Queen Elizabeth seems to have had a lifelong love of gardens, and creating incredible gardens for her to enjoy on her long progresses through the country became good strategy for her courtiers. This book is primarily about two: Robert Dudley's grounds at Kenilworth Castle, and William Cecil's Theobalds Palace. Dudley was flashy and romantic, and initially his younger, more cosmopolitan style won the day. But Cecil got the best gardener in all of England, a man capable of growing exotics including tobacco, potatoes, pinks and sunflowers, and Elizabeth fell in love with Theobalds as well. The longer Elizabeth stayed, the more in favor the courtier probably was, and the more grants etc. they could get out of her. The lengths they went to for her entertainment were extreme. Dudley's fireworks were so outrageous that on one occasion they nearly killed his villagers. Another time, the Earl of Hartford was given little advance warning of Elizabeth's arrival. So, unable to get his gardens up to scratch in time, he instead dug a huge crescent shaped lake in his grounds and staged a recreation of the defeat of the Spanish Armada.
These incredible pleasure gardens, which bankrupted some to create, are long gone. In fact, there are no Elizabethan gardens left in England, only ruins and reconstructions. Martyn had trouble finding details of the actual gardens at Kenilworth and Theobalds, although she provides all she found. The descriptions of the gardens and gardeners' tricks are lovely. Less lovely are Martyn uneven accounts of history, and periodic attempts to drum up interest by writing about historical figures in the present tense, as though she knows their hidden thoughts and feelings. Unnecessary!