Historic Homes of England
Chris Franks is fascinated by Lyveden New Bield
THE interrupted dream, it’s called. It lies on a hilltop off a remote narrow lane in Northamptonshire. As you drive up the dusty, potholed track towards it, it looks like a ruin but that doesn’t seem right. Normally a ruin is a blend: areas worn and rounded but still intact; areas crumbling at the edges, only part remaining; areas now vanished. Normally with a ruin you sense the history, the lives that were lived there, the struggles and conflicts.
Lyveden New Bield has none of that. There are no parts, once there, now gone. There never was any history. The house was simply never finished. It stands today exactly as it looked in 1605, when the builders downed tools for the last time. Its owner, Thomas Tresham, once a rich man who went bankrupt, died that year, leaving his great Catholic vision incomplete.
Thomas Tresham was born into an affluent and well-connected Northamptonshire family. He wasn’t the first Tresham to follow Catholicism. His grandfather, Sir Thomas Tresham the elder, was deeply committed to the faith, despite serving in the Protestant households of Henry VIII and Edward VI. Tresham the elder was an ardent supporter of Mary Tudor in her fight to restore Catholicism after Henry VIII’s rift with Rome.
Mary Tudor died in 1558, though, and when Tresham the elder died the following year, the young Tresham inherited the entire family estate at just 15 years old.
Tresham was well-educated and highly intelligent, studying at Christ Church, Oxford, and becoming a lawyer at Middle Temple when he was just 17. He had a knack for mixing in the most exclusive circles, and by 1575 had gained himself a knighthood. As head of an important family, he had considerable income. The profits from his estate, together with his earnings from state office, came to well over £2,000 a year, more than £800,000 in today’s money. But he had expenses, too.
He had nine children, six of whom were daughters, and throughout his life he gave more than £12,000 (£3.7 million today) as gifts on their
marriages. His errant son, Francis, was always in trouble and he was constantly bailing him out, paying off debts and fines. Tresham himself also had a lavish lifestyle. He loved entertaining, hosting up to 100 guests at a time and clocking up huge annual catering bills of £180,000 plus today.
All his life, Tresham was committed to his faith, but being a Catholic then wasn’t easy. After the death of Mary Tudor, Elizabeth I had ascended the throne, and she regarded the Catholic Church as a threat to national security. Every time her Catholic neighbours in Europe manoeuvred against her, Elizabeth reacted by persecuting Catholics back home.
To counter this, Tresham transferred his estates and livestock into trust, but he couldn’t shield himself completely. For 25 years he was harassed by the government and placed under house arrest, making running his estate difficult. In 1581, he was fined £20 a month for refusing to attend the Anglican Church. The fine wasn’t enforced until 1587, though, by which time he had amassed arrears of £950 (over £300,000 today).
If this was meant to drive Tresham to apostasy, it didn’t work. Tresham had already shown a fascination for religious symbolism at the Triangular Lodge, a building he had constructed on his estate in 1593. There, every aspect of the design was dominated by the number three, symbolising the Holy Trinity of God the Father, the Son and Holy Ghost.
In 1594, Tresham began work on Lyveden New Bield. He had considerable architectural knowledge and prepared many of the design drawings and calculations himself. By this time, he was suffering heavy religious persecution and in an almost constant state of imprisonment or house arrest. Unable to supervise the build in person, he gave copious instructions to his foreman. Despite his stretched finances, he took no shortcuts, insisting on the finest quality stone and materials, the best craftsmen and the highest degree of finish. Every aspect of the building’s design was to be saturated with Catholic symbolism.
Even from a distance you can sense this. Normally, as you approach a building, it’s clear what aspect you’re facing, and that guides you to the main entrance. Not so at Lyveden
New Bield. Laid out in the shape of a Greek cross with four identical arms, the building looks the same from all four points of the compass. With no obvious way in, you resort to walking around the outside.
The first thing that strikes you is how crisp and clean the stonework is, all the corners and edges still sharp. Only the occasional mossy film gives any hint of the true age. Tresham’s stonemasons were the very best.
The elaborate symbolism of the exterior then starts to emerge. On the frieze between the ground and first floors is a series of seven images depicting the Passion of Christ:
Judas’s money bag, spears and swords from Jesus’s arrest at Gethsemane, a flogging pillar with scourges, the cross and crown of thorns, Jesus’s tunic and the dice cast by the Roman guards, the letters IHS and the letters XP, the first letters of the words “Jesus” and “Christ” in Greek.
The number five is present everywhere, representing the five wounds of Christ at the crucifixion. The Greek cross footprint of Lyveden New Bield covers an area equivalent to five identical squares. Each arm of the cross has a bay window, each bay with five sides and each side measuring five feet, making the outside circumference of each bay window 25 feet. The 25th of the month is the date of both the Nativity and the Feast of the Annunciation.
Tresham’s earlier fascination with the number three is also present. The building has three floors: a basement, a ground floor and a first floor. On each ground floor wall and each bay window there are three diamonds. On the frieze just above the basement, shields grouped in threes are separated by three windows. And bringing these quintuple and triple symbolic bases together, the width of the building in both directions is exactly 243 feet: 3x 3x3x3x3, or three to the power of five.
It’s hard to grasp how brave a conception this was. Tresham was prominent in society and couldn’t fully conceal the practising of his faith. He was regarded with deep suspicion by the Crown at a time when treason was punishable by death.
As you walk through the building, the walls still reaching up, the windows still awaiting their glass, the rooms and doorways still welcoming the people who never came, you can almost sense Tresham looking on and smiling as it all took shape. You sense his determination, his defiance. This was who he really was. This was his faith, and nothing, not even decades of persecution, was going to silence him.
But Tresham’s finances weren’t as robust as his beliefs. Over the last 14 years of his life, his Catholicism cost him penalties of just under £8,000, a staggering £2.8 million in today’s terms.
Unable to pay, he had to resort to borrowing and never recovered. He died on 11 September 1605, leaving an estate, but also a debt of £11,495, or just over £3.5 million today. It took his widow more than 10 years to repay it.
After Tresham’s death, the estate passed to his reckless son, Francis. It was probably resentment of his father’s persecution that prompted Francis to become involved in the gunpowder plot. Robert Catesby was one of the plot ringleaders, and a cousin of Tresham’s, and while Tresham himself had tried to persuade Catesby against it, Francis plunged in with foolish abandon.
It was Francis’s indiscretion that eventually exposed the plot, though he died in the Tower of London of a suspected urinary infection just two months after his father and before his inevitable trial and execution. His
dead body was decapitated anyway and his head placed on a spike outside Northampton.
The estate then transferred to Tresham’s younger son, Lewis, in whose hands it declined rapidly. When Lewis’s son, William, died childless in 1643, the Tresham line came to an end. The estate remnants were finally sold sometime around 1668.
It’s incredible to think that everything Tresham achieved – his wealth, his titles, even his own blood line – perished so soon after him, and yet what has survived for centuries is the thing he left incomplete.
Would anything have remained if he had finished Lyveden New Bield? Would it have been just another house to be abandoned, ruined and forgotten? Would we have remembered Tresham at all?
It is because it is incomplete that Lyveden New Bield has such enduring power. It compels us to ask: what was Tresham trying to do?
Today, Lyveden New Bield is one of the gems of the National Trust collection. The superb stonework and remarkable degree of preservation have made it a site of international importance. Tens of thousands visit every year to marvel at the complex symbolism so close to Tresham’s heart: symbolism that even now is not fully understood.
The construction may have been interrupted, but Tresham’s vision wasn’t just about that. He didn’t just want to build a house. He wanted to declare his faith to the world for all time.
And, in that, his dream could not be more fulfilled.
Spring is an ideal time to visit when the historic orchards burst into blossom but do check ahead for opening times. Lyveden New Bield, nr Oundle, Northamptonshire PE8 5AT. 01832 205158; nationaltrust.org.uk