The Buildings of Sir Thomas Tresham

By Hesketh, Christian | History Today, March 1996 | Go to article overview

The Buildings of Sir Thomas Tresham


Hesketh, Christian, History Today


* Those who take an interest in the architectural diversity of Northamptonshire are likely to find their curiosity aroused by one particular group of buildings which in their bold originality and the uncompromising message they spell out, proclaim themselves to be the creation of one man, Sir Thomas Tresham. Born in 1543, his family had originally come to Northamptonshire in the fourteenth century. Apart from owning large estates in the county, succeeding Treshams had played a part on the national stage: one of Sir Thomas' ancestors was three times Speaker of the House of Commons under Henry VI and his grandfather was made Grand Prior of the Order of St John of Jerusalem by Queen Mary.

By the time the young Thomas was three, both his parents were dead and he was brought up in the Catholic household of Sir Robert Throckmorton, one of whose daughters he subsequently married. In 1557 his grandfather died, leaving him, at fifteen, well educated, ambitious and the master of great possessions. Between 1560 and 1568 he studied law at the Middle Temple and in 1575 he was knighted. It was the last mark of Royal favour he was to receive. Once it became apparent that he was not prepared to accept the Elizabethan church settlement, all preferment was denied him. As the years advanced the screws tightened on those who became known as Recusants (Catholics who, like Sir Thomas, refused to attend Anglican services, and sheltered priests).

In 1581 the capture of Edmund Campion and the information it was claimed he had disclosed under torture brought Sir Thomas before the Star Chamber. The answer he gave when questioned about the Jesuits' presence in his house is an indication of Elizabethan hospitality. How could he know, he asked his judges, among the twenty, forty or even a hundred friends and strangers who came to his house at all times of the year, whether any one of them might be a priest, who in any case would probably be travelling under an assumed name?

In 1584 his town house at Hoxton in London was raided and a list of the books seized shows that his reading was in five languages. He was so often in prison or under house arrest that between 1581 and 1593 he never saw his Northamptonshire estates. This fact deserves to be remembered when considering his architectural achievement. One spell of confinement was spent in the Bishop of Lincoln's palace at Ely, a part of England he remembered with loathing. It was, he found `filthy and fennish country'.

The fines and imprisonments did not slacken, no public office was open to him and in his frustration, as well as for other reasons, Sir Thomas' energies turned increasingly to building. New houses in his day were all the fashion, and in this field he was not unique; but his buildings were. They represent not only his tastes, but his beliefs and the irritation it caused him to suffer for them. His passionate religious convictions and wide theological reading, his pleasure in gardens and a sound knowledge of classical architecture were all pressed into service. His library, which contained about 2,600 manuscripts and books - an unusually large number then - included most of the best known contemporary works on architecture.

Not all Tresham's buildings were intended for himself. In Rothwell, a small town not far from Rushton where he had land, he built a Market House. The first floor consisted of one large room, carried on arcades, which provided the space needed for a covered market underneath. This was one of Sir Thomas' first building ventures and it displayed features that he was to use elsewhere; namely an inscription frieze and, on the floor above, shields bearing ninety coat of arms belonging to the land owners living in the Rothwell Hundred. The Market House, like another of his works, remained unfinished. It was only in 1895 that the roof was added. Rushton Hall, which is still occupied, was one of the two main Tresham family houses, but was built for the most part, either before or after his time. …

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