In the Cotswolds, the ruins of a medieval manor house can be found by the banks of the Windrush, a tributary of the Thames. Minster Lovell Hall is located behind St Kenhelm’s church in the Oxfordshire village of Minster Lovell (located between Burford and Witney) and it’s a pleasant place to visit and wander among the ruins if the weather’s nice. The place was built in or around 1440 and was used as a manor house until the mid-eighteenth century, after which is was partly dismantled and abandoned. The ruins are listed and administered by English Heritage, but there’s no charge to visit.
The original owners, after whom the hall and the village are named, were the Lovell family. The most interesting member of this noble family is the last of them, Francis Lovell, the ninth Baron Lovell who lived at the time of the Wars of the Roses. He was a friend of Richard, Duke of Gloucester – to whom he was also linked by marriage, their respective wives being cousins. Richard had him knighted in 1481, and when he seized power and became King Richard III two years later he upgraded the Lovell peerage; it was as the first Viscount Lovell that Francis held the Sword of State at his friend’s coronation. Lovell’s closeness to the King resulted in him being mentioned in a famous piece of doggerel which was posted on the door of St Paul’s Cathedral by a Lancastrian supporter in 1484:
“The Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge rulyth all Englande under a hogge.”
To explain: the ‘hogge’ refers to Richard himself, his personal badge being a white boar. Lovell is of course ‘Lovell our dogge’, his coat-of-arms having included a silver wolf. The ‘catte’ and the ‘ratte’ were two of Richard III’s other principal supporters, Sir William Catesby and Sir Robert Ratcliffe.
Naturally, the fates of the King’s main followers were intertwined with his own. Richard III, as is well known, was killed at the battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire on 22nd August 1485 – the last King of England to die in battle; what happened to his body afterwards would remain a mystery until 2012, when his remains were found underneath a Leicester car park. Ratcliffe died on the battlefield with his king, while Catesby survived, only to be captured and subsequent executed by the victorious Lancastrians (a notable descendant of his was Robert Catesby, one of the leaders of the Gunpowder Plot).
Lovell also fought at Bosworth, following which he was able to evade capture. He went on to become a leading figure in the Yorkist revolts that plagued the early part of Henry VII’s reign. He’s reckoned to have been behind an attempt to have Henry murdered at York in 1486, and a year later he played a leading role in the attempt to put the pretender Lambert Simnel on the throne – an attempt that came to an end at the battle of Stoke Field in June of that year. Lovell survived that battle too, but after that he disappears from the pages of history.
Some said that he lived in hiding for many years afterwards – and it is at this point that the history of Minster Lovell Hall crosses into legend. In 1708, the skeleton of a man was found in a secret chamber at Minster Lovell Hall, and it was assumed that that was the skeleton of Francis himself – who, so the story goes, hid out at his ancestral home with only one faithful servant who knew that he was there; the plan was that Lovell would be kept under lock and key with the servant bringing him food. Unfortunately for him, the servant died without letting slip about his master and so Lovell, locked in and with no-one left to bring him food, starved to death. It’s an interesting tale but it does seem unlikely, as Francis Lovell’s estates were forfeit after Bosworth, with the hall being given to Henry VII’s uncle, Jasper Tudor. Hardly somewhere for a Yorkist fugitive to go into hiding.
I was also interested in the place because the hall also has a literary association, playing a key role in John Buchan’s historical adventure The Blanket of the Dark which is set in the Cotswolds during the reign of Henry VII’s son, Henry VIII. This story, not one of Buchan’s better-known works but still highly readable if you like historical fiction and can get hold of a second-hand copy (I got an old Penguin one, original retail price 2s 6d), concerns a young Oxford scholar by the name of Peter Pentecost who is told that he is in fact the son of the Duke of Buckingham (Edward Stafford, who in real life was executed for treason in 1521). Buchan was always a master of describing the countryside in which his stories were set, and with The Blanket of the Dark he showed that he was as at home in rural Oxfordshire (for many years he lived in Elsfield, about three miles north of Oxford; his ashes are buried in the churchyard there) as he was in his native Scottish Lowlands. The ordinary people who appear in the novel – beggars, small farmers, foresters and suchlike – are treated with a high degree of empathy and, as is the case with Katrine in Witch Wood, there’s an intriguing but ultimately elusive love interest (as they usually are in Buchan’s novels).
Like many a fictional character before and since, Peter Pentecost gets caught up in events that he cannot hope to control; at the time of the Pilgrimage of Grace, he becomes the subject of an ill-fated plot to put him on the throne which climaxes when king and pretender meet face-to-face at an abandoned Minster Lovell Hall after the latter has rescued the former from an over-flowing Windrush. Henry is portrayed in less-than-flattering fashion, with Buchan adding some compelling descriptions of him: “the face was vast and red as a new ham, a sheer mountain of a face … this vast being had the greatness of some elemental force … power of Mammon, power of Antichrist, power of the Devil, maybe, but something born to work mightily in the world”. The Blanket of the Dark is a really good, perhaps even great, work of historical fiction that, although Henry VIII does make an appearance, focuses more on the ordinary people of rural England (the Cotswolds, specifically) than on high intrigue; this is at heart a story of what Buchan succinctly called “a world of which there has never been a chronicle, the heaths and forests of old England”, and it’s the better for it.