Tales of doom, death and destruction in Minster Lovell

PUBLISHED: 10:50 31 October 2019 | UPDATED: 10:50 31 October 2019

Minster Lovell Hall, shadows lengthening across the lawns

Minster Lovell Hall, shadows lengthening across the lawns

Stephen Roberts

Tales of doom, death and destruction abound in the picturesque ruins of Minster Lovell Hall

He banged his fists until his skin was bruised and raw. He shouted until he was hoarse, yet no-one came. As his strength ebbed from him, his efforts, vocal and hopeful at first, became plaintive and dispirited. There was no way out. He ended sat at his table, sobbing, with his head in his hands. No-one came.

The ruins of Minster Lovell Hall are situated idyllically by the Windrush (trout, chub and crayfish) in Oxfordshire. Appearances can be deceptive, however, as these stones may have witnessed events laden with doom, destruction and death (nice alliteration). Of course, it could all be just a good yarn. I set out to investigate.

My favourite historical figure is Richard, Duke of Gloucester (1452-85), who was briefly Richard III (1483-85), before meeting his own 'D, D & D' at the Battle of Bosworth Field, having no idea, of course, that he would be reinvented, in 2012, as the 'Car Park King'. He now reposes in Leicester Cathedral. As his emblem was the white boar, he was sometimes disparagingly referred to as, 'The Hog'. Pleasingly, for me, he strolled the grounds at Minster Lovell, sometime during his short reign.

Richard came here because Minster Lovell was owned by one of his closest adherents, Sir Francis Lovell (1454-89?). According to doggerel of the time, Lovell was 'The Dog' to Richard's 'Hog'. We know what happened to the king. What happened to Lovell remains unclear and his fate is the standout mystery of Minster Lovell. Having fought alongside Richard at Bosworth (August 1485), and survived the King's doomed attempt to eliminate rival, Henry Tudor, Lovell popped up again at the Battle of Stoke Field (June 1487), which was the disaffected Yorkists' last serious attempt to unseat the new dynasty, which also ended in failure. Lovell was seen escaping, but then…

The story goes that Lovell fled from England's new masters, incarcerating himself within Minster Lovell Hall, in a secret chamber, to which his faithful servant brought him sustenance, that is, until something went horribly wrong. No-one came any longer. Lovell, unable to open the chamber from inside, died an agonising death from starvation. His screams, muffled within the old stonework, gradually faded. One theory is that his accomplice predeceased him and that whatever 'mechanism' allowed him to open his apartment from within had jammed. Often, with historical tales, we weave a story around our few facts.

The Old Swan Inn, Minster LovellThe Old Swan Inn, Minster Lovell

Early in the 18th century, when a new staircase was being constructed, a skeleton was found, sat at a table, a dog at his feet, within a previously hidden room. There was a book, papers, on which a hand rested, and a pen, all turned to dust when air was admitted. Perhaps he intended to write his story: if so, it was never read. The storytellers got working: the discovery of a cadaver fuelled their tales, true or not. On balance though, it may be mistaken identity. Lovell did not spend much time here, so it was not the obvious place to head, particularly as his lands were forfeit to the Crown. Polymath Francis Bacon (1561-1626) was one who believed Lovell had lived on.

Minster Lovell Hall was first built around 1440 by Francis's grandfather, William Lovell, so it was still relatively new when Francis disappeared. The hall later passed through various hands, including Henry Norris (c1482-1536), who was a 'Groom of the Stool' (supervisor of the toilet) during Henry VIII's reign. Unfortunately, he was implicated in the denouement of Anne Boleyn and decapitated (chopping off of the head) on Tower Hill. It seemed Minster Lovell Hall was developing a nasty habit of bestowing ill-fortune on its owners.

Misfortune tends to come in threes, and there appears to be another story associated with the hall concerning a 16th century bride, who playfully hid from her lord in a chest, only for the lid to slam down and imprison her. This story bears an uncanny resemblance to Lovell's fate and was immortalised in a poem by Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839). As if that isn't enough, the ruins are also supposed to be haunted by a knight atop a white steed.

Let's delve deeper. Minster Lovell is about 2½ miles west of Witney. The village has three parts: Old, Little, and New Minster. Old Minster includes St Kenelm's Church, Minster Lovell Hall and the Old Swan Inn. The church's dedication to Saint Kenelm suggests Saxon origins. The earliest known record of the church, however, is from 1183 and the present St Kenelm's is a rebuild of the 15th century. The suffix 'Lovell', from the main landowner, was added from the 13th century.

Although there has been a manor house at Minster Lovell since at least the 12th century, the current hall, including tower and dovecote, is what's left of a 15th-century manor house, grouped around a central courtyard, in a style of the time. The walls of the great hall still stand to a height of 39 feet in places. Two large ponds, that supplied fresh fish to the household, also survive. The setting alongside the Windrush is to die for; seems apposite.

Francis Bacon by Paul van Somer I, 1617. Bacon stated that Lovell had ‘lived long after’Francis Bacon by Paul van Somer I, 1617. Bacon stated that Lovell had ‘lived long after’

Francis Lovell was the only son of John, 8th Baron Lovell of Titchmarsh, Northants and heir to a vast inheritance. He was just eleven when his father died in 1465 and he became a ward of King Edward IV. Edward entrusted him to Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the 'Kingmaker'. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Edward's youngest brother, was also entrusted to Warwick. This was the start of the friendship between Richard and Lovell. Lovell married, whilst still in boyhood, in 1466, to Anne FitzHugh, but does not seem to have left any progeny.

Lovell was knighted whilst on an expedition against the Scots, by Richard, on August 22, 1480. After Edward IV's death, Lovell supported Richard's claim to the throne having been created Viscount Lovell. At Richard III's coronation (7th July 1483), Lovell bore the third sword of state. He was one of Richard's most trusted friends, 'Lovell the dog' in the contemporary Lancastrian verse, which described Richard's administration. 'The Cat, the Rat and Lovell the Dog, rule all England under a Hog,' the 'Cat' being Catesby and the 'Rat', Ratcliffe.

Sometime during Richard's reign, the King visited Minster Lovell. If walls could speak, maybe the ruined edifice would disclose secrets from this most controversial of reigns, particularly the fate of Richard's nephews, the 'Princes in the Tower'. The King and Lovell perhaps discussed them in hushed tones in this very place. Later in 1483, Richard bestowed upon Lovell several appointments, among them, Lord Chamberlain of the King's Household. This implied constant personal contact. His creation as a Knight of the Garter also occurred during this year. Lovell had risen from a Lord of minor importance to one of England's most powerful men.

Lovell fought alongside Richard at Bosworth, then, early in 1486, he escaped northwards, raised a revolt and nearly captured the King while he was at York. When the rising was defeated, Lovell fled to Lancashire and hunkered down, before reaching Flanders. Lovell was then at the Battle of Stoke Field on June 16, 1487. This was the last Yorkist throw in the Wars of the Roses, one final, failed attempt to overthrow Henry Tudor.

Some reported Lovell dying at Stoke, but others saw him fording the Trent on horseback. Legend has it he scrambled up the riverbank and escaped to Minster Lovell. There was a potential sighting in Scotland, where King James V granted him a safe conduct on June 19, 1488. Uncertainty about Lovell's fate is shown by the 'inquisition post mortem', in which jurors concluded he had escaped 'beyond the sea' and died in Flanders. On December 15, 1489 Henry granted Lovell's widow an annuity, which implied that he was dead. What happened between June 1488, when he was possibly last sighted, and December 1489, when Tudor appeared happy the 'Dog' was dead? It is a mystery that will, in all likelihood, never be solved.

Minster Lovell Hall and St Kenelm's ChurchMinster Lovell Hall and St Kenelm's Church

The hall passed through several owners until Sir Edward Coke bought it in 1603. The manor remained with the Cokes until Thomas Coke abandoned Minster Lovell in 1747, dismantling, and then demolishing it, in favour of the Cokes' seat at Holkham (Norfolk), leaving today's ruins. My last visit was on a winter's afternoon, when shadows lengthened across the grass. Some of the ground was saturated, as the Windrush was high, and you could see your breath in the cold air. The village is beautiful, particularly here where church and hall sit together in relative solitude. It is a place to be quiet and contemplate what may have happened here.

What did Richard III and Lovell discuss when they walked the grounds? Did Lovell escape here after the last hurrah at Stoke Field, or did he flee abroad? If Lovell wasn't here, whose was the mysterious skeleton discovered in the 18th century? Answers on a postcard please.

References

- A Dictionary of British History (Ed. JP Kenyon, 1981)

- The Shell Guide to England (Ed. J Hadfield, 1973)

- The Shell Book of English Villages (Ed. J Hadfield, 1980)

- Book of British Villages (The Reader's Digest, 1980)

- History Times History (historytimeshistory.blogspot.com)

- Britannica (britannica.com)

- Tudor Place (tudorplace.com)

Chronology

- 1440: Approximate date of building of Minster Lovell Hall

- 1452: Birth of Richard III

- 1454: Birth of Francis Lovell

- 1455: Start of the Wars of the Roses

- 1465: Francis Lovell a ward of Edward IV and enters household of Warwick the Kingmaker

- 1466: Francis Lovell marries Anne FitzHugh

- 1480: Richard, Duke of Gloucester knights Francis Lovell

- 1483: Edward IV's death, disappearance of 'Princes in the Tower', Richard III becomes king

- 1485: Battle of Bosworth Field & death of Richard III

- 1486: Francis Lovell leads rebellion in north of England

- 1487: Battle of Stoke Field

- 1488: King of Scotland grants Francis Lovell a safe conduct

- 1489: Conjectured date for the death of Francis Lovell

- 1536: Execution of Henry Norris

- 1603: Minster Lovell Hall comes into possession of Coke family

- 1708: Discovery of skeleton at Minster Lovell Hall

- 1747: Dismantling of Minster Lovell Hall by Thomas Coke

- 1830: Thomas Haynes Bayly publishes 'The Mistletoe Bough'

- 2012: Discovery of Richard III's remains under car park in Leicester

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