Deep in the English countryside stands the shell of an Elizabethan garden lodge a symbol of a dream that was cut short when it’s creator, Sir Thomas Tresham suddenly died in 1605. Tresham’s dream wasn’t just to have a fancy garden lodge, but to stand steadfast in his Catholic faith in a time where Catholics were repressed by the Anglican monarchy.
Around the time of the commencement of construction on Lyveden New Bield (new build), Queen Elizabeth I was nearing the end of her 45 year reign. After battling several attempts by Catholic heirs to take her throne, distrust for Catholics was high. Still wanting to keep up the front of England’s peace and prosperity, Elizabeth I authorized surveillance and interrogation and even imprisonment of Catholics. In Tresham’s case he was held for about 15 (not consecutive) years in prison and paid just under £8,000 (over £1.6 million in today’s money). While imprisoned, Catholics would draw Catholic images on their cell walls and they were promptly erased by jailers. In order to keep their images intact, Catholics began drawing symbols to represent their Catholic faith without their captors catching on. It was this idea that inspired Tresham to create the design and symbology of his garden lodge.
Though the inside of the new bield is incomplete, without plaster, floors, doors or windows, the structure stands as glorious as it did in the late 1590s. Every inch of the frieze represents the Catholic faith, from the carved images around the second floor to the number of sides on each wing of the building to the shape of the lodge itself (a orthodox cross). Latin inscriptions across the top of the third floor resemble those found in Catholic cathedrals and praise Jesus and Mary.
If the garden lodge was to be the jewel of the crown, a shining proclamation of faith, then the surrounding gardens were the intricate, scrolling, supportive metalwork of the crown. Winding their way around the house, providing the perfect views of Lyveden. The gardens surrounding the Lyveden garden lodge would have been just as symbolic as the house. Red roses and raspberries, with thorns on their stems, symbolized both the blood of Christ and the crown of thorns he wore while crucified. Other colorful flowers stood for symbols of their persecuted faith. Tresham wanted the lodge and the gardens to be a retreat, where Catholics would know they were in the company of one who believed as they did. A garden full of meaningfully chosen plants and flowers, while enigmatic to us today, would have been immediately perceptible to Catholics in the late 1500s.
In the center of the moated gardens, stands today, the outline of the once robust circular labyrinth. Used by Catholics and Christians alike since the the middle ages. Unlike the classical stories of Theseus and the minotaur in the labyrinth, and the like, the labyrinth used for Christian purposes was circular in pattern and used meditation. Followers would walk through the labyrinths paths twisting and turning and losing sense of the outside world. This left them open to mediate on their faith and enlightenment. Today, the flowers aren’t there, but the path and outline in the grass is still quite visible. Though I didn’t walk it, I’m assuming you can as I didn’t see any signs or barriers saying you couldn’t. I’d like to return on a warmer day and lose myself on the path created by Tresham so many years ago.
Further down the hill, near Tresham’s other manor (a house that was finished and currently owned by the National trust but occupied as a private home), the National trust has replanted a portion of the original orchards. It was said that Tresham’s orchards were some of the finest around, growing pears, apples and damsons (a type of UK plum for all of you who said “what?!?” like I did). In Elizabethan times, at the end of the Tudor dynasty, the rich ate meat-heavy meals and often served cooked fruit to aid in digestion. They also used fruit as natural remedies for several ailments and of course could make a tidy profit selling the bounty of the fruit trees. In addition to all the benefits of the actual production of fruit, orchards provided the perfect place to stroll or take a picnic.
Standing between the orchards and one side of the moated garden, is a flat, raised, earthen walkway bookended by two man-made hills. These hills and the two larger hills on the other side of the moated garden were some of the most surprising parts of the tour to me. Designed by Tresham to give his visitors a surprising view from every possible angle, these hills give you the opportunity to look over the gardens and surrounding fields from an angle not usually seen outside in the flat lands of England. The two larger mounds are designed mimicking a snail’s shell and a spiral path leads to the top. During their inception, it would have been planned to line the path with beautifully smelling flowers. As a lady in a Elizabethan dress walked the paths, her skirts would brush the flowers, leaving her in a world full of beautiful color and scent.
The images of I hold in my mind of the flower lined paths, of a completed Lyveden new bield, of a gloriously colorful labyrinth, make me long to go back in time. To see the gardens in the glory and wish for a better outcome for the garden lodge. Since, for now, we can’t go back in time, I’ll have to settle for the amazing job the National Trust has done to preserve the property and tell it’s story. If you’re in then midlands and need something to do on an afternoon, I definitely recommend it. It won’t take you all day, but it’ll be a spectacular few hours that will last in your memory for some time.