An unfinished Elizabethan house in a field in Northamptonshire… this is perhaps the most basic way to describe Lyveden New Bield but there are actually many fascinating facts that make this property far more than it seems.
To me, one of the most fascinating things about Lyveden (pronounced to rhyme with ‘give’, not ‘dive’) is that it exists at all. Its construction began at the end of the 16th century and was never completed, but it is simply staggering to me that no one has either finished it or torn it down in the intervening 400 years. According to my guidebook, there had been roof beams in place before they were removed by a local officer of Cromwell’s army just after the Civil War, but most of what was originally built still survives. This includes fireplaces, ovens and even a stone wall sconce, thought to be intended to hold a statue of the Virgin Mary.
This leads us the second fascinating thing about Lyveden, which is that it is something of a monument to the Catholic faith. Sir Thomas Tresham, its builder, was a staunch Catholic and used the very architecture of his new house to affirm his faith. The most obvious example of this lies in the carved frieze between the two lower floors, which is made up of a repeated sequence of seven emblems of the Passion of Christ, while there also remains part of an inscription carved into a frieze above the first floor and this is taken from the Latin bible. However, there are many other less obvious, but almost certainly intentional, aspects of the house that are linked to the numbers three (the Holy Trinity), five (the wounds of Christ on the cross) and seven (the seven instruments of the passion). For example, the house – which is itself in the shape of a Greek cross – has five-sided bays at the end of each of the arms of the cross and each of these sides measures five feet, making a total of 25 feet. The number 25 is important to the Christian religion, being the date of both the Nativity in December and Annunciation in March. Meanwhile, measuring the house from one side to the other gives a total measurement of 243 feet, which 3 x 3 x 3 x 3 x 3!
The third thing I find most fascinating about Lyveden is the labyrinth. Labyrinths were important to Catholics as they symbolised a pilgrimage, or a spiritual journey on the one true path to the centre. However, Lyveden’s is most interesting in that its existence only came to light very recently when the Trust investigated some aerial photographs of the area that were taken by the German Luftwaffe during the war. Inadvertently, the Germans had revealed a part of Lyveden’s garden that was only hinted at in Tresham’s letters. It seems he planned to plant raspberry and rose bushes to mark the paths of the labyrinth but, for now, the National Trust has simply mowed the paths into the grass of the moated garden and you can walk the trail to the centre (which is apparently equivalent to around one mile).
And finally, I really ought to mention a little more about Thomas Tresham himself. He was married to Muriel Throckmorton, a member of the Catholic Throckmortons of Coughton Court, so that’s one for my list of NT Connections. Despite his Catholicism, Tresham was known to many important people in Queen Elizabeth’s Court and was knighted in 1575. However, being an important Catholic at that time wasn’t really recommended as every time Catholic activities abroad hinted at a possible threat to England’s chosen religion, notable Catholics like Tresham were seized by the Government and held hostage. His lands and income were also threatened by his faith so when he died in 1605 he left some hefty debts for his descendants.
Having a frequently absent father did Tresham’s son Francis no good and he was bitter enough to become embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot against the Government. He is actually thought by many to be the author of the letter that exposed the plot, having had second thoughts about it all. Fortunately for him, he died before he could be executed alongside his co-conspirators, although rather less fortunately they did then stick his head on a pike at the gates of Northampton so it was still not the best of ends.
So, as you can see, Lyveden New Bield is more than just an unfinished house in a field and the National Trust has done a good job of making the most out of what it has to offer. There is an hour-long audio guide to fill you in on its history and you can pick and mix which sections you want to listen to. There is also something of a joker in the local NT office as the leaflet handed out to visitors has a few little gems in it. It mentions the audio guide and you are advised to ‘allow at least an hour’ for this, while you should ‘allow 30 minutes’ to explore inside the lodge. As far as enjoyment of the scones and cakes in the Cottage Tea Room is concerned, you are then told to ‘allow 300 calories’! After that, it is probably a good idea to ‘allow a mile of footsteps’ to follow the path of the Labyrinth and walk off some of your cake.
Highlights: The coded architecture
Refreshments: Apple juice, flapjack
Purchase(s): Guidebook, postcard
NT Connections: Thomas Tresham’s wife Muriel was a member of the Throckmorton family of Coughton Court in Warwickshire