We all know that houses and gardens are the product of their creators, sometimes almost inextricably so. But we also know that houses get altered, rebuilt or even demolished from time to time while gardens are even more ephemeral and apart from the obvious seasonal changes of planting and growth, are often altered with every successive generation.

So today’s subject is extraordinary because in so many ways it doesn’t fit into that pattern. It was the product of one man’s imagination, passion and faith and it was abandoned when he died.

It helped that his family had little spare  money and  the estate was remote, so it has remained basically unchanged, except for the normal decay and change caused by time and the ploughing of some sections for agriculture.   No-one has ripped up his planting, rearranged the  layout or added new features. The relationship between house and garden is unaltered until very recently when attempts have been to recreate the very few things that have changed since his death over 400 years ago.

Lyveden in Northamptonshire is an almost incredible  survival of a late  Elizabethan garden, and its story  is inseparable from the story of  its creator Thomas Tresham.


The Tresham arms

The Treshams  begin their  rise to prominence in the late 14th century with  one John Tresham of Sywell, a small manor to the north east of Northampton.  His son William became MP for Northamptonshire and began seriously scaling the greasy pole of favour at court, ending up as Speaker of the House of Commons.   He also began to amass land and in particular acquired the manor of Rushton which became their family seat. His son Thomas  rose to the same position and it was he who in 1468 added the the manor of Lyveden to the family landholdings.   A prominent Lancastrian during the Wars of the Roses  he was beheaded after the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471. His son John wisely stayed away from the court and parliament and lived a quiet country life  and stayed alive. It may have been him who started  Lyveden House, sometimes  known as Lyveden Old Bield. This replaced the  earlier moated “auncient  Maner Place [with] godely Meadows about it”  mentioned by John Leland in 1540.

In the next generation another Thomas who was born in 1500 re-entered the murky world of politics as sheriff and MP for Northants.  This Thomas Tresham was hostile  towards religious reform and  remained a faithful Catholic gaining much favour from Queen Mary. But as far as Lyveden is concerned though his importance is that he obtained a licence from Henry VIII to impark  – or enclose – 120 acres of wood, 250 acres of pasture and 50 acres of meadow, around the house.  This was all cleared and laid to grass for  intensive [by 16th standards at least] sheep rearing. Wool was  England’s greatest industry. Both Lyveden and Rushton were agricultural  estates and it was a big chunk of their income.

When this Thomas died in 1559 Rushton and Lyveden  was inherited by the third  and most important Thomas Tresham in our story. He was only 16  so was taken into wardship by another local  Catholic gentry family – the Throckmortons of Coughton Court.  After he had been to Oxford and then the Middle Temple to study law  he  married Muriel, the daughter of his guardian Sir Robert Throckmorton.  

His status as the head of a leading county family was confirmed by his becoming sheriff of Northamptonshire at the age of 30 in 1573. Two years later he was knighted at Elizabeth I’s grand visit to the Earl of Leicester at  Kenilworth  for which the great garden, recently re-imagined by English Heritage, was created. Alongside him then was Robert Cecil, son of William the queen’s chief minister from Burghley.

He was well acquainted with his grand neighbours in the Northants –  including Christopher Hatton at Holdenby and Kirby – and just across the border with William Cecil at Burghley and who were both influential builders and garden makers and would have seen their great houses with their complex gardens of elaborate terraces, mounts and moats which were at the forefront of innovation.  


So young Thomas Tresham was a highly educated and well-connected man and Like most elite Elizabethan gentlemen he was interested in architecture, amassing a huge library of more than 2000 books including all the latest architectural books in French, Italian as well as Latin and English.  He was also interested, again like most of his contemporaries in astronomy, cosmology mathematics and puzzles, riddles and emblems, symbols and codes.

His love of architecture first manifested itself in his building of the Market House in Rothwell which was begun in 1578.  The cruciform proportions of the building and its ornament – of shields and inscriptions – are similar to those we’re going to see at Lyveden New Bield.  It is inscribed with themes of  friendship and it displayed the arms of 90 local landed families around the walls but  friendship was probably not the most appropriate sentiment because work stopped when Tresham was arrested in 1580 and  the building remained roofless until 1897.

Why was this man who potentially was on his way to high office arrested?    Much of the answer is contained in this emblematic portrait. It was simply because  like his grandfather he was a devout Catholic and as he grew older his faith became more significant and central to his life, both private and public.

Tresham is shown  transcribing two psalms with his right hand and holding a skull in his left.  Worldly symbols occupy the lower left side – idle pursuits such as music, archery, hunting, dice and cards while more serious ones, such as farming, building and books.   All these are underneath an elaborately clothed arm with its hand holding a globe.   On the right we see  symbols of spiritual life, particularly Catholicism.  Underneath Christ crucified are the symbols of the Passion,  a chalice and host  together with a set of rosary beads.  Between the two are three Latin words:   Laqueus : a snare, trap or noose.  Solutus:  unbound, absolved or freed and Liberator : which together can be interpreted as a sign of his faith  that only Christ will set mankind free from the sins and temptations of the world.  Around the circumference are two Latin quotations: one from 1 Corinthians chapter 13 verse 9: and the other a contraction of 2 verses of Psalm 77: I’m afraid my Latin isn’t good enough to translate the other inscriptions well enough – so if yours is any better please let me know!

Tresham gradually moved to open rejection of the Elizabethan church which was politically and socially a very dangerous thing to do.  Most dangerous of all was that he was found to have received Edmund Campion, a Jesuit priest  and later martyr, at his London house in Hoxton.  This was to lead to the first of many large fines and Sir Thomas was almost continuously imprisoned or under house arrest between 1581 and 1593. Yet he was not disloyal to the crown or to Elizabeth,  becoming  a leading spokesman for lay Catholic loyalism, arguing that temporal obedience to the crown was compatible with spiritual obedience to the pope.

Further clamping down on catholics led to the 1593 the Act for Restraining Popish Recusants which   meant he was effectively exiled  to his estates and that’s when we start seeing his interest in gardening emerge.  Thomas  began by substantially remodelling both Rushton Hall and its  gardens to create a series of large terraces, a spiral viewing mount, and an extensive lake which was created by damming the river.   This was later all swept away in the 18th and 19thc.

Meanwhile he was also  constructing two extraordinary buildings: the now disappeared Hawkfield Tower (1593-8) & the  Triangular Lodge (1594-7) which ostensibly was built for and used by his rabbit warrener. I used to wonder why he needed a warrener but then discovered he had about 300 acres of warren!  The towers too, were a  foretaste  of what was to come at Lyveden.

The Tresham Arms

The base of the building is an equilateral triangle. There are three floors with three windows to each floor. On the top of each wall are three gables.

The windows contain triangles, crosses and trefoils – the 3 lobed leaf was part of his coat of arms – which meant it could be used to great symbolic effect in the decoration of the lodge. 

Before you start wondering, if Tresham has lost the plot  when he designed the tower, we know that contemporary architectural books were full of unusual geometric buildings.  Nor was he alone in such ideas.  Others including the  Cecils at Burleigh had collections of architectural plans – buildings designed as circles, triangles and crosses, so it was fashionable.   Sir Thomas also had access to practical advice from those who had worked on Holdenby, including Hugh Hall, a Catholic priest who designed the gardens  and Pieter Morris a Dutch hydraulic engineer who  helped with  the water management for Christopher Hatton.  Master mason Robert Stickells who worked for both Hatton and Cecil is also known to have been consulted.

So when Tresham decided to build something at Lyveden it perhaps isn’t surprising that he had both the theoretical and the practical knowledge  to create something equally mathematically interesting  – indeed unique.

The old Manor House or Lyveden Old Bield as it is sometimes known, stood within a small enclosed garden at the bottom of a long sloping hill.   Tresham  planned to extend the garden southwards and up towards the ridge  where he was to build a large garden lodge, which we now know as Lyveden New Bield.    Work there began in 1594 while work is also going on the Triangular Lodge, Hawkfield Tower, and Rushton. Those jobs seem to have taken precedence but materials start to arrive in large quantities on site from the end of 1595.  Thomas is then locked up again from 1596 until early 1600 but work carried on without him. Luckily the correspondence been the two, together with the steward’s accounts  survive in the British Library.

Arriving at Lyveden the visitor would have  entered the area around the manor house through a magnificent stone arch, [sadly no longer there] just as  at similar grand estates like Holdenby and Kirby.   This area is the least well documented although the National Trust which is currently renovating the Old Bield are investigating further. Both the house and its immediate surroundings have been irrecoverably changed over the centuries.

The sketch plan of the Lyveden site from J A Gotch The Buildings of Sir Thomas Tresham, 1883

Trial ditches which were part of the Archaeological investigation of the putative lower garden terraces in 2017 by 
Joe Prentice and Iain Soden on behalf of The National Trust.

Earlier research suggested that there were then a series of terraces leading from the old house that were cut into the hillsides  linking it with the new gardens above. However as part of the reassessment by the NT of the site  further detailed archeology seems to have  disproved that.  There must have been a pathway leading up the slope but it was not as formal as terracing, while there were also places to sit and rest/take in the view – including an arbor mentioned in letters in 1604.

The first major garden area reached was the lower orchard, some 150 x 190m in extent,   which contained three hundred trees in what Andrew Eburne calls  “a kind of living library as impressive as its owner’s collection of books”.  It was a testament to Tresham’s knowledge, expertise and status but it was also important domestically: not just for food, but basic physic, dyestuffs and wine etc.   Amazingly the original tree holes were still visible in early aerial photos despite having being ploughed over for generations.  Thanks to a letter Tresham sent to his foreman in 1597 we even know many of the varieties grown.

These included  Great Green Costard, Dr Harvey and Winter Queening apples, Madingley, Hawksbill and Winter caterne pears, together with walnuts, plums, medlars and cherries.   Over the last 20 years the NT have been replanting the orchard with those  they have been able to obtain from  the National Collection at Brogdale.  These have been grafted onto  vigorous rootstock [no M9 or St Julien dwarfing stocks in the late 16thc] and planted according to Tresham’s instructions.

Lady Tresham told Robert Cecil that her husband took ‘great delight’ in the growing of fruit: ‘Nor is there any fruit of note but he had itt if it could be conveniently gotten’  and she later allowed him to take a large number of trees from what Cecil described as ‘one of the fairest orchards that is in England.’

The visitor would have walked through the orchard along a central avenue of cherry trees and reaching the far end would have found themselves almost at the top of the hill and at the foot of a substantial terrace which had a mount at either end.

The views from the terrace and mounts change the perception of the lower orchard. Tresham would have led his guests up the central avenue of cherry trees and on to the terrace and mounts where they would have looked back over the tops of the trees towards the manor house below.  It was an Elizabethan aerial view 300 years before the real thing.

The terrace serves several purposes.  It was a garden equivalent of the long gallery in an Elizabethan mansion – somewhere high and dry to walk and enjoy the view.  But most notably it served to mask the highlight of  Tresham’s ingenuity in garden design which, is nice… I’m running out of time/space we’ll have to look at in next week’s post…

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