14. Margaret Cavendish and John Evelyn on Fountains and the Politics of Sport

Bolsover Venus fountain snippet
A Corner of the Venus Fountain at Bolsover Castle

In 1636, Queen Henrietta Maria, together with her husband Charles I, visited the Rock of Enstone in Oxfordshire.  The object which gave its name to the place was a garden fountain shaped like a large stone and completely covered with plants.  The fountain required a “fountaineer” to manipulate the valves on its many water pipes and was situated on an island.  The island was reached by a foot bridge.   According to Robert Pole writing in 1677, the Rock of Enstone was a  place where people might come to marvel.  It was not the first Italianate water feature to be built in Early Modern England, but it was one of the most striking.

The island of the rock was also a place of “sport,” according to Pole, because the fountaineer customarily sprayed his visitors with water in  friendly jest.  One may guess that the spray was not designed to soak and that the ladies and gentlemen who received it knew in advance what was in store for them if they crossed the bridge. There was also a grotto, where again a fountaineer was stationed to allow visitors to sport in spray .  Although Pole only writes about adults, these waterworks are likely to put us in mind of that more recent fountain format — the set of water jets which erupt under the feet of delighted children in city squares and parks each summer.

Bushell Rock of Enstone from Pole Oxfordshire 1677
The Rock of Enstone in Robert Pole’s ‘Oxford-Shire,’ 1677




Henrietta Maria liked fountains and had two built at Denmark House in London, also in 1636.  Perhaps the visit to Oxfordshire was inspired in part by her desire to observe fountain architecture, though there was also some business to be conducted between the owner of the fountain and Charles I.  In any event, Margaret Cavendish, who later became a Maid of Honor to Henrietta Maria, would have known about the fountains at Denmark House and may have seen them during visits to London in the pre-war years.

“Sport” was a word with a political significance that was intensified by the reissue in 1633 of King James I’s Declaration of Sports.  Many Puritans were enraged by the reappearance of this book and all felt strongly that Sundays should not be used for sports like leaping and vaulting, which are specifically authorized in its pages.  So too dancing , which we may guess Puritans did not like much any day of the week.   Margaret did not have a great deal of sympathy for this dour political and religious faction, and she writes in Sociable Letters (1664),

“I  .  .   .   .   live in a calm Silence, wherein I have my Contemplations free from Disturbance, and my Mind lives in Peace, and my Thoughts in Pleasure .   .   .    Sport and Play.” (Letter 29)

Margaret probably intended a parody on Puritan rhetoric, which stressed self-examination and thoughtful reflection.  Her thoughts, in contrast to those of the Puritans, sport and play, even if she does not, herself, engage in physical activity by leaping or dancing.

Water Splashing People 17th C Italian
A Person Splashed by Water Jets at the Villa Pratolino, Etching 1653

At the same time, Margaret could be critical of “sport” when the word was used to describe amorous dalliance. She writes in Sociable Letters to warn about the dangers of this sort of thing.

“It is a temptation to an Husband to see two She-friends Imbrace, and Kiss and Sport and Play, which makes the Husband to desire to do the like, not with his Wife but his Wife’s Friend.” (Letter 23)

Nevertheless, Margaret does not condemn such kissing categorically and does not do more than allude in the passage to the nature of the dangers involved.  I expect she found the priapic figures in the fountain at her husband’s holiday home Bolsover Castle comic in a silly sort of way rather than offensive (see below, right).

Margaret discusses fountains in a short paragraph on the arts of pleasure, which she contrasts with the arts of enticing in Nature’s Pictures (1656).  By “arts” she seems to mean “skills,” so that the art of fountains probably involves design and construction.

“Arts of Pleasure are, Gardens, Groves, Bowers, Arbours, Grots, Fountains, Prospects, Landskips, Gilding, Painting, Sculpture: likewise, Musick of all sorts, Confectionary, Cookery, and Perfumes.”

The arts of enticing include

“Artificial Singing, Artificial Speaking, Artificial Dressing, Dancing, Powdring, Curling, Perfuming, Rich Clothing, Luxurious Entertainments.”

Enticing is by no means malicious, though she goes on to condemn skills which are.  The ability to design perfumes, clearly, is different from knowing how to wear them.   Following this pattern, we might guess that the fountain designer is possessed of a skill set different from that belonging to the fountaineer.

According to his diary, John Evelyn visited St Cloud, the country estate of the Archbishop of Paris, on 27 February 1644.  There Evelyn found a statue of Laocoon in a fountain, a column of water delighting those who saw it by rising forty feet above their heads. The centerpiece of the garden, according to Evelyn, was a cascade, but there was also a grotto, “wherein are divers waterworks and contrivances to wet the spectators.”  Evelyn does not explain why the spectators were showered with artificial rain by the fountaineer or examine their reactions, I suspect, because Evelyn was not one to enjoy this kind of activity.

Priapic Figure, Bolsover Castle Venus Fountain

Still, it is likely that Evelyn would have found no fault with anyone who participated in these and other garden recreations.  Of his visit to Cardinal Richelieu’s nearby château, he writes that the gardens are open to the public (i.e., the upper classes generally),

“to whom all access is freely permitted, so that you shall see some walks and retirements full of gallants and ladies   .   .   .   .  in others, jolly citizens, some sitting or lying on the grass, others running and jumping; some playing at bowls and ball, others dancing and singing.” (28 March 1644)

While he is not fond of the excess he sees at Dutch festivals like kermis, Evelyn is not averse to active enjoyment of gardens. 

A final meaning for the word “sport” involves the harming of animals for entertainment purposes.  Evelyn writes  on 16 June of 1670 about going

“with some friends to the Bear Garden, where was, cock-fighting, dog-fighting, bear and bull-baiting, it being a famous day for all these butcherly sports, or rather barbarous cruelties.”

Ladies are present and one finds a dog thrown into her lap even though she is high above the fighting.  Evelyn’s final assessment is that he is

“most heartily weary of the rude and dirty pastime, which  [he] had not seen   .   .   .   in twenty years before.”

Margaret Cavendish, of course, is well known for sympathizing with a hare and a stag in poems about hunting.   She and Evelyn are definitely in accord in condemning the killing of animals as a form of entertainment.  Interestingly, James I’s Declaration of Sports does forbid bear and bull bating on Sundays, apparently because James hoped to find a compromise in which Puritans would receive some Royal recognition of their views.  It also may have been the case that this kind of sport inspired substantial public revulsion.

The Grotto at St Cloud From a Contemporary Print

One does not normally associate bear bating with country estates, but the coursing of hares seems to have been usual.  Evelyn in a diary entry of 20 July 1654, which describes Wilton (the estate of the Earl of Pembroke), writes as follows.

 “We were entertained with a long course of a hare for near two miles in sight. Near this, is a pergola, or stand, built to view the sports.”

Evelyn offers no criticism of the coursing of hares, perhaps because he is so far removed from it or perhaps because such criticism would imply censure of Pembroke.

I will conclude this discussion of sport with a brief consideration of the most famous of all water fights in English literature, that which Sir Guyon witnesses as Book II of The Faerie Queene (1590) comes to an end.  Two naked ladies contend in a fountain.

Sometimes the one would lift the other quite
Above the waters and then down again
Her plunge.

Sir Guyon has been sent to destroy the garden of temptation in which the ladies dwell, but he almost forgets himself.   He needs to be reminded of his task by his helper, a palmer (for whom religion is paramount).  When Guyon does destroy the garden, it is difficult to imagine that Spenser wholeheartedly approves, given the language in which the destruction is cast.

Their groves he felled, their gardens did deface,
Their arbors spoyle, their cabinets supresse,
Their banquet houses burn, their buildings raze
And of the fairest late, now made the foulest place.

Unlike Edmund Spenser, neither Margaret Cavendish nor John Evelyn associated gardens and garden architecture with irreligious behavior.

Spenser, Bower of Bliss 1849 large Image
Sir Guyon (kneeling) with the Palmer (standing) in a painting from the 19th century