Thursday, 3 August 2017

An old and odd triangular building

In rural Northamptonshire, near the village of Rushton - north-west of Kettering - is a building that is not so much a folly as one man's defiant gesture in stone and brick against the discouragement or frank suppression of the Catholic Church in his time. That man was Sir Thomas Tresham (1543-1605), who was imprisoned for many years on and off, and also heavily fined, because he refused to convert back to the Protestant faith and was suspected of disloyalty to Queen Elizabeth I. After his eventual release, but still during the tail end of her long reign, he built this structure. That was in the 1590s. It is now known as Rushton Triangular Lodge.

A good description of it, and of all the various religious and family messages it conveys through its design and embellishments, some of them plain and obvious, others cryptic and a matter for speculation to this day, is at

I should perhaps mention that Sir Thomas, before the fines depleted his fortune, was a wealthy landowner, well-educated, well-connected, and respected although not universally liked. His eldest son Francis (1567-1605) was to be caught up in the Gunpowder Plot, which arose out of Catholic dissatisfaction with Elizabeth I's successor, James I. The in-depth story of the Plot is told at, and of Francis' involvement at

Both father and son died in the same year, the father in September, the son in December. It seems that having come into his father's estates and what was left of the family fortune, Francis was immediately approached to help fund the already well-matured Plot. He seems to have been lukewarm about getting involved, or at any rate squandering money on the project, but was nevertheless arrested in November 1605. He died in the Tower of London in December, apparently of 'natural causes', although what that might mean in a time when torture, or at least the dire threat of it, was routinely used to extract confessions in serious cases, is anybody's guess. His health might well have given way under the anxiety induced by his situation.

His father, dying before the arrest took place, never knew what befell him. I dare say Sir Thomas would have died of a broken heart if he had lived just a little longer.

Anyway, at the start of my latest holiday I was pitched not too far away from the Lodge, and made a point of going to see it.

It was a little smaller than I thought, but still striking. Its triangularity made the three corners rather sharp. This must have been something of a stonemason's challenge. As you can see, the entrance is above ground level, and reached by a flight of steps. But first I walked all around it, as the exterior was decorated with design features of religious and allegoric significance, inscriptions included.

Hmm. 'Threeness' was definitely the predominant theme, obviously referencing the Holy Trinity. Not being a Catholic, I couldn't appreciate all the subtleties of the design, although it was perfectly clear that Sir Thomas had intended his building to 'speak' for what he believed in, and that someone steeped in religious knowledge would be able to interpret the symbolic meanings built into the fabric of this most unusual edifice. I was surprised that it was still in existence. It would have been a provocation to Elizabeth I when newly built. She might have immediately ordered its demolition. Perhaps she knew that one day English Heritage would want it as a star tourist attraction!

So, to the entrance.

Here goes. What would I see inside?

Oh, wow... It was a barren chamber, but weirdly lit by those strange windows. Astonishing.

The pattern of round holes and plain crosses seemed starkly modern, not at all what I'd associate with the sixteenth century. The light was too subdued for easy reading, but just right for thought, or prayer. Spiral staircases led down to a basement, and up to the next level. The basement resembled a dimly-illuminated dungeon, with an earthen floor. A place to chill you to death. The next level up was however another light-box, this time with a different window-pattern. It was rather better-lit by natural light, but still not what you could call homely.

The aperture on the left of the fireplace led into a space next to the chimney-breast into which a ladder could be erected, so that one could reach the underside of the roof. Sans ladder, you could at any rate peer upwards and view the roof tiles, if you had a torch. I did. I always carry a little one in my bag. The Lodge featured in David Dimbleby's 2007 TV series How We Built Britain - of which I have the book - and I rather fancy from memory that he somehow got up to the rooftop and then out onto it. But I must be mistaken. I couldn't see a skylight or trapdoor, nor anything of the kind.

Well, that was that.

It's possible that when built this place was furnished and used for some ordinary estate purpose, despite its elaborate exterior decoration and oddly-shaped windows. David Dimbleby mentioned that it was supposed to be used by the warrener, the man who looked after the rabbits nurtured on the estate, whose meat and fur were valuable. Unlikely, I think. It would have been awkward accommodation, with those triangular rooms, and those oddly-shaped windows that didn't actually let in enough light. I think its label as 'warrener's residence' was just a ruse to throw dust in the eyes of disapproving government officials, and that its real function was as a discreet chapel for those wishing to celebrate a Catholic mass. That would fit much better with the religious design.

At any rate, it's much too solid and well-built to be merely a folly. I think it's suggestive that the entrance is up a flight of steps, and the windows are all small and high up and can't easily be looked into. A group of clandestine worshippers (or conspirators, aha!) could gather and lock themselves in, reasonably safe from eavesdroppers. Although I don't know what excuse they'd have for gathering together in secret. Possibly they'd deny being a seditious or traitorous assembly, and have a rabbit-story ready.

Who knows. It's certainly a strange building!

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