite knowledgeable about the details of how 




[1] Cecil, Evvelyn, A History of Gardening in England, 97. “The greatest addition to the number of cultivated fruits was the apricot, which was certainly introduced before the middle of the sixteenth century, probably by Henry the Eighth's gardener Wolf about 1524.” 
[2] Britten, James. The Names of Herbs, by William Turner A.D. 1548, 52.
[3] Marston, John.  The Fawne (1606), I. ii.  “…pare thy beard, clense thy teeth, and eat apricocks…”  The apricots are intended to mark him out as a gallant.
[4] Webster, John.  The Duchess of Malfi (1616) II.i.all.


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  • Desperately Seeking Bridget (de Vere).  August 24, 2014.  "Even most people who assert that the Earl of Oxford was the poet and playwright Shake-speare (a group to which I resoundingly belong) do not seem to know that she was engaged, in 1598, to William Herbert, soon to inherit the Earldom of Pembroke,..."

Shakespeare's Apricocks (p. 2)

gardeners go about their craft.  It is not the only such passage among the plays.  Not only is he right about the proper care for the tree in the month of May (or early June, the month in which, history records, Bolingbroke captured King Richard), and that the fruit would be heaviest at that time, but he is well aware of the appearance of the tree and that it would have been considered an essential plant for the au courant nobleman’s garden at the time the play was written.  Throughout his plays, Shakespeare seems to have been quite conversant in the cherished new plants that were found only in the private gardens of the nobility.

Private botanical gardens[1] were the very expensive hobby of the Royalty of England, a tiny handful of noblemen and the experts who supplied their needs, until well into the 17th century.  After Queen Elizabeth’s botanical garden, (inherited from Henry VIII) at Nonesuch, William Cecil, Lord Burghley’s gardens at Cecil House on the Strand, and later at Burghley House in Stamford, would seem to have been without parallel.  Before the garden could be designed and installed at Burghley House — the work of 20 years under the guidance of the famous herbalist John Gerard — the gardens of the Carew family at their seat in Beddington may have been the finest privately held botanical gardens in the country.


Francis Carew is credited with introducing the orange tree to England.  It had to be before the following letter to him as Cecil’s sometime Paris agent in such matters:

When this messengar was redy to depart, my Lady Throkmorton gave me a lettre from Tho. Cecill, wherin he maketh mention that Mr. Caroo meaneth to send home certen orenge, potngranat, lymon, and myrt trees. I have alredy an orrenge tree; and if the price be not much, I pray you procure for me a lymon, a pomegranat, and a myrt tree ; and help that they may be sent to London, with Mr. Caroo's trees;…[2]

This order is almost certainly intended for the gardens at Cecil House on the Strand which Sir William had moved into, in a state of partial completion, in 1560.  His gardens there were also impressive, in time, but in later years Burghley House had not just one orange tree but a small orchard, each tree residing in a large tub, such that it could be carried to spend the winter inside of an early version of a greenhouse.  Presumably, his lemon trees made the trip as well.

As most Oxfordian’s know, the young Earl arrived at the house on the Strand on September 3, 1562, a year and a half after this shipment of trees.  He lived mostly at the 




[1] I use the term “botanical” loosely here, to describe gardens that regularly featured plants new to the country as part of their program.
[2] Cecil, William to Francis Carew, March 25, 1561, from Westminster.


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  • Shake-speare's Greek.  May 08, 2014.  "It is not at all clear from Jonson’s limited comments on Shakespeare, throughout his life, whether he was aware that the Bard may have actually translated a Greek text popular for many centuries."

Shakespeare's Apricocks (p. 3)

house for the next 10 years, as the gardeners worked outside the windows.  How often he visited Burghley’s first great house, at Theobalds, some five miles from the Strand, where there were also extensive gardens, we are not apprised that I am aware.  It must have been at least as often as the Queen went on progress stopping at her treasurer’s beloved estate along her route.  This she did on numerous occasions.

But the Strand was also impressive enough to entertain a Queen as she was accustomed.  In June of 1583, in fact, she began her progress there, and, after touring the gardens, she permitted Oxford to her presence for the first time in three years.  The young Earl had been exiled from her court, in disgrace, after committing the greatest of sins: he had impregnated one of her Ladies-in-Waiting.

Her Majestie cam yesterday to Grenwich from my Lord Tresurer's. She was never in any place better plesed and sure the howse garden and walks may compare with any delicat place in Itally. The day she cam away which was yesterday my Lord of Oxford cam to her presence and after some bitter words and speches in the end all sins ar forgiven and he may repayre to the court at his pleasure.[1]

As much as we might wish to know more about the “bitter words and speeches,” we learn that the gardens at the Strand were a marvel even in the eyes of a Queen.

But nowhere in all of this is specific mention of apricot trees.  I am not aware of a single direct statement that Cecil had the trees in either of his gardens.  That’s not surprising.  A lot of small detail fails to survive 450 years.


But Gerard’s garden, one-half mile from the Strand, in Holborn, seems to have been something of a gift from Cecil to his botanical advisor.  It was this garden that taught Gerard the skills to build the garden at Burghley House.  Among the trees there was the apricot.

Another piece of circumstantial evidence argues for the presence of the apricot in the various gardens of William Cecil.  In 1607, William Cecil’s son, Robert, the then Earl of Salisbury, and King James I, exchanged Theobalds for Hatfield House.  The king is said to have spent considerable time at his new mansion.  Alterations were made.  Whether to gardens as well as buildings is not clear.

After James’ son, Charles I, was executed, an official survey of the royal lands was undertaken prior to selling them off.  The survey of Theobalds was accomplished in 1650.  Among the many fascinating facts, we learn that “Pheasant garden… conteynes… 5 Apricock trees…” and “goeinge into another garden called by ye name of the Laundrie garden… 5 aprecock trees,…”.[2]  In a corner of the massive kitchen garden, “Also A Dooreway in ye sayd garden, leading into ye Mulberrie walke. Which sayd garden is walled round, and there is growinge to the walls, 25 Apricock trees,..”.




[1] Purdy, Gilbert.  Edward de Vere was Shakespeare:at long last the proof @ 149.  Manuscripts of His Grace the Duke of Rutland GCB preserved at Belvoir Castle ( London: His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1888), I.150.
[2] Amherst, Alicia.  A History of Gardening in England (1896), 327-329.

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  • Enter John Lyly.  October 18, 2016.  "From time to time, Shakespeare Authorship aficionados query after the name “John Lyly”.  This happens surprisingly little given the outsized role the place-seeker, novelist and playwright played in the lives of the playwright William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere."