Village of Mystery and Legend
“Come and sit by the fyer and we’ll talk ‘bout olden times.”
chronicler of village life in the 1870’s
Our journey to “olden times” begins down a narrow, winding country road leading to the tiny Cotswold village of Minster Lovell. The village is a many-faceted jewel—a winding river, lush meadows beside a former royal forest, a manor Hall, a medieval church and a street lined with thatched stone cottages. But it is also a village of mystery and legend. The powerful presence of the past is here.
The village’s single long street, unpaved until the 1930’s, starts where a bridge crosses the Windrush River. A toll gate and a medieval water mill once stood here. The mill is now a modern conference centre. The 15th century Old Swan, welcomes us as it did villagers long ago, serving beer and food under oak beams, beside cosy log fires.
The Old Bakehouse, a long cottage, speaks of the past with its bread oven projecting from the lower end wall. Take notice of Lovell Cottage where part of an old tombstone is embedded over the front door. The Old House was a dower house of nearby Ringwood Farm. The Old Post House, a 17th century cottage, served as the original post office.
These and the other flower-bedecked homes were rented for the sum of 2 ½ pence per year. Although no one bothered to collect such a meager amount, living rent-free had its disadvantages. Because 12 years residence would give ownership of the house to a family, they were required, during the 11th year, to remove all their belongings and vacate the house for one day, voiding the “unbroken occupation”.
Take the turning at the end of the village street and head down Church Lane to St Kenelm’s church and Minster Lovell Manor. Time has taken its toll on the ruins of the Hall, a once great house visited by Henry VII.
It is easy to picture manorial life beside the willow-bordered river banks thanks to an engraving by Samuel and Nathaniel Buck, of 1729, which shows much detail of the stone hall, built in 1431, around three sides of a courtyard.
William, seventh Baron Lovell, demolished a 12th century house and church on the site to build what we see today. The ruins consist mainly of the great hall, its entrance porch and a four-storey tower.
The history of the hall includes both legend and mystery.
William’s grandson, Francis, supported King Richard III against Henry VII and earned for himself the title of Viscount Lovell in 1483. A rhyme states his powerful role in the country’s affairs:
“The catte, the ratte, and Lovel our dogge
Rule all England under the hogge”
He fought for the King at Bosworth Field, and after the King’s defeat and death, fled to Flanders. Two years later he made the fatal mistake of supporting Lambert Simnel’s rebellion. And therein lies a mystery.
Lovell fled the battle scene and was never seen again. The story goes that a servant locked him in a secret underground room to hide him and came each day to feed him. It is thought the servant died, and Francis remained in the room, locked in and helpless, dying of starvation.
William Cowper, clerk of Parliament, wrote in 1737:
"On the 6th May 1728, the present Duke of Rutland related. . . . that, about twenty years then before, in 1708, upon occasion of new laying a chimney at Minster Lovell, there was discovered a large vault or room underground, in which was the entire skeleton of a man, . . . . sitting at a table. . . ., with a book, paper, pen, etc. . . .which the family and others judged to be this Lord Lovell. . . .”
Strangely, today, no underground room can be located, and the story has passed into legend.
The Crown took the lands, later selling them to Sir Edward Coke, whose descendant, Thomas Coke, Earl of Leicester, dismantled the buildings in the mid 18th century, leaving them to decay.
Moat Williams wrote:
“Sunday was a day of gloom, enforced church attendance, no games, best behaviour at all times.”
Regardless of the day, we can enjoy St. Kenelem’s church, a stone’s throw from the Hall.
The stone cruciform church with its central tower is largely Pependicular in style. The porch was placed on the north side to avoid walking through the graveyard when entering.
The coloured glass and painted statues were removed at some point, but the font and much of the original 15th century seating remain.
The church, too, is associated with legend and mystery.
Is the alabaster Lovell tomb William’s or his son, John’s? There is no inscription to tell us, and the brightly coloured arms displayed on the shields, having been restored, cannot be relied upon for clues.
The legend surrounds Kenelm, son of Kenwulf King of Mercia, for whom the church is named. He was murdered, and his body hidden, by his tutor on the instigation of his sister. Afterwards, as the Pope said mass in St. Peter’s, Rome, a white dove dropped a scroll upon the altar, which contained these words:
“In Clent in Cowbage under a thorn,
Bereft of head lieth Kenelm, King born.”
The Pope, seeing this as a miracle, set aside July 17 as St. Kenelm’s Day. Kenelm’s body was later located and given a proper burial.
Like any ancient village, there are tales of hauntings: a phantom coach driven to Minster Lovell ruins when the moon shines clear, William Lovell revisiting his home on Christmas Eve, a ghostly lady who appears in old-style dress—these are, perhaps, tales of the imagination, maybe not.
In the sunshine, Minster Lovell’s mellow landscape delights the eye with its beauty. In the rain—a fitting time to imagine the ghosts and legends—its romance and mystery come alive. You’ll discover, long after you’ve left, its enchantment will linger on.
The village of Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, is 3 miles west of Witney and 7 miles east of Burford. Take the B4047, off the A40, then the country road marked to the village. Take a sharp left, then turn right, go down and over the bridge, to Minster Lovell. At the end of the village street, a road to the right leads to the Hall and church. Signposted by English Heritage. (the sign says unsuitable for vehicles—ignore it and carry on).
Minster Lovell Hall: English Heritage, free, open all hours
St Kenelm’s Church: open all reasonable hours
Medieval Dovecote at the Manor Farm by the Hall: view exterior only
The Mill and Old Swan: Pub and Restaurant meals available at lunch and dinner, rooms available
Tourist Information Centre at nearby Burford: 01993 823558
Photos by Barbara Ballard.
This article first appeared in Heritage/Realm magazine
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