Sunday 13 January 2013

Mystery People of History – Francis Lovell

Francis Lovell was born in 1454 in a country that was riven by civil war; a conflict that was known as the War of the Roses.  He was the son of Joan Beaumont and John, the 8th Baron Lovell of Titchmarsh, who had sided with the Lancastrians and King Henry VI.

In 1465 Lord Lovell died leaving Francis as his heir.  He became a ward of the Yorkist King Edward IV who put him in the guardianship of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who was known as the ‘Kingmaker’.  The Earl of Warwick had massive holdings in the north of England and Francis was sent to his household at Middleham Castle in Wensleydale.  

It has widely been supposed that this is where he first met the young Richard Plantagenet, youngest brother of the new Yorkist king, with whom he would strike up a strike up an enduring friendship and fight alongside in Scotland and at the Battle of Bosworth. But this is by no means certain as Richard could have already left Middleham by the time Francis arrived.

Ruins of Minster Lovell
Ruins of Minster Lovell

All the noble young boys of the Earl of Warwick’s household would have had extensive training and practice in hunting, riding and the use of arms.  They would also have been instructed in religion, mathematics, Latin and in the art of chivalry and etiquette. Evenings would be taken up in practising dance, singing and playing musical instruments. 

Francis had inherited huge estates that included holdings all across England, including Upton Lovell in Wiltshire, Acton Burnell in Shropshire, Rotherfield and Bainton in Yorkshire and his full title at the end of his life was Francis Viscount Lovell, Lord Holland, Deincourt, Burnell and Grey of Rotherfield. 

He was to married Anne Fitzhugh, a cousin of the Neville sisters, and the daughter of Henry Fitzhugh of Ravensworth and Alice Neville. The world of the Yorkist elite was a tightly-knit one, and Anne Neville would go on to marry Richard Plantagenet who became the Duke of Gloucester and Isabel married his brother George, the traitorous Duke of Clarence.

At some point Francis joined the service of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and was knighted by him while they were on an expeditionary force in Scotland in 1480. By 1483 he had been created a Viscount. The events of 1483 were to prove tumultuous as Richard’s brother Edward IV died prematurely, leaving a young son to inherit the crown as Edward V. 

This created a battle for power between the factions of the Duke of Gloucester and the new King’s mother, the Woodvilles. Although initially appearing to support his nephew and making arrangements for his coronation, Richard dramatically seized the throne for himself, being crowned King Richard III in Westminster Abbey.
Ever loyal and rising to prominence in the new administration, Francis Lovell bore the third sword at his coronation.


Further honours were showered on him during Richard’s brief reign; he became Chief Butler of All England, Privy Councillor and Lord Chancellor of the Kings Household.  He was also created a Knight of the Garter, the premier order of chivalry in the realm.  

The important position he held is illustrated by his inclusion in the Collingbourne couplet ‘The cat, the rat and Lovell our dog rule all England under a Hog’.  The cat is William Catesby, the Rat is Richard Ratcliffe, the Hog is King Richard himself whose cognizance was the White Boar and the dog refers to a dog on the Lovell heraldic crest.

Richard III’s reign was, as was stated earlier, destined to be a short one.  Early on Francis was active in the suppression of the rebellion the Duke of Buckingham raised in favour of Henry Tudor, the Earl of Richmond.  Henry Tudor was the last surviving Lancastrian claimant to the throne and was a permanent black cloud hovering over Richard III's rule.  

Exiled in the Court of Brittany, he was aided by his mother, the formidable Margaret Beaufort, and the wily Archbishop Morton.  In 1485 he set sail and gave the fleet that Francis had charge of the slip, landing on British soil at Milford Haven in Pembrokeshire.

The opposing forces eventually met in battle at Bosworth Field on August 22nd 1485, and at first Richard III’s army prevailed. However, treachery was afoot and the tide of battle turned in favour of Henry Tudor and Richard III was hacked down and killed, the last monarch of England to be killed on a battlefield.  

Francis Lovell managed to escape the battlefield alive and fled to sanctuary at St John’s Abbey in Colchester.  In 1486 he escaped the abbey to lead a badly organised revolt against the new King Henry VII.  When this revolt was put down, he managed to escape to the court of Margaret of Burgundy in the Netherlands.

In May 1487 he travelled to Ireland to join forces with John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln and a band of German mercenaries whose aim was to topple the new Tudor monarch Henry VII off his throne in favour of a young pretender called Lambert Simnel. 

Lambert Simnel was the teenage son of a baker, who bore a striking resemblance to Richard, Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower and the second son of Edward IV.  The plans were later changed and it was decided that Lambert Simnel would impersonate Edward, Earl of Warwick instead, after a rumour circulated that the Earl of Warwick had escaped his confinement in the Tower of London.  Although they managed to reach English soil they were defeated at the Battle of Stoke in Nottinghamshire in June 1487.

Now you may be wondering what makes Francis Lovell one of the ‘Mystery People of History’? He certainly endured a disruptive childhood, with his father dying while he was young and he had also lived most of his life in the uncertainties of a civil war.  Many of his closest companions such as the two Neville sisters and Richard III had died young and in tragic circumstances.  But it was to be his ending that was to provide the mystery, for none of us really know when he died.

It was speculated at the time that he was slain during the course of the Battle of Stoke and his body was never found, but some observers saw him fleeing the fighting by swimming on horseback across the River Trent and scrambling to safety on the far side.  But he was never heard of again so where did he go after that?

Site of the Battle of Stoke 1487
Site of the Battle of Stoke 1487

Officially, after the Battle of Stoke a court was held that decided that in the absence of any firm evidence or a body, he must have fled the country and died abroad. He was declared a traitor and his lands were confiscated and handed to Sir William Stanley, who had betrayed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth.

Francis Lovell’s ancestral home was Minster Lovell which had been built beside the Windrush River in Oxfordshire in 1440 by the seventh Lord Lovell and which survived until 1747 when it was torn down. Mysteriously, during building work at Minster Lovell carried out in 1708, workmen discovered a secret underground vault.  When they opened it they were astonished to find that it contained the skeleton of a man seated at a table with the skeleton of his dog at his feet surrounded by writing materials and a book. Unfortunately, the remains of the skeleton and the papers crumbled in to dust when the air was let in.

Was the skeleton that of Francis Lovell?  Did he escape the battlefield with his enemies in hot pursuit and manage to slip into his ancestral home under the cover of darkness?  Once there, not even trusting his own retainers, did he make his way to the secret chamber to wait for a time when he could make his stealthy escape and flee the country?  Or did he take one trusted servant into his secret and managed to survive for a couple of years in the hidden vault, until one day the servant no longer came to bring him food, water and fuel? 

If either tale is true, his decision to hide away cost him his life.  At what point did he realise that he was sealed in the chamber and could not escape? That lack of water and food would surely kill him?  Perhaps that is why he was at the table surrounded by writing materials; maybe he was writing down his story so that future generations would know the truth? 

Minster Lovell is said to be haunted by the ghost of a knight clad in gleaming armour and riding on a snowy white horse. Is this the phantom of the tragic young Sir Francis Lovell eternally riding back to find refuge in his ancestral home? 

Francis’s is not the only mysterious story from Minster Lovell, as legend has it that some time during the 16th century a youthful couple were joined in marriage.  After the wedding ceremony the bride and groom suggested a game of ‘hide and seek and the young bride was chosen to hide.  

However, when the wedding party scoured the mansion to find her, no trace could be found.  The hours ticked by but there was no sign of the young bride.  The families fell to arguing between themselves and accusations of foul play started to be flung around, causing the two families to fall out.  It was not until the family were moving house some time later that a supposedly empty large box felt too heavy when it was lifted.  

When the box was opened they discovered the skeleton of the poor unfortunate bride.  She had obviously crawled into it and had been unable to open the lid and climb out again.  This tragic, romantic story was used by the Victorian Thomas Haynes Bayley as the basis of his ballad ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ written in 1884.

So what do you think?  Did Francis Lovell manage to flee abroad and die there?  Did he manage to get away from the battlefield only to die in some lonely forest or cave, with his body never being found?  Or was it even his skeleton in that secret vault?

Minster Lovell image Robin Drayton Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic

Battle of Stoke Image Peter Mattock Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.0 Generic



  1. Richard III was born in October 1452. If Lovell was born in 1454 he'd be 2 years younger than Richard when they met at Middleham, not 2 years older.

    1. Thank you for reading the article and leaving a comment pointing out the discrepancy in dates for the time the two young men were at Middleham. I have done some further research and amended the paragraph accordingly