The Horticultural Heroism of Sir Walter Erle

As Britain continues to take advantage of the great outdoors during Covid-19 lockdown, this week Dr Patrick Little, senior research fellow for our Commons 1640-1660 project, explores the unusual garden of Sir Walter Erle, who used horticulture to mimic his military experiences.

Of the seventeenth century MPs and peers who created gardens to adorn their country estates, perhaps the most unlikely was Sir Walter Erle. Sir Walter, who represented Dorset constituencies 11 times between 1614 and 1660, was a puritanical figure with an inexhaustible appetite for humdrum committee work and something of an obsession with the minutiae of parliamentary procedure.

Yet Sir Walter saw himself not as a pompous politician but as a dashing soldier. According to a friend of the family, Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper,

Sir Walter had been a Low Country soldier, valued himself upon the sieges and service he had been in; his garden was cut into redoubts and works representing these places, his house hung with the maps of those sieges and fights [that] had been most famous in those parts.

Christie, Shaftesbury, i, appx i. p. x

In reality, Erle’s military experience was slight: he had indeed joined Lord Vere in the Low Countries in 1629, but only for a few months as an observer; he had subsequently been a deputy lieutenant in Dorset and may have had dealings with the local militia in the 1630s. Even during the civil wars his record was undistinguished. In the late summer of 1642 he accompanied the earl of Bedford in his abortive siege of Sherborne Castle and although afterwards he raised his own troop of horse, it took the field under another’s command. Sir Walter’s moment to prove himself seemed to have come at last in April 1643, when he was appointed commander of parliament’s forces in Dorset.

Ruins of Corfe Castle, Dorset

An armchair soldier was not the ideal local commander for a strategically important county, and Erle’s career was brief and inglorious, marked by indecision and poor planning. In particular, his conduct of the siege of Corfe Castle, held by the redoubtable Lady Bankes and a handful of her family retainers, soon descended into farce. In June Erle had set up his headquarters at Wareham, two miles from the castle, as he thought the town of Corfe was too vulnerable from sniping and sallies by the royalist garrison, and embarked on a variety of eccentric stratagems to take the castle. His first attempt involved two medieval siege-engines, the ‘sow’ and the ‘boar’, which were quickly discovered not to be bullet-proof. In desperation, the next attack involved a disastrous mixture of Dutch courage and scaling ladders. It also failed. The royalists jeering that Sir Walter had lost his nerve: ‘he put on a bear’s skin, and to the eternal honour of this knight’s valour be it recorded, for fear of musket shot… he was seen to creep on all fours on the sides of the hill to keep himself out of danger’ (B. Ryves, Mercurius Rusticus (1646), p. 104). Further humiliation followed. After the king took Bristol on 26 July, the royalist army quickly overran Dorset, capturing Dorchester on 2 August. On hearing the news, Erle immediately abandoned the siege of Corfe and fled to Poole, whence he took ship for Southampton, and eventually turned up in London. The royalist press had a field-day, and Sir Edward Hyde (later earl of Clarendon) wryly commented that Erle had made ‘more haste to convey himself to London than generals use to do who have care and charge of others’ (Clarendon, Hist. iii. 158). Sir Walter did not venture back to Dorset until the parliamentarian army had made it safe to do so, and in the meantime his garden entrenchments were left to invading weeds.

Sir Walter’s new-modelling of his garden to represent the sieges he had witnessed in the Low Countries has a curious literary parallel. In his extraordinary and brilliant novel, Tristram Shandy, Lawrence Sterne introduces us to Uncle Toby Shandy, a former captain in William III’s army, wounded at the siege of Namur in 1692, and to his faithful servant and old comrade, Corporal Trim. In retirement, Uncle Toby acquired what his nephew Tristram calls his ‘hobby-horse’ – a scheme to recreate the contemporary sieges of the duke of Marlborough in his garden.

His way, which was the simplest one in the world, was this; as soon as ever a town was invested – (but sooner when the design was known) to take the plan of it… and enlarge it upon a scale to the exact size of his bowling green… When the town, with its works, was finished, my uncle Toby and the corporal began to run their first parallel [trench] – not at random, or any how – but from the same points and distances the allies had begun to run theirs; and regulating their approaches and attacks, by the accounts my uncle Toby received from the daily papers, – they went on, during the whole siege, step-by-step with the allies

vol. 6, ch 21-2
First edition copy of The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Lawrence Sterne. C/O The British Library

Did Lawrence Sterne know of Sir Walter Erle? It seems most unlikely. Sterne was born in Ireland and lived for most of his life as a clergyman in Yorkshire; he had no Dorset connections. The original volume of Tristram Shandy was published in 1759; Sir Anthony Ashley Cooper’s writings, including his account of Sir Walter Erle’s gardening activities, only appeared in 1871. Although their hobby-horses were of a similar breed, there is no resemblance between the characters of the two men. Unlike Sir Walter, Uncle Toby was a brave and capable soldier, who had seen much active service and had been severely wounded in the service of his king. His gardening activities reflect a keen interest in current military affairs, they were not an exercise in vanity or self-delusion. There is also a final difference between the two. Uncle Toby was a supremely kind and generous man – ‘a gentleman of unparalleled modesty’ (vol. 1, ch. 21), who literally wouldn’t hurt a fly. In a famous scene, he caught an annoying bluebottle and let it out of the window with the words, ‘This world surely is wide enough to hold both thee and me’ (vol 2, ch. 12). Uncle Toby Shandy was the antithesis of the proud, puritanical Sir Walter Erle.


Find out more about parliamentarians’ interest in gardening in this previous blog from our Georgian Lords section.

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