I enjoyed one of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon yesterday - engrossed in books at the British Library. Afterwards coming out blinking from the 16th century to the 21st, I went to a nearby cafe and got a sandwich.
'Are you eating it here, or taking it out?' the woman asked. I was still blinking. I really had no idea. 'Take your time,' she said. I checked to see if she was sneering at me, but she wasn't. 'We get people like you all the time,' she said then.
And indeed there was someone behind me, frozen in front of the range of sandwiches available. He was also blinking, and I wondered what period or subject he still had half a foot in. Of course, I quickly came out of the trance - the Euston Road takes no prisoners - but for the rest of the evening the idea that something magical had happened to me still kept floating in front of my mind. And every time I realised it was what I had been reading in the library, it felt even more magical.
I'd been looking at the letters of Thomas Tresham, as part of a presentation I'm giving today for my garden history course into Lyveden New Bield.
The house and garden were built in Elizabethan times by Thomas Tresham, and left incomplete after his death. But it's the history behind it that's equally fascinating, because TT was a Catholic and spent the ten years before work on the garden started in prison. He directed most of the work by letters and it was these I was looking at. A parcel of his letters and papers dating from 1576 to November 1605 were found by accident sealed up at Ruston Hall in 1828. It is thought they were walled up in a state of emergency after the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot, as his son Francis was one of the ‘plotters’.
Yep, the story really does have everything, but it's the idea of someone planning a garden so elaborately while they are in prison that makes it so special for me. A garden that they might never have seen. And of course, more and more of the Catholic symbolism Tresham implanted into the garden plans is still being uncovered. Gardening as a secret language. I love it.
Mind you, I struggled with some of the language and spelling of the letters until - ping! - a lightbulb went off. I read it as if it was a text from one of the teenagers I hear from regularly - a mixture of shorthand and predictive text - and immediately it all made sense.
See what I mean? Here and now, now and here ...!
Here's one of the letters from his wife:
26th September 1597, Artlingborough
Lady Tresame to her husband:
“Jesu Marye. Good Tres. the wake a state of hore besbeloved sestar this barar can addres you, yf remedys wyll serve no dote bothe for honesty and cylle (skill?) I make no dote bot she shall hafe thame. Wavysar and hylton ware at london on saturda last bytymes and tomoro the fotmane shalle be wythe you at hely. God grant we ma shortely hafe you at russon, thys barer makes hast tharfor my many harty commendacyons to you, I hand (end) the 26 of sebtember 1657 from hartalynboro your hobedyend and lovying wife m. Tresame.” *
There was something else very identifiable in this particular letter too. A note attached said that on the front of the paper it was addressed to: “To my very besbeloved husband ser tomas Tresame knight at hely (Ely) give these.”
While on the back, it’s recorded that there are: ‘Numerical calculations by Sir Thomas of a mystical character in which the words Crux, Maria and Christus appear.’
Hmmm... I'm not making a sexist point here about distracted men because it sounds awfully like me. I've found notes about stories I've scribbled on whatever is at hand too - however personal and precious. Let me tell you that this blog knows ALL about obsession. And distraction.
(*Reference: Historical Manuscripts Commission, Report on manuscripts in various collections, Volume III, London 1904. Manuscripts of T B Clarke-Thornhill, Esq of Rushton Hall)