Who are the malefactors? Who knew about the robbery?
Who offered and gave the robbers help,
counsel and assistance?
Letter of Edward I, 6 June 1303
Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal, personal emissary of Edward I of England and a member of the King’s Privy Council, embraced Lady Maeve, his wife, and heartily wished he was back in bed with her at Leighton Manor in Essex. He held her close, her blond hair tickling his cheek, her soft lips brushing his skin, he hugged her once more, savouring her delicate perfume, then stood back. Maeve smiled even as her lustrous blue eyes brimmed with tears, and brought up the fur-rimmed hood of her dark green cloak. Corbett thought it made her look even more beautiful, but those tears! To curb his own sadness he glanced over his shoulder at his two companions waiting on their horses. Ranulf-atte-Newgate, Principal Clerk in the Chancery of the Green Wax, red hair tied tightly behind his head, green eyes watchful in his pale face, nose slightly pinched by the cold, caught his gaze and turned away as if distracted by the clamour around the palace gate. Beside Ranulf, Chanson, Clerk of the Stables, tousle-headed and garbed in grey, was doing his best to control the sumpter pony carrying their bags and chests. Corbett glanced back at Maeve. She had now hidden her distress at her husband’s imminent departure by bringing forward their two children, Edward and Eleanor. Corbett crouched to hug both, rose, kissed Maeve passionately on the lips, then turned, gathered the reins of his horse and swung himself up into the saddle. He pretended to busy himself with his war belt as well as adjusting the black woollen cloak about him. Then he glanced back at Maeve, mouthed a message of love and, turning his horse’s head, led his companions out of the palace gate along the trackway to London Bridge.
Corbett, like Ranulf, kept his hood pushed back to give him a better view of this crowded thoroughfare, guiding his horse prudently along its icy rutted surface. He slouched low in the saddle, blinking away the tears, staring fixedly ahead of him. Ranulf rode just behind him to his right, Chanson to his left. The Clerk of the Stables had now hoisted the lance bearing the stiffened pennant displaying the royal arms emblazoned in glorious scarlet, blue and gold, the rampant leopards proclaiming to all and sundry how these were king’s men, not to be interfered with or impeded in any way. Even a vexillation of royal knight-bannerets pulled aside for these clerks, whom they immediately recognised and saluted. Corbett nodded courteously. Ranulf raised a hand, aware of how these royal bully-boys were studying them closely. Corbett’s departure from Westminster certainly caused a stir. Heads turned, eyes narrowed against the bitter cold. People watched these two important clerks garbed in black leather jerkins, their dark green hose pushed into red boots of Cordova leather, one gauntleted hand grasping the reins, the other beneath their cloaks ready to draw sword or a dagger. Those who did business at Westminster recognised that the Keeper of the Secret Seal was off on the King’s affairs. The presence of Corbett in the royal palace always provoked a sea of murmuring and whispering, speculation about what might be happening. After all, these were dangerous times. The war across the Scottish march was not progressing as well as the old king would have wished, whilst the powerful London merchants, with gangs of rifflers at their beck and call, were growing increasingly resentful at the King’s constant demand for money to finance his struggle against Wallace in Scotland as well as to equip his war cogs patrolling the Narrow Seas against the privateers of Philip of France. Royal business, however, was secret. Corbett was the last man to discuss the reason for his departure with anyone. Instead he settled himself comfortably in his saddle, lost in his own thoughts about Maeve. Christmas and the twelve holy days had certainly passed like a dream, a heart-warming, grace-filling, soul-enriching period. Corbett had never felt so happy in his life. Once again he murmured a prayer of thanks.
‘Ego tibi Domine gratias et laudem — I give you thanks and praise, oh Lord.’
Oh yes, the turn of the year had proved good. Epiphany had come and gone like a watch in the night, then a royal courier had arrived at Leighton with a scroll sealed by Edward himself, a writ summoning Corbett cum festinacione magna — with great haste – down to the King’s palace at Westminster. Corbett had ignored the great haste, insisting that Maeve and the children also join him at his lodgings in the old palace. Edward, of course, had proved to be a generous, hearty host, praising Maeve’s beauty whilst merrily fussing the children. However, when all the courtesies were done, the King, iron-grey hair falling down to his shoulders, had grabbed Corbett’s arm and led him out across the frost-laced palace gardens, through the south door of the great abbey and into the cloisters. Corbett sensed where they were going. The King was now silent and morose, no longer the jovial lord but muttering to himself, clawing at his silvery moustache and beard. He pushed his way through the knight-bannerets gathered round the door and started down the steep steps broken off halfway, the gap spanned by a long wooden plank, and into the cavernous circular crypt of the abbey with its eight ground-level windows and huge central pillar. Corbett detached himself from the King and put his hand in the gap, then stared around at the empty coffers, caskets and leather treasury sacks that littered the floor. Edward sat down on a coffer, glaring round, face all fierce as he muttered his favourite oaths, ‘By God’s hand’ and ‘By God’s thigh’, followed by a litany of filthy imprecations against those who’d dared to dig their way through one of those windows to rob the royal treasury of gold, silver, jewels and precious goods. The riflers had even removed the stones from the arca, the stronghold built into the centre of the massive pillar.
‘They’ll all hang, Corbett!’
‘Yes, your grace.’
‘Listen,’ the King hissed, ‘how silent it is.’
Corbett walked back to the fortified door leading to the crypt steps. He was aware of the cold and the darkness, how the many candles and cresset torches flickered and flared in vain to drive back the gloom.
‘Silent, your grace,’ he agreed. ‘The good brothers are still lodged in the Tower?’
‘Over a hundred of the good brothers will rot there,’ the King snarled, ‘until I discover the truth and get all my treasure back. You know that, Corbett!’
The Keeper of the Secret Seal certainly did. He had been party to the ruthless investigation into the great conspiracy to rob the royal treasury in the crypt of Westminster. The King’s own hoard allegedly safe in this hallowed place, the mausoleum of his family. It should never have happened. The crypt was protected by eighteen-foot-thick walls, narrow windows, fortified doors and stairs with the steps removed halfway down to create a gap that only a specially made plank could span. Yet the outrage had still occurred. The sheer effrontery of it had shocked even the cynical officials of the Chancery and Exchequer, who dealt every day with a legion of rogues and vagabonds. The robbery had been the fruit of an unholy alliance between London’s underworld, led by Richard Puddlicott, a former clerk, and some of the leading monks of the abbey. Puddlicott had seduced the good brothers, supposedly followers of the rule of St Benedict, by bringing into the abbey musicians, courtesans, food and wine for midnight revelry, whilst other conspirators, under the cloak of night, had weakened one window in the crypt, working secretly in the cemetery beyond to create a gap. At last they had forced an entry on the eve of St Mark and the vast treasure hoard had been taken. The leading monks had been fully aware of the conspiracy and cooperated eagerly. So much treasure had been taken that precious items had been found at Tothill, in the fields around the abbey and even fished from the Thames. The rest of the haul had abruptly appeared on the London market, the greedy goldsmiths looking the other way as they bought and sold what was clearly not theirs. Edward had been absent in Scotland, but his fury had known no bounds. He had dispatched commissioners, Corbett included, into London and the entire community of the abbey had been committed to the Tower. Courts of oyer and terminer moved through every ward of the city, names were mentioned, suspects were arrested, even dragged out of sanctuary in clear violation of ecclesiastical law. The King demanded, time and again, that the treasure be recovered whilst anyone involved in its disappearance was to be arrested and taken to the Tower.
‘I’ll grind such arrogance to dust.’ The King bit on the quick of his thumb and spat out a piece of skin. ‘Corbett,’ he gestured at a nearby chair, ‘sit down. I need to talk to you.’
Edward scratched the corner of his mouth as he studied this enigmatic clerk, olive-skinned, cleanly shaven, his long face hard and resolute except for the laughter lines around the firm mouth and deep-set eyes. He glimpsed the grey amongst Corbett’s raven-black hair, now pulled back and tied in a queue to rest on the nape of his neck.
‘We are getting older, Corbett,’ the King grated. He stretched out and gently tapped the clerk on the cheek, ‘but you are still my soul companion, Hugh, my faithful servant.’ His words echoed round that cavernous chamber. ‘I trust you as I do my own sword arm.’ Edward’s right eye drooped, almost closing, a common gesture whenever the King’s humours were disturbed. ‘That is why I have brought you down here to talk in the silence.’
Corbett steeled himself. He respected Edward of England, a man of iron who, despite his many faults, imposed order on a chaos that, if unchecked, would sweep away Corbett’s world of logic, reason, evidence, the rule of law and all the trappings that kept the utlegati — the wolf men – lurking beyond the light. Nevertheless, Corbett was wary of princes, and none more so than Edward, especially when he acted maudlin.
‘Your grace,’ he gestured round, ‘the light in here is poor, it’s freezing cold, my wife and children …’
‘Hugh, Hugh …’
‘Is it this, your grace? I thought the conspiracy had been broken.’
‘This is not just my treasure hoard,’ Edward declared, beating his chest. ‘It is part of me.’ He edged closer, hitching up the neck of his sack-like tunic then plucking at his coarsely woven breeches tucked into cowhide boots.
Corbett hid his smile. Edward of England liked nothing better than to play the role of the peasant farmer when it suited him.
‘I brought you here because something about which I must tell you belongs here. I’ll not keep you long. I must go to the royal mews,’ Edward murmured. ‘One of our beloved falcons is ill. Whilst you, Corbett, must be off to Mistleham in Essex, to question Oliver Scrope, lord of the manor.’
‘Your grace,’ Corbett protested, ‘you promised me rest until well after Hilary.’
‘I know, I know.’ The King waved a hand. ‘But I need you in Essex, and I’ll tell you why.’ He breathed in deeply. ‘Early last year a wandering group of Beguines, male and female, who called themselves the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit, landed at Dover. They journeyed into Essex on to the manor lands of Lord Oliver Scrope. You’ve heard of him?’
‘He owns vast estates, a man certainly blessed by fortune if not by God,’ Edward added cynically. ‘Oliver is an old comrade-in-arms. He and I have fought shoulder to shoulder in Wales and along the Scottish march. You do recall him?’
Corbett pulled a face, then shook his head.
‘Yes you do!’ Edward teased. ‘You said he had the face of a bat: balding head, with protuberant eyes, puffed cheeks and ears that stuck out.’
‘True. I remember,’ Corbett conceded. ‘A small, thick-set man, hot-tempered and violent. Your grace, comrade or not, Scrope has a nasty soul, a man of blood. He took to killing like a bat to flitting. He butchered some Welsh prisoners outside Conwy, didn’t he?’
‘Yes, yes.’ Edward grimaced. ‘Oliver is a fighter. He is also a hero, Corbett, a Crusader who escaped Acre when it fell thirteen years ago to the Saracens. Fought his way through, brought back a king’s ransom in precious goods. I converted a great deal of it into land for him and married him off to a rich heiress fifteen years his junior, Lady Hawisa Talbot. However, one thing he did not hand over to me,’ Edward narrowed his eyes, ‘was the Sanguis Christi.’
‘The Blood of Christ?’
‘An exquisite cross of thick pure gold,’ the King’s eyes gleamed, ‘studded with five huge rubies allegedly containing blood from Christ’s precious wounds. According to legend, the rubies were embedded in the True Cross found by the Empress Helena a thousand years ago. The Sanguis Christi, along with other wealth, was seized by Scrope when he fled Acre. On his return to England, he solemnly promised me, after I had given him so much help and favour, that the Sanguis Christi would be mine, either when he died or after twelve years had elapsed. It is now January 1304.’ Edward smiled. ‘The twelve years have elapsed. The Sanguis Christi should be mine.’
‘Then summon him to Westminster!’ Corbett declared crossly.
‘Ah, that’s just the beginning.’ The King smiled. ‘Scrope is a wily man. He was with the Templars in Acre. The Sanguis Christi and all the treasures he seized once belonged to that order. They have demanded everything back, particularly the Sanguis Christi. Scrope has utterly rejected their plea. I support him in this.’ He grinned. ‘Naturally. The Temple, according to rumour, have sworn vengeance. They’ve sent formal envoys to Lord Scrope demanding the return of their property. Scrope has refused, so the Templars, in a secret consistory, have passed sentence of death on him. Now,’ the King sighed, ‘I do not know whether this is the work of the General Chapter or just extremists, but so far they have made little progress.’
‘Couldn’t the Pope intervene?’
‘The Pope sprawls in Avignon, firmly in the power of France, who, as you know, has no great love for the Order of the Temple. Anyway, His Holiness claims that Scrope’s treasures are the just plunders of war, whilst our archbishop, old Robert Winchelsea, when he is not in exile, fully agrees.’
‘But you are concerned that the Temple may seize the Sanguis Christi?’
‘As is Lord Scrope. He has received mysterious messages.’ Edward closed his eyes. ‘“The Mills of the Temple of God grind exceedingly slow but they do grind exceedingly small.”’
‘How were these messages delivered?’ Corbett now forgot the freezing gloom, deeply intrigued by what the King was saying.
‘Oh, writs and letters, anonymously and mysteriously delivered at Scrope’s great manor hall.’
‘So you need me to collect the Sanguis Christi before the Temple do?’
‘But the Temple will object to you having it.’
Edward clicked his tongue. ‘They can object until the Second Coming, Corbett. I’ll simply say I am holding it in trust until the matter is decided, which will be never! Moreover, Scrope has demanded my help before he hands it over. There is more to the story than a beautiful gold cross and five precious rubies.’
‘You mentioned the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit?’
‘Yes, yes.’ The King breathed out noisily. ‘You know what is happening, Sir Hugh. The Pope wallows in luxury at Avignon, bishops, priests and clerics live lives alien to their calling. Europe is plagued by wandering groups attacking such decadence; fraternities, companies and sisterhoods all claiming a special revelation from God. The Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit were one of these. Like the Beguines, the Columbini, the Pastoreux, they believed that true religion should be free of all structures, strictures and hierarchy. Men and women, they argued, should live in their natural state and not feel guilty over sexual matters or any other burdens of sin. Property should be held in common, as should all wealth and income. The sacraments are not necessary, particularly marriage.’ Edward fluttered his fingers. ‘You know how the hymn goes. Anyway, this company of Free Brethren, male and female, under their leaders, who rejoiced in the names of Adam and Eve, moved into Mistleham. At first Lord Oliver tolerated them …’
‘He had other problems. Not only was he being menaced by the Temple, but new threats were emerging like prostitutes from some filthy runnel. Again warnings were anonymously delivered, following the same lines as the earlier though slightly different. Yes, that’s how it goes.’ Edward scratched his head. ‘“The Mills of the Temple may grind exceedingly slow and exceedingly small, but so do the Mills of God’s anger.”’
‘And their origin?’
Edward pulled a face. ‘Scrope visited me on the last Sunday of Advent and confessed all this, but he didn’t know who was threatening him and why this new menace had emerged.’ The King opened and shut the battered lid of a looted coffer next to him. ‘However, by then, one problem had been resolved, the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit had ceased to exist.’
‘Your grace?’ Corbett leaned forward. In December he’d been busy in Canterbury, but on his return he’d heard chilling tales from Essex.
‘Lord Scrope,’ Edward refused to meet Corbett’s gaze, ‘is most orthodox. He prides himself on having fought in Outremer, on being a Crusader, a knight with personal loyalty to the Holy Father. Little wonder,’ the King laughed drily, ‘that he won protection from that quarter. You see, Corbett, the Free Brethren had moved to Mistleham and lodged in the nearby deserted village of Mordern, which in itself has a sinister history. Once settled, they merged with the local people. At first they were more of a curiosity than a threat …’ Edward paused. ‘Until Lord Scrope abruptly decided otherwise. He accused them of robbery, poaching, lechery and, most importantly, heresy.’
‘Heresy,’ Edward agreed. ‘Lord Scrope is a strict believer. He was encouraged in this by his personal chaplain, a Dominican, Brother Gratian.’
Corbett sat back, allowing himself to relax. Although he didn’t like it, he realised why he had been summoned here. The Dominicans worked as papal inquisitors, constantly vigilant against heresy.
‘Lord Scrope turned on the Free Brethren. He summoned up his levies and attacked them as they sheltered in the derelict church of Mordern. Those who survived,’ Edward sighed, ‘Lord Scrope summarily hanged from the oak trees around the church.’
Corbett stared hard at the King as he recalled stories of a heinous massacre in Essex that had seeped into the Chancery offices at Westminster.
‘Lord Scrope maintains they were outlaws, heretics,’ Edward continued. ‘He was supported by Brother Gratian with letters and scripts from his minister general as well as the curial offices of the Pope at Avignon. He claims he has God’s own mandate to root out heresy whenever he sees it.’
‘This Gratian, how long has he been with Lord Scrope?’
‘God knows!’ Edward retorted. ‘He certainly does not act on my authority.’
‘So the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit are all dead?’
‘Yes, but to make matters worse, Scrope refuses to have their corpses buried. They still lie out at Mordern or dangle from the trees. Scrope says they should rot where they died as a warning to others.’
‘You could send in commissioners.’
‘Oh no.’ Edward smiled. ‘Lord Scrope is supported by Holy Mother Church whilst both Lords and Commons are hot against such wandering groups.’
‘And the good people of Mistleham?’
‘Encouraged by their newly elected mayor, Henry Claypole, they were only too willing to support Lord Scrope in his assault on the Free Brethren. You know how it is,’ the King added bitterly. ‘A shire town, a community hostile to strangers. If a bucket went missing, the Free Brethren were responsible. If a woman was seduced, the Free Brethren were to blame, especially with their singular views on the sins of the flesh.’
‘And there was some truth in these accusations?’
‘Of course! The Free Brethren were what they claimed to be, expounders of free love, professional beggars living on their wits as well as the charity of others.’ Edward rubbed his hands together. ‘Look, Corbett, Scrope acted sine auctoritate — without authority. I want to warn him that that must never happen again, and under my authority, we must have those corpses buried, secretly but properly.’
‘And the others?’ Corbett asked. ‘Anyone of note?’
‘Henry Claypole, the mayor. A true firebrand. Some say he’s Scrope’s illegitimate son, a by-blow, the result of his dalliance with a certain Mistress Alice de Tuddenham. Claypole believes he is the legitimate heir to Scrope, whom he served as a squire in Outremer. A bustling, fiery man, Claypole is used to the cut and thrust of politics, though I think he’s an empty vessel that makes a great deal of sound. The parish priest is Father Thomas. He served with us in Wales as chaplain. I promoted him to many benefices but then he converted and took true religion, claiming he wanted to serve God’s poor. He resigned all his benefices and sinecures. His family hails from Mistleham, so I appointed him to the church there, or at least,’ Edward grinned, ‘Scrope and I persuaded the bishop to do so. Then there’s Lady Hawisa. I suspect she has no real love for her husband, but she is faithful enough, vivacious, intelligent and comely, though a little tart of tongue. Finally, there’s Scrope’s sister Marguerite.’ Edward stretched and smiled. ‘Marguerite Scrope,’ he repeated. ‘Fourteen years ago, Corbett – though perhaps you don’t remember her – she was one of the leading beauties of the court: a singular sort of beauty, different from the type of woman who sits in her window bower and makes calf’s eyes at any knight who passes by. No, Marguerite loved life, dancing, hunting and hawking. I often teased her that she should have been born a man. She thanked me courteously then roundly informed me she was happy with the way she was. By the time her brother came home from Outremer, something had happened to Marguerite; she became withdrawn and reflective. She entered the Benedictine order as a nun, her qualities were soon noted and, with a little help from friends at home and court, she was appointed Abbess of St Frideswide, which lies in its own grounds just outside Mistleham. I doubt if she has really changed. I had a letter recently signed by both her and Father Thomas, protesting at her brother’s destruction of the Free Brethren and demanding that I exercise my authority to ensure their honourable burial. Never mind them, Corbett! Essex is vital, a shire that straddles all the great roads to and from London and the eastern ports. I don’t want any disturbance there. I want this settled. I’ll be visiting Colchester soon. I want Scrope brought to book before the Sagittarius or Bowman does it for me.’
‘The Bowman,’ Edward explained. ‘A mysterious killer who appeared in Mistleham without warning just after the New Year, as if that town didn’t have enough problems. An archer, a skilled one, armed with a longbow, the type we brought from Wales. He announces his coming only by the blast of a hunting horn. Some people claim he’s Satan, or a ghost or one of the Free Brethren come back to haunt them. When the horn blows, somewhere in Mistleham, or on the roads outside, a person always dies: a wellplaced arrow to the throat, face or chest. So far five or six people have been killed in this way. Most of them young, cut down like running deer.’
‘Attempts have been made to capture him?’
‘Of course.’ Edward laughed drily. ‘Hugh, you’ve served in Wales; think of the power of those longbows. Yew staffs, the ash arrow whistling through the air. A master bowman, a skilled archer, can be a silent, deadly killer. Shafts can be loosed in a matter of heartbeats, then he disappears into the forest or an alleyway with no sight or sound.’
‘You mentioned the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit. Could any of them have survived the massacre and be exacting vengeance?’
‘I doubt it,’ Edward replied, chewing the corner of his lip. ‘The Free Brethren apparently carried no arms, though there are rumours to the contrary. Even if they did, such people are not skilled in the arts of war.’
‘And this is not directed against Lord Scrope but the townspeople of Mistleham?’
‘Well it could be.’ Edward paused. ‘Hugh, Lord Scrope committed murder. If the Free Brethren had perpetrated a felony, they should have appeared before the justices of oyer and terminer or even been summoned before the assizes, but to be brutally cut down, massacred? Now I can’t appear to be protecting a group of wandering rogues against a manor lord, definitely not one as powerful as Scrope, but if this bowman continues his attacks, sooner or later people will look for a scapegoat. I don’t want some uprising in Essex. I want the matter brought to an end, and you’re the best man to do that.’
‘And you are sure, none of the Free Brethren survived?’
‘I doubt it. Father Thomas reports there were fourteen in number, and there were fourteen corpses, each carrying the brand of their guild upon them. A cross,’ Edward patted his chest just beneath his throat, ‘here. Father Thomas tried to reason with Scrope, but that ruthless bastard is adamant. The corpses still remain unburied. No one escaped.’ The King sucked on his lips, then gestured round. ‘You must be wondering why I brought you here. This is my treasure house, Corbett – evilly looted. I kept my precious goods here, gifts from old friends and Eleanor …’ He blinked away the tears that always came when he mentioned his beloved first wife, Eleanor of Castile, now buried beneath her marble mausoleum in the abbey above them. ‘You know the story, Corbett? I was in Outremer when my father died. Eleanor was with me. A secret sect of assassins who lived with their master, the Old Man of the Mountains, in their rocky eyrie in the Syrian desert, had marked me down for death. They struck, the assassin stealing into my tent with a poisoned dagger. I killed him but he still wounded me. Eleanor, God love her, sucked the poison from the gash and saved me.’ Edward sighed noisily. ‘I dedicated the dagger to St Edward the Confessor and placed it here in the crypt. Those whoresons stole it! One of the gang, John Le Riche, tried to sell it in Mistleham, but he was trapped by Scrope and his minion Claypole. They hanged Le Riche out of hand and now hold the dagger. Scrope, to impress me, is acting the hero-saviour, but I don’t believe his tale. I want that dagger back and the truth behind Le Riche’s abrupt capture and even swifter execution. Do what you have to.’ Edward searched in his wallet, pulled out a small scroll and handed this to Corbett, who unrolled it. The writing was in the King’s hand, the writ sealed with his privy seal: ‘To all officers of the Crown, sheriffs, bailiffs and mayors. What the bearer of this letter has done, or is doing, is in the King’s name and for the benefit of both Crown and Realm …’
‘Sir Hugh, master!’ Hugh broke from his reverie and glanced quickly to his right. Ranulf, who had been studying him closely ever since they left Westminster, gestured ahead. ‘We are approaching London Bridge, master.’ He smiled. ‘It’s best if we are vigilant.’
Corbett gazed around. This was a part of the city where one’s wits and sword must be sharp and ready. A bank of mist was rolling in from the Thames. The roar of the river as it poured through the arches of London Bridge, breaking around the protective starlings, sounded like a roll of drums, not quite drowning the clamour of people surging along the busy thoroughfare overlooking the river bank. The cries and yells of watermen, bargemasters and weary rowers mingled with the shouts of traders and their apprentices offering a variety of goods from hot pies to leather bottles. A group of enterprising hawkers had set up stalls to sell wineskins, purses, leather laces, deerskin bags, belts and all sorts of medicinal herbs to those making their way down to Westminster, up on to the bridge or further north to the gloomy mass of the Tower. Another line of suspicious-looking marketeers offered fur from ‘monstrous, mysterious beasts in the East with fair heads, bodies as black as mulberry, with crimson backs and multicoloured tails’. These itinerant traders were now being carefully questioned by market beadles over their licence to sell in the area.
Corbett surveyed the crowd, watchful against any violence or protest at the royal standard Chanson had displayed, yet apart from a yell deep in the crowd about how the King’s testicles should be enshrined in a hog’s turd, there was no open resentment. Business certainly looked brisk, as was royal justice. The stocks and thews were full of street-walkers, ribalds and drunkards, not to mention the sky-farmers, counterfeit men caught red-handed in their trickery. A butcher guilty of selling foul meat had been singled out for special treatment; he was forced to stand in a cart beneath the gallows with the rotting entrails of a pig wound around his throat and the lower part of his face to rest just beneath his nose. A man who’d pulled the hair of an archdeacon in a brawl was now having his own plucked out. The screaming victim was being stridently lectured how, when punishment was finished, he must walk barefoot across the bridge three times with scourgers following behind. A little further on a wandering preacher pointed to an execution cart, its wicker baskets full of the remains of Scottish rebels, beheaded, quartered and pickled, to be displayed on London Bridge. He openly warned: ‘Man born of a woman lives only for an hour. His days are bound in wretchedness and woe! He bursts forth like blossom only to fall quickly to the ground, to pass away like a shadow, nowhere to be found.’
Closer to the entrance to London Bridge, great beacon fires blazed in empty pitch casks. Around these gathered the poor, the infirm, drooling beggars and the dribbling insane. Franciscans dressed in coarse brown robes moved amongst these offering bread and strips of boiled meat. The sick and their ministers rubbed shoulders with the serjeants-at-law moving up and down to the courts of Westminster, all adorned in their splendid scarlet robes and pure white silk coifs. Along the river’s edge ranged a line of scaffolds decorated with stiffened frozen cadavers on whose shoulders kites, ravens and crows settled to pick and pluck at brain or eye whilst women squatting beneath the gibbets offered scraps of clothing from the hanged as talismans against ill luck.
Corbett took in all these scenes, the tawdry, the macabre, the swirl of evil and good. He pulled up his cowl and stared at a group of Flagellantes, garbed only in linen shifts from waist to ankle, their backs laid bare. These shuffled in a line, intoning the verse of a psalm as they hit each other with whips tied into thongs and pierced with needles; the blood cascaded down their bodies to soak their linen shifts and stain their feet. Corbett muttered a prayer to himself. He must leave the soft warmth of Maeve’s world. He was about to enter the Meadows of Murder, go through the Valley of the Deadly Shadow. Behind him, Ranulf noticed his master’s agitation and breathed a sigh of relief. Master Long Face, as he secretly called Corbett, was breaking free of his Christmas dream.
Ranulf, if the truth be known, had been bored during the holy days, more concerned about his own career prospects and very wary of the sharp-eyed, keen-witted Lady Maeve. Now, he clicked his tongue, the game had begun again. He recalled with relish his own secret meeting with the King after the Jesus Mass earlier that day. Corbett and Lady Maeve had followed the King out of St Stephen’s Chapel, then moved to greet the Chief Justices, Hengham and Staunton. The King had plucked Ranulf by the sleeve and shepherded him into a window embrasure overlooking the old palace yard. Edward had pulled him close, eyes gleaming like those of a hunting cat.
‘You’ll be off to Mistleham in Essex, Master Ranulf.’
‘Yes, your grace.’
‘Take care of Brother Corbett.’
‘Yes, your grace.’
‘You’re ambitious, Master Ranulf, keen as a limner. I can do much for you.’ The King was so close Ranulf smelt the fragrance of the sweet altar wine he had drank at the Eucharist. ‘Keep a sharp eye on Lord Scrope, a bustling, evil man with a vile temper and murderous moods.’
‘Yes, your grace.’
‘Yes, your grace,’ Edward echoed. ‘Yet I tell you this, Master Ranulf, if Scrope threatens Corbett, if he is a danger with that foul temper of his …’ He glanced away.
‘Kill him, Master Ranulf, kill Scrope! Show no mercy to that rebel who has taken the law into his own hands!’
‘By what right, your grace?’
‘By my right, Master Ranulf. Keep this close, for you and you only.’ Edward pushed a sealed scroll into Ranulf’s hand and left.
The Principal Clerk in the Chancery of the Green Wax had opened the scroll and read the message: ‘Edward the King to all officials of the Crown, sheriffs, bailiffs and mayor, know this, what the bearer of this letter has done he has done for the good of the King and the safety of the realm.’
NIGHTSHADE. Copyright © 2008 by Paul Doherty. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.