Topiary & Hedge Maze History

Topiary & Hedge Maze History

MAZE MONTH has so far focused on proper unicursal labyrinths rather than actual multicursal mazes. I’ve used a great deal of blog space covering turf-created labyrinths, despite knowing the instant vision of “garden maze” brings tall hedges to mind. In my defense, factually tracing the evolution of mazes required those precursors. Nevertheless, it is time to dive into the history of horticultural mazes. Yippee!

Be sure to check out the previous three blog posts covering the overall history of mazes and labyrinths (links below). In between the historical blogs, MAZE MONTH has included eight posts spotlighting the surviving turf mizmazes in England.

History of the Maze

More Maze History, and an Exploration of the Purpose

Turf Labyrinths: What they are & How they came to England


While it is normal to envision a “garden maze” as a block of over-the-head tall shrubs concealing a puzzling pathway with branches and dead-ends, but which eventually leads to a central arbor of some sort, this type of garden maze was not the first or sole expression of the idea. Another way to put it is that wide assortments of foliage, in wide assortments of shapes and forms, were utilized to create garden spaces falling under the broad “maze” umbrella.

Tying into turf labyrinths/mizmazes (which were a precursor), it was during the Middle Ages when labyrinths as a symbolic Christian spiritual journey began to be adapted as entertainment. This shift aligned with the introduction of elaborate gardens, led primarily by European royalty and aristocracy, as a feast for the eyes and display of wealth, but also to divert and amuse. Early beginnings of the later tall shrub hedge mazes were symmetrical arrangements of low growing herbs, flowers, and shrubs edging paths, and the created labyrinthine designs known as “knot gardens” (see image below).

L—>R: Tudor period recreated knot garden at Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire,
Knot garden at Hellmingham Hall in Suffolk,
Diagram of an elaborate knot garden in a 1590 landscape book by Thomas Hill.


There was also the introduction of the “dwarf box” —miniature, slow-growing evergreen shrubs— that could be easily sculpted and contained.    

“… Boxe, which lastly I chiefly and above all other herbs commend unto you, and being a small, low, or dwarfe kind, is called French or Dutch Boxe. … [This plant] serveth very well to set out any knot or border out any beds, for besides that it is ever greene, it being reasonable thicke set, will easily be cut and formed into any fashion one will, according to the nature thereof, which is to grow very slowly, and will not in a long time rise to be of any height, but shooting forth many small branches from the roote, will grow very thicke and yet not require so great tending, nor so much perish as any of the former …” —John Parkinson, herbalist to Queen Elizabeth and King James I, in Paradisi in Sole. Paradisus Terrestris (1629)

By the 16th century, the planting of dwarf shrubs and herbs in long narrow beds twisted into various complicated figures seems to have become very fashionable. Whether unicursal labyrinths or mazes, the patterns were often very elaborately executed. Decorative knot and low-barrier gardens formed attractive patterns that could be appreciated close up, or from a raised surrounding walk or upstairs window. Using evergreen plants ensured year-round visual enjoyment.

Garden designs became the topic of numerous horticulture books, with detailed illustrations, many of them including labyrinths, mazes, and intricate knot and barrier layouts. Amongst the most popular: A moste Briefe and Pleasaunt Treatyse Teachynge How to Dress, Sowe and Set a Garden by Thomas Hill (England, 1563), La Maison Rustique by Charles Estienne (Paris, 1573), Hortorum Viridariorumque Formae by Jan Vredeman De Vries (Antwerp, 1583), and The Profitable Arte of Gardening by Thomas Hill (England, 1590). 

The two illustrations on the left are from the 1583 book by Jan Vredeman De Vries.
On the top right, from 1573 book by Charles Estienne; and below, the 1590 book by Thomas Hill.


Taller hedge mazes, while not as common initially as the box-edged and floral variety, is evidenced as gaining popularity in England in the late 16th century. This does not, however, mean it was a new invention. Far from it as the ancient Romans were quite fond of evergreen hedges and elaborately trimmed topiary. The French aristocrats were wild about mazes and labyrinths of all sorts (as has been noted in previous blogs), including in their extravagant gardens.

“Mazes well framed a man’s height, may perhaps make your friend wander in gathering of berries, till he cannot recover himself without your help.” —William Lawson in A New Orchard and Garden (1623)

The privy garden of Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, built by King Henry VIII between 1538 and 1547, included a tall hedge maze. Anthony Watson, the Rector of Cheam, wrote this description in 1590: “If you veer to the right you will fall into the hazardous wiles of the labyrinth, whence even with the aid of Theseus’ thread you will be scarce able to extricate yourself.” Theseus is a reference to the Greek Minotaur myth, an allusion to the difficulty of the maze which appears to correlate with other references to tall hedges. Thomas Platter, a Swiss visitor to London and Nonsuch Palace, wrote in 1599: “a maze or labyrinth surrounded by high shrubberies to prevent one passing through them” and adding that one could not see over them.

Lord Burghley had a garden hedge maze constructed about 1560 at Theobalds in Hertfordshire, but sadly it was destroyed in 1643 by troops during the English Civil War. It was described by a contemporary as being “large and square, having all its walls covered with Sillery and a beautiful jet d’eau in the centre.” Alas, no illustrations or paintings exist.

In 1690, William III built the famous hedge maze at Hampton Court Palace (which exists to this day), and this was a follow up to the one he created in 1682 at Het Loo Palace in Holland (which is long gone). The Hampton Court maze, while not the first in England as noted in the above paragraphs, appears to have been the main inspiration for what became a hedge maze fad across the British Isles. 

The gardens at Wrest House in Bedfordshire were laid out by Henry Grey, the first Duke of Kent. The drawing below is from 1707 and perfectly displays the classic style with symmetrical lawns, cut shrubs and topiaries framing the fountains, gravel walkways, and water canals. Two hedge mazes can be seen to the rear. This garden, like so many, was modified numerous times even in that century, the mazes overgrown long ago.

Wrest House in Bedfordshire, color engraving by Johannes Kip published 1707


Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, hedge mazes were essentially a standard in every prestigious estate garden. Designs were highly innovative and the puzzlement of the mazes often quite complex. Simple uniform hedges and sharp angles gave way to serpentine footpaths with intervals filled with loose flowering shrubs to create a manner termed “wilderness.” It is unclear, but landscape historians believe the term “wilderness” in this regard refers to the difficulty of the maze —as in people becoming lost in the wilderness— rather than the foliage being wild or unkept. The monotony of some mazes were relieved by placing statues, seats, fountains, and other ornamentation along the way. Plans increasingly concluded with a “climax of extravaganza” in the center, such as a fabulous fountain, lavish folly, building, or sculpture. This was the case all over Europe, by the way, not just in England.

A rare variety of maze was the “block” labyrinth seen during the latter third of the 17th century. In this type of maze or labyrinth, the paths were laid out first, and in a curved, graceful, highly artistic design —this alone being contrary to the straight, symmetrical, ordered style of the classical, Baroque garden landscaping of the period. For reference, look at the image of Wrest House above. The non-path areas of a block maze were then filled with an array of trees and shrubs aiming to at least partially obstruct the view, but aesthetically pleasing and with a uniform appearance. The attempt was to emulate a natural, wilderness theme. This style of naturalness would gain popularity in England in the 19th century, but in the late 1600s to 1700s it was not appreciated. Therefore, few block labyrinths were built in the first place in England, and fewer yet survived into the early 1800s. It was a style far more popular in Continental Europe, thanks in large part to the block maze on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles in France.

Landscape architect Batty Langley was renowned for his designs in this style, his 1728 publication New Principles of Gardening chock full of incredible illustrations. I’ve shared a few below, and the entire book with loads of illustrations can be read digitalized on the Biodiversity Heritage Library.

The 1800s saw the greatest proliferation of hedge mazes in England. Victorian hedge mazes extended into public parks, the popularity exploding and crossing the ponds to the United States and Australia! The adoration of mazes caused a resurgence of the designs to once again be placed on pavement, including a revival in churches.

Unfortunately, the social and economic upheavals during the 20th century, including two world wars, led to neglect of the great estate gardens. Mazes, especially, require constant pruning to be maintained. Of the uncounted hedge mazes planted during the golden years, very few survived. Luckily, there are far more documents, paintings, and illustrations of mazes —and garden landscape plans as a whole— from the past two-hundred years. Several of the long lost mazes and gardens have been re-created in recent decades, such as the 1894 maze at Cliveden House re-built with new yew shrubs in 2011. Another example is the 1839 yew maze at Bridge End Gardens in Saffron Walden restored by John Bosworth in 1984, and the 1860 yew maze at Saltwell Park currently being replanted to the original design.

The majority of mazes found in England today were added to the lush gardens of great houses in the last century. For example, the yew maze at Hever Castle in Kent was developed in 1906 for William Waldorf Astor, and the yew maze at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire (my Pemberley) was designed and planted in 1962. On the grounds of Longleat House in Wiltshire is the largest maze in the UK, built in 1978 for the 7th Marquess of Bath.

When it comes to hedge mazes that have survived continuously to the present, the list is tragically short. In fact, only four planted before the end of the 19th century remain—

Hedge Maze at Hampton Court Palace in Surrey (1690)
Hornbeam Maze at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire (1831)
Cherry Laurel Maze at Glendurgan Gardens in Cornwall  (1833)
Yew Maze at Somerleyton Hall in Suffolk (1846)

For the conclusion of MAZE MONTH,
I will be spotlighting each of the above historic hedge mazes.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below! 



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