The Spectral Mystery of Minster Lovell Hall

A few weeks ago, after what seemed like eternity, I finally got to visit a medieval ruin again. Not a castle, but a rare example of a courtyard manor house built in the fifteenth century by one of the wealthiest men in England. And for a sleepy ruin in a quiet Oxfordshire backwater it has a lot to offer. For a start, it’s tucked away in an idyllic location beside the River Windrush amid beautiful, rolling countryside. It also has connections with the Scottish medieval history module I’ve just completed, and it has links with two of my favourite medieval kings, one of which came to stay at the manor. Perhaps even more intriguingly, some say that its most notable owner never left, that he still lingers around the ruins of his former home.

approach 2

The approach to the 15th Century hall with the porch on the left

The village of Minster Lovell was originally simply called Minster, denoting a settlement of secular clergy serving a church. The church was, and still is, dedicated to the young martyr prince Kenelm, the son of Kenwulf, King of Mercia, who is believed to have been murdered in 819AD, and the minster would have been an important centre for what was once a large ecclesiastical district. Then, around 1124 Henry I granted considerable lands, including Minster, to one of his barons, William, whose nickname was Lupellus, meaning ‘Little Wolf’, probably reflecting his military prowess. Over time the name morphed into Lupel, then Luvel, eventually settling on Lovel, and the bucolic setting of Minster Lovell became the centre of the family estate from the thirteenth century until the Lovell line ended in the 1480s.

windrush

The hall sits in a tranquil setting beside the River Windrush

St Kenelms

The west wing and the northwest tower with the medieval St Kenelm’s Church behind

The manor was inherited by successive generations of Lovells, mostly – and confusingly – called John, with the odd William thrown in for good measure. One of the many Johns served King Edward I during the first Welsh war of 1277 (covered last year on my Castle Quest), and in 1296 when Edward turned his formidable gaze north, John was the marshal of the king’s army in Scotland, earning him the title Lord Lovell. He served Edward in Scotland in 1303 and 1304, and it was to him that the keys of Stirling Castle were surrendered following a three-month siege by the English king. The same good fortune, however, evaded his son, another John, who was killed at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. But to meet the man who rebuilt the family seat into the grand courtyard home that we see today we must fast forward to the next century, to another Lord Lovell.

west wing

Looking across to the west range from the great hall, towards the kitchen with its well, and the stables beyond

Inside courtyard

The view from the east wing housing the service buildings, looking across to the great hall and the Lovells’ private apartments

In 1431 William, the seventh Baron Lovell, had returned from serving in France during the Hundred Years War, and it’s likely that this was when he began the massive makeover of his Oxfordshire home in the latest architectural style. Splendid and richly furnished domestic ranges were set around a courtyard, with the Lovell’s private chambers high up in prime position next to the great hall looking across the complex to the river and beyond. The house was entered through an elegant porch lined with stone seats where visitors could wait to be shown through, and the impressive great hall with its lofty windows would have been the scene of feasting and merriment around a central hearth. William also rebuilt the church of St Kenelm next to the manor, where he was entombed after his death in 1455, and which is also worth a visit. But for all its grand design, William’s magnificent manor would only be home to another two generations of Lovells.

porch

Welcome to Minster Lovell Hall: the elegant porch leading into the great hall

boss

Surviving decorative bosses on the vaulted ceiling of the porch

Great hall portrait

Lofty windows in the great hall that once bore the Lovell arms

great hall 1

The east end of the great hall

William’s son, yet another John, was a prominent Lancastrian in the Wars of the Roses, and was made master forester of Wychwood in 1459 for his services to Henry VI, but his son Francis, (at last, a different name!), took a different view altogether, supporting the Yorkist cause. He rose to high favour with Richard of Gloucester, the future Richard III, who as king made him Viscount Lovell and awarded him high status positions. The two became best pals, and Richard was even entertained as a guest at Minster Lovell in 1483, the year he became king. The rise in Francis’s power, together with those of another two of Richard’s faithful supporters, William Catesby and Richard Ratcliffe, was resented by some contemporaries, and the four became the subject of a caustic couplet:

The Cat, the Rat, and Lovell our Dogge
Rule all England under the Hog                               (Richard III’s emblem was a white boar)

west wing to sw tower 2

A view across the west wing to the southwest tower. This is thought to have been added by either Francis or his father, John, and had a high status apartment on the top floor. Perhaps this was where Richard stayed…

riii2

A carved figure gazes out from the outer walls of the south west tower. Could it be Francis, or even Richard III?

But again, the Lovell good fortune wasn’t to last. After fighting alongside Richard at Bosworth Field in 1485, Francis fled to Flanders, returning two years later to join a rebellion against Henry VII involving the young Lambert Simnel’s rival claim to the throne. And herein lies the mystery, because no-one really knows what became of Francis Viscount Lovell. The Yorkists suffered a crushing defeat at the battle of Stoke, near Newark in 1487, and Francis was reported by some to have been killed, while others state that he fled across the Trent on horseback. But the most intriguing account told that he escaped and lived ‘long after in a cave or vault’. This story gains some credence in a letter from 1737, written by William Cowper, clerk of the Parliament, to a reputable antiquary named Francis Peck, in which Cowper reveals that in 1708, while building work was being undertaken at Minster Lovell:

‘There was discovered a large vault or room underground, in which was the entire skeleton of a man, as having been sitting at a table, which was before him, with a book, paper, pen, etc., etc.; in another part of the room lay a cap; all much mouldred and decayed. Which the family and others judged to be … Lord Lovell, whose exit hath hitherto been so uncertain.’

Thus, the theory goes that Francis returned to Minster Lovell after the battle of Stoke and hid himself away, locked in a secret underground vault where he was cared for by a loyal servant. But the servant met with a sudden death, and as he was the only person who knew the whereabouts of his lord, Francis was left to his grisly fate. It is his spirit that is said to haunt the romantic ruins of Minster Lovell Hall, perhaps trying to recapture those days of his former glory and the fun times he spent here with his royal best friend.

window

Fine traceried windows show the level of former grandeur enjoyed by the Lovells

dovecote

The medieval manorial farm buildings and dovecote survive

Francis was the last of the Lovell family to inhabit the manor. Accused of treason, his lands were confiscated by Henry VII and granted to his uncle, Jasper Tudor, and the new king is reported to have visited the property in 1494 and 1497. Later, in 1602, the manor was bought by Sir Edward Coke, in whose family it remained until they left in favour of their new mansion at Holkham in Norfolk, and the old principal seat of the Lovells was finally abandoned.

If the spirit of Francis Lovell has any sense, he’d have been tucked up in his cosy vault on the day we visited because it was a freezing summer’s afternoon. Still, there’s no denying that his home is a very atmospheric and tranquil place to wander around, probably all the more so for the inclement weather. But for a first visit to a medieval site in way too long, it did nicely for me. I loved exploring the ragged remains of this former grand house, and walking in the footsteps of its great medieval owners and the king whose demise closed the Middle Ages. And if I ever do meet Francis roaming around these romantic riverside ruins, I’ll shake his insubstantial hand and thank him for his loyalty and support, right to the very end, for the last Plantagenet king.

peace

 

49 thoughts on “The Spectral Mystery of Minster Lovell Hall

  1. Another fantastic post my love, and it’s great to know I great to know I grew up in (or near) a ‘quiet Oxfordshire backwater’ 😀 It really love this little ruin, it’s so atmospheric, I can’t believe I used to travel past it twice a day and didn’t realise it was there – what a waste!
    It does indeed have a fascinating history and thanks for teaching me a lot I didn’t know. long live King Richard!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. One of the things I miss most about Israel is its oldness. You could dig anywhere … just scraping the earth and a Byzantine pot (or a piece of one) or a Roman coin would just pop up. Every hill was a tell and I can’t begin to tell you all the old Crusader castles we found in the strangest locations — like in the feet of the Golan mountains that cross into Syria, or the one along the road from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv that looked like an old cow shed and was being used to store cotton from the nearby Moshav. it had originally been the stables for a huge. mostly ruined castle, which was up on a nearby hill. i remember sitting there on the hill, looking down on the fields below and wondering what — if anything — our world would look like in a thousand years.

    My favorite castle was one whose name I’ve lost in the years I’ve been back here, but it was never lived in. An earthquake took it out just as it was completed and ready for occupation.

    Not castles around here and our Native Americans didn’t built from stone, so they left little except graveyards and occasionally old pots and arrowheads. By your standards, even our “old stuff” is new! I used to live on Hebron Road which ran directly to Hebron Gate to the Old City (southbound) and Bethlem (northbound). It was another universe.

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    • I’m not surprised you miss the ‘oldness’, as it’s so fascinating and special. Israel sounds amazing though, and I know you’ve bagged a fair few castles on your travels, and of course, places even older than castles. That’s sad about the one that got taken out just as it was completed – all that work gone to waste!

      Its an interesting thought – what our world will look like in a thousand years from now. One thing I can predict though, I bet the medieval castles and stone buildings will still be here, although I’m not sure about most of our modern ones! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m sure you are right. I used to laugh. The Old City walls were layered. At the bottom and all the way below ground to base rock, were Solomon’s wall — gigantic stone, the size of the biggest stone at Avbury or Stonehenge. Above them were the Herodian walls. Then there were the “New Wall” which were built by Suliman the Magnificent — 1536-37. I always round it amusing that that was called “the new walls.” There was also an even older wall that was probably the original wall, out of history called “the broad wall” which was more than 20 feet wide and probably went down to bedrock too.

        I remember coming back here and for a long time, I sort of sniffed when people told me something was old. To me, it wasn’t old. A lot of our old stuff is new than the building i lived in on Derech Hevron. I’ve gotten used it it, but it has been more than 35 years.

        I doubt any modern architecture except maybe the Lincoln Memorial — which is all marble — will still be standing. My house is having trouble making it into this century.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is a contrast going back there after living in such an ancient place, no wonder you missed it so much.

        Sounds like the Lincoln Memorial will stand the test of time, but I know what you mean about houses struggling to get through this century – mine is, too. They don’t make ’em like the used to. 🙂

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  3. I always remember from childhood the tale of the lord in the hidden room. Always plays with my imagination. I seem to recall the area features in one of John Buchan’s historical novels – I think The Blanket of the Dark. Great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, John, yes the story does rather stir the imagination, especially when you’re wandering around the lord’s own house! It does have that ethereal feel to it. I’ll have to look out The Blanket of the Dark, so thanks for the steer – and for reading, as always. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Mike, that’s really kind! I’m glad you enjoyed it so much. The place and its accompanying church are well worth a visit when you’re in the area, and the setting is lovely. But it really is tucked away down at the end of a quiet, dead-end lane in the village, and many people don’t even know its there. Its not a staffed site either, so you can go pretty much any time. Hopefully now you know the story and the family it’ll mean a bit more when you do visit. All the best, and thanks for the lovely comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. My goodness, that is a grisly fate! I love the photos and learning about Minster Lovell. You have such a great way to tell the layman, like myself, about something I never knew before. I am glad you got out and got to visit this Minster Lovell – it was great to read about!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Robyn, that’s a lovely thing to say! If my blog entertains folk and teaches them a bit too, that’s exactly what the intention is, so it’s so good to know it’s working! 🙂 It was wonderful to finally get to a medieval building again, especially one with such a good story. Thanks for reading, and I’m really glad you enjoyed my wander around Minster Lovell. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Another great story Alli and written in a way that captures the imagination as well as educating us. I’ve heard of Minster Lovell, but certainly never been there, and it sounds as though it’s situated in a most perfect location. Loved it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Malc, for the kind comment, as always. I’m glad you enjoyed reading all about the Lovells’ exploits and their lovely home. It really is a little hidden haven.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Good to see you back in action and travelling around again! When do you get your results?

    That must have been a superb property in its heydey – what a shame so much time and effort was spent in doing it up and then only 2 more generations go to use it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Carol. It would, indeed, have been a superb property in its day. There’s a picture of reconstruction on one of the information boards and it looks amazing. And yes, how ironic that after all William’s fine building work it didn’t stay in the family for much longer. Fate can be such a fickle mistress.

      As for when I get my results, it wasn’t until I saw your question that I realised I don’t actually know! To be honest, after all the chaos I’ve had to work in this year, I’m not sure I want to know either! I suppose it’ll be sometime next month or maybe early August. Time will tell, I guess, if I can bear to look. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, it’s always a tense moment when you open that envelope (or internet link, in my case now); possibly more tense than normal this year. Oh well, time will tell, but I’m in no rush to know! 🙂

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    • If it’s any help, they’re fine on my screen, so maybe it’s just the way it loaded on yours? Otherwise I’ve no idea why – WordPress can be a law unto itself. 🙂

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      • With WordPress’s intermittent strange behaviour as well, I guess anything could happen. I’ll keep an eye on it and let you know if anything goes awry from my side. 🙂

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  7. Alli, another wonderful post. You do a terrific job teaching history and making it interesting to read. This home feels like it would have quite a creep factor! Probably more so in inclement weather, as you say.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Wendy, what a lovely, and very appreciated comment! Glad you enjoyed Minster Lovell’s story so much. Yes it does have the creep factor, especially in bad weather, but in a surprisingly benign way, and it’s incredibly atmospheric! Hope all’s well with you, and thanks for reading. 🙂

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    • Glad you enjoyed it – it really is a lovely place, and it’ll be a better experience for knowing a bit about the family that built and lived in it. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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  8. What a grand place. It’s certainly one that I’d like to see if I ever made it back to England. The story about Francis was interesting too. What a sad fate. I’m sure many Ricardians would be interested in visiting if they know about it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re absolutely right, Vanda. It would be a great place for Ricardians to visit – maybe I should suggest it to the RIII Society, if they haven’t already been there. Glad you liked my wander around Minster Lovell, and yes, poor old Francis – not a nice way to go. Hope all’s well with you, and that you managed to catch up with ‘The Detectorists’ in the end! 🙂

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    • Thank you, Amy, glad you enjoyed it. Maybe you can visit Minster Lovell when you’re back over here one day. It’s great to photograph. 🙂

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  9. Hi Ali 🙂 I’ve been seeing you around for some time in the comments on Easy Malc’s posts so I thought it was high time I popped over for a read and to say hi!

    I’ve been to Minster Lovell a couple of times but never read such a comprehensive history. I love the small details you’ve photographed, like the decorative bosses and carved figure – just the sort of things I like to hunt out myself. And the story of Francis left to his fate in the vault with no one knowing his whereabouts sent a shiver down my spine!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Sarah, nice to ‘meet’ you, and thanks for popping over to say hello. 🙂

      You’re probably the first person to read the post who’s actually been to Minster Lovell, and I’m so glad to have filled out the story of the place for you. I’m intrigued by Francis Lovell, who seemed a great character, and his end – if it was indeed how it happened – was tragic, poor chap. It does rather send a tingle down my spine too – especially when I’m there! Thanks for reading. 🙂

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