‘For the poor. Brother, you are an ordained priest?’
‘Fifteen years in all,’ quipped the friar, blessing Corbett. ‘I carry my licence if you want—’
‘No,’ Corbett breathed, ‘I do not want to see it.’ He licked his lips. ‘I am Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal. I am also the King’s commissioner in these parts, with the power of oyer and terminer.’
‘To hear and to finish,’ the Franciscan translated. ‘And I,’ he extended a hand for Corbett to clasp, ‘am Brother Ambrose of the Order of the Sack, summoned I suppose to attend the dead?’
‘Or those about to die,’ Corbett replied wearily. ‘I’ve taken prisoners. You’ll shrive them if that’s what they want, yes?’
The friar pulled a face, then looked over his shoulder. Sandewic had emerged from behind the church, a two-headed axe over his shoulder. The men-at-arms beside him carried a blackened block, scarred and bloodstained.
‘I see.’ The friar rubbed his face. ‘Yes,’ he continued as the block was set down with the axe beside it. ‘Death has truly set up camp in God’s acre.’
Corbett stared up at the sky. The day was drawing on, the sun was strengthening; the mist that had swirled over this cemetery had gone, as had the silence. The sounds of the city echoed clearly across the wall: the rattle of carts, the furious shouts of traders, the cries of children and the clop of horses. Corbett smelt the fragrance of the still damp grass, then that other, more pervasive tang, of spilt blood and rent flesh. He crossed himself and went back through the corpse door into the nave.
Ranulf had prepared everything. The offertory table had been moved just before the entrance to the beautifully carved rood screen, three stools behind it. On the table, now draped with a purple altar covering, stood two lighted candles, a book of the Gospels and a drawn sword. Corbett nodded at Sandewic and took the stool in the centre. Master Fleschner, the parish clerk, would serve as scribe, leaving the dead to Parson John, who was moving from corpse to corpse, a stole around his neck, a phial of holy oils in his hands. Every so often Corbett would capture the words of the swiftly whispered prayer: ‘Go forth, Christian soul . . .’
Corbett blessed himself, then stood up. The church was now silent except for the muttering of the priest and the groans and cries from the prisoners. Welsh archers, bows notched, stood guard at all doors and in the sanctuary, whilst on either side of the nave thronged Sandewic’s men-at-arms. Corbett, one hand on the Gospels, the other grasping the hilt of his sword, loudly proclaimed how, by the terms of his commission, Edward, ‘by the grace of God, King of England, Lord of Ireland, Duke of Aquitaine, demands that all mayors and bailiffs et cetera recognise Sir Hugh Corbett as the King’s Commissioner of Oyer and Terminer, to hear and determine all cases . . .’ Once finished, he sat down.
‘You know,’ he declared to his two companions, ‘these are adjudged felons taken in arms against the King. They are guilty of murder, rape and pillage. Each will face the same charges and be asked to reply. I have one question for each of them: are you from the Land of Cockaigne?’
‘What is this?’
Sandewic and Ranulf spoke almost together.
‘You ordered me to ask those taken out on the heath the same question,’ the constable declared. ‘The Land of Cockaigne? What is that to these felons?’
‘Cockaigne,’ Corbett replied, ‘is a fool’s version of life: a glutton’s kingdom where food and drink present themselves already prepared. Pigs trot up fully roasted, a carving knife deep in their flanks. Geese fly but they are already spitted and cooked. Larks, grilled to crispness, swoop into your mouth. Buildings are made of food; the roofs are pancakes, the fences sausages, dripping on the floor.’ He smiled at his companions’ puzzlement. ‘That is all I can say for the moment. It’s a place of nonsense where ducks are shoed and the hare chases the fox. Apparently it’s a cipher used by one of the King’s spies,’ he whispered. ‘God knows who he or she is, but,’ he stared into the darkness, ‘it’s quite apposite, eh?’ He pointed to the sheeted corpses. ‘A world turned topsy-turvy, where the innocent suffer and the guilty escape.’
‘Not now,’ Ranulf murmured.
‘I am not talking about those waiting to die,’ Corbett observed, ‘but Giles Waldene, the King of Ribauds, and Hubert the Monk. They both lie in the pits at Newgate. They did not join this affray. They’ll claim no knowledge of it and demand to be tried by their peers. I wonder.’ He pointed across the nave to where the captain of archers and his company were pulling the prisoners to their feet. ‘Did any of those suspect?’
‘What?’ Sandewic grated.
‘That in their midst was a traitor who would sell them body and soul to the King’s justice? Someone who, for profit perhaps, would turn King’s Approver and become their destroyer. God knows why that riot took place and who caused it. We may be doing God’s work, perhaps the King’s, but,’ Corbett added grimly, ‘the devil’s also! He must be ravenous for the souls of those we are going to judge.’
‘Such is life,’ Sandewic retorted. ‘Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between good and bad.’ He pointed across the nave. ‘Let’s not keep the demons waiting.’
The trials began. According to law, the felons had no real defence. Indicted already, they’d then ‘broken from the King’s jail to carry out hideous depredations against the Crown’s good and faithful servants, as well as horrid blasphemy against Holy Mother Church’. Each of the prisoners gave his name to the parish clerk, who was sitting at the end of the table, busy keeping a record. The accused was then faced with a list of gravimina, or charges, and invited to reply, which was usually in the form of a curse or a mouthful of spit.When the question about the Land of Cockaigne was first asked, the parish clerk glanced up in surprise; thereafter each prisoner shook his head and continued with the usual tirade of abuse.
Sentencing was a foregone conclusion: ‘Guilty!’ Corbett declared. ‘Proven as charged with no defence.’ Once sentence was passed, the condemned were hustled out into the cemetery. The Friar of the Sack, seated in the shadow of a buttress, offered to shrive them; some accepted, others refused. All were eventually dragged to the block, hands tied behind them. Two archers made each of them kneel, forcing the condemned man’s head to one side against the block whilst the executioner, with unerring accuracy, brought down the heavy double-headed axe. Its hard, chilling thud echoed through the opened corpse door, as Sandewic murmured, like the sound of hell’s gate slamming shut. Sometimes the prisoner protested and struggled, only to be knocked senseless.
Corbett, mouth dry, continued. The line of prisoners shortened. Parson John, further down the nave, finished his ministrations and sat with his back to a pillar, watching the grim process of law being carried out. Corbett called a brief halt as the bells of other churches rang out the Angelus. From the nearby streets the market horns brayed, the signal for trading to cease so that the guildsmen and stallholders, as well as their customers, could adjourn to the taverns, wine booths, cookshops and pastry houses to break their morning fast. Corbett asked for watered wine and stood in the Lady Chapel. He drained his cup, then knelt at the prie-dieu. Parson John came up, asking in a whisper when this would all be over. Corbett just knelt, staring up at the statue, and shook his head. The parson repeated his question. Corbett turned.
‘It’s never over, priest,’ he murmured. ‘Don’t you see?’ He pointed to a wall painting to his left, Cain slaying his brother with the jawbone of an ass. ‘That’s what we are, Father, killers to the bone, all of us, sons and daughters of Cain.’
‘Not all of us!’
‘Aren’t we?’ Corbett asked hoarsely. ‘If not with knives and clubs, don’t we slay each other in our souls? Aren’t such thoughts the dreadful parents of our deeds?’
The priest stepped back, face shocked. He stared open-mouthed at Corbett, then, spinning on his heel, walked off into the gloom of the church.
‘Master, Master.’ Ranulf approached softer than a cat, beckoning with his hand. ‘Sandewic has been out to see the heads piled in their baskets. He’s like a farmer with choice plums. He says he’ll decorate the bridge, the Tower and every wall spike in Newgate. By the way, where is Chanson?’ he continued. ‘Our Clerk of the Stables appears to have—’
‘Our Clerk of the Stables,’ Corbett retorted, coming out of the Lady Chapel, ‘is carrying documents to the King, who, I believe, is flying his hawks in the woods outside Sheen. There’s been trouble in the Narrow Seas. French privateers—’
‘Sir Hugh,’ Sandewic called, ‘we should begin again.’
‘And again, and again . . .’ Corbett murmured.
It was late afternoon by the time they were finished and the last ominous thud echoed through the church. All the felons bar one had been tried and executed. The sole survivor was Thomas Brokenhale, alias John Chamoys, alias Reginald Clatterhouse, alias Richard Draper, also known as Lapwing. Sandewic reported how Lapwing had been seen in the company of the prisoners at Newgate early the previous afternoon. He had then disappeared, but returned mid-morning to watch events from near the lychgate. One of the Newgate gaolers had recognised him as a visitor to Waldene’s coven in prison. Lapwing had been held fast in the cellar of a nearby tavern before being dragged across for investigation. A young, cheery-faced rogue, he confessed to having some knowledge of both Waldene and Hubert the Monk. He had not, however, so he claimed, raised a hand against man or maid. No, he knew nothing about the Land of Cockaigne, but he did know his rights. ‘I’m a clerk,’ he protested, showing the faint tonsure almost overgrown by his dirty reddish hair. More importantly, he could recite the first verse of Psalm 50.
Have mercy on me oh God in your kindness, in your compassion blot out my offence
‘I’m a clerk,’ he repeated. ‘I demand to be tried by Holy Mother Church. I am not subject—’
‘Shut up!’ Sandewic bawled. ‘You’re guilty and you’ll die with your coven.’
Corbett intervened. Lapwing, whoever he was, had pleaded the law. More importantly, Corbett sensed the man was telling the truth. He was not like the rest of the rifflers and ribauds, who lived for the day and certainly didn’t care for the next. Sandewic, however, proved obdurate. Offended by Lapwing’s insolence, the constable wanted the accused’s head, and bellowed that he’d even risk excommunication by the bishops. They had cursed him before and they’d certainly do it again. He didn’t give a demon’s fart for their arrogance.
Sandewic’s shouting attracted the attention of his men-at-arms, who thronged across the nave. Corbett became uneasy. Ranulf rested his hand on the hilt of his dagger. Sandewic bawled for his sword. Lapwing’s smile faded, and he hastily scrabbled at a secret pocket in his jerkin, brought out a thin scroll and handed this to Corbett. The Keeper of the Secret Seal unrolled it, read the contents, smiled and looked at Sandewic.
‘Listen to this, Master Constable!’ he said. ‘“The King to all faithful subjects. Know you that Stephen Escolier (also calling himself Lapwing) of Mitre Street, Cripplegate, is a faithful servant of the Crown, a clerk of this city. Know you that whatever he has done, he has done for the good of the Crown and the safety of this Realm.”’ The writ was witnessed by a leading judge, Hervey Staunton, and his henchman Roger Blandeford, and sealed with the King’s personal signet. Corbett handed it back to Lapwing, who smiled, winked at Sandewic and swaggered out of the church.
Corbett wearily declared he was finished. ‘What had to be done,’ he declared, ‘has been done.’
He left the church, going across the busy street into the Burning Bush tavern, where he and Ranulf had stabled their horses. He was washing his hands and face in a bowl at the lavarium when he heard Ranulf groan. He glanced back at the door. Chanson stood there, hopping from foot to foot.
‘The King wants us?’ Corbett breathed.
‘Yes, Sir Hugh, he does,’ Chanson called back. ‘He is waiting at the Abbey of Syon on Thames. Lord Walter Evesham has been horribly murdered.’
: to be adjudged truly wicked
Today, reflected Corbett, the Feast of St Perpetua and Felicitas, I shall certainly not forget. He pressed a pomander soaked in a mixture of fennel and lavender against his face and walked around the mortuary tables in the corpse chapel at Syon Abbey. He fought his weariness and ignored the hum of conversation as Ranulf informed the King and his entourage about what had happened at St Botulph’s. He wanted to climb the steps, go out and embrace the last of the evening, capture the essence of that sunset when the western sky turns to a glorious band of blue and fiery gold. He wanted to feel the breeze, heavy with the promise of spring, cool against his face and to catch the last birdsong of the day.
‘What did the poet write – ah yes,’ he murmured. ‘The birdsong of each day is totally unique. In all creation it has never been heard before and never will return.’ He’d love to be free of this coat of mail, wrapped in a cloak instead; to sit by his hall fire, crackling and merry, contemplating the day with Maeve, or stand with her in that lovely bower overlooking their herb garden. In a word, he wanted to go home.
The King was demanding he inspect those three cadavers. Corbett took a deep breath and stared down at the corpse of Walter Evesham, former Chief Justice in the Court of King’s Bench.
‘I never liked you in life,’ he whispered, ‘and death has not changed that.’ He breathed a prayer and studied the grisly remains of that old hypocrite garbed in the brown sacking of a Benedictine recluse. Evesham’s face was powder-white, his lips still rather full and red, pennies pressed down his heavy eyelids, and that nose, so often wrinkled in distaste, now jutted sharp and pointed. Even in death, his full, high-cheekboned face held a hint of arrogance, despite the thick white hair being shorn close to the scalp. Corbett crouched and peered at the wound that sliced Evesham’s throat from ear to ear.