Skip to content

History of Lyveden

A view of the Elizabethan lodge at Lyveden with the sun hitting the walls and blue sky above
The Elizabethan lodge at Lyveden | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

Lyveden was the vision of Sir Thomas Tresham but was never completed following his death in 1605. Religious persecution, treason and debt meant his dream was never realised; however, the unfinished lodge and surrounding gardens stand today as a poignant example of one man standing up for his beliefs in dangerous times, through an act of quiet and creative rebellion.

Early days of Lyveden

The history of Lyveden dates back far beyond the reign of Queen Elizabeth I and the Tresham ancestry. Roman and medieval settlements occupied the valley of Lyveden for many hundreds of years, benefiting from the rich mineral deposits and dense hunting grounds of the Rockingham Forest.

However it is the influence of the Tresham family that remains evident in the landscape today. From the late 15th century to the death of Sir Thomas Tresham in 1605, land was bought and developed as sheep pasture and in the centre of the estate a garden, competing with the finest in the county, was being planned.

Sir Thomas Tresham

Thomas Tresham was born into a wealthy and respected Northamptonshire family. The family acquired large estates in Northamptonshire including the manor houses of Rushton and Lyveden. Sir Thomas inherited the estate from his grandfather in 1559, aged only 15.

He was a fervent Catholic, at a time when Queen Elizabeth I was anxious about the Catholic threat posed by Spain and by her cousin Mary Queen of Scots. Nonconformists were targets for perpetual persecution and Elizabeth imposed legal restrictions on the practise of Catholicism in England.

Fined for his faith

In the 1580s, Tresham made the decision to assert his faith and religious identity and, as a result, found himself subject to legal questioning, imprisonment and heavy fines. Between 1581 and 1605, Tresham was required to pay penalties totalling just under £8,000 because of his faith. He was left with considerable debts, from which his finances never fully recovered.

Tresham’s vision for Lyveden

During his time under house arrest and imprisonment, Thomas Tresham came up with the designs for Lyveden; a journey of discovery and a contemplative walk from his manor house hidden at the bottom of the hill up through an elaborately designed water garden to the garden lodge above.

Lyveden represents Tresham’s creative impulse born of social and political upheaval, religious persecution, and personal faith.

In the foreground of the photo is an apple tree branch laden with fruit, with an out-of-focus view of the manor at Lyveden in the background
The manor at Lyveden | © National Trust Images/Mike Selby

Religion and faith at Lyveden

Lyveden is one of the most important, unspoilt and unique Elizabethan gardens in England. Sir Thomas Tresham designed and constructed Lyveden as a testament to his Catholic faith. Every element of Lyveden is designed to symbolically convey Tresham’s own spiritual journey as he struggled to reconcile his faith with the changing Elizabethan world.

It’s a deeply personal story centred on Tresham’s individual belief, but it would also have been shared with others who suffered similarly, shared his thinking, and understood the meaning of the symbols.

Treason, debt and incomplete dreams

After Sir Thomas died in 1605, his elder son Francis inherited the estate as well as the debt, and then became embroiled in the Gunpowder Plot later that year along with his cousins Catesby and Wintour. Imprisoned for his actions he met an early death in December 1605.

While the estate now passed to Francis’ younger brother Lewis, Lady Tresham shouldered the debt. She managed the debt admirably, leaving only an outstanding £1,000 upon her death in 1615.

Lewis’ reckless lifestyle only increased the family debt, and Lyveden was to pass out of the family’s hands. Sir Thomas’s dream was never to be fulfilled and the lodge remained incomplete.

Lyveden lodge remains untouched

Lyveden lodge remains today virtually as it was when it was left four centuries ago. A building with no roof, no windows and no floors. A garden with moats on three of four intended sides, no plants, no statues or paths. Surrounded in folklore and mystery, Lyveden has escaped the influence of time, fashion and conflict.

Donated to the National Trust in 1922, Lyveden became protected from the modern influences of the 20th century. However, it was not until the 1990s that the Trust began the gradual process to uncover the neglect and abandonment of the hidden garden.

Today the scale, form and beauty of Tresham’s work can again be appreciated and acknowledged as one of the rarest survivals of Elizabethan garden design.

Exterior of the Elizabethan manor house at Lyveden, Northamptonshire, with a wildflower garden in the foreground and mature trees behind the house.
The manor at Lyveden | © National Trust Images / Mike Selby

Lyveden Manor

Sir Thomas Tresham planned ‘Lyveden House’ to be the starting place for Elizabethan visitors to experience the pleasure grounds and his garden lodge. The manor itself was built by Lewis Tresham, Sir Thomas' second son, and completed around 1615.

The house is Grade I listed and was owned by the Tresham family until 1649 when it was sequestered during the Civil War because of continued Catholic links. In 1660 Charles II granted Lyveden to the Earl of Sandwich and from then the house passed through various family members including the Earls of Ossory and Robert Vernon Smith, 1st Lord Lyveden who acquired the house in 1841.

Acquired by the National Trust

In 2013 the National Trust was successful in acquiring Lyveden House and 27 acres of grounds. In 2018 the National Trust opened the manor to visitors for the first time. Now visitors can experience the Elizabethan garden as Tresham once envisaged; beginning at the manor and journeying through his symbolic garden to the lodge at the top of the hill.

Messages from the past

Today graffiti is regarded as an act of vandalism – destructive and anti-social. However, this attitude is very much a modern one. Up until the 1850s, graffiti was not only acceptable but encouraged.

Historians now recognise its potential to inform us of how buildings were used in the past. In 2016 a survey, undertaken by volunteers, found a considerable number of graffiti inscriptions on the lodge dating from the late 17th century to the present day.

Memorial graffiti

The majority of the inscriptions recorded at Lyveden date to the period following its abandonment as a building project, when its image as a remote and romantic ruin of antiquarian interest attracted early visitors to the site. These inscriptions have a memorial function – memorialising their visit to the site.

It is clear from the graffiti inscriptions present that the building was being visited in the late 17th century and that visitors were leaving their mark on the fabric of the building. There is a marked increase in the number of date graffiti inscriptions in the middle decades of the 18th century. This period saw the growth of interest in 'ruins of antiquity'.

Initials, names and dates carved into stone walls at Lyveden, Northamptonshire.
Graffitti carved in stone at Lyveden | © National Trust Images / Mike Selby

Other marks

Alongside the memorial graffiti other marks on the building can be seen. These include masons' marks, dating from the construction period of the lodge. Each mason would have their own individual symbol which they would mark on the stones they worked on and from that the master mason could work out how much each mason was to be paid.

Ritual protection marks can also be seen; a symbol to protect against the threat of the 'evil eye', demons, witches and the devil, and often found in portals, entranceways, and thresholds of buildings. The most common ritual protection markings were compass drawn designs such as the six petalled design known as 'Daisy Wheel' or 'Hexafoil', you can find one at the bottom of the stairs to the viewing platform in the lodge.

A view of the Elizabethan lodge at Lyveden with the sun hitting the walls and blue sky above

Discover more at Lyveden

Find out when Lyveden is open, how to get here, the things to see and do and more.

You might also be interested in

Lyveden manor in the autumn sunshine

Things to do at Lyveden manor 

With a manor house to see, plan your visit here, with historical talks, information on the garden design and our temporary exhibition space there's plenty to see and do.

A volunteer clearing the canal of algae at Lyveden New Bield, Peterborough, Northamptonshire.

Our work at Lyveden 

Find out more about our work at Lyveden, from restoring lost areas of the garden to using archaeology to reveal Lyveden’s secrets.

Girl serving coffee in a cafe

Eating and drinking at Lyveden 

Visit the Grade I-listed Manor to find the recently opened café serving light meals, sandwiches, drinks and cakes.

Overhead view of an octagonal table with the figure of Silenus, a drunken follower of Bacchu, in The Library at Claydon House in Buckinghamshire


Learn about people from the past, discover remarkable works of art and brush up on your knowledge of architecture and gardens.