Day and night traffic roars along the A40 where it cuts through the serenity of the Oxfordshire countryside but should you stop your car just a few miles west of Oxford and turn away from the main road you will find yourself transported back into England’s past.
As the sounds of the twenty-first century are muffled by the sleepiness of Minster Lovell village you will find yourself relaxing and your pace slowing to that of an earlier time. Half close your eyes and, if you can, try to ignore the wheelie bins and imagine yourself back in the 15th century. The layers of time are clearly visible, modern day living is only lightly superimposed upon the old and the ghosts of the past peer at you from every window and every nook.
Minster Lovell is a typical Cotswold village of thatched roofs and mellow stone. It runs alongside the meandering River Windrush, the quiet main street winding uphill toward St Kenelm church and the ruins of the Minster from which the village takes its name.
Although records only go back far enough to provide evidence of a house on the site since the 12th century, the name ‘Minster’ suggests that perhaps there was once a Mercian hall there in the Saxon period, pushing the history of the settlement even further back in time.
The present house was built in the 1430’s by William, Baron of Lovell and Holand, who, at the time, was one of the richest men in England. The family were supporters of the Lancastrian faction until the reign of Richard the third when Francis Lovell broke with family tradition and became a close friend and supporter of the king. It was Richard that made Francis a Viscount.
Lovell, along with Richard’s other supporters, Richard Ratcliffe and William Catesby, was made famous by the rhyme below which is attributed to Lancastrian supporter William Collingbourne.
The Cat, the Rat and Lovell our dog,
rule all England under the hog.
Escaping both Bosworth Field and the wrath of Henry VII, Francis went on to join John de la Pole, the Earl of Lincoln in leading the Yorkist faction in an attempt to overthrow of the new, deeply detested Tudor/Lancastrian reign and replace Henry VII with pretender Lambert Simnel at The Battle of Stoke in 1487.
Some sources say that after escaping the battlefield Francis fled into Scotland but there is a legend that claims he managed to evade capture and return to Minster Lovell where he hid himself away in a secret room …never to emerge alive.
When, more than two hundred years later, the mouldering skeleton of a man was discovered in a secret chamber at the Minster the legend took off. The story was given some credence by William Cowper, clerk to parliament, who wrote in 1737 that when a new chimney was being installed 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.’
Some accounts embellish this tale with the skeleton of a small dog curled at his master’s feet but although this story is very appealing it is unlikely to be true. On his accession to the throne Henry VII made a gift of the manor to his uncle Jasper Tudor and as a Tudor holding, the house would not provide a likely hiding place for the Yorkist rebel, Francis Lovell. But some facts are stranger than fiction and I find myself wanting to believe it.
This mix of fact and legend is treasure indeed to any historical novelist and a visit to the atmospheric ruin persuades even a level headed cynic like myself that perhaps, just perhaps … there is something in it.
Another ghostly story attached to Minster Lovell is that of a young bride, who during a game of hide and seek took refuge in a lead lined box and, unable to free herself, suffocated. The family searched for weeks, but she was never found and eventually her husband died of a broken heart. Years later, when servants opened an old chest hidden in the attic they found inside a skeleton still dressed in a bridal gown.
When it comes to the paranormal I am a mostly a disbeliever but there are areas of Minster Lovell that are eerily evocative of its past. The timeless beauty, the sadness that lingers is the ruined buildings is redolent of forgotten lives and, for me, at Minster Lovell the past seems so close that it makes my scalp tingle.
I feel that on turning the next corner or ducking beneath the next lintel I might find myself in the midst of a 15th century feasting hall overwhelmed by the festivities, jostled by serving wenches, entranced by the antics of tumblers and warmed by the great roaring fires of bygone days.
photo: woebleycastle © cherry wathall 2011