History explorer: Catholic resistance to Elizabeth I
Spencer Mizen and Jessie Childs explore Rushton Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire, an eccentric testament to an Elizabethan's Catholic faith
Blink and you’ll miss it. And I nearly did. There’s no grand, sweeping driveway, no vast manicured lawns, no lofty battlements topped with flags proudly fluttering in the wind. Rushton Triangular Lodge is far too modest for all that. It’s a diminutive building nestled, quietly, behind a line of trees in a corner of rural Northamptonshire. Even the English Heritage sign for the lodge is so small as to be almost apologetic. No wonder I almost drove straight past it.
But, as I soon discovered once I’d parked up in the layby opposite, this is a landmark with nothing to be apologetic about. Spend just five minutes exploring Rushton Triangular Lodge and you’ll be in no doubt that you are in the presence of one of Tudor England’s most enigmatic buildings.
At the heart of that enigma sits one man’s devotion to the holy trinity – a devotion that finds expression in the number three. It’s a theme that seemingly informs every inch of the lodge’s design.
The building is an equilateral triangle. It consists of three walls, each of which is 33ft long. There are three floors, each with three windows and three gables. Over the entrance door is the Latin inscription “Tres testimonium dant”, which can mean “The number three bears witness”. Three Latin texts, each 33 letters long, run around the building on each facade. And atop the entire building sits a chimney. It is, of course, triangular.
But the question is, why? What would lead someone to conceive this extraordinary tribute to the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. To answer that question, says Tudor specialist Jessie Childs, we need to peer into the mind of the lodge’s creator, Thomas Tresham (1543–1605).
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Who was Thomas Tresham?
“Tresham was a Northamptonshire gentleman, a big man in the county, who was knighted by Elizabeth I in 1575,” says Childs. “But he was also a fiercely devout Catholic, and that would have an enormous impact on his life, and inspire him to commission this remarkable building.”
To be a Catholic in Elizabeth I’s Protestant England was to find yourself in a spiritual vice. Catholics couldn’t hold public office, they couldn’t take up arms for the monarch, and they were fined if they refused to attend Anglican services. They were even banned from observing mass. This made life distinctly uncomfortable for the most discreet of Catholics.
For a loud, proud believer like Tresham – a man who Childs describes as “a spokesman for English Catholics” – it was utterly intolerable. And his refusal to toe the authorities’ line and attend Anglican services saw him incarcerated for 12 years in total.
“Tresham suffered hugely for his faith,” says Childs, “and referred to his life as ‘moth-eaten’. But he remained fiercely defiant and, when he returned home to his Northamptonshire estate after all those years of imprisonment, he was absolutely determined to proclaim his faith in any way he could. The lodge [built just a mile from his seat at Rushton Hall, from 1593–96] was an expression of that faith. In one sense, it was his way of saying, ‘I’m still standing’.”
Examine the lodge more closely, and Tresham’s devotion becomes abundantly evident. The exterior bristles with biblical quotations – on the southeast front are the words “Aperitur terra et germinet salvatorem”, meaning “Let the earth open and bring forth a saviour” – while the chimney is adorned with the emblem of the Lamb of God carrying a cross. Over the entrance door are the numbers “5555”. This last figure has puzzled historians, though many believe that the first two numbers are a cryptogram for ‘Jesus Maria’.
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Walking around the lodge’s dark, spartan interior – a series of circular, triangular and cross-shaped apertures allowing in a little light – is a slightly unnerving experience. With its bare hexagonal rooms and narrow staircases, this is certainly not a place that lends itself to human habitation. And nor did it in the 16th century.
The image of Elizabeth I as a tolerant ruler isn’t supported by the number of catholics tortured during her reign
“Ostensibly, the building was a warrener’s lodge, used by the keeper of Tresham’s rabbit warrens,” says Childs. “Of course, this was just a front – the lodge’s principal purpose was spiritual. To my mind, Tresham probably used it as a place of devotion, somewhere where he could reflect, meditate, and feel closer to God. You’ve got to remember that anti-Catholic laws forbade Tresham from travelling beyond five miles of his home without a licence. So to spend time in this symbol of his faith – to be able to see it out of the window of Rushton Hall – would, no doubt, have been a great comfort to him.”
Was Elizabeth I a tolerant ruler?
Thomas Tresham may have been among England’s most high-profile Catholics but that didn’t make him a typical one. “It’s estimated that there were about 40,000 practising Catholics in England at the end of Elizabeth’s reign and – in terms of how far they were prepared to defy the authorities – they covered the entire spectrum,” says Childs.
“There were those who, however reluctantly, attended Protestant churches – so-called ‘Church Papists’. There were those who carried out small acts of defiance like reading Catholic texts while in Protestant churches or spitting out the communion wafer and stamping on it – as one woman was accused of doing. Then, at the extreme end of the scale, you had the recusants – the 8,500 or so hardliners who refused to attend Sunday services. Tresham fell into this category, and paid dearly for it.”
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No matter how strong their beliefs, Catholics were to feel increasingly isolated as Elizabeth’s reign progressed. Not only did they have to live with the psychological burden of being labelled bad subjects, enemies within, they had to negotiate ever-harsher legislation. By the time Tresham finished the lodge in 1597, the state had deemed all Catholic priests enemy agents – and vowed to execute any they found, not to mention those harbouring them. And the fine for attending Sunday services had increased a hundredfold.
“There’s this image of Elizabeth as a tolerant ruler, one who didn’t want to force her subjects’ consciences,” remarks Childs. “To me, the facts don’t back this up. About 200 Catholics were executed, effectively for their beliefs, during her reign. Some died horrible deaths. Margaret Clitherow of York had a door, loaded with a seven to eight hundredweight, placed on top of her until her ribs were crushed.
“Elizabeth’s reign has more recorded cases of torture than any other in English history. She may not have known about them all, but her name – that beautiful signature – is on some of the warrants.”
Yet, as Childs acknowledges, there was context to the Elizabethan administration’s harsh treatment of religious dissenters, and that came in the form of Pope Pius V’s decision, in 1570, to excommunicate the queen.
In doing so, the head of the Catholic church was, in effect, giving his flock a green light to plot Elizabeth’s downfall. And plot they did. The Throckmorton conspiracy of 1583, engineered by the powerful Guise family of France, and the Babington Plot, which planned to install Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne (only to end in Mary’s execution) are just two of many attempts to assassinate the queen.
“In this atmosphere, is it any wonder that the queen and her ministers adopted a siege mentality?” asks Childs. “It’s worth pointing out that Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, was in Paris during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, when thousands of Protestants were slaughtered on the streets of the French capital. To Walsingham, the Catholic threat was personal, visceral and existential – and, to a growing extent, the queen agreed.”
Plots against Elizabeth I
So where does Tresham sit in this jigsaw puzzle? Did he wish the queen removed? For Childs, the evidence suggests that it’s possible. “He was a slippery character, so it’s hard to say for sure, but he certainly believed that Elizabeth was “bastardised” and that Mary, Queen of Scots had the better claim to the throne. And, in 1582, none other than the Spanish ambassador claimed that Tresham was an active plotter.”
If Tresham was indeed a potential plotter, he was to be disappointed – for Elizabeth died in her own bed, of old age, in 1603. Tresham may not have lamented Elizabeth’s demise but, in many ways, the ascension to the throne of King James VI and I of Scotland and England was to prove even more bitter. Tresham harboured hopes of a bright new dawn when James, thought to be more sympathetic to Catholics, was crowned. He was the first man in Northamptonshire to proclaim the new king. But the fines remained in place; the repression continued.
Francis Tresham: like father, like son
Tresham was now an old man. But by the time he lay on this deathbed in September 1605, the continuing repression had radicalised a new generation of Catholic rebels – among them his own son, Francis.
“These young men had seen their fathers broken by decades of persecution,” says Childs. “And now their ambitions of carving out successful lives for themselves were also being crushed by a hostile Protestant state. This made them seriously angry.”
In the autumn of 1605, a small group of them would express that rage in one of the most notorious conspiracies in English history – the gunpowder plot.
The plot was, as everyone knows, discovered at the 11th hour – and, in the fallout, Francis Tresham lost his life. Just like his father, his dream of seeing a Catholic monarch on the English throne would remain unfulfilled.
“By now, it seems that many Catholics had accepted the reality of a Protestant monarch – they just wanted to be able to get on with their lives and to worship freely,” observes Childs. “The irony is that the gunpowder plot, with all the recriminations that followed, made that dream all the more distant.”
Yet, although Thomas Thresham may not have lived to see his dream realised, his acts of religious defiance have left a lasting legacy – not least in the eccentric little building he conceived in the Northamptonshire countryside.
Find out more about Rushton Triangular Lodge at English Heritage
Catholic England: 5 more places to explore
Lyveden New Bield, Northamptonshire
Where Tresham expressed his faith
Lyveden is a second great manifestation of Thomas Tresham’s Catholic faith. It’s a tribute to the Passion – and, as such, is built in the shape of a Greek cross. When the sun shines through the parlour window in the morning, it casts the shadow of a crucifix on the opposite wall.
Find out more about Lyveden New Bield at the National Trust
Rushton Hall, Northamptonshire
Where Tresham lived
Rushton Hall was the ancestral home of the Tresham family from the 15th century, and Thomas Tresham lived here while having the lodge built just a mile away. It’s a hotel today but a priest hole and a 16th-century oratory that houses a plaster representation of the Passion offer hints at its past.
Coughton Court, Alcester, Warwickshire
Where you’ll find a priest hole
Catholics went to ever greater lengths to hide priests in their homes – and Cough-ton Court contains a particularly ingenious example of this: a double priest hole. When the Throckmorton family installed it, the idea was that priest hunters would find the first hole and declare it empty, without realising there was another one below it.
Harvington Hall, Worcestershire
Where priest holes abound
This Elizabethan manor house is home to seven priest holes, four of them the work of the Jesuit lay brother Nicholas Owen, who was the principal priest-hole builder in the 16th century. One of Harvington’s was so well hidden it wasn’t found until 1894 by a little boy playing in the house.
Bar Convent, York
Where a convent operated in secret
Catholics continued to be persecuted deep into the 17th century, a fact highlighted by the existence of this, the oldest surviving Roman Catholic convent in England, established in 1686. Because convents were prohibited, Bar Convent operated in secret.
Jessie Childs is a historian specialising in early modern England. Her books include the prize-winning God’s Traitors: Terror and Faith in Catholic England (Vintage, 2015). Spencer Mizen is BBC History Magazine's production editor