Summer house

Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire

Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire

The last of Sir Thomas Tresham’s three buildings is in some ways the most intriguing.  Whereas the Triangular Lodge is a complete entity, Lyveden New Bield is incomplete, presumably abandoned on Sir Thomas’ death in 1605.  It has sat on its hilltop in the wide Northamptonshire countryside for over four hundred years now, and only recently has it begun to make sense fully, thanks to a smart National Trust researcher and the German air-force.

The architecture is actually quite easy to read.  It was clearly intended as a small residence, capable of supporting a small number of guests for meals and probably overnight.  There is, for instance, a kitchen with a bread-oven.  But the building seems never to have been roofed or floored.

The façades have the same combination of classical proportions and Elizabethan mullion-and-transom windows as the Rothwell Market House.  Lyveden New Bield, however, is much more obviously cruciform in plan, and it bristles with religious symbolism that quietly asserts Sir Thomas’ Catholic faith.

The cruciform plan, for instance, consists of five squares.  Sir Gyles Isham explained, in the National Trust guide-book, that the end of each wing has seven faces each five feet wide, because in Christian numerology five is the number of salvation and seven is associated with the Godhead.  The Biblical and liturgical inscriptions around the entablature each have eighty-one (9×9) letters, adjusted so that the names ‘Jesus’ and ‘Maria’ appear symmetrically on the wall alongside the end bay.  The frieze between the two principal floors carries carvings of the symbols of the Passion, Judas’ money bag, the scourge, the pillar, the crown of thorns and the sceptre of reeds, together with the two Christograms, ‘IHS’ and ‘XP’ representing the name of Christ.

If you were a pious Jacobean Protestant, you might accept that the theme of the decoration is the Passion of Our Lord.  If you were a knowing Catholic, you’d realise that it also celebrates the sufferings of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady of Sorrows.  Catholicism in that dangerous age was a sort of Freemasonry, communicating to its adherents through secret signs and signals.  In the year that Sir Thomas died, a group of Catholics including his son, Francis, attempted an audacious act of terrorism that we still commemorate on November 5th.

So what was it for?  The answer has recently become clearer.  From the main house down in the valley, Lyveden Old Bield, of which very little now remains, guests were invited to walk up through Sir Thomas’ new fruit garden, climb to the top of a spiral mount that was restored in the 1990s, where their ultimate destination, the New Bield, was suddenly revealed in the distance.  Once there they could enjoy the view with refreshments in comfort.  Sir Thomas might have kept “secret house” there when the Old Bield was being cleaned.  I’d be very surprised if he didn’t also intend to celebrate Mass:  no Protestant spy could get within a quarter of a mile of the place without being seen.

We owe a clearer understanding of this layout to a the crew of a German spy-plane who photographed the site in 1944.  Chris Gallagher, National Trust gardens and parks curator, found the images in the US National Archive in Baltimore, and realised that they showed that a previously unsuspected labyrinth formed part of Sir Thomas’ formal garden.  [See and]

As a result the site has been regraded to Grade I by English Heritage.  It will be exciting to watch its restoration over the next few years.

The Old Beild, more commonly known as Lyveden Manor, was acquired by the National Trust in 2012 so that, in due course, the two properties will be reunited and both open to the public:

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