November 28, 2022

Funeral wreaths and other royal reinventions

The break in the British drought has resulted in a heavenly autumn bloom in our gardens. I saw it through the prism of history, first through a visit to the garden of a house with ancient connections, then through the late Queen’s funeral. Like the monarchy, this house and its garden have had a history of reinventing themselves.

I’ll take the funeral first. The flowers on the Queen’s coffin for Westminster Abbey have been superbly matched, chosen and arranged. Flowers from traditional florists were downplayed in favor of flowers from the various royal gardens: they were truly elegant and none of them wilted, even under the gaze of millions of onlookers around the world.

Seasonal pink-red sedum buds kept company with dark red scab and roses I struggled to identify on my TV screen: some of them, I think, were the new Platinum Jubilee rose, bred by Harkness Roses and launched this year. What a joy to see dahlias in the center, not just British flowers but flowers that gardeners have continued to enjoy during the Queen’s long reign.

When displayed in Westminster Hall, the coffin was decorated with white flowers, but even there seasonal dahlias were in the foreground. I was unable to verify with the Palace, but here are my identifications of the varieties on display.

The white dahlias were Caro and the excellent Karma Maarten Zwaan, two top choices for next year, the latter being a great grower and freelance florist as I can attest from my plants this fall. On the coffin at the Abbey, the dark red doubles were either Arabian Night, one of the best picks of decades, or the more recently bred Karma Choc. Both are excellent. They will carry memories of the event into the following September. I will be sure to have some in the garden.

I preceded the big occasion with a visit to Great Chalfield Manor in Wiltshire. This remarkable house dates back to the years when wars between two competing royal houses divided the country during the Wars of the Roses. It is now owned by the National Trust but remains inhabited by its donor family, the Floyds. They manage the garden, while the Trust maintains the house. The day before the funeral, I was taken to the garden by its presiding genius, Patsy Floyd, who has styled and planted her 8 acres for the past 30 years.

Flowers from the Royal Gardens adorned the Queen’s coffin © Marc Aspland/Reuters

Chalfield Manor has several links to the monarchy and nobility. They begin with a sequel to the victory of the English King Henry V over the French at Agincourt. They continue into the civil war of the 1640s when the mansion was seized and damaged by anti-royal roundheads. In the 1760s he became linked to a lady King George II tried to caress. In the early 1900s, it benefited from a reinvention of tradition, which the monarchy also began to exploit.

First, Azincourt. On the battlefield, Lord Hungerford is said to have captured a supreme prize, the Duke of Orleans. Freed from trade deals, he brought him back to England as a prisoner where the Duke was kept in custody for the next 25 years. Aided by his proceeds from the battle, Hungerford continued to amass ever more properties in England. Adept at detecting talent, he hired the young Thomas Tropenell in his team to take care of legal cases.

Tropenell then spread his own wings and acquired properties throughout Wiltshire. He would surely enjoy our House & Home section, as he has amassed over 40, including the site of Great Chalfield, where he began building the first great mansion in the 1460s. the two sides in the Royal Wars of the Roses in the meantime. He was described by a contemporary as a “perilous greedy man”. You probably know others.

After suffering through the Civil War, Chalfield passed to the Duke of Kingston and his mistress Elizabeth Chudleigh, whom he married in 1769. By then she had been proposed to by King George II, who had tried to put the hand on one of Her breasts. Skillfully, she anticipated it and transferred it to what she called a softer place: the King’s forehead. It wasn’t until after Kingston married her that it emerged that she was already married. She was later tried for bigamy at Westminster Hall.

Chalfield’s story already reads like a subplot of The crown, but by 1900 it had fallen into very poor condition. Fortunately, the plans for its original architecture had been drawn up in the 1840s by a pupil of the neo-Gothic architect Pugin. In the early 1900s, a new family of owners acted on them.

They are an example of invigorating social mobility. Home and garden heir Robert Fuller trained as an engineer and later became the head of the family business Avon Rubber. Taking advantage of the invention of rubber-tyred bicycles and then cars, he rebuilt Chalfield Manor to the plan of the 1840s with the help of a skilled Gothic Revival architect, Harold Brakspear. He also hired garden artist Alfred Parsons to design and plant the gardens in a nostalgic English style.

“Neo” movements don’t get much credit from modern critics. As Chalfield was given a second life, kilts and Scottish baronial architecture, two neo-fashions, had revived the British monarchical style. In her update of Parsons’ plan for the garden, Patsy Floyd showed me her own reinterpretations at Chalfield, enjoyed by National Trust visitors. They include neatly trimmed lavender hedges, myrtles, rosemary, dahlias and pink roses, flowers that have all earned a place in recent royal crowns.

When lavender bushes grow long after several years, they are pruned hard to the ground in late May, but thrive on treatment. Dahlias are cactus-like and orange-flowered, expertly blended with the lantern-shaped orange seed heads of physalis. Pink roses include an overlooked favorite, the two-flowered Nathalie Nypels, a bushy variety well worth growing.

Dahlias in Great Chalfield

Dahlias in Great Chalfield

In a new long border, white-flowered gauras have been nicely blended with New England daisies, backed by thick lengths of hazel. In an adjoining bed, the magenta-pink Salvia involucrata is paired only with the dark purple-blue Salvia Amistad, each enhancing the color of the other. These salvias are often hardy in the winter, but Patsy Floyd takes hers to a reserve polytunnel and cuts them to the ground in November, keeping them dense and not too tall for the following summer.

She began her career as a photographer, particularly of horses, including famous race winners such as Secretariat and Mill Reef. She traces her sense of color to her work with a camera, including work for racing, the sport of kings and our late queen.

In the space of a day, I reflected on how much planting in an English garden like Chalfield was connected to the flowers chosen for the Queen’s final crown. At an American state funeral, I would expect formal flower wreaths such as lilies, and at a French funeral, a white or peach garland of florist roses intertwined in a chic style. In Britain, the final crown was one of the flowers that British gardeners, like their queen, actually grow. It couldn’t have been better.

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