Сontent | Library | Late Middle Ages

Find out how the pheasants are doing at the Casa de Campo and if anything  more is needed for them, and if it would be better to let them all free at once, or only some of them, or  whether we should keep them cooped up. Let me know about this, and tell me whether they have started building any of the walls at the Pardo, and how work there is getting on. And write to Aranjuez and ask them about the buildings  there and about the hedges, and whether they can hear the pheasants there...

This characteristic holograph note, at the end of a routine letter from one of his secretaries about public works, betrays some of Philip's deepest and most passionate interests: birds, gardens, building, the sounds of nature. But it reveals even more about the king's almost boyish excitement and enthusiasm for the new secluded world he was creating for himself in the heart of Spain.

As soon as he returned from his long voyage to the Netherlands and Germany he knew what he wanted. Almost from the moment of his arrival in Spain in 1551, although technically still only prince regent, Philip began to issue orders that were [38] intended to make the royal palaces of Castile and their gardens "like those of the Low Countries." He sent his architects and head gardeners to tour France and other countries for ideas on how to overhaul his Spanish patrimony and make the king's private world more secluded and luxuriant. The traditional aim of growing trees and shrubs in the royal gardens for their fruit was abandoned. In 1553 the custodian of the royal palace at Aranjuez was ordered to pull up all the olive trees, to level the land where they grew, and to sow grass. Almond and mulberry trees too were to be uprooted, leaving only a few big ones "and these are only to remain because they improve the view; they are not to be cultivated nor is their fruit to be picked. There is to be no sowing of crops or cultivation of vegetables." All mud walls were to be replaced by hedges, and an entirely new network of streams and rivers was to be created, including some artificial lakes which, the king hoped, "would encourage birds to come and improve our hawking." Before long there were orders to create similar: "Flemish" gardens at other royal palaces: at the Casa de Campo (four thousand acres of gardens laid out by Philip near Madrid); at the Pardo, also near Madrid; and at El Bosque near Segovia. Alas, these early efforts were unsuccessful. During the king's second absence in northern Europe (1554-1559) the new trees were all allowed to die (because the Spanish gardeners did not appreciate the need for irrigation) and the old habits of gathering fruit returned. Philip was horrified at what had happened when at last he returned to Spain, and he decided that the only way to have Flemish gardens in the Iberian peninsula was to import Flemish gardeners to make them. Experts in making dikes and artificial lakes, skilled seedsmen and growers were therefore brought to Spain, forming a colony of some thirty Netherlanders, many of whom chose to settle in their new country. Their labor was directed by the king in person, and throughout the 1560's he was forever visiting the various gardens, giving oral directions on the spot about where to plant [39] trees and how to lay out individual flower beds. Letters to the custodians of his palaces often ended with the command: "Do not do anything more until I can come and see for myself."