Re-discovering Minster Lovell
I was a child when I first visited Minster Lovell, a romantic ruined manor house close to the River Windrush. I was enchanted by the beautiful setting and the atmospheric ruins but as I was not yet a Ricardian, I was more fascinated by the legend of a doomed bride suffocating in a chest whilst playing hide and seek than by the fact that the house was once home to Francis Lovell, one of Richard III’s closest friends.
I remembered that visit when, a few years later, I read my mother’s copy of We Speak No Treason by Rosemary Hawley Jarman and found myself falling, inexorably, for the author’s version of the much-maligned Richard. Yet the book was a novel and, as I already knew, novels are not always fully reliable when it comes to historical accuracy. Rosemary Hawley Jarman wrote passionately about her prince but should I take her version of events on trust without making any enquiries of my own? My teenage self thought not, and so I made it my object to put the fiction to one side for the moment and concentrate on fact. Happily, having conducted an extensive non-fiction reading programme centred around Richard III and the Wars of the Roses, I was able to conclude that Ms Hawley Jarman had not misled me. Thereafter, I came to think of Minster Lovell as a place of Ricardian interest; less so than Middleham, York or Sheriff Hutton, to be sure, but of interest nonetheless since, as King, he visited there in 1483.
All of which makes it seem rather odd that I waited several decades for a return visit to Minster Lovell – especially so since it is located in Oxfordshire, a county which borders my home county of Berkshire. It takes less than two hours to drive there from my own house, and over the years I have made repeated visits to nearby places of historical interest (Burford, Swinbrook, Blenheim Palace etc), so why on earth did it take me so long to revisit Minster Lovell itself? I’m not sure but I think the answer has something to do with not wanting to spoil the golden memories of that first visit when my sisters and I had romped amongst the ruins before exploring the medieval dovecote. Because of those memories, Minster Lovell occupies a special place in my heart; to return and discover that the memories lied would have been too awful.
Well, I needn’t have worried. I finally made it back to Minster Lovell a couple of weeks ago and the good news is that it’s even more wonderful than I remembered. It helped that the day was warm and dry, and that apart from a few picnickers and dog walkers, my husband and I had the place to ourselves. That’s not surprising actually, because you need considerable determination to discover the ruins. They are brown-signed on the main road along the more modern part of Minster Lovell but once you turn down into the lovely old village the signage becomes less helpful. This is not a complaint, by the way. I thoroughly approve of making people get out of their cars and search on foot for hidden gems, be they of an historical, architectural or simply pastoral nature (and Minster Lovell is all three).
The ruins at Minster Lovell are maintained by English Heritage but access to them is free of charge. The dovecote is currently closed for restoration work but there’s still plenty to see, including crumbling towers, roofless halls, meadows lush with wildflowers and shady riverside pathways. Not forgetting the pretty fifteenth century church of St Kenelm which boasts the marvellous alabaster tomb of William Lovell who was the grandfather of Francis, Viscount Lovell, Richard III’s boyhood friend and staunchest supporter. Having survived Bosworth, Francis Lovell is thought to have perished two years later at Stoke, either in battle or from subsequent drowning as he attempted to escape by swimming across the River Trent. Sad as they are, both options seem preferable to another story which has Lovell making his way back to Minster Lovell after the defeat at Stoke, hiding out in a secret underground chamber, his whereabouts known only to a faithful old retainer who brought him food. When the retainer died, the story goes, Lovell starved to death. While there is no hard evidence supporting the tale, in the early eighteenth century reports were made of the discovery of a male skeleton during the course of some building work.
I’m so glad I revisited Minster Lovell. It is an exceptional place, redolent with history and quite without the ugly thrum of commerce that typifies so many of our ancient places. Now I have rediscovered it I will visit again, often. Those golden childhood memories that made it special to me are safe and now, in middle age, I have two new reasons to cherish it. The first is that Francis Lovell provided the germ of inspiration for Francis Cranley, the crime-solving hero of my mysteries set during the reign of Edward IV. The second reason follows on from the first: the image on the cover of The Woodville Connection, the novel in which Cranley first appears, was taken at Minster Lovell. I discovered it by purest chance amongst a selection of images my publisher asked me to choose from when the book was in the design stages. At the time I had no idea where it had been taken, it just leapt out at me as being precisely what I wanted to reflect the mood of the novel. And then I learned that it came from Minster Lovell. Perhaps some things are meant to be.