The mysterious disappearance of Viscount Lovell

“The Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge rulyth all Englande under a hogge.”

In July 1484, William Collingbourne pinned a short poem to the door of St Paul’s Cathedral. In it, he lampooned Richard III and the three men seen as his principal advisors – Sir William Catesby, Sir Richard Ratcliffe and Francis Lovell.

Francis Lovell’s father had died in 1465 when he was around 9 years old. The young Lord Lovell was placed in the custody of Richard Neville, earl of Warwick. This overlapped with the final year that Richard, duke of Gloucester, spent in Warwick’s household and was likely the first time that the two men met. Warwick also arranged for his niece, Alice FitzHugh to marry Lovell, whilst Richard married Neville’s daughter, Anne. After Warwick’s death in 1471, Lovell’s wardship was granted to John de la Pole, duke of Suffolk.

Above: Memorial to Lord Lovell in Minster Lovell church. Widely believed to commemorate Franics Lovell’s grandfather, William Lovell (d. 1455), though it could be Francis’ father, John Lovell (d. 1465) – the coats of arms were repainted in the 1960s and may be conjetural

When Lovell came of age in 1477, he inherited large estates in Yorkshire and Cheshire as well as Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire. He was reunited with the duke of Gloucester, serving under him in the English campaign against Scotland; in August 1481, Richard knighted Lovell at Berwick upon Tweed. Lovell was created Viscount Lovell on 4th January 1483, and a few months later his power was further increased following Edward IV’s death. As Protector, the duke of Gloucester appointed Lovell as chief butler of England. Then, after seizing the throne, the new King Richard III appointed Lovell as the king’s chamberlain, giving him control of the royal household.

Above: English Heritage reconstruction of Minster Lovell hall as it may have looked when Richard III visited in 1484

Lovell remained loyal to Richard III to the end, and most likely fought at the Battle of Bosworth. After Henry Tudor’s victory, Lovell escaped into sanctuary in Colchester. Rather than seek reconciliation with the new regime, he fled north to Yorkshire and tried to stir up rebellion. When that failed, he made his way abroad to the court of Margaret of York, dowager duchess of Burgundy. In 1487, Lovell travelled to Dublin with John de la Pole, earl of Lincoln, and 2000 mercernaries provided by Margaret of York. They joined the supporters of Lambert Simnel who was crowned as King Edward VI on 24th May 1487. The Yorkist army arrived in England on 4th June and had some minor military successes against Lancastrian supporters. On 16th June, the faced an army led by Henry VII at the Battle of Stoke Field. The rebel army was defeated, the earl of Lincoln was slain, and Lovell fled from the battlefield. In June 1488, Lovell was granted a safe conduct by King James IV of Scotland and, after that date, he disappears without trace.

Above: The north west building of Minster Lovell Hall with the foundations of the west wing beyond, and the south-west tower built by the Lovells in the distance

The majority of people living in the 15th century left no individual mark on the historical record, or appeared just once or twice before disappearing leaving the rest of their story untold. However, it is unusual for a prominent nobleman to just vanish without at least a rough date by which they were known to have died. Then, in the 18th century, a new story emerged….

In 1728, antiquarian Francis Peck received a letter from William Cowper which related the discovery of an underground room at Minster Lovell Hall. Inside the room was discovered the skeleton of a man sat at a table with book, paper and pen in front of him. This was judged by “the family” (presumably the Cokes who then owned the manor) to be Lord Lovell. Later embellishments claimed that the skeleton disintegrated into dust when the chamber was opened. A loyal servant was also added to the tale – he was said to be the only person aware of Lovell’s hiding place and, when he died unexpectedly, Lovell was left trapped in the chamber with no one to bring him food or to release him.

So, is there any truth in the story? Sadly, whilst it makes for a suitably tragic Gothic tale, it is unlikely to be true.

  • Cowper is a far from reliable source. His story was told “in my hearing” by the Duke of Rutland ie: he overheard the story. Rutland was also recounting an event that had occured twenty years earlier, in 1708. Minster Lovell was owned by the Cokes of Holkham so it is unlikely that Rutland had witnessed the opening of the chamber himself; especially as he was only 14 years old in 1708. So, the story as written down by Peck is third or fourth hand…
  • Francis Lovell had been attainted back in 1485 and his estates reverted to the crown. Minster Lovell was granted to a new lord of the manor in 1486 – it was no longer Lovell’s home. To hide in the house, he would have had to have been smuggled in under the nose of the new Lord’s tenant/steward. The loyal servant would then have had to bring him food and water without being detected. And the new lord of the manor was none other than Jasper Tudor, uncle to Lovell’s greatest enemy, Henry VII.
  • To have hidden at Minster Lovell would, therefore, have required a high level of loyalty from those in the local area. But could Lovell command that loyalty? His grandfather may have rebuilt the manor house and church in Minster Lovell but Francis was brought up in the Neville household in the north of England. Richard III had granted Francis more lands in Oxfordshire with a view to strengthening his power in the area, and Francis hosted Richard at Minster Lovell hall in 1484, but how much personal devotion and loyalty could he have built up in Richard III’s short reign? If he was looking for loyal supporters who he could trust with his life then it would make sense for him to head north. It was in Yorkshire that he had tried to organise a rebellion in 1486 and, after the Battle of Stoke Field, it was to the north that his wife sent messengers searching for him.

What did happen to Francis Lovell?

It seems likely that Francis Lovell sought to escape back to Burgundy via Scotland. We may never know whether he died en route or in exile but it is likely that he was dead by 1495, if not by 1490.

In 1495, Perkin Warbeck sailed to England claiming to be Richard of Shrewsbury (the younger of the two Princes in the T0wer). He had been trying to raise support for his claim since 1490 and his expedition was funded by Margaret of Burgundy. The initial invasion was a failure and he was forced to retreat first to Ireland and then to Scotland. In September 1496, he invaded England with James IV. The invasion was shortlived and soon peace talks began between England and Scotland; James IV dispatched Warbeck back to Ireland in July 1497. Warbeck made one final invasion attempt in September 1497 that ended with his capture. In 1499, Warbeck and Edward Plantagenet, earl of Warwick, attempted to escape the Tower of London; they were quickly captured and executed.

It is possible that Lovell had tired of rebellion and decided to fade into obscurity but, personally, I think that if Lovell – the ardently loyal Yorkist – had still been alive he would have been involved in the Warbeck plot. The natural conclusion is, therefore, that he died before Perkin Warbeck made his claim to be Richard of Shrewsbury.

*You can visit the ruins of Minster Lovell Hall during reasonable daytime hours (it is an unmanned, free English Heritage site). No evidence of the alleged underground room has been found.*

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