02 March 2013 by Mel Russ Articles
The National Trust acquired Lyveden New Bield, sitting amid the rolling Northamptonshire countryside, in 1922. Today you can marvel at the Elizabethan design, dimensions and the stunning stonework. What would it have looked like if it were finished?
The shell of this building, with its perfectly balanced dimensions and strikingly clean stonework, is all that remains of a dream. It should have been the hunting lodge and home of Elizabethan lawyer Sir Thomas Tresham but he died suddenly and the grand house was never completed.
Lyveden New Bield was to be a completely new building not far from the original Old Bield a little lower down the valley. It had reached the third level when Sir Thomas died and the masons, realising they weren’t going to get paid, packed up their tools and left the site never to return. Today we are just left with the bare bones of the building but what a spectacular structure it would have been had it been finished. The planning and detail is evidently way ahead of its time and the workmanship is of outstanding quality and even today the stonework and carving is as crisp as the day it was cut by the mason’s chisel.
Tresham came from a long line of wealthy Northampton landowners but the land wasn’t for him; he studied law at Christ Church Oxford and at the age of just 17 was admitted to the Temple Bar. A man who knew how to network, Tresham moved in circles that included Lord Chancellor Sir Christopher Hatton, and Sir William Cecil, Secretary of State to the court of Queen Elizabeth. Both men had great houses built – Cecil Hatfield and Burghley and Hatton Kirby Hall and Holdenby.
When Tresham was knighted by the Queen in 1775 his fortunes flourished and thoughts turned to designing and building his own great statement in stone in the Northamptonshire countryside. He had the fortune, mainly income from land and livestock, to build Lyveden but he didn’t have enough money to support his lavish lifestyle or his costly family.
His two daughters received £12,000 as marriage settlements, and his son Francis was implicated in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, which cost Thomas £3,000 in bribes and fines to keep his son out of jail. But the dream to build his mini stately home was driven by his vision and faith, despite more fines from the government for being a catholic, a religion thought at the time to be a serious threat to the English Crown.
The design for the new house is based on a symmetrical Greek cross, and the striking thing when you look at the skeletal building is the exact proportions. The Elizabethan’s loved riddles and this is reflected in the measurements of all the five sided bay windows in the house each being 5ft long. Multiply each length by five and you get 25…Christmas day!
The outside walls carry shields in sets of three, separated by a trio of windows and diamonds, again set in clusters of three. The building measures 243ft from one side to the other. Any good at mathematics? Then multiply 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 × 3 and see what you come up with!
Emblems and inscriptions run riot around the friezes, you find Judas’s money bag holding 30 pieces of silver, the crown of thorns, dice and Roman helmets said to represent rolling of dice by soldiers to claim Jesus’s garments, and the monogram IHS, the first three Greek letters that spell Jesus.
There are more, if you visit the house take a closer look at them, the National Trust guide will be a great help in deciphering all the symbols and stories, but most of all be amazed at the stonemason’s craft as he cut each one carefully into the local grey limestone. Interestingly much of the finished stone was worked at the quarry before being moved to site because it became harder to cut once exposed to the air.
Tresham had an unbelievable eye for detail and he wouldn’t even allow rainwater downpipes and chimney flues to spoil the beauty and clean lines of the building. They were all incorporated within the walls at what must have been great cost. He employed skilled surveyors, which at the time were also accomplished architects, sometimes even called architect freemasons, to draw up the plans and lay out the site.
Local estate workers provided the muscle, some working at the quarry face, others stone cutting while skilled masons worked on or supervised the intricate carving.
Sir Thomas Tresham wanted to build a home where he could find peace during a time when Catholics were persecuted, a place where he could pray in private and glory in the workmanship, which in his eyes reflected his faith.
It is tragic that he never lived to see the costly project finished because it would have been sumptuous and a credit to his vision and the masons who built it.
Want to know more?