Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Mist at Minster Lovell

This time last year I took a trip into the Oxfordshire countryside to Minster Lovell, a small village to the north-west of Oxford. For technological and other boring reasons, I never finished writing my post about this lovely place and its treasures, but now, a year on, I'll try again.

The reason I was interested in seeing this village is not, in fact, located in Minster Lovell, but in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It's this:

That's the Minster Lovell jewel, an exquisite object familiar to Anglo-Saxonists as a cousin of the more famous Alfred jewel, and probably made in the same workshop around the same time, in the late ninth century.  There's a better view of it here.  It was found in the parish of Minster Lovell, though we don't know how it got there.  For this reason Minster Lovell is a name of magic to my ears, and the church is dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon saint Kenelm, which is unusual and intriguing.  So I got on a bus and went to see it.

This was the view from the bus as we drove along - grey as far as the eye could see.  Minster Lovell is about fifteen miles away from Oxford and this is the rolling countryside of the Cotswolds, not that you can tell!  The bus stopped by the side of a main road, with only misty fields and a few modern houses in sight, and I wondered where this medieval village was supposed to be.  But then I spotted a signpost and, following it, made my way along an alleyway ankle-deep in damp leaves, plunging steeply down into the river valley.

My first view of the valley was of this smoky fire, and the thought wandered into my mind (I had been reading Tolkien) that I had come into a 'wild country'.

It's not a wild country, of course; it's Oxfordshire at its most serene, even on a day of unremitting greyness.  But it is a watery country, a world of weeds and willows, and a landscape shaped by its river, which bears the supremely Tolkien-esque name of the Windrush. At the time of Domesday this river was the boundary of the great forest of the Wychwood (which still exists, though much reduced). Windrush, Wychwood - could you ever invent such evocative names?

I spied the church at a distance, over the bridge, away in the mist.  The dedication to St Kenelm, and the finding of the Saxon jewel, and the name 'Minster' might all suggest a significant Saxon settlement here, but, oddly, there's apparently no evidence of such a thing.  The dedication to Kenelm is no earlier than the fifteenth century, and there's no sign of a minster.

The village is delightful, even when deserted.  All day I was mentally comparing it to Stanton Harcourt, where I went the previous autumn, and they do have a similar appearance - but sunny Stanton Harcourt in November had a very different feel to Minster Lovell in January!  One thing they have in common is that, just as Stanton Harcourt got the second part of its name from its Norman lords, so Minster Lovell is named for the Lovell family, who held land here after the Conquest. Francis Lovell, fervent Yorkist and pro-Richard III rebel, is perhaps the most famous of them.

The village consists chiefly of this one long road:

Culminating in this signpost:

'To the church' is right, for the road goes nowhere else.

When I was there, I was a little disappointed that the weather was so endlessly grey, but looking at the photographs I like how the monochrome of the sky and leafless trees highlight the texture of the stone, which I probably wouldn't have noticed on a brighter day.

On this bleak day, the church could not have been more welcoming: an unlocked door and a bright electric star, guiding me inside (it was just after Epiphany when I visited).

A warm welcome, but it was ice-cold inside - and so dark that, as I was experimenting with the black and white mode on my camera, I now honestly can't tell whether some of these pictures were taken in that mode or not.

The church has an interesting shape, with a central tower resting on immense pillars:

The pillars are decorated with carved heads - lady, bishop, fool, and this creature erupting from the wall:

From below, the tower is an impressive sight:

And the roof, yet more black and white, makes a beautiful pattern as you look back into the nave:

Almost the only splash of colour is in the top of the windows, where there are fragments of fine medieval stained glass.

This was my favourite, a golden-haired St Lucy with long plaits.

Below her is a tiny, charming figure, who seemed to have popped into this window by mistake; I have no idea what he's doing there!

After Lucy, the best glass depicts the prophet Daniel:


A very faint St Agnes (on the right) and an unidentified saint:

This man, because of his doctor's bottle, is identified as either St Cosmas or Damian:

This rather puzzling window apparently shows St Edmund:

And this is St Peter Martyr (on the right):

You see how those little blocks of colour stand out from the rest of the church. The other thing which enlivened the January grey was a Christmas tree - a little incongruous perhaps, but very welcome. I like Christmas trees in churches because they remind me of visiting Ickham. This tree was positioned near a splendid tomb belonging to one of the Lovells (which one is not entirely clear, but perhaps William, d.1455):

This Lovell is very finely carved in alabaster:

By his head is this ingratiating lion:

Around the tomb, among repainted shields, are several beautiful original figures. St Christopher, ankle-deep in water:

St Margaret, with her dragon:

Her crown is very delicate, and there are traces of colour on her hair:

The Virgin and Child:

And several 'weepers', although most were hidden by the Christmas tree:

Although I had to dodge the tree to see the tomb, I did like the way its branches were silhouetted against the window:

(That's a polar bear ornament...)

The chancel:

The chancel contains various bits of stone which looks like they've been relocated from elsewhere, including a lolling cherub with his hand on a skull.

Between the chancel and the tower are some stone squints, so you can get a peek back at the Christmas tree:

Medieval stained glass, alabaster saints and carved stone heads - that's enough to keep me happy at any church!  But Minster Lovell has still more to offer, in the shape of a ruined mansion.  Walk around the back of the church, and this is what you see beyond the gravestones:

This was the home of the Lovells.  It's now in the care of English Heritage, but you can wander freely around this ruin of what must have been a grand riverside manor house.  There is a story - completely untrue, it seems, but too good not to repeat - that in the eighteenth century a secret chamber was discovered in this house, in which was found the skeleton of a man, sitting at a table, with paper and pen in front of him.  It was said there were the remains of Francis Lovell, who disappeared after the Battle of Stoke in 1487; he was seen escaping from the battle, but his fate has never been discovered. The legend (as told in the guidebook) says that he hid himself in a chamber at the hall, with only his dog for company and a faithful servant to bring him food, but 'when the servant died suddenly, or turned treacherous, Francis remained incarcerated and helpless.'

The story is related to a romantic tale known as the 'Legend of the Mistletoe Bough', in which the victim is a bride on her wedding-day, playing hide-and-seek in a chest which traps her and becomes her tomb. This version of the story became the subject of a Victorian ballad by Thomas Haynes Bayly (listen to it here), where the unfortunate girl is now 'young Lovell's bride', 'the star of the goodly company':

They sought her that night, and they sought her next day,
And they sought her in vain while a week passed away;
In the highest, the lowest, the loneliest spot,
Young Lovell sought wildly - but found her not.
And years flew by, and their grief at last
Was told as a sorrowful tale long past;
And when Lovell appeared the children cried,
"See! the old man weeps for his fairy bride."

At length an oak chest, that had long lain hid,
Was found in the castle - they raised the lid,
And a skeleton form lay moldering there
In the bridal wreath of that lady fair!
O, sad was her fate! - in sportive jest
She hid from her lord in the old oak chest.
It closed with a spring! - and, dreadful doom,
The bride lay clasped in her living tomb!

So you see the Lovells have kept their name in the story somehow - but many houses lay claim to the legend.

Minster Lovell hardly needs a ghost story to make its ruins more romantic, though it never hurts; but from now on I'll allow them to speak for themselves.

I know that last is a tree and not window tracery, but they were beginning to look the same in the fading light. The only intact part of the manor is the dovecote:

The heyday of the house was the fifteenth century, and it's been in decline ever since. The Lovells lost it as a consequence of Francis Lovell's loyalty to Richard III; it was seized by Henry VII and passed through the hands of various families. In Thomas Hearne's day it was "a quaint and picturesquely situated house half in ruins through neglect', and by the mid-eighteenth century it was abandoned altogether.

But when you look towards the river (visible in the picture below), you are reminded that Minster and the Windrush were here before the Lovells, and have now outlived them all.


Anonymous said...

Many thanks for enabling me to revisit in your photographs one of my very favourite places - I have not been in Minster Lovell since 1983, but remember it very well.

Clerk of Oxford said...

I don't imagine it's changed very much!

Barbara Wells Sarudy said...

Thorough, lovely post. Thank you.

Roger in Blairsville said...

Thank you for your fine and moody photographs. Your work, along with the images of Yorkshire made by Derry Brabbs, compel me to save $$$ for a visit to rural England sometime soon. I live in rural north Georgia USA in the high peaks of the southern Appalachians, surrounded by rolling and rocky farmland. But our "history" is so much younger than yours .... Old structures here are semi-collapsed log and frame, dating just to the 1920s and '30s. Not much compared to those wonderful centuries-old piles of stone to be found all over England.

Anonymous said...

Thank you! It is wonderfully evocative! It makes me ache for the Cotswolds - at least, the still largely unspoiled villages there, with astonishing ruined houses.

And somehow it reminds me of Elizabeth Goudge, The White Witch as well as The Little White Horse, even more readily than of Cynthia Harnett's delightful novel of that part of the world, The Wool-Pack.

Jolly to see the Christmastide decorations at full strength after Epiphany (in line with recent carol posts)!

Sad to see Our Infant Lord so thoroughly 'reformed' (presumably within a century of His carving)!

Could you delight us yet more, by recommending an account accessible online of the discovery of the Jewel?

An Old Mertonian

Maureen said...

A beautiful post with fabulous photos!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Thank you all for commenting!

Old Mertonian - unfortunately, there is no evidence for the discovery of the jewel. All we know is that it was bought in 1860 from a dealer who said it had been found in Minster Lovell. It was then given to the Ashmolean, but otherwise its provenance is unknown.

Unknown said...

I note the Christmas decorations. Do you know where the idea that NOT taking down decorations on the Epiphany will bring bad luck comes from ? The old idea - I presume- would be that taking your decorations down before Candlemass would be bad. So where did the popular superstition about taking them down on the 6th come from and why ? I would love to know.

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes, I'd love to know too! From what I can gather, the idea of taking down decorations on Twelfth Night is not much older than the 19th century. I rather wonder whether the change in practice arose from the fact that the Victorian period saw the beginning of much more elaborate decorations (Christmas trees being the most obvious example), which made it impractical to leave them up around the house for another month! But a gradual decline in the celebration of Candlemas probably has a lot to do with it, too.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we need to find a Robert Herrick scholar to pounce on and quiz! I went searching for his "Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve", about taking down every scrap of rosematy, bays, mistletoe, holly, and ivy, which ends:

Foe look, how many leaves there be
Neglected there, maids, trust to me,
So many goblins you shall see.

And searching, I encountered his "Ceremonies for Candlemas Eve", which I did not remember, and which has no mention of "the superstitious" or reference to dire consequences, but instead a sort of annual program for seasonal greenery!

An Old Mertonian

Unknown said...

"Down with the Holly and up with the box " I think that I heard somewhere - but can't remember the source and the 18th c. date doesn't go well - that taking down your decorations on 6th showed that you had no truck with the Old Calendar and supported the new calendar. You weren't a secret old calendarist and followed the new ways.This wouldn't tally with no popery because England was just following other papistical countries. I wonder if it's something to do with candlemass ?

Stephanie A. Mann said...

Thank you for such a marvelous post. Isn't it remarkable that the figures of the saints carved on the tomb survived the iconoclasm of the 16th and 17th centuries? I'm surprised their heads weren't broken off!

Clerk of Oxford said...

Yes - they were just lucky, I suppose!

jwripple said...

A late comment. The rather dated, but still very readable, novel by John Buchan "The Blanket of the Dark" has as the location of one of its key scenes the underground chamber at Minster Lovell. The hero is a clerk not of Oxford but of Oseney.

Richard III Society of Canada said...

Lovely look at a wonderful place.
Francis Lovell is known to have gone to Scotland after the battle of Stoke, although what happened to him after that is not known.