|Westminster Abbey Precincts - The College Garden||Westminster|
The College Garden where medicinal herbs were grown for the monastery since the C11th, remains a private garden of Westminster Abbey although it is accessible to the public. Its name is taken from the old meaning of the word 'college', being a community of clergy. Enclosed by early C14th walls, the garden is ornamented with four weathered statues of the apostles carved in 1686 by Grinling Gibbons and Arnold Quellin that were formerly in the Queen's Chapel in the Palace of Whitehall. The Canon's House in the south-east corner is by J.L. Pearson (1882). Within the garden is a rose garden celebrating Queen Elizabeth II's accession in 1952 and more recently a herb garden was created to celebrate the monks who lived here and the foundation of Westminster School in 1560.
The information shown above was correct at the time of the last update 01/05/2012
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Westminster Abbey and its precincts are probably on the site of an C8th Saxon church dedicated to St Peter built on what was then Thorney Island. There was later a Benedictine settlement here, which became a monastery by the C10th and soon gained royal support. The Danish King Cnut was the first monarch to build his palace by the monastery in the early C11th, and subsequently Edward the Confessor built both Westminster Abbey and his new Palace of Westminster (q.v.) on adjacent land, although he died just after the Abbey was completed in 1066. William the Conqueror also adopted the palace as a royal residence and was crowned at the Abbey. Westminster School originated as a small charity school provided by the abbey's Benedictine monks in c.1179. Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries the school's continuation was ensured by a statute of Henry VIII of 1540 and it was granted a charter by Elizabeth I in 1560. Although the monastery was dissolved in 1539, Westminster Abbey became the seat of a bishop in 1540 and was designated as a cathedral until Queen Mary was on the throne, when the old religion was restored and the abbey once again had an abbot, together with 15 monks. On Queen Elizabeth I's accession in 1558, a dean and prebendaries were put in place at Westminster Abbey. The Palace of Westminster had become the permanent seat of government in 1512 after Henry VIII moved his residence to the Palace of Whitehall.
The College Garden is on the site of Westminster Abbey's first Infirmary Garden established in C11th, so land here has been cultivated for over 900 years. Records in Westminster Abbey Library refer to a herbarium completed in 1306, and there is another reference in the same year to a little garden with a locked gate that may be this garden. The Infirmary Garden would have been planted with fruit and vegetables grown for food, as well as medicinal plants, and was cultivated under the direction of a Senior Monk of the Abbey, the Infirmarer, who had care of the monastic community as well as local people. The Infirmary Garden would also have been a place of convalescence for the monks. Plants such as fennel and hyssop would have been among the medicinal herbs, and these are present in the garden today. Herbs may have been grown in a series of small raised beds, and there were areas of grass large enough for the harvesting of hay. By the C15th there were two ponds, one either side of the central path, which were probably also for medicinal plants such as water lilies.
The oldest surviving features in the garden are the stone precinct walls at the far end of the garden and along the left-hand side. To the right stands the C18th dormitory building belonging to Westminster School designed by the Earl of Burlington although an earlier design was by Christopher Wren. The garden contains plane trees planted in 1850, and other trees include a mature fig tree, redwood, ornamental cherry trees and a white mulberry. The area immediately to the right of the present entrance may have been the herbarium site in 1306, now a knot garden with white and blue lavender. There are numerous herbs in the borders and in pots and a new herb garden has been created in celebration of the lives of the monks who resided here and of the founding of Westminster School. This is divided into four wicker-edged beds containing dye plants, vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs. The College Garden is now used for fund-raising events for charities such as the Macmillan Cancer Relief Fund.
Francis Bond, 'Westminster Abbey' (Oxford University Press, 1909); Harold Clunn, the Face of London (c1950), p.952; Ben Weinreb & Christopher Hibbert, 'The London Encyclopaedia' (Macmillan, revised ed. 1993), p.952; history on Westminster Abbey website