The Physic Garden

A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1954.

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'The Physic Garden', A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954), pp. 49-50. British History Online [accessed 14 June 2024].

. "The Physic Garden", in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954) 49-50. British History Online, accessed June 14, 2024,

. "The Physic Garden", A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, (London, 1954). 49-50. British History Online. Web. 14 June 2024,


The Physic Garden was founded by the munificence of Henry Danvers, Earl Danby, who in 1621 bought the lease of the occupier of meadowland just outside the boundary of the city, where once the Jews' cemetery had been, and obtained a new lease from Magdalen College. The site was suitable, 'being aptly watered with the River Charwell by it gliding', (fn. 1) but to be free from inundation the level of the garden had to be raised. Even so, it was flooded upon occasion, as for instance in 1663, when the rising waters 'drowned most part of the Phisick Garden and came up within 6 yards of Merton College walls', and in Oct. 1882, when the professor's house could only be reached on planks. (fn. 2) On the acquisition, inclosure, and laying out of the five acres Danby spent more than £5,000 and, besides, provided in his will that the impropriated rectory of Kirkdale in Yorkshire should be conveyed to the University in order to maintain the Garden and the teaching of botany. (fn. 3) Some time elapsed before the latter purpose could be achieved, but by the time of the Earl's death, in 1644, the Garden had assumed the appearance which not only members of the University but distinguished visitors from several countries were to admire during the 17th century.

In shape it was almost square and surrounded by 'a most stately wall of hewen stone 14 foot high', the building of which had spread over many years. The contracts, requiring the wall to be as good in appearance and workmanship as the walls of All Souls or Magdalen Tower, had been made by Nov. 1621, (fn. 4) but it was not until 1633 that Laud, then Chancellor, could record its completion. (fn. 5) By that time also the three gateways, in the centres of the northern, eastern, and western walls, had been finished. The chief entrance was the northern gateway, embellished with statues of Charles I and Charles II, (fn. 6) and with a bust of Danby over the centre. Inigo Jones has been credited with the design, (fn. 7) but there is no documentary evidence to support the attribution and there is a statement to the contrary in Charles Stoakes's list of works by his uncle, or grand-uncle, Nicholas Stone: 'The Curious Phisicke Garden hee desined & made the Entrances of Stone att Oxford now to be seene.' (fn. 8) That Nicholas Stone was the builder of all three gateways is clear from an entry in his diary: 'In 1631 Agreed with the Right Hon. Lord Earell of Danby for to mak 3 ston gattes in to the phiseck garden Oxford and to desine a new Hows for him at Corenbury in Oxfordsheer.' (fn. 9)

Within the walls, the Garden was divided into quarters by two straight walks, which intersected at right angles in the centre. The walks were bounded by yew hedges on both sides, but the hedges on those running from east to west were cut down in the later 18th century and the others in 1834. Probably the workmen who, under the supervision of the eccentric Jacob Bobart, arranged the Garden were foreigners: at any rate 'outlandish workmen' were sent by Danby in 1639, when, so far as is known, no building work was in progress. (fn. 10) Outside the walls, as Loggan's print of 1675 makes clear, there was a long building, stretching along the south side of the High Street from the end of Magdalen Bridge to the railings in front of the northern entrance to the Garden. This building, if not erected in 1670–1, was probably altered and enlarged considerably at that time, to serve as a residence for the Professor and a 'winter house for plants', the work being done by Thomas Robinson, mason, and Dew, plasterer. (fn. 11) Some seventeen years later Robinson was paid more than £70 for building the wall before the Physic Garden, that is, possibly, a wall where Loggan's print shows only a mound or balk, joining the 'winter house' to the north-east corner of the old wall. (fn. 12) Still later, in 1692–3 and 1693–4, he was paid more than £157 for other work, the nature of which is not indicated in the accounts but which may have been a further extension of the same building. His work was pulled down about 1780, and the site was thrown into the road to improve the approach to Magdalen Bridge. (fn. 13) The contents of the demolished buildings were transferred to a green house on the East side of the Garden, which, in 1795, was made into a library and lecture room. In the fourth decade of the 19th century improvements were carried out in the Garden and alterations and new building undertaken on the north side, parallel with the High Street; (fn. 14) there were also further additions and changes in the later part of the century and in the 20th. The modern plant houses between the eastern wall and the Cherwell date from 1894. They were rebuilt in 1948.


  • 1. See the description by Thomas Baskerville, Collectanea, Fourth Series (O.H.S. xlvii), 187–91.
  • 2. Wood, City of Oxford (ed. Clark), i, 609.
  • 3. Ingram, Memorials of Oxford (1837), iii.
  • 4. R. T. Gunther, Oxford Gardens (1912), 2.
  • 5. Remains of … William Laud, London, 1700, ii, 62.
  • 6. These two statues, in the niches on either side, must be later than the gateway. According to tradition, which Hearne considered very unlikely to have been true, they were paid for by the fine imposed by the University upon Anthony Wood for words reflecting on the first Earl of Clarendon (Wood, Life etc. iv, 50).
  • 7. Ingram, Memorials of Oxford, iii; R. T. Gunther, Oxford Gardens.
  • 8. W. L. Spiers, The Note Book and Account Book of Nicholas Stone (Walpole Society), 137. The inclusion of the Banqueting Room at Whitehall and other works in the list possibly throws doubt upon its value; but Stoakes may have meant only that Stone was a contractor on such buildings, and he probably ought not to be understood as crediting his uncle with the design unless he expressly says so.
  • 9. Ibid. 70.
  • 10. Letter of Dr. Frewen to Laud, Remains of … Laud, ii, 182.
  • 11. Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, 1666–97. Robinson's bill for work in 1669–70 and 1670–1 came to £91 9s. 4d. and £40 10s. 8d.; Dew's, for 1670–1 only, to £35 0s. 10d.
  • 12. Vice-Chancellor's Accounts, Sept. 1686–7. In the following year he was paid £42 4s. 'for makeing a Door Way and for raysing a wall at the East end of the Physick Garden' and pitching before the Ashmolean Museum. A wall is shown in Williams, Oxonia Depicta, viii.
  • 13. See Gwynne's plan in Surveys & Tokens, 73 (O.H.S.). By this time the building contained a library as well as accommodation for the Professor of Botany. Ingram, Memorials of Oxford, iii.
  • 14. A view of the new building in 1835 is given in Ingram, loc. cit.