Lincoln Cathedral Cloister Garden

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The Cloister Garden of Lincoln Cathedral

– John Codrington, Lincoln Herb Society


The Cathedral Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Lincoln

The Plants of the Cloister Gardens

The beds in the cloister are filled partly with sweet-smelling plants which give pleasure to the mind, and partly with plants associated by tradition and legend with the Blessed Virgin Mary, in whose name the Cathedral is dedicated.

Many of these traditional associations are centuries old and are found not only in England but throughout Christendom. Some more recent introductions were probably by the Spaniards after their colonization of Central and South America.

After the Reformation, the expression 'Our Lady' was frowned on in England, as were too frequent references and allusions to the Blessed Virgin Mary. So some of these plants became simply Lady's Smock, Lady's Mantle, Maiden Pink and so on; some even reverted to the pagan goddess Venus, as in Venus's Comb (a little cornfield weed akin to cow-parsley), or Venus's Looking-glass (an annual related to campanula).

Of the many plants associated with Our Lady, only a few have been selected to plant here. Lack of space, inappropriate growing conditions, or rarity, made others unsuitable. For instance Our Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium calceolus, is the rarest and most beautiful of our native orchids, but is difficult to cultivate; Our Lady's Tresses is another rare native orchid; while Our Lady's Smock (Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis), would need far damper conditions than can be provided here.

In planning this cloister garden plants have sometimes been substituted for the original because they are more amenable; in these cases a species or variety has been selected which is as near as possible to the original.

1. Our Lady's Ribbon, Phalaris arundinacea picta. This is the ribbon grass, more commonly known as Gardeners' Garters. It was one of the earliest of the ornamental grasses to be cultivated in gardens, and is the variegated form of the wild plant.

2. Our Lady's Thimble, Campanula rotundlfolia. This is the Harebell. It is a widely distributed wild flower, usually in short grass on poor soils.

3. Our Lady's Bedstraw, Galium verum. This was said to have been the bedding chosen by Our Lady to line the manger at Bethlehem. It is a common hedgerow plant, especially on light soils. It smells of new-mown hay.

4. Our Lady's Lace, Asperula odorata. Another name for Woodruff. It is fairly common in woodland places in England. It has lots of tiny delicate white flowers and also smells of new-mown hay.

5. Our Lady's Keys, Primula veris. These are Cowslips, which used to be very common in England especially on poor, lime-stone soils. Now they are getting much rarer, so please do not dig up any you may find!

6. Our Lady's Glove, Digitalis. The Foxglove, which has both poisonous and medicinal properties. The purple kind, a biennial, is a fairly common woodland plant, especially in the West of England and Scotland and Wales. There are also handsome perennial kinds, but not wild.

7. Our Lady's Fingers, Anthyllis vulneraria. The other name is the kidney vetch. It is evenly distributed on chalk and limestone in most parts of England. Though the colour is generally pale yellow, it sometimes appears with an orange tinge. Also known as Woundwort because of its healing properties.

8. Our Lady's Thumbs. This should be the wild Polygonum persicaria, but as this is annual and loves to grow in wet places another polygonum (P. affine) has been planted instead.

9. Our Lady's Mantle, Alchemilla vulgaris. This is generally found in rather shady places in England. The leaves are clothed with very fine silky hairs on which raindrops can settle without wetting the leaf. Possibly because of this it was likened to a good waterproof for the Blessed Virgin.

10. Our Lady's Shoes and Stockings, Lotus cornicuiatus. This is an old name for Bird's Foot Trefoil, a common wild plant on poor soil.

11. Our Lady's Bower, Traveller's Joy. The wild Clematis vitalba, would be far too rampant here, so Clematis recta whose flowers are very like it has been substituted. The wild Traveller's Joy is very common on chalky soils, and is beautiful both in flower and (as Old Man's Beard) in the seed which lasts throughout the winter.

12. Our Lady's Taper or Candle. This is the mullein, one of the wild biennial verbascums. V. Chalixii, which is normally a perennial, has been included as well.

13. Our Lady's Earrings. This must be a more recent appellation for the fuchsia is a native of the New World.

14. The Madonna Lily, Lilium candidum. It is often called the Lily of Annunciation, for it has been included in the pictures of that event from earliest times and throughout Christendom. It was possibly introduced by the Crusaders.

15. Our Lady's Hair. This name used to be given to the fern generally called Maiden's Hair or just Maidenhair (Adiantum capillis-veneris) - though Venus seems to have usurped the name in Latin. The true maidenhair is not hardy, except in mild climates like Ireland, so a hardy substitute (A venustum) is used here.

16. Another version of Our Lady's Hair is this perennial quaking grass (Briza media) which is common in England on chalk downs and limestone pastures.

17. Rosemary. Though the 'mary' part of the name had nothing to do with the Blessed Virgin (the botanical name is Rosmarinus), the pale blue flowers are said to have taken their colour from Our Lady's veil when she spread it over a bush of rosemary.

18. (a) and (b). The Rose. For centuries the rose has been associated traditionally and pictorially with the Blessed Virgin Mary, who was sometimes known as the Mystic Rose. There are, of course, countless very ancient roses, both wild and cultivated. Here, 18 (a) the Old Blush China, or Monthly Rose, has been chosen because of its very long flowering season; while 18 (b) is the native sweet briar, (Rosa rubiginosa) and is here for the sake of blind visitors. 'The Wide Expanding Rose of Divine Charity' is mentioned in the "Sarum Primer".

19. Our Lady's Tears, Convalaria majalis. The Lily-of-the-valley, which is sometimes found wild in woods in Engiand.

20. Our Lady's Seal, Polygonatum multiflorum. Otherwise known as Solomon's Seal, it is occasionally found wild in England, especially on chalky soils.

21. The Milk Thistle, Silybum marianum. It is called this because the white veins on the leaves were supposed to have been caused by the spilling of Our Lady's milk.

22. Costmary, Chrysanthemum balsamita. Known in German as Frauenmunze, it is a sweet-smelling herb used mainly for flavouring drinks, and is sometimes called the Herb of the Madonna.

23. Sainfoin, Onobrychis sativa. 'Saint foin', the Holy Hay, is said to have been used in the stable at Bethlehem. It is sometimes grown as a pulse crop on farms but is also found wild on chalky soils, mainly in the south east.

24. The Christmas Rose, Heleborus niger. This was said to have flowered on Christmas Day to honour the birth of Our Lord.

25. The Star of Bethlehem, Ornithogalum umbellatum. This is included for obvious reasons. It is also probably the 'Doves' dung' referred to in 2 Kings 6:25, so called because of the whiteness of its flowers. The text describes a famine, and when food was short the bulbs may have been eaten instead of onions, to which this plant is a near relation.

26. Candlemas Bells or Our Lady's Bells, Galanthus nivalis. These are snowdrops, which flower at the time of the feast of Candlemas (or Purification of Our Lady) which falls on February 2nd.

27. Mary and Joseph, Pulmonana officinalis. Lungwort has blue flowers (for Mary) and often red buds and sometimes flowers (for Joseph}.

28. The Marigold or Mary's Gold. Probably the common Calendula is indicated, which grows wild in Mediterranean countries. It represents the golden rays of glory that are often shown round the Blessed Virgin's Head and is, broadly speaking, in flower at all the chief festivals of Our Lady.

29. The Juniper is said to have offered shade and to have hidden the Holy Family during the Flight into Egypt.

30. Our Lady's Pincushion, Armeria maritima. This is the sea-pink, or thrift, which is common in seaside places throughout the British Isles.

31. The Maiden Pink, Dianthus deltoides. This may have been so called because in some medieval legends, the 'gilly-flower' or pink was considered a symbol of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is a scarce British native and likes limestone escarpments.

32. Our Lady's Eyes, Myosotis. The forget-me-not of which there are several wild sorts, some beautiful and some insignificant.

33. Our Lady's Needlework. Saxafraga umbrosa. London Pride is very well known in gardens and is sometimes found wild in damp shady places.

34. Our Lady's Modesty. This is the violet, which is well known as an emblem of both modesty and humility. St. Bernard described Our Lady as 'the Violet of Humility'.

35. The Virgin's Flower, Vinca minor. The periwinkle, was sometimes known by this name - perhaps because of its blue star-like flowers which may have a connection with Stella Maris as a name for the Blessed Virgin.

36. The Herb of the Madonna, Cymbalaria majalis. This ivy leafed toadflax was sometimes given this name together with Costmary (No. 22). In Italy it is the 'Erba della Madonna'. It is probably not a native of England but must have been introduced a very long time ago and is now common on old walls and ruins.

Just as Lincoln Cathedral preserves some of the finest flowering of Gothic architecture in England, and its choir and organists continue the equally important heritage of English church music; so it is also preserving from oblivion some of these ancient legends about the plants that are associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Reprinted from Cathedral leaflet. Photo added.

"The Flower Arranger" 1984 illustrated leaflet with composite flower painting.


The John Stokes and Mary's Garden collection was transferred to the Marian Library in May 2013. In addition to his archives, manuscripts, artwork, and personal library, John S. Stokes also donated his extensive website. It was transferred to the Marian Library in 2010. This particular entry is archived content original to Stokes' Mary's Gardens website. It is possible that some text, hyperlinks, etc. are outdated.

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