He is known as one of history's most ruthless rulers but an item from his library poses the question of whether Henry VIII enjoyed a spot of gardening to take the edge off in between deadly divorces and religious upheaval. A manual written more than 700 years ago and acquired by the King contains such horticultural gold dust as: cucumbers shake with fear at thunder, squash will bear fruit after nine days if planted in the ashes of human bone and watered with oil and planting ingredients including a radish and lettuce seed inside a ball of goat manure will result in tasty lettuces.
Written in Latin between 1304 and 1309 by Petrus de Crescentiis, a wealthy lawyer from Bologna in Italy, Ruralia Commoda is seen as the first of its kind in the world and was the only such publication during Henry's reign. The manual entered the King's library after the death of its previous owner, the King's chaplain Richard Rawson, in 1543. As well as providing gardening advice, it also included a section on how to create a royal garden - leading to suggestions that it may have provided inspiration for Henry VIII's lost garden at Whitehall Palace.
The book will be one of the artefacts on display in an exhibition of some of the earliest and rarest surviving records of gardens and plants from the Royal Collection at Buckingham Palace, London, in March. Curator of the exhibition 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."
In the mid-1540s Henry VIII created the Great Garden at Whitehall Palace, but it was destroyed by fire in 1698. No trace of the garden remains but it can be seen in the background of the painting The Family of Henry VIII from around 1545. The painting, which will be shown in the exhibition, is a dynastic family portrait of the monarch with his wife Jane Seymour, their son Edward, and the two princesses, Mary and Elizabeth, Henry's daughters by Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn.
The manual holds that the size of the garden and the perfection of the trees and plants within it were an expression of a king's status, wealth and mastery over his environment. A royal garden should occupy a plot of 20 acres or more, and the planting of fragrant herbs was recommended because they "not only delight by their odor, but ... refresh the sight". The gardener should "between these plants ... form turf in the fashion of a seat, flowering and pleasant". The royal garden should include walks and bowers, "where the king and queen can meet with the barons and lords when it is not the rainy season", and should be surrounded by suitably high walls. In such a garden "the king will not only take pleasure, but ... after he has performed serious and obligatory business, he can be renewed in it". Glimpses of this advice put into practice can be seen through two archways in the painting.
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The manual also recommends that a very pure spring be diverted into the garden and a huge, tiered, circular fountain formed the focal point of Henry VIII's garden at Whitehall. As well as providing advice on creating "gardens for kings and other illustrious and wealthy lords", Ruralia Commoda covered estate management, from hunting and falconry to wine production and keeping neat fields. It also advised the reader how to grow giant leeks, produce cherries without pits, grow different coloured figs on the same tree, preserve roses before they bloom, and transform basil into mint. The manual contains an illustration of a mandrake with a root resembling a human, which, according to myth, would scream when it was dug up, killing those nearby.