More on Lyveden

Last week’s post looked at the background to the building of Lyveden New Bield by Sir Thomas Tresham in the very last few years of Elizabeth I’s reign.  We began a tour of the garden and ended having reached the terrace at the top of the orchard and looked backwards, down the hill over the Old Bield.

Today we’re going to continue the tour round the other part of the garden and ending up at Sir Thomas’s extraordinary garden lodge, before going on to look at the more recent history of Lyveden.


The view from the terrace looking south is  over 3 linked moats or canals  that  almost encircle an island.  The fourth side was left undug after Tresham’s death in 1605.   This is quite extraordinary because the site sits on the top of a hill where there are no natural springs or channels, although its worth noting that  the mediaeval manor which  stood nearby near the brow of the hill was moated as well. The Conservation Management Plan for the site notes that  “Lyveden’s hydrology is anything other than obvious or intuitive. We do not yet know how the moats were supplied, nor how they functioned hydrologically.”

The water is  not very deep at only 1-1.5 metres. William Cecil’s garden at Theobalds had a “ditch full of water, large enough for one to have the pleasure of going in a boat and rowing between the shrubs”  and presumably that was what Sir Thomas was planning too.

The most prominent garden features, next to the water, are the  mounts at either end of the terrace and two larger spiral mounts on the opposite side.  Mounts  were extremely popular garden features and provided an elevated viewing point over the garden and the landscape beyond and Tresham had already built one at Rushton.

There is no documentary evidence for the difference in form – but perhaps that is to do with their placement. Remember that  when going up a spiral mount, the view continuously changes and you gain  a 360 degree perspective, but climbing a stepped mounts  tends to  focus the view  in one just direction – upwards until the summit then directly forward.

The panorama from the terrace  would surely have been intended have given a real sense of awe and wonder  to the visitor.

There is also a strong possibility that there is  catholic symbolism involved, as a version of a sacro monte or sacred mountain.  This was an allegorical interpretation of the last part of Christ’s life, with the Via Dolorosa, Gethsemane, Mount of Olives etc re-interpreted in the garden with appropriate resting points to sit and contemplate.  Given that it was Sir Thomas who designed it the possibility is quite strong although there is no written record or hint,

But what was the island in the middle for?

Was it a garden? The site is visibly raised in the middle to aid drainage and under the topsoil are considerable areas of gravel possibly to spread along pathways. However as you can see it didn’t look much like that since until about 25 years ago  was almost impenetrable and used as a rearing ground for pheasants.

Then an aerial reconnaissance photograph initially thought to be taken by the Luftwaffe during the Second World War, but in fact more likely by the RAF, was found in the Library of Congress.  It showed an arrangement of 10 concentric circles measuring 120 metres across. Did they show a labyrinth?  Again this is a well known conceit and certainly existed  in other major  gardens such as t Nonsuch and Theobalds,  while mazes and labyrinths are  significant Christian symbolic devices.

Further investigation in the archives showed that Tresham had written in 1597 instructing his staff “if my moated orchard could in any part be prepared for the receiving of some cherry and plum trees I should like it well”   A marginal note refers to “circular borders”. 

So it would seem from that and other comments that the outer circles of the design were planted with cherry and plum trees. A number of old varieties of plums and crab apples still survive  along the edge of the canals, presumably the descendants of the original planting.   Tresham’s letters to his agent also revealed that the inner rings were planted with a strange combination of roses and raspberries with  4 juniper trees and some other plums.


Around 2008 the National Trust  tried to convey these discoveries  through an imaginative but  simple mowing regime. By this point the story of the site had come a long way from the appointment of  Mark Bradshaw as the first full-time curator in 1996 but there was still much more to be learned.

When he arrived  the entire site,  including the moat, was overgrown to put it politely, and a programme of tree-clearing had to take place including those which were growing in and on the banks of the moat.

In 2000 this was followed up by de-silting works and an analysis of the pollen found in the  silt.  Follow this link for more information,  lots of photos and short video clips of the work.


In 2013 further conservation of the  canals took place providing  further archaeological data about the flora and fauna. The pollen and macro-fossil evidence has confirmed the presence of  elm, walnut, juniper, hawthorn, privet, spruce and possibly silver fir, together  with  pinks, marigolds, coriander, parsley and fennel.  Surprisingly there was no evidence of  fish having been introduced. Perhaps Sir Thomas was waiting for the last section to be dug before doing so.


Sir Thomas’s new lodge was built in the shape of a Greek Cross, perfectly symmetrical,  but at an angle to the moated orchard for reasons which are only just beginning to become clear.

Possible layouts for the Lodge gardens from the Conservation Management Plan by Andrew Eburne and Kate Felus, 2010

It was surrounded by a  garden  108 yards square which he instructed was to be divided by hedges into ‘eight large  arbours’.  There were to be four ‘middle’  and four outer arbours, which may have been laid out in line with the arms of the  cross; or as a division of nine squares with the central square occupied by the Lodge.

We have no way of knowing if  any of this was ever completed.

from Google Maps


Where did Tresham get the idea from?  We saw last week that he had an extensive library containing the latest architectural and scientific books from all over Europe. One was Astronomiæ instauratæ mechanica by the Danish astronomer astronomer/scientist Tycho Brahe Published in 1598  it includes an account of his own observatory/library at Uraniborg, which was roughly similar in form and also set in both a  square  garden and a designed landscape which included lots of water.

But there was more to the design than just its shape and symmetry. It had mathematical and theological significance and every part of it seems to have been symbolic.  There is an entire Ph.D to be written on Tresham and symbolism so I’ll just give a few examples.

Photo by Carolyn Gifford 2019

At the Triangular Lodge that Tresham used a repetition of the number 3 to represent the Trinity of God.   At Lyveden he continued to use 3 but gave more prominence to 5, symbolising the wounds of Christ and 7 which  symbolised the seven instruments of the Passion.

The buildings plan consists of 5 equal squares. Each arm of the cross ends in a bay with 5 sides each measuring 5 ft making a total of 25 feet. This was no accident – the 25th is date of both the Nativity and the Annunciation. Whilst we might be a bit surprised/perplexed /amused by such pedantry/precision it was a typical Elizabethan conceit in line with their love of ingenious and complicated riddles.

The lodge is on 3 floors, the basement for servants and the two upper floors for entertaining. Outside there are 3 sets of shields divided by 3 windows, the diamond panels are grouped in 3s and the measurement from one side of the building to the other is 243 feet. Why is that a significant number: it’s 3 to the power of 5 or 3x3x3x3x3.

Catholic symbolism is overtly “hidden” in the building’s decoration too.  The  ornamental frieze is based on the Italian architect Serlio’s pattern books but adapted  to show the seven emblems of Christ’s passions. The Greek letters IHS for Jesus and Chi-Rho XP for Christ also occur prominently, but look at the component elements.  There are also Biblical inscriptions, the names of Jesus and Mary, and the Tresham coat of arms with its trefoils which serve as a symbol of the Trintuiy.

The IHS & Chi-Rho symbols

The building stands on a raised platform, created by removing the surrounding ground rather than building a mound .  It was entered by steps 5ft high. Tthe servants entered through a separate basement entrance on the opposite sidewhich not only kept them out of sight but also  kept the building perfectly symmetrical at ground level.

Tresham himself described as “my garden lodge” but  it was designed as a small scale gentleman’s residence rather than just a hunting lodge.  Was it merely to serve as an alternative home like the lodge at  Wothrope near Burleigh where William Cecil’s household moved when “the Greater House [ie Burleigh] was a sweeping”?

More likely it served as a place of retreat and study.  Apart from the usual great hall, bedrooms and offices, it had a library and probably  a room set aside for a chapel, which given the position of catholic worship in Elkiuzabethan England was not marked out as such except by a niche in the corner for a Madonna or saint.

The niche in the “chapel”

Throughout the building Tresham adapted traditional designs, innovating in many ways.

The rainwater pipes and all the flues from the chimneys were hidden inside the walls. This not only avoided spoiling the external appearance but also allowed uninterrupted views from a rooftop walk.

Facing the north eastern arm aerial photos revealed traces of further gardens which had been regularly ploughed over until the Nation Trust persuaded the Barnwell Estate to lease them the land.   The photos showed they  laid out in a diamond pattern with the diagonals probably  indicating gravelled paths.   [and what are diamonds but two triangles]  

Known as the Parterre Garden documentary evidences shows it was planted with fruit trees and roses.  Sir Thomas also asked for a bowling green:  “I would have [a] flat piece of gr[ass]… hereafter levelled for a  green… That ground… very deep of grass: must be kept very short with oft mowing”  The final garden area  further away was another orchard, known as the Warden Hills, specifically for Warden pear trees which were planted on small mounds.

These descriptions didn’t make much impression when I first read them.  It was almost a case of so what.  But this was something planned by Thomas Tresham so surely there must be more to it than that.  And indeed there is.  There is a fascinating website about the recent history of Lyveden which includes a detailed  account by Mike Rogers of investigations which only finished last May.  Even to précis  the convincing but obviously still speculative results properly would take an entire post so I’m not going to try and steal their thunder.  Instead I’m going to just give a very brief summary and urge you to go and look at the full account because it throws an entire new light on Lyveden and in particular helps explain the odd angle of the lodge to the Moated Orchard.

In short it makes a very convincing case that, although we knew the gardens were unfinished at Tresham’s death we have never realised quite how unfinished they are.

A survey by  by Hilary Taylor Landscape Associates 2013 looked at the spacial  relationships between the main features of the site, including the parterre garden, and showed  that they conform to a clear, but perhaps not immediately obvious, mathematical pattern. The parterre also aligns perfectly with the arm of the lodge and is 20 “pooles” away from it, the same distance as the top of the nearer spiral mount.

The recent work has been to investigate the possibility that these mathematical connections could extend further.  You can see that the lodge, mount and the centre of the parterre are part of a potentially bigger pattern.  Is this just a fortuitous coincidence or did Sir Thomas intend to extend his garden further in other directions and put the lodge in the centre of a much larger emblematic/symbolic garden?   I’m convinced but go and read Mike Rogers’ account and make up your own mind!

Unfortunately we’ll never know because Sir Thomas died  on 11 September 1605. From there it was downhill for Lyveden.

His eldest son Francis was not as principled or loyal to the crown as his father. Unfortunately amongst of his best friends was his cousin Robert Catesby and the brothers John and Christopher Wright,  who were amongst the conspirators in the Gunpowder Plot.They realised that after Sir Thomas’ death Francis was [in theory at least ] a wealthy man and in mid-October they told of their plans, hoping he’d help pay for it.

Scared by what he heard it’s  pretty  certain that Francis  wrote the famous  letter to his brother-in-law Lord Monteagle, warning him not to go to the opening of Parliament, and  which then led to  the arrest of the plotters on November 5th 1605.

Meanwhile Francis returned  to Rushton where he collected all of his father’s papers and hid them in a hole in the wall which was then plastered over.  They remained hidden until  1828. Now in the British Library they contain  the most extensive account of any garden of the 16th/17thc, but as far as I’m aware they have not as yet been fully transcribed or published.

Covering his tracks didn’t save Francis.  He ended up in the Tower where he died on Christmas Eve. The Tresham estates now largely passed to his brother Lewis.  Money problems forced the sale of Rushton and a permanent  move to  the Old Bield but nothing was done to the unfinished lodge.   Because of their Catholicism the estate was sequestered by the Parliamentarians  in 1649, and in 1657  the roof and floor timbers were taken down by Major General Boteler who was granted responsibility for Northamptonshire by Cromwell, and used in  his new house in Oundle.  Returned to the family at the Restoration it was soon sold  and changed hands many times.  Finally in 1922 the lodge and 11 ha of land were acquired by the National Trust, with the  the Barnwell estate of the Duke of Gloucester owning the rest.

In the early days the National Trust  weren’t really sure what to do with Lyveden. Although a  survey of the gardens by Chris Taylor and A E Brown was published in the Archaeological Journal in 1972 the site still didn’t attract much attention, and in 1975 when the Old Bield came on the market the National Trust  didn’t buy it.  The catalyst for change seems to have been Mark Bradshaw who arrived as as a volunteer in 1992. There’s a really interesting account of his early days there at

Since then the NT has really stepped up to the mark. They bought the Old Bield when it came back on the market and are converting it into a visitors centre – with cafe of course!  Their Lyveden Reconnected project  will bring the manor house and its surrounding back together with the lodge for the first time since the 17th century. The project will undoubtedly make Lyveden  more touristy and detract from its  somewhat melancholy but romantic atmosphere  BUT I don’t think anything will change the fact that when it is completed Sir Thomas would be able to return and carry on building and planting as if nothing much had changed since he stopped work in 1605.

For more information about recent events at Lyveden the best place is undoubtedly but its also worth taking a look at the National Trust website  

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