The Tresham Code

Lyveden New Bield at dawn. ©NTPL/Nick Meers

In the previous post I jokingly mentioned The Da Vinci Code, but Lyveden New Bield, in Northamptonshire, is a real example of a building embodying secret codes and cryptic riddles.

A recent aerial view of the building, showing the symbolic cruciform shape. ©NTPL/Paul Wakefield

Lyveden was commissioned by Sir Thomas Tresham, a cultivated Elizabethan landowner who was frequently imprisoned and fined for his Catholic faith. The pavilion is riddled with symbols relating to Catholicism, some of which are so cryptic that they have never been deciphered. It remained unfinished at Tresham’s death in 1605.

Some of the cryptic emblems on the facade. ©NTPL/Nick Meers

The plot thickened recently when National Trust curator Chris Gallagher (perhaps I should call him ‘renowned curator’, in true Dan Brown style) discovered an aerial photograph of Lyveden taken during World War II by the German airforce, the Luftwaffe. The photograph provides vital clues to the design of the garden, but until recently it had lain unexamined in the United States National Archives in Baltimore, Maryland.

The 1944 Luftwaffe aerial photograph, clearly showing the remains of the circular borders. The unfinished pavilion lies just to the lower right of this view. ©United States National Archives

Tresham was a keen gardener, and the ten concentric cicrles seen in the Luftwaffe photo, measuring about 120 meters in diameter, reveal more about the design of the garden. The circles are set within what Sir Thomas described in a letter a his ‘moated orchard’. Elsewhere there are references to 400 raspberries and roses that were to be planted within the ‘circular borders’.

©NTPL/Nick Meers

The 1944 photo proves that parts of these garden features remain, thinly covered by grass. This discovery of the physical evidence of the Elizabethan garden has prompted English Heritage to upgrade Lyveden to grade 1 on their Register of Historic Parks and Gardens.

A first attempt at recreating the pattern through mowing. ©National Trust/D. Bagley

As a first stab at recreating the lost garden, National Trust staff have mowed a labyrinth in the sward, which is one possible interpretation of what the circles could have been part of. It is hoped that further research will allow an informed replanting of the area to be carried out.

And it may even inspire Dan Brown’s next book…

14 Responses to “The Tresham Code”

  1. Guy Says:

    They say you learn a new thing every day! This is my ‘thing’ of the month.

    I’ve always counted Tresham’ Lodge in my top 5 buildings but never having heard of / seen Lyveden New Bield, I think they may have to fall into equal place. What an atmospheric masterpiece.

    What more can you tell us? Interior images?

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Guy, I am pleased you like it. I will read up on the symbolism and may be able to do another post on that.

  3. style court Says:

    There’s something so beautiful about the house in its unfinished state. When I initially saw the first image in thumbnail format on my screen, I thought you were going to tell us about an architectural model :)

  4. Barbara Says:

    Raspberries, roses, concentric circles…nearly perfect…

  5. columnist Says:

    What an utterly beautiful edifice, particularly shown in your first two pictures. The whole story is enhanced by the Tresham’s intentions, and no doubt it would amuse him that we can marvel at it over 400 years later.

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, yes it has the suggestive beauty of incompleteness, like that half-built hayrick I showed earlier.

    Barbara, yes we have a rich mixture of raspberries, roses, concentric circles plus hermetic Catholic semiotics – or symbology, as Dan Brown would have it :)

    Columnist, perhaps it will inspire you to build an ‘unfinished’ folly on a Scottish estate, to be puzzled over by bloggers and airport novelists 400 years hence :)

  7. Barbara Says:

    Oh my, back to that rector once again…

  8. le style et la matiere Says:

    It’s hard to believe that such an impressive structure would not have been completed and lived in at some point in time. Is that what I am to understand? It does make a magnificent sculpture!

  9. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes it is curious isn’t it? Sir Thomas Tresham was prevented from finishing it by his death in 1605, and his substantial debts meant that his family couldn’t complete it either.

    There was an attempt later to remove the stonework to reuse in other buildings, but the solidity and high quality of the work defeated that. Subsequent owners all had houses elsewhere. In 1740 the then owner Richard Fitzpatrick commissioned a design to complete it, but that was never executed. Lyveden New Bield was donated to the National Trust in 1922 as an ideal place for ‘jaded town workers to spend half a day’.

    Alternatively, there may have been a Dan-Brown-style occult conspiracy to keep the building unfinished, to preserve it as a pristine untouched symbol until the day comes when its true meaning will be revealed… :)

  10. le style et la matiere Says:

    Thank you so much for explaining these details. It’s funny to have this happen when so many freshly built ruins were created from the end of the 18th century. This beautiful building was just stigmatized- which truly seems the right word given the case.
    I just love all your Dan Brown jokes. Wouldn’t that be nice if someone did have it as a central ‘character’ in a novel! What a great atmosphere and mystery to exploit.

  11. Bob Says:

    The Luftwaffe photos sound like an invaluable source for landscapes mid C20th. I did have a look via the link you provided, but I couldn’t figure out how the Lyveden photo was identified and then accessed. Do you actually have to go to Baltimore to look at their detailed indexes and archives or have I missed something?

  12. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Bob, I will find out for you.

  13. Janet Says:

    This is just fascinating. It really is fodder for a novel (if not Brown, perhaps de Bruijn). There are just so many interesting layers to uncover.

  14. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Janet, I fear my name is not euphonious enough to appear on the cover of an airport novel!

    Lyveden would also have been a good setting for an episode of The X Files (I used to be a fan).

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