My article ‘Sir Thomas Tresham and the Christian Cabala’ has just been published in the journal British Catholic History. While Tresham is renowned for his interest in mystical numerology (expressed in his architecture at Rushton and Lyveden), the article is the first to pay serious attention to the relationship between Tresham’s personal number mysticism and the best-known tradition of mystical numerology – the Jewish Kabbalah. The article shows that Tresham became interested in the Kabbalah, in its Christianised form (usually called ‘Christian Cabala’, using the latinised form of the word), in the mid-1590s between the building of Rushton Triangular Lodge and the construction of Lyveden New Bield and its gardens, the latter of which shows some Cabalistic influence (as Andrew Eburne was the first to notice). The article traces the source of Tresham’s Cabalistic knowledge to the Italian scholar Pietro Galatino (possibly via the interest of the English Jesuit leader Robert Parsons) and explores in detail how Tresham drew on Galatino’s synthesis of Christian Cabalism for the design of elaborate paintings added to the walls of Tresham’s ‘cell’ in the Bishop’s Palace at Ely in 1597.
This article is the culmination of research on Tresham’s decorations at the Bishop’s Palace in Ely I have been conducting since 2012. Tresham’s number mysticism was an aspect of English Catholic esotericism I touched on in my book English Catholics and the Supernatural, but when I started writing the book I little expected I would actually end up working in the same building where Tresham was imprisoned periodically between 1588 and 1597. However, in 2012 The King’s School, Ely moved its Sixth Form into the Bishop’s Palace, and since I was at the time Assistant Director of Sixth Form I moved in too and was assigned a small office in the west tower, while the Long Gallery where the Catholic prisoners had lived became the Sixth Form common room.
My research involved both searching for material traces of Tresham’s paintings and transcribing Tresham’s lengthy and complicated description of the paintings in the British Library. In 2013 a professional conservator investigated the window I identified as the one described by Tresham – the westernmost window of Bishop Goodrich’s Long Gallery – and found traces of a substance that may have been bitumen on the stonework, but no trace of the paintings themselves, which were probably painted on cloth (and may have been fixed to the stonework using bitumen as an adhesive). My account of my research on Tresham’s period in Ely was subsequently published in British Catholic History (then Recusant History) in 2014. While my 2014 article on the Catholic prisoners in the Bishop’s Palace described Tresham’s paintings, it stopped short of a full interpretation of their symbolism and its meaning.
I presented my initial thoughts on the meaning of Tresham’s paintings and his use of the Christian Cabala in a paper delivered at a conference in Cambridge, ‘Visions of Enchantment’, in March 2014. It was some years, however, before I was able to bring the research together into a publishable form. It is my hope that the article will shift our view away from Tresham as a unique eccentric towards a more balanced view of this remarkable figure as a participant in a broader European tradition of esoteric Counter-Reformation Catholicism. Tresham’s numerology did not come out of nowhere, and while Tresham was undoubtedly a uniquely imaginative and creative figure, the article shows that his interest in the Christian Cabala was consistent with the curiosity shown by figures such as John Fisher and John Colet earlier in the 16th century.
The article builds on a general transformation in our perceptions of Tresham, who can no longer be viewed as an arch-conservative figure, as he once was; Tresham was, instead, a representative of the radical and exploratory traditions of English Catholicism embodied by the Renaissance Humanists and Cardinal Pole. These traditions, under the pressure of both state persecution and Counter-Reformation caution, were increasingly marginalised in the English Catholic community – although possible connections between Tresham’s Catholic Cabalism and that of William Alabaster, the author of the controversial Apparatus in Revelationem Iesu Christi, remain to be explored…