In the 1590s, the eccentric Elizabethan politician, Sir Thomas Tresham, built one of the most intriguing and symbolic buildings in Britain.
This charming folly seems pretty straightforward at first, being a pleasant building built in alternating bands of limestone and ironstone ashlar, with a Collyweston stone slate roof. But don’t be fooled: this is a brilliantly cryptic puzzle worthy of an Indiana Jones investigation.
Here’s the story of how the Rushton Triangular Lodge came to be, and the meaning of its many hidden features, symbols and ciphers.
A dedicated Catholic
Thomas Tresham inherited Rushton Hall when he was just 9 years old, after his grandfather’s death. Although he was recognised by Elizabeth I as a loyal subject (he was knighted at the Royal Progress at Kenilworth in 1575), Tresham’s devotion to Catholicism cost him huge sums of money and several years in prison.
Between 1581 and 1605, Tresham paid approximately £8,000 worth of fines (equivalent to £1,820,000 in 2020). He was also sentenced to 15 years in prison (of which he served 12). It was in these long years behind bars that Tresham drew up plans to design a building.
A tribute to his faith
The lodge was built by Sir Thomas Tresham between 1593 and 1597. In a clever ode to his Catholic faith and the Holy Trinity, he designed everything in the lodge around the number three.
First off, the building is triangular. Each wall is 33 feet long. There are three floors and three triangular gables on each side. Three Latin texts – each 33 letters long – run around the building on each facade. They translate to “Let the earth open and … bring forth salvation”, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” And “I have contemplated thy works, O Lord, and was afraid”.
The lodge is also inscribed with the words Tres Testimonium Dant (“there are three that give witness”). This was a quote from St John’s Gospel referring to the Trinity, but also a pun on Tresham’s name (his wife called him ‘Good Tres’ in her letters).
The windows on each facade are particularly ornate. The basement windows are tiny trefoils with a triangular pane at their centre. On the ground floor, the windows are surrounded by heraldic shields. These windows form a lozenge design, each having 12 circular openings surrounding a central cruciform shape. The largest windows are on the first floor, in the form of a trefoil (the emblem of the Tresham family).
A puzzle of clues
Typical of Elizabethan art and architecture, this building is awash with symbolism and hidden clues.
Above the door seems an anomaly to the tripartite theme: it reads 5555. Historians have no conclusive evidence too explain this, however it has been noted that if 1593 is subtracted from 5555, the result 3962. This is possibly significant – according to Bede, 3962BC was the date of the Great Flood.
The cryptic lodge is surmounted by three steep gables, each topped with an obelisk to suggest the appearance of a crown. The gables are carved with an array of emblems, including a plaque depicting the seven eyes of God, a Pelican in her piety, a symbol of Christ and the Eucharist, a Dove and Serpent and the Hand of God touching a globe. In the centre, the triangular chimney bears a lamb and cross, a chalice, and the letters ‘IHS’, a monogram or symbol for the name Jesus.
The gables are also carved with the numbers 3509 and 3898, which are thought to reference the dates of the Creation and the Calling of Abraham. Other carved dates include 1580 (possibly marking Tresham’s conversion).
There were also future dates carved into the stone, including 1626 and 1641. There is no obvious interpretation of this, but mathematical solutions have been suggested: when divided by three and 1593 is subtracted from the result, they give 33 and 48. These are the years in which Jesus and the Virgin Mary were believed to have died.
The lodge still stands tall and proud to this day: an impressive testament to Tresham’s Roman Catholicism, even in light of fierce repression.