First time visitors to Lyveden New Bield might think they were looking at the ruin of a once great Elizabethan manor house, but they would be mistaken. The building was actually never finished and today looks almost exactly as it did when the workers abandoned the project in 1605 shortly after the death of its designer and owner, Sir Thomas Tresham (1543 – 1605).

The estate was owned by the Tresham family who were of Norman descent and had their ancestral seat in Rushton, Northamptonshire. The exact origin of the name is uncertain. One suggestion is that it comes from Trefoil which was an emblem of the family. Another suggests that the name itself is probably a derivation of a heraldic nickname comprised of two words; “Trois” meaning ‘Three’ and ‘Chien’ mean dog.

It is easy to believe that that the family was cursed to always choose the losing side. Of the seven men who were heads of the family between 1399 and 1605 one was definitely murdered, and one was definitely executed. A further three were probably murdered and one died young at the age of only 23. Only Sir John Tresham seems to have avoided an unpleasant end and it appears that even he lost some of his property to his brother-in-law. It is easy to believe that that the family was cursed to always choose the losing side.

William Tresham Esq. (1399 – 1450) MURDERED

One of earliest recorded members of the family was William Tresham Esq. of Sywell, Northamptonshire, who married the fabulously wealthy and very pedigreed Isabel de Vaux. It was shortly after this that he started styling himself as Sir William. As a prominent member and Speaker of the early English Parliament he made many enemies and, although he worked for King Henry the IV, he was possibly opposed to the war with France and was indicted for treason immediately after a series of revolts in Kent during 1450. He was murdered before he could be tried, and some historians believe that this was the first death in what would become known as the War of the Roses.

Sir Thomas Tresham (1425 – 1471) EXECUTED

Like his father, Sir Thomas Tresham entered politics and was a supporter of the Lancastrian faction during the War of the Roses. He fought in many battles including Northampton, Wakefield and St. Albans where he was knighted. He was later imprisoned in the Tower of London but pardoned when King Henry regained the throne. After hostilities broke out again and the Lancastrian failure of the battle of Barnet, he went to join the forces of Margaret of Anjou for the Battle of Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.

Tresham Battle Tewkesbury
Recreation of the Battle of Tewkesbury (C) Clint Pavenu

The Lancastrians were defeated, and Thomas was captured and executed two days later on the 6th of May 1471. The Manor at Lyveden was confiscated and leased to various tenants.

Sir John Tresham (1462 – 1521) BETRAYED

Sir John Tresham was born at Wolfege Manor in the town of Brixworth, Northamptonshire. He later married Isabel Harrington the daughter of James Harrington. In 1485 he managed to regain the Sywell and Lyveden Manors that had been confiscated from his father. Less than ten years later when his sister Isabel died it seems that her husband Henry Vere used the law of ‘Died Siesed’ to acquire the Sywell Manor. In particular, there are no records that it passed on to any of Sir John’s children.

Sir Thomas Tresham (1498 – 1559) ASSASSINATED?

Sir Thomas was the only Tresham in several centuries who succeeded making the right political alliances for most of his lifetime. He was known as a staunch supporter of Henry VIII and served as Sheriff of Northamptonshire. He was appointed as a Special Commissioner to search for grain and was even selected to investigate Cardinal Wolsey and his possessions after he fell from favour. Naturally this made him many enemies and it is surprising that he survived for as long as he did. Sir Thomas later became the Grand Prior of The Knights Hospitaller of St. John in 1557. It was the Hospitallers who had taken over many of the possessions of the Knights Templar when they were persecuted and destroyed in 1305. In 1536 he occupied Lyveden Manor and in 1540 was granted the right to create a 420-acre estate surrounding the original house which had been associated with the family since around 1448. Very little remains of the original manor house known as the Old-Build (Old-Bield). A single wing still exists along with the original mullioned windows. The staircase is said to have been relocated to the USA and the gatehouse to Fermyn Woods Hall. Thomas survived the death of Henry VIII and proclaimed Mary Tudor as Queen in 1553. He even accompanied her to London and what would be her coronation. His sympathies were now clear and as a Catholic he was in no danger from ‘Bloody Mary’ who had more than 280 Protestant enemies burned at the stake. Thomas died in 1559 less than a year after Queen Mary and very shortly after Queen Elizabeth I had assumed the throne. There has been some speculation that he may have been assassinated by agents of the new queen with or without her knowledge.

John Tresham 2nd (1522 – 1548) DIED YOUNG

John was the son of Thomas and, aged only 21, married Eleanor Catesby in 1943. Within a year his wife gave birth to a son Thomas. John died at the age of 26 and 16 years before his father.

Sir Thomas Tresham (1543 – 1605) PERSECUTED / MURDERED?

Young Thomas was brought up by his mother and his grandfather. When Thomas Snr. died in 1559 he inherited the Lyveden Estate and began a building programme that would leave behind some of the strangest follies and ruins in Britain. Born a Protestant but brought up as a Catholic with deep convictions he was suspicious of the new Protestant creed and very reluctant to embrace it in any form. Regardless of his private beliefs he was initially a staunch supporter of the new queen and was knighted in 1575 at the royal progression in Kenilworth.

Kenilworth Castle Sunset
Kenilworth Castle (C) Clint Pavenu

To begin with Queen Elizabeth I appeared tolerant of Catholicism even though its proponents had tried to have her declared illegitimate as she was born a Protestant. However, as time went by and various Catholic plots to replace her were exposed, she endorsed increasingly aggressive and brutal forms of persecution. The threat posed by Mary Queen of Scots and the ever-present political difficulties between England and Catholic Spain meant that Elizabeth drifted slowly but surely towards pure Protestantism. It’s therefore surprising that in 1580 Sir Thomas openly converted to the Catholic Faith.

Over the following years he was subjected to fines that drained much of his wealth and was even imprisoned in Wisbech Castle for his beliefs. Between 1561 and 1593 he spent approximately 15 years in prison or confined to his estate. Unable to express his faith in any conventional way he decided to construct a series of buildings based on the number three and its relationship to the holy trinity as proposed by the Roman Catholics. In addition, each building would have other mystical mathematical elements worked into their design. The enigmatic Triangular Lodge at Rushton was completed in 1597 but Sir Thomas died on the 11th of September 1605 shortly before his son Francis was arrested for high treason on the 12th of November 1605 and before Lyveden-New-Bield could be finished.

Francis Tresham (1571 – 1605) A FAILED GUNPOWDER PLOT THEN POISONED

The story of Francis Tresham, Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 should really be told in full as it both curious and mysterious but for now it’s enough to say that a group of Catholics were disillusioned when King James took over the throne from Queen Elizabeth I and decided to ‘blow-up’ the entire Protestant Government of England. Barrels of gunpowder were hidden in a cellar under the houses of Parliament but just before the plot could succeed it was discovered and the conspirators revealed. Many historians believe that the failure of the plot can be traced to a warning letter that was sent to the brother-in-law of Sir Francis Tresham. The letter was shown to the wrong people and the Houses of Parliament were searched. The explosives were found and the rest is history. England remained Protestant, the conspirators were hunted down and arrested. Sir Francis was imprisoned in the Tower of London. The charge was High Treason which was most definitely a capital offense. In fact, he never faced trial as within six weeks he was dead of a severe urinary tract infection. A significant number of historians believe that as Tresham’s role in the conspiracy was ambiguous and may have led to a lengthy and disturbing trial he was poisoned to ensure a swift end to matter. Although it has never been proven, it was almost certainly Sir Francis Tresham who wrote the letter that revealed the plot. After his death his head was hacked from his body and displayed in Northampton along with those of his fellow conspirators. The Tresham estates nominally passed to Lewis Tresham whose spending was briefly kept in check by his mother before she died in 1615. In 1643 what remained was sold off to cover debts incurred by Sir Thomas and Lewis himself. Those working on the construction of Lyveden New Bield simply walked off the site after the death of Sir Thomas and the arrest of Sir Francis.

Lyveden New Bield Interior
Lyveden New Bield Interior (C) Clint Pavenu

They had correctly concluded that no more money or wages would be forthcoming. It is also highly possible that they wanted nothing to do with a family that had tried to kill a king. The building remains almost exactly as it was left. The last skeleton in the mysterious Tresham cupboard.

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