A Maze Miscellany

Before I come to my final article on mazes, which will be on the familiar topiary or hedge mazes, I wanted to assemble a medley of miscellaneous maze matters which amused and entertained ladies and gentlemen of the Regency. Maze and labyrinth designs could be found not only in the garden or the village green, but in personal adornment, music and games during the Regency.

And so, a miscellany of maze matters …


Long before "impresa" became the name of an automobile, it was an Italian word used to refer to a personal emblem of significance to the wearer. These personal emblems first began to appear in Italy in the last half of the sixteenth century, usually worn by wealthy men of high rank and status. Typically, impresas took the form of a large broach with an ornate, often richly jeweled setting. In the center would be a large carved or engraved stone depicting a special image which had great personal import to its owner. Around the edge of the image would usually be engraved the personal motto of the owner. There are a number of these impresas still in existence which depict some form of maze or labyrinth as the image their original owner considered important to him.

Though impresas were no longer worn, or even made, by the beginning of the Regency, there were still many of them available. Each one was a curiosity; antique, unique and therefore extremely expensive and highly collectible. An antique Italian impresa with a maze carved into the stone at its center and surrounded by a setting of gold studded with precious gemstones could play an important part in a Regency novel. Perhaps it is the prize the hero or heroine is seeking. Perhaps the shape of the maze carved into the central stone matches the design of a real maze where an ancient treasure is to be found. Perhaps the motto engraved around its circumference is the key to unlocking some critical secret of import to the hero or heroine.


Seals, like impresas, often bear an image of importance to the man or woman who owns them. There are seals dating back to the fourteenth century which have tiny labyrinths or mazes engraved upon them. Unlike impresas, seals were still in use during the Regency and it is entirely possible that a character in a Regency novel might be in possession of a seal with a maze emblem, or of a document bearing a wax seal with such an emblem. Might this be a benign image, perhaps the seal of an architect or landscape designer? Men in these professions did occassionally chose a maze as their seal emblem in remembrance of Daedalus, the great ancient builder. Or might it be the seal of some devious, nefarious character, who chose the image of a maze for his seal to signify his contempt for those he threatens, assuming they cannot penetrate to the center of his dastardly operation? Excepting the hero, of course.

Snuff Boxes

Small boxes to hold snuff, often of precious metals and other fine materials, were in common use during the Regency. Snuff boxes might be decorated with anything, including images of mazes or labyrinths, just as with seals, for perfectly innocuous reasons or with malignant intent. There were many snuff boxes, particularly those made of gold or silver, which had a double-lid design. The top lid might be a miniature depicting an inoffensive pastoral scene. A second lid could be revealed by pressing a catch known only to the box’s owner, very often revealing a miniature of the owner’s lover, typically in deshabille. But who is to say that second lid might not contain an image of a maze which is a symbol of secret society, shown to allow the owner to prove his membership and right of access to the hallowed, or unhallowed, halls of its secret meeting-place.


A number of "musical mazes" were written by European composers, beginning in the early eighteenth century. One of the first was by Johann Sebastian Bach, believed to have been composed around 1705, and entitled Kleins Harmonishes Labyrinth (A Small Harmonious Labyrinth). This musical labyrinth, written in Bach’s youth, has a deceptive harmonic structure with a number of modulations of different keys at different points in the piece. It also contains some misleading enharmonic chords which can confuse both performer and listener alike. Though it was written for the organ, it could also be played on that new instrument of the Regency, the pianoforte, but only by a truly skilled and accomplished musician.

Several other composers wrote musical labyrinths throughout the eighteenth century, almost always for keyboard instruments. Some of them took their influence from Bach, and their work was just as complex as his had been. However, other eighteenth-century composers produced musical pieces which included "labyrinth" in their titles, but that was only a metaphor. The music itself was usually mundane and often quite tedious. Peter von Winter composed the opera Das Labyrinth oder der Kampf mit den Elementen (The Labyrinth or the Flight against the Elements), which was intended as a sequel to Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). Winter’s opera premiered in Vienna in 1798, and was staged across Europe on and off into the nineteenth century, right though the years of the Regency.


There were at least two games played during the Regency which were based on mazes. The oldest was the Royal Game of Goose, a board game based on a spiral plan of 63 spaces, with a maze in space 42. The first records of this game date from last third of the sixteenth century, when Francesco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, something of a playboy, is reported to have sent a copy of the game to the humorless prig, King Philip II of Spain. Despite Philip’s typically morose attitude, or perhaps because of it, the game was instantly popular at his court and soon spread across the Continent. It is known the game was being played in London near the end of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I when it was entered into the Stationer’s Register on 16 June 1597 as " … the newe and most pleasant game of the Goose."

At the beginning of the game, each player was required to put up a number of counters as a stake which was placed in the center of the board. Each player had a piece on the board which represented them, and it was moved around the spiral track based on the throw of a pair of dice. There were pictures of geese on a number of the spaces on the board, and landing on the goose spaces meant that player’s game piece could move ahead the same number of spaces again. However, there were a number of other pictures in other spaces along the game path. The player was penalized for landing on some of those, including space 42, the space with the maze. A player whose piece landed on that space was considered to be lost. They were required to add to the pool of counters in the center, and depending on the rules for that particular version of the game, would either have to go back a number of spaces, or have to remain in space 42 for two or three turns before they could again have a chance to throw the dice.

The Royal Game of Goose remained popular with adults across Europe for centuries. By the mid-eighteenth century, in both England and France, a number of wealthy landowners were so enamored of the game that they had full-size Goose games constructed in their gardens instead of a maze. Mary Blount Howard, Duchess of the 9th Duke of Norfolk, planted a hornbeam version of the Goose game at Worksop. In France, there were full-size Goose games built at both Chantilly, Oise and Choisy-le-Roi, Valo-de-Marne. By the end of the eighteenth century, there were other gambling games which adults found more compelling and they abandoned the Goose game to their children, who continued to play it right through the Regency and throughout the nineteenth century. A number of the full-size garden Goose games were still to be found on estates across Europe and England during the years of the Regency, where both children and adults could play this familiar and enjoyable game, representing themselves on the human-size game "board."

The other maze-based game which was played during the Regency and into the twentieth century was known as Rosamond’s Bower. This puzzle game was based on a myth which originated in the Middle Ages regarding the supposed demise of one of King Henry II’s mistresses, Rosamond Clifford. There were a number of versions of the story. The basics were that Henry had fallen in love with the beautiful Rosamond, but knowing how jealous his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, would be of his affair, he secluded the fair Rosamond in a secret bower. This bower was surrounded by a complicated and intricate maze which Henry had ordered built in his park at Woodstock. (Now the site of Blenheim Palace.) According to one of the more popular versions of the tale, one day, when Henry was returning from a tryst with Rosamond in her secret bower, he did not realize he had snagged his spur on piece of silk. It had unraveled as he had left the maze, leaving a tell-tale thread. Queen Eleanor followed the thread trail through the maze to find Rosamond in her bower. The enraged queen gave the beautiful young woman a choice, death by dagger or a goblet of poison. The defenseless girl chose the poison and it is said that Henry never smiled again.

There is no historical evidence to support the truth of Rosamond’s maze-encircled bower, nor her death at the hand of the outraged queen. It appears to have first arisen during the fourteenth century in the writings of a French scribe. Yet by Tudor times, the tragic tale had taken its place as a popular historical romance. It was re-told by many authors in novels, poetry and plays, up to and through the Regency, including Samuel Pepys, Joseph Addison, Walter Scott, Tennyson and Swinburne.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the story of Rosamond and her bower had slipped into the realm of myth, a myth which had been well-scrubbed for the consumption of polite society, and even children. Rosamond had become a lovely but guileless damsel who had inadvertently caught the roving eye of the king, who had hidden her away in the bower within the maze in his great park at Woodstock. Despite her steadfast refusal to allow him to compromise her virtue, the chaste lady raised the ire of the irrationally jealous queen, who eventually found her and wreaked her cruel vengeance on the innocent girl.

By the nineteenth century, this now quite unobjectionable story was a popular topic for charades, even for play by both ladies and children. But Rosamond’s Bower was also the source of another form of game which was completely dependent on the bower itself, and the maze which surrounded it. A combination of a puzzle and a board game, a picture of fair Rosamond’s bower was to be found at the center of the board. There were many versions of this game. In some, the bower picture was surrounded by a close approximation of a rather geometrical garden hedge maze. In others, the maze was more similar to a wilderness or a block maze plan, the paths to the bower in the center being quite serpentine. Regardless of the design of the maze, the object of the game was to trace a route, typically with one’s finger, along the paths of the maze until reaching the Bower in the center, without crossing any lines. Game-makers went to great effort to make the maze puzzle as challenging as possible and Rosamond’s Bower was a popular game with children through most of the nineteenth century.

As you can see, mazes were not confined to the garden during the Regency. They might be nestled in a gentleman’s pocket, drifting over the audience at a musicale, or depicted on some of the games in the nursery toy box. There are any number of ways a creative author might incorporate a maze into a story set in the Regency, beyond using one as a trysting place for the hero and heroine.


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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