Far away, on the Leicestershire/Northamptonshire borders, far away from roads and indeed, any hint of the 21st Century, you might (if you are lucky) come across this green, tree-lined lane:
A gentle amble is all that is required.
At the end of the lane is, what appears at first to be, a stream:
Is this some sort of fairyland?
To some extent the answer is 'yes' and this is only reinforced as one leaves the moat behind and strolls past a meadow filled with wild flowers:
One feels a part of nature - but is it really? Is this nature in the raw - or an idyll? A tamed and civilised nature - a heavenly nature?
There is certainly enchantment here...
Suddenly, one notices a relatively ordinary looking, old house which is only made extraordinary by the fact that it is seemingly sitting in the middle of nowhere. . .
Do these fields; the green and pleasant lane; the moat, all belong to this fairly ordinary house?
(And who lives in there?)
But all thoughts of the house and it's occupants are forgotten when one notices what is standing behind it: A palace worthy of a fairytale!!
Lyveden New Build - a place of dreams broken and dashed asunder.
Lyveden New Build (or as the National Trust puts it 'Lyveden New Bield')
Lyveden looks like a house in ruins but in fact it is a structure 'frozen' in mid construction.
It may look like a grand house but in truth it is 'only' a lodge; conceived and built by Sir Thomas Tresham.
It was called New Build to distinguish it from the old Lyveden, the family home of the Treshams.
The New Build was designed as a place to retire to from the hurly burly of life on a large sheep farming estate. It would be to this spot that Sir Thomas, his family and intimate friends could retire and be away from it all.
Sir Thomas Tresham was a fashionable, socially well-contacted, Elizabethan courtier from a wealthy family.
In this new Protestant kingdom, Thomas and those like him stood out for their Catholic adherence. At first a Catholic who outwardly conformed to the new order of things, he suddenly rebelled and began refusing to go to the Protestant Church services. The Government were used to this sort of thing and had the perfect remedy: Lengthy Prison terms and heavy fines. This was to be Thomas' lot in life. The chains that would eventually overcome his dreams.
The application of those fines would gradually meant an ever increasing dint in his wealth; but at first Thomas was able to absorb such losses. Sheep farming was his major source of wealth. Wool production provided him with a steady income. But Sir Thomas's purse was not bottomless and eventually those fines, combined with a very generous lifestyle, and a total of fifteen years in prison - at his own expense - had the effect of slowly beggering the once wealthy family. But that was in the future. We are at Lyveden, begun when Sir Thomas was feeling more financially secure...
The front door at Lyveden
When Sir Thomas set his hand to something, he seems to have given it his all. He had already dabbled in design, having draw up plans for the triangular-shaped Rushton Lodge (in the same County). That building had been constructed based upon certain principals which Sir Thomas expanded upon with Lyveden.
It was a slow process and by 1605 the stonework of the basement, the ground and the first floors of Lyveden were all constructed. The materials for the second floor had been collected and . . .
But there was no more 'and'.
Sir Thomas died.
His son and heir Francis was suddenly caught up in the gunpowder plot, dying 'mysteriously' in prison in the same year.
Everything fell in a heap.
Thomas had had to provide wedding dowries for his six daughters. This together with the huge fines imposed upon him by the government meant that he died with his estate in significant debt.
The disgrace and death of his heir, leaving a child to inherit the impoverished lands meant that at that moment there was no money to pay the workmen, and there was unlikely to be any for some time to come. Their response was to cut their losses, pick up their tools, and leave.
And that, for the most part, was that.
Lyveden New Build remained trapped.
Any interior wooden structures have either rotted away or were carted off for other purposes and apart from a minor incident in the Civil War that could have led to it's destruction but didn't, Lyveden has stood frozen in time. The building was sturdy, well constructed and able to withstand the elements, even in its unfinished state.
And thus it remains until this day
(Which is nice actually because it is now owned by the National Trust and you can visit it yourself!)
This is a photo of some interior carves stone ceiling work. It is a typical late Renaissance pattern, similar to that which can be seen at Burghley, home of Sir Thomas' political enemy (and Elizabeth's chief councillor, William Cecil):
I took this photo at Burghley House but forgot to 'picmonkey' it
But why visit? Why did I make the journey to go and see it?
It 'appears' to be a half-finished lodge, standing in the middle of a field but there is oh so much more to Lyveden than that!
Symbolism was very fashionable in the Elizabeth era.
Hidden meanings: It was a very Renaissance 'thing'.
Almost everything could stand for something else and entire books were composed on the subject. Secret codes. Secret messages. The Renaissance mind love it!
The colours you wore; the jewellery and embroidery with which you adorned yourself; the statuary; the carvings on your house; the very flowers you chose to have in your garden: All were ways of making a statement without actually being seen to make one.
Take for example this famous portrait of Queen Elizabeth I: The so-called Rainbow Portrait:
Eyes, ears, a rainbow, pearls: the painting is adorned with symbolism. Sometimes we think we know what the symbols mean but we could well be quite wrong. Sometimes we have no idea what the 'message' is.
Lyveden is building full of symbolism
Sir Thomas conceived the idea of Lyveden Lodge after his volte face on the issue of his outward conformation to Government diktats. The lodge was to be a symbol of his return to his Catholic roots in the face of increased government persecution. It would proclaim to one and all where his sympathies lay.
As you can see from this aerial view, Lyveden was built in the form of a Greek Cross:
A Greek Cross has four arms of equal length, and this is the basic layout of the building. This meant that the building could consist of five equal squares of which you will read more later.
Sir Thomas then directed that certain symbols were to be carved on the outer surfaces of Lyveden. These symbols were to not only make a statement about the owner but were to illustrates the mystical nature of the building.
Here are some examples:
In the main photo below is the Chi Rho sign. Top right is Our Lord's robe and the dice that the guards used for gambling to see who would get the robe after He died. The lower right photographs shows some of the letters carved into the stonework. In the bottom right is part of the Latin inscription that ran around the first floor. It consists of various statements in Latin, taken from the Bible. This part reads in full (and I have highlighted in red the part you can see) :
J E S U S. B E A T U S. J V E N T E R. Q V I. T E. P O R T A V I T.
In English: Jesus, Blessed is the womb that bore thee.
bête noire of the English Government). The upper right shows the ChiRho sign again, plus a bag symbolising the money paid to Judas for betraying Jesus. The thirty silver coins are carved as a ring around the bag. The middle photograph shows the instruments of torture used on Jesus. The bottom photo shows more of the same.
All these symbols refer to suffering, the overcoming of suffering, and the persecution the government was carrying out against those who maintained the 'old religion', people like Sir Thomas. No wonder he was a government target!
Sir Thomas was a very clever man and even from his prison cell he directed his building operations. He used special numbers when designing Lyveden: Three to represent the Holy Trinity; Five to represent the Five Wounds of Christ, and Seven to represent the seven instruments of the Crucifixion.
Here is a quote from the National Trust Guide Book:
"The plan of New Build consists of five equal squares. Each arm of the Cross ends in a bay with five sides, each measuring five feet, making a total of twenty-five feet. This is no accident - the 25th is the date both of the Nativity (December) and the Annunciation (March)...
"The lodge is on three floors (but the second floor was never built) . . . Outside, sets of three shields are divided by three windows, diamonds are grouped in threes and the measurement from one side of the building to the other is 243 feet - three x three x three x three x three.
I find these sorts of things both fascinating and very clever.
The audio guide told me that this niche probably held the Statue of Our Lady owned by Sir Thomas's wife (and usually hidden from the government who would have destroyed it).
In those days, after the death of her husband and son, (and the wooden floor and rudimentary ceiling still existed) she sometimes came here with a few select followers to meditate and pray:
Tourists throughout the ages have visited Lyveden and some have left their mark:
The interior gives us hints as the plans Sir Thomas had for the finished product. What a wonderful place it would have been!
One sees everything from the basement level because of course there is no flooring although the holes for the joists still exist. In one part of the complex however, one can mount a platform and look out of the upper floor windows, across the fields. In Sir Thomas' days these fields were home to his extensive herds of sheep:
The building is undoubtably beautiful. The stone turns almost honey-coloured in the afternoon light, and the very green grass at this time of year only goes to accentuate this beauty:
But beauty is not the real reason for visiting Lyveden. Nor is the fact that you can tick off (on your list) another National Trust property visited.
Rather, the reason for visiting Lyveden is to be found in the site itself, the atmosphere, and the spirit of the man who built it.
These are the things that drew me to visit this unfinished diamond. I find that there is a sense of dignified sadness about the place.
What dreams Sir Thomas must have had when first he conceived of building this 'little' lodge for himself.
I hope you enjoyed this little tour. If you have not been there already, I recommend you hot-foot it there as soon as possible!