SISSINGHURST GARDENS - a secret history

Acquired by Vita Sackville West with her husband Sir Harold Nicolson in 1930, Sissinghurst Castle gardens have become one of the brightest jewels in a spectacular crown of English country gardens. It was their unique vision and uncommon single mindedness that took this dilapidated Tudor estate and moulded it into a breathtaking series of compartmentalised gardens. But there is something at Sissinghurst which makes it quite unique, a quality of peace and tranquillity that has enabled it to become regarded as one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.

However, scratch the surface and you will reveal a history so sinister that you may never look at this place the same way again. To uncover the truth we must go back to over 250 years to when Britain was in the grip of a punishing war against France.

With the success of the British Navy during the ‘Seven Years War’, many ships from of the French fleet were captured as prizes and their seamen confined in prison hulks at Plymouth. As prisoner populations rose this proved to be an unpopular choice, and so the Government of the time decided that it needed a more suitable location to house them. With the owners of Sissinghurst being in considerable debt, they leapt at the chance of leasing it to the government, and did so in 1756. If prison conditions were believed to have been bad then, they were about to get much, much worse!

Unfortunately for the French, English prisons were traditionally run by the Royal Navy, and Sissinghurst had extra security in place by way of short term army garrisons. This made the inmates at Sissinghurst not just prisoners but also the enemy and as such, the treatment they received here was significantly worse compared to other British prisons. So powerful became its reputation, that the very threat of being sent to Sissinghurst was often enough to enforce discipline in other prisons across the country.


New prisoners would have been greeted by the stench of overcrowded, dilapidated and unsanitary accommodation, although the word ‘overcrowded’ is somewhat of an understatement. Even after 250 years, inscriptions still survive above the cell door frames indicating the maximum population levels for each room. For example, one particular chamber of no more than 16ft by 20ft would have been home for up to eighteen men. Another, found under a staircase in the Elizabethan quarters, indicates a population of only 6, but it’s a cell of no more that 4ft square. If that wasn't bad enough, there was no running water or toilets in these makeshift cells so imagine how intolerable the heat of summer would have been - bringing with it the stink of human faeces, and what would have seemed like a plague of lice and flies.

Of course with this many men living in such poor and barbaric conditions, diseases ran rife through the camp infecting prisoners, guards and the garrison alike. These were terrible times and instances of smallpox and dysentery were commonplace. There was enormous pressure to find somewhere suitable for treating the large numbers of infections and so the large Elizabethan brick barn - found to the left of today’s main entrance - was converted into a makeshift hospital.


With 18th Century jailers subjected to very poor pay and conditions it was down to them to come up with ways of making a little extra money, in fact they were expected to.

It was common practice for all new inmates to be fitted with heavy irons. This was so that for a small payment they could be replaced with lighter ones, or - for an additional charge - they could be removed altogether. Unfortunately many of the guards had a strong sadistic side, so on top of stealing prisoner belongings and fiddling the exchange rates of foreign nationals, they also used their position to impose conditions of starvation, isolated confinement, and inadequate clothing.

Although the jailors were widely known for being institutionally corrupt, the French soon learned that it could be used to work in their favour. This was done by using bribes to condition the guard’s behaviour.

In one particular case, the guards were conditioned to such an extent that a number of prisoners were able to smuggle in explosives in an attempt to blow a breach in the castle walls. It was only when guards intercepted a prisoner's letter, describing the escape plan to one of their mothers, that the plot was discovered.


Murder and fighting would have been commonplace at Sissinghurst, and although you'd think it would be in the guards interest not let such incidences become common knowledge, several letters of complaint on the subject managed to find their way to a Court of Enquiry.

Perhaps the most senseless death was that of prisoner Jacobus Lofe who was shot as he lay sleeping in his hammock, secured in one of the topmost rooms in the tower. A statement from the sentinel charged with firing the shot - who was believed to have been drunk at the time claimed that ‘…he called out to the prisoners several times to put out their lights, which they refused to do so, and bid him fire and be damned…’ However, evidence from three other prisoners who were in the room at the time declared that there were no lights on and as such they didn’t feel the need to answer - believing the sentinel was shouting to another room. Unfortunately, this incident was caused by nothing more than a trick of the light because - on certain clear nights - the moon rises to a point where it can shine directly onto the tower lighting up the inside of these topmost rooms. Even today, its reflection in the glass can often look as though there has been a light left on inside.

Once in a while the prisoners managed to get their own back. On one recorded occasion, water was being brought to the top of the tower by a system of ropes secured to the outside wall. Rather than using the steep internal staircases this was the preferred way to supply water to these top most rooms. Unfortunately, once the bucket reached the top it became untethered and crashed down on the head of the supervising sentinel - killing him outright. It was put down as an accident but you can make up your own mind as to the ability of a French sailor to tie a secure knot?


As we have seen, the early days at Sissinghurst were little more than a slow and painful death sentence, with beatings and kickings routinely administered by the guards.

Although associated with medieval times, torture was an accepted part of prisoner interrogation right up until the eighteenth century and would have been authorised in order to retrieve valuable information on enemy troops and fortifications.

Typically, irons and fetters would have been fitted - to prevent sleeping or cause paralysis, and on occasion prisoners were known to have been forced to stand in water until their feet rotted.

However there would have been times when more extreme devices were demanded such as the torture chair, the rack, foot crusher and the little known Scavenger’s daughter.


By the end of the war in 1763 the prison camp was closed down with the garrison sent back to their regiments. Many of the released prisoners returned home to France, while some opted to stay and work within the grounds. A few even married local girls.

Unfortunately the Elizabethan court yard had suffered tremendous damage during the French occupation, and 15 years later much of the house and furniture had been destroyed for firewood. Sissinghurst and its future looked bleak.

And it was as a soulless shell that Sissinghurst stayed for a further 150 years until it was rescued and loved by Vita Sackville West and her husband Sir Harold Nicolson.

By the creation of these wonderful gardens it has since become a fitting memorial to the atrocities that occurred here all those years ago. May God give peace to their souls.

For related articles click onto the following links:
ELCHE GARDENS - The Huerto del Cura
Sissinghurst gardens


As any schoolchild will tell you, plants need light and water to grow. So when it comes to those awkward, dry shaded parts of the garden what do you do? Well. below is a list of commonly available dry and shade tolerant plants for your consideration. Just remember that although these plants will tolerate dry conditions, they are not cacti and as such will appreciate being watered every now and again!

Alchemilla mollis
This hardy perennial thrives in well-drained soil, and heavy shade. Lady’s Mantle is prized for its large leaves, pleasant rounded growth habit and airy yellow flower clusters that appear late spring through early summer. This perennial will grow about 18” tall and wide.
Anemone blanda
The delightful flowers, like large daisies, have a dozen or more petals neatly arranged around a gold centre and come in a complete range of colours including blues, purples, pinks and whites. It is fully hardy requiring a light and well drained soil in partial shade.


Aquilegia vulgaris
This is a charming, old-fashioned cottage garden plant with bonnet-shaped flowers, often two-tone and with long graceful spurs. Flowering in early summer, aquilegias fill the seasonal gap between the last of the spring bulbs and the first of the summer flowers.

Aster divaricatus
This is a is a bushy, upright perennial with rigid branches bearing small dark-green, spiny leaves and dense clusters of long-lasting white daisy-like flowers in late autumn.
Another hardy perennial with evergreen, glossy leaves. Commonly known as ‘Elephant Ears’ this architectural plant is available in a wide range of colourful hybrids available. They can also make a great ground cover plant.

Brunnera macrophylla
This is one of the most attractive and useful spring-flowering perennials, producing a dense ground-covering layer of foliage. The leaves, up to 15cm (6in) across, are roughly kidney-shaped and provide an attractive foil for the long lasting sprays of starry pale blue forget-me-not flowers that appear shortly after the leaves cover the ground.

Lily of the Valley – Convallaria
Lily-of-the-valley plants are charming and often grown as an attractive ground cover where they will naturalize well when conditions suite them. Fragrant, white, bell-shaped flowers on 6” stalks appear mid-spring and were popular as cut flowers in wedding bouquets.

Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides)Native to Eastern North America the Christmas Fern is a non-flowering, evergreen perennial. It will reach a height of 2 feet tall and the rhizomatous clumps will slowly grow to over 2’. It is very low maintenance and highly attractive with upright, evergreen foliage frond.

Comfrey (Symphytum grandiflorum)
An herb, long used medicinally, this perennial will tolerate dry shade once established. Growing about 12” with handsome, semi-evergreen foliage, comfrey does well under shrubs or small trees. Use comfrey in the shade garden and ways to use this early spring-flowering perennial plant.

Cyclamen coum and Cyclamen hederifolium
These popular species Cyclamen will produce exquisite blooms from late winter to early spring. The leaves, which have silver patterning over dark green, and the flowers appear at the same time from tubers underground. Flower colour can vary from white to deep red. Mulch annually with leaf mould to help prevent the tubers from drying out during the heat of the summer and from the cold of winter. Both species have been given an Award of Garden Merit (AGM).

Epimedium grandiflorum
A wide range of plants are available in this species from low-growing ground covers only 6” tall to much larger plants up to 2’ in height. Also known as Barrenwort, this perennial plant has foliage which can turn red or orange in the autumn and remain over winter providing winter interest.

Galanthus 'S. Arnott'
Whilst almost all snowdrops require a moist soil in order to thrive, Galanthus ‘S.Arnott does not. It produces flowers with a subtle fragrance, that are almost twice the size of common snowdrops, on stems that can reach 25cm (10in) tall.

Galium odoratum
Commonly known as the Sweet Woodruff, this vigorous, mat-forming perennial produces sweetly fragrant flowers during June and July. It can also be used a s a ground cover plant.It is a vigorous mat-forming perennial with whorls of bright green, lance-shaped leaves and clusters of small white, starry flowers from late spring.

Not to be confused with the common bedding geraniums, this family of hardy herbaceous perennials will often do a stunning job of brightening up an area of dry shade. Species to look out for are Geranium nodosum - Bluish pearly pink flowers, Geranium phaeum 'Album' an excellent geranium for shade as the white flowers light up a dry shaded spot, and Geranium 'Katherine Adele' - heavily mottled foliage almost completely purple flushed, with lined pink flowers.

Hypericum calycinum
This vigorous and spreading semi-evergreen shrub with lance-shaped leaves. It produces golden –yellow flowers up to 3 inches across through the summer and early a fast-growing, spreading, semi-evergreen to evergreen shrub with lance-shaped leaves and yellow flowers throughout summer into early autumn is a fast-growing, spreading, semi-evergreen to evergreen shrub with lance-shaped leaves and yellow flowers throughout summer into early autumn.

Iris foetidissima
A native Iris that does well in dry soils in shade, purplish and yellow flowers in summer, but the real interest are the seed pods which split in autumn to reveal scarlet fleshy seeds.

Lamium galeobdolon 
Commonly known as the Yellow Archangel, this perennial plant will grow to 1-2ft tall and wide. Archangel would make an excellent, low-maintenance groundcover for a woodland area but is probably not the best choice for small mixed borders. Consider planting Lamium orvala - the ‘Giant dead nettle’ in warmer climates.

Lathyrus vernus
Spring pea, a non-climbing woodlander from Eastern Europe. Blue-purple flowers.

Liriope muscari 'Big Blue'
Predictably large with blue flowers. One of the best of the good flowering forms, to 40cm tall and wide, evergreen.

Mahonia aquifolium
This is a suckering shrub with glossy, dark green, leathery foliage. Fragrant rich yellow flowers are produced in numerous dense clusters in March and April followed by blue/black berries. The variety ‘Atropurpurea’ has leaves which turn a rich-red-purple in winter.

Omphalodes cappadocica
A clump forming species with bright green leaves. It produces, comparatively large blue flowers in masses in spring.

All hardy species should do well under dry and shady condition – although not heavy shade. Enrich the soil before hand with peat or leaf mould.

Commonly known as Lungwort due to the plants medicinal uses throughout history. A spring flowering perennial, Pulmonaria grows about 12” tall and 18” wide and has long, lance-shaped leaves that are often speckled, splotched, variegated or frosted looking. Highly attractive foliage and vivid flowers make lungwort a favourite understory plant. Part shade and well-draining soil are preferred.

Species from this family are well known for being hardy evergreens. They have unusual stemless leaves and while the flowers are inconspicuous they do display handsome, large red berries in the autumn on the female varieties.

Related to our English bluebell, scilla are a species of easy-to-grow bulbs. They will do well in any free draining soil but enrich the soil before hand with peat or leaf mould.

Tellima grandiflora
This hardy evergreen is chiefly grown for its leaves which make good ground cover throughout the year. The variety ‘Forest frost ‘produces heavily mottled leaves which are to a burgundy colour, pink flowers in Spring.

Two species from this family of hardy evergreens are of particular interest – T. trifoliate and T. polyphylla. Happy in the shade they need a free-draining soil but these plants will die back if the soil dries out completely so enrich the soil before planting with plenty of organic matter.

Vinca major and Vinca minor
These popular ground cover evergreens are happy in any ordinary free draining soil. There are a number of varieties available flowering any time from March until July.

For related articles click onto the following links:
RHS Plants for Dry Shade