Mary Whittingdale: Rabbits and religion – Rushton Triangular Lodge

“There are three that give witness”. These are the words inscribed on the entrance of Rushton Triangular Lodge. They are a quotation from the first epistle of John 5:7 and refer to the Holy Trinity. As a Roman Catholic in Protestant England, the Trinity was a deeply personal and symbolic icon for the building’s designer, Thomas Tresham (1543–1605). Tresham was part of the Catholic elite of his time: he was brought up and married into the Throckmorton household (a wealthy Catholic family), had connections to the Jesuit priest Edmund Campion, and argued that the state should not have jurisdiction over conscience. His eldest son, Francis Tresham, was even involved in the Essex Rebellion, and in 1605, the Gunpowder Plot. All in all, Tresham was a prominent Catholic “recusant” – he refused to conform to the Elizabethan Protestant Church. As a result of this, Tresham was subject to the increasing number of penal laws being passed against Catholics. He was heavily fined and imprisoned on several occasions. It was upon his release from prison in 1593 that Tresham is said to have designed the Triangular Lodge, completed in 1597.[1]

Building made from alternating bands of light and dark limestone.
Image of Rushton Triangular Lodge in Northamptonshire. CON_B06344_F017_077, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

The number three runs through every vein of this folly-like building. As well as its striking triangularity, the building exhibits three triangular gables on each façade, a triangular chimney and windows, and trefoil shaped windows (the emblem of the Tresham family). Each of the three walls is 33.33 feet high.[2] The Lodge has three floors – the main room of each one being hexagonal, thus leaving three corner spaces triangular (see image of the ground plan). On the exterior of the building, there are three biblical texts in Latin, each 33 letters in length.[3] One wall is inscribed “15” (3 x 5) another “93” (3 x 31) and the last “TT” (presumably Tresham’s initials). The text of 1 John 5:7 is written in Latin, Tres testimonium dant, which might be a pun on his family name: his wife Merial Throckmorton is known to have referred to Thomas as “Good Tres” in her letters.[4] Above the Latin are the numbers “3333”. Evidently, Tresham liked the triadic holy number.

Image of the entrance to Rushton Triangular Lodge with Latin inscription above doorway. CON_B06344_F017_081, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

But Tresham’s building of Rushton Lodge was subversive as well as spiritual. The dissidence of such a novel building should not be downplayed. The peculiarity and obsessivity of this project invites the imagination to run wild. One wonders whether the space ever housed contraband catholic images, candlelit discussions with Jesuit missionaries, or perhaps even a clandestine meeting between Francis Tresham and his fellow plotters. Despite its intriguing design, the Triangular Lodge is thought to have fulfilled a rather more practical purpose – the accommodation of Tresham’s head warrener. A warrener was someone in charge of breeding and managing rabbits for the constant supply of food and skins.[5] The earthwork and buried remains of a rabbit warren can be found adjacent to the Lodge.[6] Indeed, the building is often referred to as “The Warryner’s Lodge” in documents from the Rushton estate.[7] For such a rebellious and ornate building, the Lodge appears to have had a rather quotidian function.

Image of ground plan of the Lodge which shows the hexagonal shape of the rooms and three triangular corners. CON_B06344_F017_076, Conway Library, The Courtauld.

Considering this, the Lodge’s existence seems somewhat contradictory – a highly decorative and puzzling façade which housed plain whitewashed walls and simple accommodation. Further, the secrecy that surrounded Catholic worship at this time appears completely at odds with this small building. For many Catholics, Elizabethan England was a place of illicit masses, of “Nicodemite papists” who secretly refused to internalise Protestant doctrine, of priest holes and the hiding of underground missionary networks. The era was thus characterised by outward secrecy and inward defiance. But the Triangular Lodge flies in the face of this trend: it conceals nothing, its design is testimonial and bold, yet, peculiarly, there is nothing religiously rebellious in its mundane function. Perhaps, therefore, the Lodge is most subversive in its decorative non-necessity – the performative nature of the Lodge’s nonconformity stands out. Its rebelliousness is explicit and unapologetic – a statement of Tresham’s Catholic faith.


Mary Whittingdale
Courtauld Connects Digitisation Oxford Micro-Internship Participant

 

Bibliography:

[1] Britain’s Premier Independent Heritage Website, “Rushton Triangular Lodge, Northamptonshire”. Available at:

https://web.archive.org/web/20110904021016/http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/misc/rushton_lodge.htm (last access: 16 September 2021).

[2] Historic England, “The Triangular Lodge (1052038)”, National Heritage List for England. Available at:

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1052038 (last access: 16 September 2021).

[3] Ibid.

[4] English Heritage, “Rushton Triangular Lodge”. Available at:

https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rushton-triangular-lodge/ (last access: 16 September 2021).

[5] Britain Express, “Rushton Triangular Lodge”. Available at: https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=3532 (last access: 16 September 2021).

[6] Historic England, “Rushton Triangular Lodge: an Elizabethan warrener’s lodge and rabbit warren (1013826)”, National Heritage List for England. Available at: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1013826 (last access: 16 September 2021).

[7] Britain’s Premier Independent Heritage Website, op cit.

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