Category Archives: Country Houses of Northamptonshire

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:

The conceit of the man

Triangular Lodge, Rushton, Northamptonshire

Triangular Lodge, Rushton, Northamptonshire

Sir Thomas Tresham had a lot of time to kill while in prison for his Catholic faith.  Like many of his generation he was fascinated by what they called “conceits”, intriguing visual or verbal puzzles which concealed meanings, whether for frivolous reasons or for deeply serious purposes.

His Triangular Lodge in the park of Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire, is an astonishing puzzle.  Its practical purpose was as a base for the warrener who looked after the rabbits which provided fresh meat.  Lodges also served as a destination for outings from the main house, and occasionally for “secret house”, when the owner retreated from the main residence while it was spring-cleaned.  It could just as easily serve as an unobtrusive location for the illegal celebration of the Catholic Mass.

That would explain not only its triangular shape, but also the complex inscriptions which cover its walls.

Its plan is an equilateral triangle, each side 33 feet long;  each face has three pinnacled gables;  there are three storeys, each of which has three windows on each of the three walls.  The inscription round the frieze contains 33 letters on each side.  Inside on each floor, the triangular plan is divided by cross-partitions into hexagonal rooms, which of course create further equilateral triangles.

The inscription above the door translates two ways:  Tres testimonium dant can be “There are three who bear record in heaven” [John ch 5, v 7] or “I, Thomas Tresham, bear witness”.  The three inscriptions on each gable are verses from the books of Isaiah, Romans and Habakkuk.  The innermost room has the acronym “SSSDDS” [Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth].  The numerical inscriptions, many of which are divisible by three, relate to Biblical dates of the Creation and the Flood, and the ages at death of Jesus and his mother, subtracted by the AD date 1593.

The blogger Scriblerus [] suspects obsessive-compulsive disorder;  Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, that austere German scholar, took a more serious view:  “…as a testament of faith this building must be viewed with respect”.

Scriblerus comments, “I’ve never known a building so ostentatiously incognito.”

It is a curious building to look at.  Buy the guide-book and seek out the puzzles.  There’s nothing like it anywhere.

The Triangular Lodge is in the care of English Heritage:  see  Be aware that there are no facilities, though there are a number of pubs and garden centres nearby.  Rushton Hall Hotel is luxurious:  afternoon tea starts at £24.00.


Three who bear witness

Market House, Rothwell, Northamptonshire

Market House, Rothwell, Northamptonshire

Sir Thomas Tresham II (1545-1605) occupied a place at the very top of Elizabethan society.  At the age of fifteen he inherited a huge estate from his grandfather, Sir Thomas Tresham I.  He knew the most powerful courtiers in the kingdom – William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, and Sir Christopher Hatton, the Lord Chancellor, both of whom had seats within a few miles of Tresham’s estate at Rushton, Northamptonshire.  Lady Tresham was a daughter of the Catholic Sir Robert Throckmorton, who withdrew from public life as soon as Queen Elizabeth took the throne.  One of their sons was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot and died (of natural causes) in the Tower of London.

Brought up a Protestant, Tresham appears to have undergone a conversion to Catholicism in 1580.  Despite his wealth and status, his uncompromising allegiance to the Catholic faith for the latter part of his life drained his fortune and often restricted his freedom.  When he had his freedom, he spent freely.  His lasting legacy consists of three buildings he created, with much ingenuity.

The earliest of these, though it wasn’t roofed until the nineteenth century, is the Market House, Rothwell, begun in or shortly after 1578.  Apparently entirely secular, it is cruciform in shape, ostensibly built as a covered market and meeting room to celebrate and carry the heraldic emblems of himself and his neighbours.  Its classical proportions are remarkably correct for a building of its period.  The design of the Market House is credited to William Grumbold, but it seems extremely likely that the decorations were tightly specified by Sir Thomas.

Its Latin inscription records that it was built “to the perpetual honour of my friends” and “as a tribute to [my] sweet fatherland and County of Northampton, but chiefly to this town [my] near neighbour”.

It’s unclear whether building-work was never completed or whether it had at some point been partly dismantled:  Sir Thomas was described as “more forward in beginning than finishing his fabricks”.

Finally completed by the Victorian architect John Alfred Gotch, it continues to serve the community, as Sir Thomas wished, as the council chamber for Rothwell Town Council:


Roman charity

Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire

Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire

Lamport Hall, Northamptonshire [] is a beautiful house with lots of stories of the Isham family, who lived there and repeatedly extended it over four hundred years.  Sir Gyles Isham, the twelfth baronet, restored it from wartime neglect and safeguarded its future with a preservation trust:  oddly, he seems to have left the house short of beds, so that the rooms on the upper floor are variously furnished.

One of these rooms is dominated by a particular painting that is mentioned in the guidebook only as “‘Roman Charity’ from the school of Rubens”.  In the group I joined there was a gentleman specialising in egregious questions who asked what was going on in this unusual scene.

Our guide remarked that she only ever explained the painting if asked.  The grey-bearded man in the painting was in prison – which explained why he was shackled and stark naked.  The lady in the painting was his daughter, and was carrying a baby.  The baby, the guide pointed out, indicated how it was that the daughter was in a position to give her imprisoned father “sustenance”.

I checked out afterwards that this is the legend of Myco (the father) and Pero (the daughter), which is recorded by the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, writing at the time of Christ.  I found this at a site  What would we do without Google?

So if you visit Lamport Hall, you don’t need to ask about the painting.


Southern Comfort

Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire

Kelmarsh Hall, Northamptonshire

It’s not uncommon for people to fall in love with a house, but it’s exceptional to marry its owner.

Nancy Lancaster (1897-1994), the daughter of a Virginian railroad magnate, had first married the grandson of the founder of Marshall Field, the Chicago department-store, and secondly his cousin, Ronald Tree, who bought Nancy’s grandfather’s home, her birthplace, Mirador, which she improved.

The Trees moved to England in 1927 and rented first Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire, and then took a ten-year repairing lease of the nearby Kelmarsh Hall, originally designed by James Gibbs (c1727-32), and owned by Claude ‘Jubie’ Lancaster.  Nancy modernised and redecorated the place, expressing her exceptional talent for sumptuous, under-stated design.  In the six years that the Trees lived at Kelmarsh she transformed the house and its garden.

In 1933, the year that Ronald Tree became Conservative MP for Market Harborough, the couple moved to Ditchley Park, Oxfordshire, also by Gibbs, where Nancy collaborated with Lady Sybil Colefax to turn a cold, neglected Palladian house into an idyllic home that epitomised upper-class comfort and hospitality.

Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire, contributing to Nancy Lancaster’s Daily Telegraph obituary [August 20th 1994], describes the influential effect of knowing Ditchley in Nancy’s time:

Her genius (and that is no exaggeration) was her eye for colour, scale, objects and the dressing-up of them; the stuffs the curtains were made of, their shapes and trimmings, the china, tablecloths, knives and forks.

Even the bathrooms were little works of art.  Warm, panelled, carpeted, there were shelves of Chelsea china cauliflowers, cabbages, tulips and rabbits of exquisite quality…

The tea tables had no cloths but were painted brilliant Chinese red.  Anyone could have done that, but no-one else did.

Towards the end of the Second World War Ronald began an affair, and the Trees divorced in 1947.  A year later Nancy married her own lover, the owner of Kelmarsh Hall, ‘Jubie’ Lancaster, and moved back to what she described as her favourite home.

In 1950 she bought out Sybil Colefax’s business, Colefax & Fowler, and began a tempestuous professional partnership with the decorator John Fowler.  This association produced some of the most influential decorative schemes of the mid-twentieth century – Grimsthorpe Castle, Lincolnshire, Mereworth Castle, Kent (then owned by Nancy’s son, Michael Tree) and Wilton House, near Salisbury.  Their trademark cool eclecticism, innovative, subtle use of colour and preoccupation with comfort have become known as the “English Country House Style” – an appropriate generalisation for the work of a British designer and an American home-maker.

John Fowler’s theatrical instructions to owners, National Trust grandees and artisans alike, are well known, yet Nancy could hold her own.  On one occasion she told a decorator, “Paint it the colour of elephant’s breath.”  She specified such colours as caca du dauphin and vomitesse de la reine.  It’s remarkable what one can get away with in French.

Even though their pioneering investigations into historical decoration, scraping surfaces with a threepenny bit, have now been superseded by more sophisticated research techniques, their creative tension between historicism and creativity, and masculinity and femininity, define a turning point in British decorative art.

However much she loved Kelmarsh, her third marriage lasted only until 1953:  on her divorce she moved to Haseley Court, Oxfordshire.  After a fire in 1971 she sold the Court and moved into the adjacent Coach House for the rest of her long life.

Jubie Lancaster’s sister Cicley set up the Kelmarsh Trust [] to maintain the house and its estate after her death in 1996.

The comprehensive study of Nancy Lancaster’s life and work is by Martin Wood, Nancy Lancaster:  English country house style (Frances Lincoln 2005).


Anything but a quiet life

Deene Park, Northamptonshire

Deene Park, Northamptonshire

Deene Park, Northamptonshire [] has belonged to the Brudenell family since 1514:  its current owner, Mr Edmund Brudenell, is directly descended from the purchaser, Sir Robert Brudenell, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas in the reign of Henry VIII.

Across the generations, the Brudenells have held the titles Duke of Montagu, Marquess of Ailesbury, Earl of Cardigan.  Of all the illustrious ancestors, one who stands out in national history is James, 7th Earl of Cardigan (1797-1868), the man who led the Charge of the Light Brigade at the Battle of Balaclava (1854).  His modern reputation was compromised by Cecil Woodham-Smith’s account The Reason Why (1953) and Trevor Howard’s portrayal of him in the film The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968).

In fact, the Battle of Balaclava was simply an incident in a life lived hard and fast.

As Lord Brudenell he was shunted into the pocket borough of Marlborough at the age of 21.  As a result of his most determined political stand, abstaining over the Catholic Emancipation Act, he was removed from this seat.  He purchased the parliamentary seat of Fowey, Cornwall, only to see it abolished two years later under the 1832 Reform Act.  He then spent the equivalent of £1½ million on being elected, legitimately by the standards of the day, to the new constituency of Northamptonshire North.  Five years later he had to move to the House of Lords on inheriting his father’s title.

His emotional life was similarly turbulent.  He seduced the wife of a childhood friend, Elizabeth Tollemache Johnstone, whose husband roundly declared her “the most damned bad-tempered and extravagant bitch in the kingdom” and divorced her.  She married Lord Brudenell in 1826, but by the time she became countess eleven years later they had separated.  There were no children.

In the months before Elizabeth died in 1858, Lord Cardigan formed a liaison with Adeline de Horsey, 28 years his junior.  Two months after Elizabeth’s death, they took off to Gibraltar in Cardigan’s yacht, married, and travelled on to receive a papal blessing in Rome.  Queen Victoria and British society never forgave them.

They enjoyed ten years of happy marriage, punctuated with what a family history describes as “trivial infidelities”, and she lived on as the epitome of the term “merry widow” until 1915.

Cardigan’s portrayal in The Charge of the Light Brigade, at most impressionistic and certainly not entirely accurate, hardly begins to capture the drama of his life.  There’s another film to be made out of the life of this least boring of Victorians.

Deene Park contains numerous portraits and mementos of the 7th Earl and his countess Adeline, who between them lived there for 78 years.