In this week's Way Back West, Derek West delves into the spookier side of Witney.
I LOVE a good folk tale – you know, the sort of story that stirs something in us that, although it provokes a sort of horror we still want to believe that it’s true! Whilst Witney has a good many such stories, this week I’d like to take a short walk from Mill Street along what used to be the old A40, London to Fishguard trunk road. Our destination is Old Minster Lovell. Shrouded in quieting mist from the River Windrush and cloaked beneath the long shadows of the old ruins, we can thoroughly immerse ourselves in a plethora of myth and legend.
The mistletoe hung in the castle hall,
The holly bush shone on the old oak wall;
The baron's retainers were blithe and gay
Keeping their Christmas holiday.
The opening verse of a ballad called The Mistletoe Bough, written during the 1830s by Thomas Haynes Bayley and Sir Henry Bishop sets a happy scene at Minster Lovell Hall. The solemn chanting of the tune however, alerts the listener to impending tragedy. (It’s here that I warn readers of a nervous disposition to close their eyes.) The story tells of a young bride who, whilst celebrating her marriage, some say to William Lovell, became involved in a game of hide-and-seek with the wedding guests.
"I'm weary of dancing now", she cried,
Here tarry a moment, I'll hide, I'll hide;
And Lovell, be sure thou'rt first to trace
The clue to my secret hiding place",
Away she went, and her friends began
Each tower to search and each nook to scan,
And Lord Lovell cried, "O, where doest thou hide?
I'm lonesome without thee my own dear bride."
O, the mistletoe bough.
The dark story continues to tell that the unfortunate subject was far too clever at hiding and was never found despite a huge search by all the family, staff and guests. Eventually it is said, William died of a broken heart. It was many years later that an old chest was found in the attic, the lid was firmly closed. To the horror of the servants who finally managed to open it, a skeleton clothed in a bridal gown lay within. The lid had fallen, locked and trapped the hapless girl in its dark, airless interior.
At length an old chest that had long been hid,
Was found in the castle they raised the lid;
And a skeletal form lay mouldering there
In the bridal wreath of a 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 her bridal bloom
Lay withering there in a living tomb.
O, the mistletoe bough.'
A short pause here for a shudder while you take in the full horror of the tale.
The song was apparently a Christmas Classic in the mid 1800s and referred to as a ‘national occurrence at Christmas’ and in 1862 became ‘one of the most popular songs ever written’… ‘which must be known by heart by many readers’! Excuse me… but isn’t that sort of… well…sick?
The point about folk tales is that for some reason we like to sort of claim them as our own. The Mistletoe Bough story is said to have originated in at least seven stately homes some of which actually display a ‘bride-sized’ chest that claims to be the authentic one referred to in the song. However, British broadcaster and writer, James Wentworth Day, insists in his book that there is good evidence to prove it happened at Minster Lovell Hall. And of course… there’s the ghost.
Let’s take a better look at the hall to try to take our minds off this disturbing legend. There has been a manor house at Old Minster Lovell since the 12th century but the ruins we see today are of a later hall built during the 1430s by William, 7th Baron of Lovell and Holland. He was an extremely wealthy man, possibly the wealthiest man in England at that time. The house was later the home of his grandson, Francis the 9th Baron who was created a viscount in 1483 but lost the title in 1485. How did he lose his title? Reported as having deserted a battlefield by swimming his horse across the River Trent was that the last that was ever seen of him?
Now we enter into another tale but sadly I’ll have to leave it there for this week, there is simply too much history associated with Minster Lovell Hall and there’s only so much anguish a reader can handle in one column. The tales will be continued next week - but be prepared for the discovery of at least two more bodies!