From 1483 until 1485, during the reign of Richard III, Francis Lovell, 1st Viscount Lovell, was one of the most powerful men in England. A close friend and political ally of the King (whom it is likely he’d met as early 1465 as a child), Lovell was very much in Richard’s ear and held the esteemed position of Lord Chamberlain. Lovell was one of three close allies of Richard III to be featured in William Collingbourne’s famous lampoon: ‘The Catte, the Ratte and Lovell our dogge rulyth all Englande under a hogge’. The only one to be mentioned by name and not merely through a pun (with ‘dogge’ being a reference to his family’s heraldic wolf symbol), Lovell stood alongside Sir William Catesby (the Cat), Sir Richard Ratcliffe (the Rat), and Richard III (the Hog) as one of the four most hated men in England from a Tudor and Lancastrian perspective. Lovell was also the only one to escape from the Battle of Bosworth. Ratcliffe and Richard were both killed in the fighting & Catesby was captured and executed three days later. A high-profile Yorkist traitor, Henry VII was sure to have placed a target on Lovell, who was hardly going to simply drop off the radar. Except, he did.
However, it wasn’t immediately after Bosworth that he vanished. Lovell would actually attempt to mount the first major rebellion against the newly-crowned Henry VII alongside Sir Humphrey Stafford in 1486. The rebellion was, however, not to be. A testament to Henry VII’s right grasp over the ongoings of England, the rebellion was detected early on by spies in the service of the King and arrest warrants went out for both Lovell and Stafford. Stafford came to a sticky end shortly after, attempting unsuccessfully to rebel in Worcester — where Henry had much support — and was executed that same year. Lovell, however, was more fortunate. Despite being hunted down by Sir Richard Edgcumbe and Sir William Tyler, Lovell was able to evade them and escape to Flanders, where he received the support of the notorious Yorkist funder Margaret of York. However, Lovell wasn’t to disappear quite yet. He continued to be actively involved in Yorkist plots, fighting at the Battle of Stoke Field in 1487 under the pretender Lambert Simnel. The battle went the way of the King and the Yorkists were defeated, Lambert Simnel captured, and his prominent supporters killed in battle or apprehended shortly afterwards. All but one. Lovell escaped the battle, possibly fleeing eventually to Scotland, where — in June of 1488 — he was given safe conduct by James IV (although whether he actually set foot in Scotland is unclear). This is the last record of Lovell’s existence.
Two things make Lovell’s abrupt disappearance from public life surprising. Firstly, he was a prominent figurehead of the Yorkist agenda. Yes, his real influence was severely diminished, but that no record of communication between him and some other Yorkist (or any person at all) exists is a surprise to be sure. To make an appropriate comparison, Henry VII had been in a situation not too dissimilar to Lovell’s. From 1471 until 1483, the young Henry Tudor had been in Brittany. In 1483, he’d participated in the unsuccessful Buckingham’s Rebellion under the command of Henry Stafford, 2nd Duke of Buckingham. Following that, as we all know, he’d returned to England and won the crown in combat. Even though Lovell had no claim to the throne, Henry also only had a very slight one (which by most standards back then was seen as negligible and illegitimate). Lovell’s decision to not ever again attempt a rebellion is therefore somewhat unusual given his situation. Secondly, he was young. Only around 31 years of age at the time of his disappearance, Lovell was far from senile. Had Lovell been an old man, it would make sense for him to settle down in obscurity, however, as a young man this is somewhat surprising. Moreover, his young age would suggest that he could have another thirty years in him potentially and so the lack of records confirming this is shocking. What are the possibilities then?
Firstly, it’s possible that he did simply go off to Scotland — or some other country — and live out the rest of his life in obscurity, using a different identity or simply none at all. Francis Bacon notes a similar claim made by some people in his History of the Reign of King Henry VII (1622), observing that ‘another report [… claims] that he lived long after in a cave or vault’. Just before this, Bacon notes that another report suggests he may have ‘swam over [the River] Trent on horseback, but could not recover the farther side, by reason of the steepness of the bank, and so was drowned in the river’. Both of these claims are possibly true, however, only the latter seems at all verifiable. The latter — or more generally the notion that Lovell died shortly after the Battle of Stoke — is most likely borne out by the facts, however unattainable they may be. It is unlikely that a man of such prominence, and not yet elderly, could simply vanish and lead a long life. The only evidence as to his whereabouts besides the communication from James IV is a skeleton found in a mansion at Minster Lovell, Oxfordshire, in 1708. Some theorised that Lovell may have hidden there and starved to death. Certainly, this story would make a good explanation, however, it has a few fundamental flaws. Firstly, despite its misleading name, Lovell actually had no real connection to the place. There was unlikely to be anyone there who supported him enough to hide him. Secondly, it seems strange that Lovell would choose that manor as his hiding place — it had been previously granted to Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford and Henry VII’s uncle, so it would be a foolish retreat for someone wanted by the Tudors.
It’s unlikely that we’ll never get to the bottom of Lovell’s fate. Along with the specifics of the building of the Pyramids of Giza, the man behind Jack the Ripper, and the identity of The Unknown Warrior, it seems that Francis Lovell will be one of the few historical puzzles which we may investigate, examine, and study but will never be able to solve.