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House of Shadows

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HOUSE OF SHADOWS
Also by The Medieval Murderers

The Tainted Relic

Sword of Shame

First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2007
A CBS Company

Copyright © The Medieval Murderers, 2007

This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
All rights reserved.

The right of The Medieval Murderers to be identified as authors of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

Simon & Schuster UK Ltd
Africa House
64–78 Kingsway
London WC2B 6AH

www.simonsays.co.uk

Simon & Schuster Australia
Sydney

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

ISBN-10:1-84739-487-6
ISBN-13: 978-1-84739-487-3

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

‘THE MEDIEVAL MURDERERS'

A small group of historical mystery writers, all members of the Crime Writers' Association, who promote their work by giving informal talks and discussions at libraries, bookshops and literary festivals.

Bernard Knight
is a former Home Office pathologist and professor of forensic medicine who has been publishing novels, non-fiction, radio and television drama and documentaries for more than forty years. He currently writes the highly regarded Crowner John series of historical mysteries, based on the first coroner for Devon in the twelfth century; the eleventh novel of the series,
The Noble Outlaw
, has recently been published by Simon & Schuster.

Ian Morson
is the author of an acclaimed series of historical mysteries featuring the thirteenth-century Oxford-based detective William Falconer.

Michael Jecks
was a computer salesman before turning to writing. His immensely popular Templar series, set during the confusion and terror of the reign of Edward II, is translated into most continental languages and is published in America. The most recent novels in the series are
The Death Ship of Dartmouth
and
The Malice of Unnatural Death
. Michael was chairman of the Crime Writers' Association in 2004–5.

Philip Gooden
is the author of the Nick Revill series, a sequence of historical mysteries set in Elizabethan and Jacobean London, during the time of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. The latest titles are
Mask of Night
and
An Honourable Murder
. He also produces reference books on language, most recently
Faux Pas
and
Name Dropping
.

Susanna Gregory
is the author of the Matthew Bartholomew series of mystery novels, set in fourteenth-century Cambridge, and a brand-new series featuring Thomas Chaloner, a reluctant spy in Restoration London, the second volume of which,
Blood on the Strand,
has recently been published. She also writes historical mysteries under the name Simon Beaufort.

 

 

THE PROGRAMME

Prologue
– In which Bernard Knight lays the foundation for the ghoulish tales that follow.

 

Act One
– In which Bernard Knight tells how Crowner John arrives at the priory of Bermondsey to investigate murder most foul.

 

Act Two
– In which Ian Morson's William Falconer uncovers dark deeds during an eclipse of the moon.

 

Act Three
– In which Michael Jecks' Keeper Sir Baldwin and Bailiff Puttock uncovers a treasonous plot.

 

Act Four
– In which Philip Gooden relates how the poet Chaucer becomes embroiled in the priory's dark history.

 

Act Five
– In which Susanna Gregory's Thomas Chaloner, spy for the Lord Chancellor of England, avenges a violent death.

 

Epilogue
– In which Bernard Knight exposes the final secret.

HISTORICAL NOTE

Bermondsey lies on the south bank of the Thames, near where Tower Bridge now stands. A priory was established there as early as 1089 and became one of the richest in England due to numerous gifts of land and money. Originally founded by four Cluniac monks from France, who built on ground donated by a rich London merchant, the priory became a Benedictine abbey in 1399, surviving until Henry VIII dissolved all monasteries in the sixteenth century. It was then built over repeatedly, though the gatehouse survived until the nineteenth century.

Though this famous monastery had a very real existence for hundreds of years, the stories in this book are works of fiction. In the early years of the twenty-first century, extensive excavations were carried out by archaeologists, prior to a huge commerical complex being built over the site. The events described in the Epilogue are similarly fictitious.

PROLOGUE

December 1114

Grey mist, like wet smoke, slowly rolled over the wall of the priory, seeping in from across the marshes that lined the Thames. Together with the winter twilight, the fog made it almost dark, though the bell for vespers was only now sounding, its doleful tone muffled in the moist air.

A small procession was slowly crossing the outer courtyard towards the west front of the church, the black Cluniac habits adding to the already sombre atmosphere. Of the dozen hooded figures walking in pairs, three were openly sobbing, and the expressions on the remaining grim faces were set in barely contained emotion. Behind them in the inner courtyard was a closed door, which until today had been merely the entrance to the cellarer's storeroom but which now concealed a dreadful secret.

As their sandalled feet padded across the damp earth towards the steps of the new church of St Saviour's, the monks' faces were lit by the flickering yellow light of two pitch-brands set in iron rings on each side of the west door. The light fell first on the prior, Peter de Charité, who at fifty was a strong, hard-faced disciplinarian. The monk alongside him and the two immediately behind were Richard, Osbert and Umbold, who had accompanied him from France fifteen years before,
sent to establish a new daughter house of Cluny in this fog-ridden swamp that was Bermondsey.

Since then, eight more monks had joined them as the priory flourished, nurtured by gifts of land from various benefactors. There had been nine, and therein lay the cause of their present misery.

‘King Henry must never hear the truth of this,' murmured Osbert, his teeth chattering from fright rather than the cold.

‘But how are we going to keep it from him?' keened Richard, who was too old to have teeth to chatter.

‘Be quiet, brothers!' snapped Peter. ‘In fact, keeping very quiet is what we must all do.'

The four founders were sitting around the fireplace in the prior's chamber, the other monks having been left in the church to pray for absolution until it was time for the evening meal. Umbold, a fat man of middle age, had no tonsure like the others, as he was completely bald.

‘Count Eustace will be here after Epiphany to confirm the grant,' he moaned. ‘What are we to tell him?'

There was silence as they all considered this yet again. The problem had dominated their minds ever since the catastrophe had fallen on them three days ago. Earlier that year, Mary, the wife of Eustace, Count of Boulogne, and sister of Queen Maud, had granted the manor and advowson of Kingweston to the priory. Recently, Eustace had declared his intention of visiting them personally to confirm the grant. Six months earlier, his wife had sent her junior chaplain, Brother Francis, to join them – ostensibly as a gesture of goodwill, though Prior Peter suspected that it was really to make sure that the proceeds of her gift were being spent wisely in the extension of the building.

‘We tell the count what we shall tell everyone else, including the king,' growled the prior. ‘That they both ran away and now we know nothing of their whereabouts!'

‘That will satisfy no one, least of all King Henry,' whimpered Osbert. ‘The girl was placed here in our safekeeping.'

This was a greater problem than even that of Count Eustace, as a month after the arrival of Brother Francis the king had sent them Lady Alice, his most recent ward. She was the orphaned daughter of Drogo de Peverel, dispatched to live at the priory until she could be found a suitable husband. Her father had been killed in a skirmish in Normandy and, with her mother already dead, his lands had escheated to the Crown and his daughter became the king's responsibility. At eighteen, Alice had already shown herself to be a wilful girl of independent spirit, and Queen Maud, familiar with the task of dealing with her husband's wards and cast-off mistresses, decided that the isolated location and stern discipline of Bermondsey would be a suitable place in which to keep the girl until she could be used for some political and financial advantage.

Unfortunately, the inevitable happened. Within a month of her arrival, Lady Alice's seductive wiles easily overcame the vows of the immature young chaplain and soon she found herself with child. Even worse, the priest's remorse at the discovery sent him out of his mind, into an explosion of violence.

When the awful results of this secret liaison burst on the small community a few days ago, Peter's authoritarian character, nurtured in the rigid discipline of the Cluniacs' strict interpretation of the Rule of Saint Benedict, overcame his common sense. Instead of admitting their failure to foresee such a catastrophe and delivering the problem to the king and Count
Eustace, the prior decided to deal with the matter himself. Partly from a stubborn desire to regulate the affairs of his own priory, but even more from the fear of losing the lavish patronage of those who offered support to Bermondsey, Peter decided to act as he thought God and the Pope would require and wreaked terrible retribution on the errant chaplain.

Now they were burdened with the consequences of that decision and could do nothing but bow their heads and hope to weather the storm that soon would inevitably burst over them.

ACT ONE

February 1196

‘We'll get no further, Sir John,' called the shipmaster from his place at the steering oar. ‘There's not a breath of wind left and the fog's thickening.'

Straining his eyes, John de Wolfe could just make out a low shore a few hundred yards away on the larboard side of the little cog
Saint Radegund
, but even that view came and went as greyish-yellow fog rolled in intermittent patches up the estuary of the Thames.

‘Where in God's name are we, William?' he shouted back to the bandy-legged sailor who commanded the vessel from the high stern.

‘Just off Woolwich, Crowner! As far as we'll get on this flood tide with no wind. Unless I anchor now, we'll drift back down with the ebb.'

John's two companions heard the news with mixed feelings. Thomas de Peyne, the small priest who was the coroner's clerk, was murmuring thanks to the Almighty for the flat calm that came with the fog, for this was the first day he had not been trying to turn his stomach inside out on the four-day voyage from Devon.

However, the coroner's officer, Gwyn of Polruan, was irritated by their lack of progress, especially as until now they had had an exceptionally swift passage from Dawlish, a small port not far from Exeter. A brisk westerly wind
had raced the ship along the south coast in record time, and when it conveniently changed to a north-easterly after they had rounded the butt end of Kent it pushed them up the estuary as far as Greenwich. Only then had it failed them, as the wind dropped and the fog rolled in. The tide carried them a few more miles, but now even that had deserted them.

Gwyn, a giant of a man with wild red hair and long moustaches of the same hue, looked up at the single sail, hanging damp and motionless from the yardarm.

‘If we want to get to Bermondsey by river, we'll have to swim the rest of the bloody way!' he growled. A former fisherman from Polruan in Cornwall, he claimed to be an authority on all things maritime, and he watched critically as one of the four-man crew, a lad of about fourteen, heaved the anchor over the bow – a stone weighing a hundredweight with a hole chiselled through it to take the cable.

Annoyed, his master, John de Wolfe, slapped the wooden rail that ran around the bulwarks. ‘We made such good time, compared with flogging up from Exeter by horse,' he complained. ‘The justiciar said that time was of the essence and here we are, stuck only a few miles from the priory.'

Thomas stared through the murk at the dimly seen shore. ‘Is there no way we can continue by land, Crowner?' he asked hesitantly.

Gwyn turned to look at the curragh lashed upside down on top of the vessel's single hatch. It was a fragile cockleshell of tarred hide stretched over a light wooden frame, like an elongated coracle.

‘They could put us ashore in that, I suppose,' he said rather dubiously.

The coroner shrugged and shouted at the master, William Watts. ‘How far is it to Bermondsey from here?'

‘About six or seven miles, Sir John, as the crow flies.'

‘We're not bloody crows!' grumbled Gwyn. ‘But I suppose we could get horses in that miserable-looking hamlet over there.' He pointed to where a couple of shacks were fleetingly visible between the walls of yellow fog, then watched his master lope away across the deck to arrange their disembarkation.

The coroner was a forbidding figure in the wreathing mist, dressed in his habitual black and grey. As tall as Gwyn, he was lean and spare, with a slight stoop that gave him the appearance of a large bird of prey, especially with his hooked nose and jet-black hair that was swept back to his collar, unlike the close crops of most Norman knights. Gwyn had been his squire, companion and bodyguard for twenty years, in campaigns from Ireland to the Holy Land, where the Crowner's taste in clothing and the stubble on his lean cheeks had earned him the nickname ‘Black John'.

Half an hour later, after a short but perilous voyage in the flimsy curragh, they were landed on a muddy beach and shouted farewell to the shipman who had paddled them ashore. As soon as he had returned to the
Saint Radegund
, the vessel up-anchored and drifted down on the tide to begin its journey to Flanders with a cargo of wool. John had used the voyage to get to London as quickly as possible, as on horseback it would have taken the better part of a week.

As their last link with home vanished into the fog, the three men trudged up the muddy foreshore, thankfully narrow at this state of the tide. At the top, they followed a track to the straggle of huts and a few larger dwellings that was Woolwich, looking even more dismal than usual in the moist gloom of a winter's morning. The largest building was a single-storeyed erection of wattle and daub, the thatched roof tattered and moss-infested. However, over the doorway hung a withered bush, the universal sign of an inn, and after a quart of
ale each the coroner negotiated the hire of three horses. Though the tavern-keeper was reluctant to allow his nags to leave the parish, the coroner waved a parchment scroll in front of him. None of them could read it, apart from Thomas de Peyne, but the royal seal dangling from it impressed the man sufficiently to agree to let them have the beasts.

They set off on the underfed rounseys, following a lad on a pony, who would show them the way to Bermondsey and bring the horses back again.

What they could see of the countryside, which was very little in the mist, looked bleak and barren, mudflats giving way to scrub-covered heath, rather than the forested dales they were used to in the West Country. As they plodded along, at half the speed of a decent horse, de Wolfe asked his clerk what kind of a place they were bound for. Thomas, always eager to share his vast store of knowledge about things religious and historical, was pleased to oblige.

‘The priory was founded over a century ago, master. It's a daughter house of a Cluniac abbey, St Mary's at La Charité-sur-Loire. Four monks came over from France to take advantage of a gift of land from a rich London merchant.'

Gwyn, whose blunt views on religion were well known to his companions, said that he didn't give a damn who founded the place, as long as they kept a good kitchen and a comfortable guesthouse. For once, Thomas agreed with him in respect of their accommodation.

‘Thank God for a bed that won't roll around for four hellish nights!' he said fervently, crossing himself several times, in recollection of the misery he had suffered on the
Saint Radegund
.

They rode in silence for a while, the coroner contemplating the circumstances which had brought him so far from his home, wife and mistress. A week ago he
was minding his own business as coroner in Exeter, dividing his time as usual between his chilly chamber in the gatehouse of Rougemont Castle, his house in Martin's Lane and the taproom of the Bush Inn, where he enjoyed the company of his pretty mistress, Nesta.

Then one freezing morning a herald with the king's insignia on his tabard arrived, guarded by two men-at-arms. He bore a parchment with the impressive seal of Hubert Walter, virtual regent of England now that Richard de Lionheart was permanently in France. As de Wolfe could read little more than his own name, Thomas de Peyne rapidly translated the Latin text, his eyes growing wider as they scanned the lines of manuscript.

‘The chief justiciar wants you to go to London, master!' gabbled the little priest. Hubert Walter was not only Archbishop of Canterbury but was also the head of England's legal system and effectively of its government. Impatiently, John de Wolfe waited for his clerk to deliver the rest of the message, with Gwyn peering over Thomas's shoulder as if he could decipher the words himself.

‘He requires you to go with all speed to the priory at Bermondsey, to investigate the death of a ward of our lord the king. He gives you this Royal Commission as a temporary Coroner of the Verge, as the former coroner is laid low with the ague and is likely to die.'

John knew that the royal household had its own coroner, the ‘Verge' being the area of jurisdiction radiating twelve miles around wherever the perambulating court happened to be.

‘Where the hell is Bermondsey?' demanded Gwyn.

De Wolfe shrugged. ‘Somewhere in London, as far as I know.'

His clerk looked slightly aggrieved at their ignorance. ‘Bermondsey Priory is a famous house, on the south
side of the Thames, just below King William's White Tower on the opposite bank.'

The coroner was more concerned with his mission than with the geography. ‘Does Hubert not say what he wishes me to do?' he demanded.

Thomas rapidly read to the end of the short message. ‘It seems that the circumstances of the death of this lady are suspicious, but the justiciar says that you will have the details when you arrive. He will be absent in Normandy, but the prior will acquaint you with the situation. The last sentence emphasizes the urgency of your arrival at the priory, in order to examine the corpse.'

‘God's bones, she'll be pretty ripe by the time we arrive!' grunted the Cornishman. ‘That messenger must have been on the road for almost a week and it will take us another week to get there!'

As it turned out, the delay was somewhat less, as the herald had made a forced ride with numerous changes of horse and had covered the journey from London to Exeter in four days. Together with the fortunate voyage of the
Saint Radegund
, it was not much more than a week before they found themselves jogging into Bermondsey.

This was even less of a community than Woolwich, as it consisted mainly of the priory, with a few cottages sheltering under its walls. The surroundings were bleak, especially on this icy winter's day, being a waste of marshes that ran along the Thames, which was about a quarter of a mile from the priory. The fog was thinner here and the coroner's trio could see humps of reedy mud rising above a network of reens and ditches, as the great river had poorly defined edges that changed with the tides and the rainfall.

The priory was built on the first solid ground that rose slightly above the swamp, and as they rode towards the gatehouse de Wolfe could see that the walls formed
a substantial rectangle of masonry, within which buildings could be seen, one of them a church. Though Gwyn was not impressed by his first sight of their destination, Thomas's eyes lit up as he saw a new ecclesiastical establishment. He crossed himself vigorously and muttered some Latin prayers under his breath.

As far as the coroner was concerned, this was a new challenge to his professional reputation, as he had secretly been proud to have the summons from the justiciar, ahead of all the other county coroners in England. It was true that he had a special relationship with Hubert Walter – and indeed Richard Coeur de Lion himself – as he had been part of the king's bodyguard in the Holy Land and had accompanied him on the ill-fated voyage home when he returned from the Third Crusade.

Still, to have been appointed coroner of the verge, even if only as a locum tenens, was an honour, for this unique post was responsible for the investigation of deaths, assaults, ravishments and fires that might involve the king, his court and anyone associated with that grand if cumbersome entourage.

With these thoughts in mind, he followed the lad on the pony to the gatehouse on the western side of the walls. It had a wide gate under a stone arch to admit wagons and a side gate for pedestrians. As soon as they dismounted and untied their sparse belongings from the saddles, the boy from Woolwich rapidly roped the horses into a line and vanished into the mist without a word, leaving the three men standing outside the forbidding oaken doors like orphans left outside a poorhouse.

De Wolfe strode to the small door and saw that alongside it there was a bell hanging from a bracket, with a cord dangling from the clapper. He rang it vigorously and a moment later a large man with a face like a
bulldog appeared. He wore a faded cassock, and John, correctly taking him for a lay brother, dragged Thomas forward to explain who they were. Grudgingly, the porter motioned them in, and without a word slammed the door to the secular world behind them.

They found themselves in a wide outer court, the west end of the church forming the further end, with a cemetery visible over a low wall on their left. A line of buildings formed the right-hand side, and without a word the door-ward pointed to another gate about a third of the way down this stone façade.

The coroner's team made their way to this inner entrance and saw a small wicket-gate in the centre. Stepping through, they entered a long inner court stretching down to the high boundary wall in the distance. On their left were more buildings, with several doors and a row of shuttered windows on the upper floor.

‘God be with you, brothers,' came a voice from nearby. Turning, they saw that a small lodge lay inside the gate, from which a tubby monk now emerged. In his element, Thomas de Peyne advanced on him, inevitably making the sign of the cross, and greeted him in fluent Latin.

‘Why can't they damned well talk English?' grumbled Gwyn. ‘Then we'd know what they're gabbling about!'

Thomas ferreted in his shoulder-bag and produced the scroll that had carried Hubert Walter's commission to Exeter. He displayed the ornate red wax seal of the Archbishop of Canterbury and allowed the guardian of the inner gate to read the text. Suitably impressed, the ruddy-faced monk bobbed his head in deference to the king's coroner and, to be on the safe side, to Gwyn as well. Then he said something to Thomas and trotted off towards a doorway in the nearest building.

‘That was Brother Maglo and he's taking us to the
prior, but first of all will show us where we will be accommodated,' explained their clerk, delighted to be within a house of God once again. ‘This is the cellarer's building and above it is the guesthouse.'

Inside, the ground floor appeared to be a series of storerooms with several small offices where monks were keeping lists and tallies of all the food, drink and supplies needed for the bodily health of the inhabitants, their spiritual health being dealt with deeper inside the priory. The whole place smelled of damp, mouldy grain and a hint of incense. As they reached the far end of the central corridor, their guide spoke in English for the first time, in a voice with a strong Breton accent.

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