Sir Thomas Tresham (1545-1605) was a gentleman architect and builder, well-educated and a prominent recusant Catholic landowner in Northamptonshire, England during the Elizabethan era. However, he was disliked intensely for an “enclosure policy” regarding common land. After executing 50 people for rioting and for cutting down hedges in the Midland revolt, he was referred to as the most odious man in Britain. For a variety of other offenses including refusing to abandon his Catholic faith in favor of Protestantism, he was heavily fined and imprisoned under house arrest for fifteen years in the late 16th century.
The year he was released from jail, 1593 he designed and built over a period of four years a remarkable triangular lodge (then known as Warrener’s Lodge) on the edge of his estate in Rushton, a town in Northamptonshire to manifest his fervent belief in the Holy Trinity and, as some believe, as a play on an abbreviation of his last name (Tres). The footprint of the building is an equilateral triangle.
He spent much of his life collecting books and his library indicates he was more than familiar with the architectural treatises of France and Italy. In A Companion to Tudor Britain, edited by Robert Tittler and Norman L. Jones, it is suggested that: “from theses books … [Tresham] borrowed the Renaissance concept of symmetry as an essential ingredient of architectural harmony…”
The Triangular Lodge (a.k.a. Rushton Lodge), now in the care of the preservation society called English Heritage, is what is known as a folly, a building primarily constructed for decoration but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose. A folly can call attention to itself through unusual details or form. This lodge satisfies those criteria on all counts but also rises above them because it is a very early precedent for a subsequent stream of triangular buildings that followed in the next few centuries and then exploded in frequency in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Toward the end of the sixteenth century, architects like Tresham took delight in allegory and metaphor. Quoting again from A Companion to Tudor Britain, “In an age when the symbolism of the emblem was common intellectual currency…building was an irreistable opportunity for such displays of sophisticated wit.”
The three-part manifestation of the Trinity is designed into every detail of the Lodge, even in the very unusual triangular floor plan of the building itself. Its three walls are each 33 feet long (note 33) and each has three windows, triangular in shape and surmounted by three gargoyles. Built over a basement partially above grade, the structure has two additional floors and a triangular chimney that rises curious out of the center of the building.
On each of the three facades are Latin texts chiseled into the stone work:
The Tresham family had an emblem or crest in the form of a trefoil. The geometry of the trefoil is used repeatedly in the shape of the windows on what we, in the US, call the second floor. The basement windows are much smaller but they are also trefoil in shape and have a triangle in their center. The first-floor windows are a rotated square in shape, each having twelve small circular portholes surrounding a central cruciform slit. Surrounding these windows are heraldic family shields.
The triangular corners of the building on all three levels are separated by walls; this creates a main space that is hexagonal. One corner space contains a spiral staircase, the other two are small rooms with currently unknown purpose have delightful windows that make them more appealing than one would imagine for a small triangular space.
Above the upper level windows runs a frieze with the aforementioned carved inscriptions. Above the frieze on each of the three facades sit three steep gables terminated by a three-sided obelisk. The exterior walls are composed of alternating courses of light and dark limestone. Also on the façade are numerous plaques and decorative features that positively reflect upon Tresham’s keen interest in the mathematical, religious, and symbolic dimensions of plane geometric figures.
The lodge is a monument to Tresham’s faith but it is also “an example of the Elizabethan love of allegory.” The famous architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner considered the building so architecturally significant that he used a photograph of the lodge for the front cover of the first edition (1961) of his The Buildings of England: Northamptonshire. The photo was also used on the cover of a later edition. The selection of this unusual triangular building for the cover of a treatise dealing with a country whose architecture was for centuries dominated by the right angle is perhaps best explained by the fact that in 1961, Diagonality was a design phenomenon flourishing as a geometric motif around the world. According to Joe Jarrett, a researcher in mathematics, Tresham owned a copy of Henry Billingsley’s 1570 edition of Euclid’s Elements. Jarrett writes, “That he chose to write such snatches of Stoic wisdom in a book of mathematics is surely no coincidence. As a devotee of architecture, Tresham attributed great significance to lines, angles and numbers, and reading Dee’s words on the importance of mathematical labour to a truly spiritual existence seems to have inspired his own philosophical reflection. In his annotations, mathematics becomes a grander tale of humanity, brotherhood, life and death. ‘What good is there for me in knowing how to divide an estate into parts, if I do not know how to split it with my brother?’ ‘You know what a straight line is, but how does it benefit you if you do not know what is straight in life?’ (Epistulae morales, 88.11, 13).
Such tangential thoughts perhaps arose from Tresham’s unnerving personal circumstances, and just as he must have been unsure of the details of his future, so must we remain uncertain of the details of his past. My narrative is, I hope, convincing, but it is also necessarily hypothetical. This is the kind of thrill that work with material texts can offer: annotations and marginalia in books offer us flirtatious glimpses of a narrative, but from the physical evidence alone that narrative almost always remains incomplete. It is up to our imaginations to fill the gaps.” Joe Jarrett
Based on my research to date, several other triangular buildings were designed and (most) constructed before the modern era and these include:
Caerlaverock Castle, southern coast of Scotland 1270
Longford Castle south of Salibury, Wiltshire, England – c. 1576
Wewelsburg Hill Castle, North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany – 1646
Andrea Pozzo’s proposed Triangular Church and Monastery -1700
Jan Blaise Santini Aichel’s St. Anna in Three Person’s Chapel in Penenske Břežany near Prague -1705
J.M Prunner’s Stadl Paura Church in Austria – 1714
Jan Blaise Santini Aichel’s Chapel in Ostrunzo (Czech Republic) 1720
Jan Blaise Santini Aichel and František Ferdinand Kinský’s Karlova Koruna Chateau Hradec Královeá region of the Czech Republic known locally as Chlumec nad Cidinou – 1721-1723
John Carter’s Midford Castle, Somerset, England – 1776
The triangular buildings featured above represent a growing expression of interest in buildings whose floor plan is out of square or otherwise composed of square elements but arranged in a triangular fashion. Taken together, they represent a geographically disparate block of structures moving decidedly toward a desire to experiment with non-orthogonal motifs in construction.