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The Bones of Avalon

The Bones of Avalon

4.4 5
by Phil Rickman

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A country divided. A newly crowned, desperately vulnerable young queen. Can one man uncover the secret that will save her throne?

It is 1560, and Elizabeth Tudor has been on the throne for a year. Dr. John Dee, at 32 already acclaimed throughout Europe, is her astrologer and consultant in the hidden arts… a controversial appointment in these days of


A country divided. A newly crowned, desperately vulnerable young queen. Can one man uncover the secret that will save her throne?

It is 1560, and Elizabeth Tudor has been on the throne for a year. Dr. John Dee, at 32 already acclaimed throughout Europe, is her astrologer and consultant in the hidden arts… a controversial appointment in these days of superstition and religious strife.

When dangerous questions of Elizabeth's legitimacy arise, the mild, bookish Dee finds himself summoned before William Cecil, who tasks him with an important mission. Along with Robert Dudley, Dee's daring friend and former student who is also rumored to be the Queen's secret lover, Dee must travel to the famously mystical town of Glastonbury to find the missing bones of King Arthur. Once these long-lost relics, the embodiment of a legacy vitally important to the Tudor line, are ensconced in London, doubts as to the Queen's supremacy as the rightful Tudor heir will be dispelled.

But the quest quickly turns deadly—Dee and Dudley arrive in Glastonbury to discover the town mourning the gruesome execution of its abbot, and more death soon follows at the old abbey. Racing to uncover the secrets buried there, Dee finds himself caught in the tangled roots of English magic, unexpected violence, the breathless stirring of first love… and the cold heart of a complex plot against Elizabeth.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Elizabeth I's controversial astrologer, John Dee, takes center stage in this serviceable thriller set in 1560 from British author Rickman (To Dream of the Dead and nine other Merrily Watkins mysteries). Sir William Cecil, the monarch's chief adviser, dispatches Dee to Glastonbury, to find King Arthur's bones and bring them back to London. Intended to bolster the young queen's standing, the relics are to be housed in a new, elaborate shrine. Soon after arriving in Glastonbury, Dee's team, which includes the man rumored to be Elizabeth's lover, must deal with a gruesome murder. Unfortunately, Rickman's portrayal doesn't do justice to the intriguing Dee, who was also a mathematician. In addition, the story line is less compelling than those of other recent Elizabethan historicals by Rory Clements and S.J. Parris. (June)
From the Publisher
Praise for The Bones of Avalon

"Phil Rickman is one of my all-time favorites…. He's done it again, with his usual sense of permeating atmosphere, with vivid characters in a complex plot that grows through the bones of history like a deadly nightshade."Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of An Echo in the Bone

"With his supernatural touch, a terrifying plot involving a necromancer, Glastonbury, King Arthur’s bones, and superb research, Phil Rickman takes us back brilliantly into the dark world of the first Elizabethans." —Ariana Franklin, national bestselling author of A Murderous Procession

“Shadowed with his hallmark eeriness and full of richly drawn landscapes and fascinating characters, The Bones of Avalon is just the sort of uncanny, page-turning wonder that I’ve come to expect from Phil Rickman. What’s new is the magnificent sweep of Elizabethan England and tantalizing legends of King Arthur. A glorious read.” —Jennifer Lee Carrell, international bestselling author of Interred with Their Bones

“For those of us waiting with bated breath for the next installment in C.J. Sansom's marvelous Matthew Shardlake murder mysteries set in Tudor England, heed my words: Phil Rickman and his John Dee have arrived! … The novel chills, thrills and satisfies, providing good history, great plot, and fascinating characters. Pull up a chair, turn off the phone, and settle in for a most delectable read… The Bones of Avalon is a fabulous read and John Dee is a marvelous addition to the world of Tudor intrigue.” –HuffingtonPost.com

“A historical thriller with a touch of romance and more than a hint of necromancy… Brilliantly imagined and grippingly executed.” —The Times (London)

“In this compelling and historically convincing novel, [Rickman] recreates a world of religious and political uncertainty where one man’s science is another man’s witchcraft, and where the mundane and the mystical rub shoulders… An assured and compelling opening to a new historical series.” –The Spectator

"Rickman, who’s wending his way through Welsh history, myth and mores (the Merrily Watkins series), revisits many of the real-life characters he wrote of in The Chalice (1997, etc.) with admirable scholarship and verve, making a John Dee sequel something to look forward to." —Kirkus

“This wonderful stand alone immediately draws the reader into danger and mystery, focused on Dr. John Dee, astrologer to Elizabeth I.  If readers are lucky, this will turn into a series featuring one of the most fascinating historical figures of the period.” –RT Book Reviews, 4 ½ stars, Top Pick

“An immaculate Elizabethan mystery, beautifully written, cunningly contrived. John Dee himself could not have conjured up anything finer.” –Michael Gregorio, author of Critique of Criminal Reason

“Phil Rickman's The Bones of Avalon is a treasure chest that, once opened, transports the reader back in time to one of our planet's most perilous eras… With its numerous descriptions of Medieval barbarism, savagery and hardship, The Bones of Avalon is a most enthralling read that engrossed me from cover to cover. It was as though a spell had been cast over me, forcing me to keep reading…. An epic journey of Medieval adventure and horror. Every fan of historical mysteries needs to embark on it. It has a twisting, suspenseful plot with numerous shocks.” —gumshoereview.com

Kirkus Reviews

Catholics, Protestants, faeries, torture and love during the reign of Elizabeth I.

Elizabeth, superstitious and chary of a prediction promising disaster unless she can find and bring King Arthur's bones to a glorious resting place, sends Robert Dudley, Master of the Horse (and perhaps her lover), and Dr.John Dee, scholar and astronomer, off to Glastonbury, purportedly the site of Arthur's burial place, although his bones disappeared when Cromwell had the abbey destroyed. Traveling incognito as the Queen's Commission on Antiquities, Dudley is felled by fever, and Dr. Dee runs afoul of Sir Edmund Fyche, who through lies and treachery oversaw the execution of herbalist Cate Borrow, and now seems determined to have her daughter Eleanor hanged as a witch. The lives of both women were entwined with the work of mad geographer John Leland, whose lost writings about a terrestrial Zodiac may hold the key to Arthur's burial place. But Dr. Dee's obsession with saving Eleanor and the quest for those bones is stymied not only by the usual Francophiles seething with distaste for Elizabeth but also by Benlow the Bone-Man, who sells fake relics; Fyche's cruel son Stephen, who thrills in maiming his adversaries; Joan Tyrre and the faerie folk gathering on the Tor; and anthrax, the fatal wool-sorter's disease. While contending with demons both mystical and real, Dr. Dee uncovers a plot masterminded by the seer Nostradame to turn Elizabeth's heritage and gullibility against her.

Rickman, who's wending his way through Welsh history, myth and mores (the Merrily Watkins series), revisits many of the real-life characters he wrote of in The Chalice(1997, etc.) with admirable scholarship and verve, making a John Dee sequel something to look forward to.

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THE BONES OF AVALON (I: Lest Graves Be Open)

Mortlake, February, 1560.

MY MOTHER'S ONLY servant disappeared on the night we needed it least. The eve of the Queen's visit. And of Candlemas.

Catherine Meadows had been a quiet maid. Efficient, demure and, more important, discreet. The first servant I'd let dust, or even enter, my library. Given the afternoon for herself, she'd left the house shortly before noon.

Less than an hour, this was, before the Queen's messenger had come to alert us of her arrival here on the morrow. The Queen! God, my poor mother had gone wild: so much to do, and no servant to do it!

No more peace for me this day, then. By six, the moon was over the river, cold-haloed, and then came the first wash of stars, and still no sign of Catherine Meadows. Although I work best at night, when all is quiet, by half past eight I was obliged to close my books, douse my candles, unhook my long brown coat and venture into the bone-raw February night to inquire after her.

Maybe, in some inner vessel of my being, I had the inkling of an approaching menace. Who can truly say? I've oft-times wished such occult portents were more clear and direct, but - nature's bitter irony - it's rarely been that way for me.


A well-lit night - on the edge of a thaw, I felt, yet still hard as crystal. Hoar frost swelling the twigs and branches of our orchard as I walked out, without a lantern. Out towards the edge of the village and London town, calling first at a smoky old tavern, where I knew the man I sought spent an hour or so most evenings. But he was not amongst the drinkers this night, and hard-faced men were staring at me, so I slipped away and went further along the road to his cottage and found him there.

'Ah, now, as it happened, Dr John, she come to me mid-afternoon. About her gran, Goodwife Carter - took bad.'

Jack Simm, once an apothecary, now my mother's occasional gardener. His cottage, on the edge of a copse of oak and thorn, was strong-built and snug and far warmer than our house - unwise, therefore, to go in, lest I end up passing the whole night before his fire.

'Bad how?'

We always fear the worst. Smallpox, usually.

'Back trouble,' Jack Simm said. 'Bits of her spine took a walk, I reckon. Not my field, really. I left some wintergreen balm and give Cath a message to take to Gerald. The bone-twister?'

'Who's that, Jack?' A woman's voice from the firelit, herb-smelling interior. 'Who's out there?'

'Dr John, Sarah. No problem.' White-bearded Jack stepping out of the doorway, stained sacking belted around his waist, no boots. 'You want me to ride out to their farm for you, Dr John? Won't take--'

'No, no. Too many robbers about. She'll be back at first light, I'm sure. Go to your fire, Jack, and your wife. I'm sorry to have bothered you.'

But Jack Simm was pulling the door shut behind him and shambling out to join me at the roadside. Rubbing his hands together and wincing as he shifted from one unshod foot to the other on the frozen mud.

'God's bones, I'll be bleedin' glad to see some sign of a warming.'

'Candlemas tomorrow,' I said. 'The first gleaming of spring in the olden days.'

'Yeah, well, the sun was kinder in the olden days. Dr John--' Clearing rough phlegm from his throat, lowering his voice. 'There's things I wouldn't say in front of Sarah, a good woman but she gossips. Don't mean to but she does. Here's the truth of it. The Meadowses...A religious family, now. If you understand me.'

For the past two years, at summer's close, Jack Simm had harvested herbs for me, including the small mushrooms which, when brewed, can bring on visions. We understood one another well.

'The father,' he said. 'Always the bleedin' father, innit?'

'Hot gospel?'

'Of an extreme kind.'

'Is there another kind?'

Used to be only priests; now any man might think himself chosen by God as a device. Jack talked, in some dismay, of Abel Meadows - built like a chimney stack, Bible brandished as a weapon.

'You mean he's finally realised who his daughter's working for,' I said. 'That's what this is about?'

'Comes here day 'fore yesterday, blethering about the end of time, like we got maybe weeks. Then he's asking about the habits of Mistress Dee.'

'Mistress Dee? The bastard!'

'I says, Master Meadows, I says, you'll find that woman in church four times on Sundays and a good hour every weekday.'

'True. Thank you. And, um...the son of Mistress Dee?'

Both of us knowing with what pious delight a religious extremist would delve amongst ill-informed rumour.

'He never spoke your name,' Jack Simm said.

It felt very cold now, the woods all acrackle with the movement of some night creature. I opened my hands to the freezing air.

'All right. What are they saying?'

'They're just ignorant folk, Dr John.' Jack Simm took a step back, blew out a steam of breath. 'Spells?'

'And divination?'

'Yea, yea. And conjuring of spirits from out the darkness - the nights, naturally, being a whole lot darker around your ma's house when you're there. 'Tis said that no man who fears for his immortal soul oughta go past your place beyond sunset, nor walk in Mortlake churchyard lest graves be open. Tell me when you've heard enough.'

God. Slowly shaking my head. You come home at Christmas, applause from the lecture halls of Europe still resounding in your ears, to find you've become a figure of fear and opprobrium in your own neighbourhood.

'You know what didn't help?' Jack said. 'The owl.'

'It's a toy.'

'Go to! Twice the size of a real owl and its eyes all lit up? And it's making...wooh...wooh...?' Jack flapping his arms as the owl would with his wings.

'The village children liked him.'

'Yeah, whilst their parents thought demons lived in him.'

'All that's in him-' I sighed '- is a cunning system of small pulleys and hidden hinges, and the eyes are an arrangement of shards of mirror-glass and--'

'That don't bleedin' matter! It's what they see, innit? Sometimes you don't help yourself is all I'm saying. Rumour and gossip, Dr John, rumour and gossip.'

The real demons. Jack Simm had given up his shop in the city because of fears of persecution during Mary's reign by Bishop Bonner who was now - God help us all - my friend.

'Oh, and Meadows...he says he's heard as how you're building a temple to worship the moon?'



'To watch the paths of the stars.' I sighed. 'Or at least...one day. When I raise the money.'

Both of us standing there, dismayed. Much shaking of heads. Star temple, worship of the moon. Jesu. At length, Jack Simm clapped me reassuringly upon the shoulder.

'Nah, listen, she'll be back.'


'The goodwife finks of the money. Meadows buggered that up, he'd get some real stick. What you reckon: wrath of God or a vengeful wife?'

I nodded. A close call, even for a Bible man.

'Anyhow, what I told him.... I said you was working on secret navigation devices for the navy. Reminding him how highly you was rated by the--'



An icicle cracked above the doorway.

'She comes here tomorrow.'


I said nothing. Jack let go a thin whistle. Might've been admiration but pity seemed more likely.

'Again? It was me, I tell you, I'd be spending the rest of the night shivering in me privy. But I suppose when you've known her since she was young...'

'Young still, Jack.'

'Nah, they grows up fast under a crown. All fresh and dewy on the outside; underneath, skin like a lizard. What's the occasion?'

It was over a month now since the incident of the effigy and not a word, so it seemed unlikely to be that.

'I don't truly know,' I said. 'She has an interest in my work...'

'The navigation, this would be?' He may have winked. 'Well, best be going in. Can't seem to feel me toes no more. Good luck to you, Dr John.'

For some reason, Jack Simm found me amusing.


Walking away, my left boot slid across a frozen wheel-rut, and I stumbled. An old man had broken his leg not far from here just a fortnight ago and was not found until morning. Dead by then of the cold.

No use hurrying, anyway; there'd be time for no more work this night. I'd need to help my mother prepare our house for the visit of the Queen...even though I knew the Queen would not enter it.

Hobbled into Mortlake High Street, past the school run by nuns for poor children - well intentioned, but a poor child with a little education would often simply be sold by its parents at the first opportunity. Candles still aglow far back in the school chapel, but the nearby Church of St Mary was black. A big modern church only slightly more interesting amid night shadow than it was by daylight. I should have liked to see a proper steeple - some symbol of a soaring spiritual ambition.

Not that anyone in recent years has dared soar. Not since I was a child. Nowadays, only a fool kneels before God without first glancing over his shoulder, or prays too long with eyes closed. All is confusion. Vision and spirit are fled. How quickly can rational thought progress now in England, with zealots like Abel Meadows on the march, warning of a fast-approaching apocalypse? For which, of course, there's no scientific evidence whatsoever.

Candlemas tomorrow. Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, when the candles were blessed. And no-one knows what to do about it any more. In some churches the blessing of candles is a secret ritual.

Pausing now, by the coffin gate. In the icy night, the stars - the energy of stars - felt real and close. Bright orbs, each one familiar, dancing in a formal complexity as satisfying to me as a well-wrought knot garden in the heavens. My garden.

A familiar wild excitement arose in me, like to a moon-drawn tide. Closing my eyes, holding out my hands into the palpitating air, open to the nudging, flittering interplay of invisible vibrations, sensing sacred splinters of ice-white light in flow through my body - rendered, in my imagination, transparent in the cold blue night.

Thus, failing to see my mother until she was upon me.

'Head in the stars, as ever, when it's not in a book. Well? Did you find her?'

Jane, the widow Dee. A tallish woman, still straight, although nearing sixty years. She held up her lantern to my face as if to be full sure that it actually was me.

'No.' I relieved her of the lamp as we walked. Not the time to tell her about the madness of Abel Meadows. 'But I did find out that she has troubles at home. Illness in the family.'


My mother taking a rapid step back. The rushing of breath into her throat.

'No, Mother...no suggestion of that. She went to get help for her grandmother - to the bone-twister. Probably didn't get back home before it was too dark to return here safely.'

'Well then, she ought to have sent word.'

How? I was about to ask her, but the night was too advanced for argument.

'Yes,' I conceded. 'It's not like her not to send word.'

'Now I shall have no sleep.' My mother expelled a martyr's sigh. 'We should have two servants. Always used to.'

I said nothing. There was nothing to be said. I was a scholar, and the monetary rewards for learning were yet meagre.

'Someone older.' My mother was winding her winter cloak tight around her. 'With such a young woman on the throne, lesser young women seem to think they have some new freedom to behave as they like.'

I had to smile. By young woman she meant flighty, irresponsible. A queen who was laughing openly in the teeming streets on her coronation day and waving in glee to the crowd. Acknowledging the common horde - what was our society coming to?

My own heart, I should assure you, had been alight that coronation day, relishing the rush of such spontaneous goodwill as I'd never known in a public place, even at Christmas. Sunday, the fifteenth of January, Fifteen Hundred and Fifty Nine. Just over a year ago. The choice of this auspicious date having been made by the heavens and interpreted through my charts, and I'd been weak with relief, for if the day had gone badly...

'What's more -' Jane Dee refusing to let it go - 'it was market day today. Now we have no fresh fare. On this, of all days.'

'We'll get by.'

'Get by?' My mother, horrorstruck, let the hem of her heavy cloak fall to the road. 'Oh yes - as if the body can be sustained by lofty intellect and little else. Your poor, blessed father, if he could hear you now--'

Exasperated, she stalked across the frost-furred street to enter through our open gate. In truth, my poor blessed tad would have understood too well - all the stories he'd told us of the titanic quantities of waste scraped from the late King Harry's boards. Like stoking a particularly temperamental furnace, he'd remarked once, memorably, after too much wine.

I stood for a moment in the middle of the lane. No movement in the shining night, not even a slinking fox. Few candles still burning behind our neighbours' frozen windows. The richer houses here are set back further from the river. Our own, not the most graceful of dwellings, is built partly on stilts because of the threat of flooding. I called out, across the roadway.

'Mother, you know she won't come in. She never comes in.'

When I was last here, in the autumn, Elizabeth had arrived at this gate with her company, and I'd gone out to her, and that was where we'd remained. When I'd wanted her to see my books, she wouldn't. Didn't have time. Had to be off. Queenly things to do.

Still, given the size of her train, if we'd had to feed them all we'd've been on stale bread and small beer for a month.

'John...are you part of this world?' My mother spinning at the gateway, her cloak a billowing of shadow. 'Just because she hasn't passed our threshold thus far, who's to say that on such a cold winter's morn she won't find herself in sore need of sustenance and a hot drink? Who's to say?' She sniffed. 'Probably not you, who sees only the need to feed his learning.'

Always in two minds about my career, Mistress Jane Dee.

And who truly could blame her?


For an hour or more beyond midnight, I lay open-eyed in my bedchamber, one of the house cats curled up at my feet, and thought about the nature of time, how we might make more of it. One lifetime was never going to be enough. A flimsy thing, a stuttering from a candle, then gone. If not extinguished prematurely by some...miscalculation.

In Paris, in the week I was preparing to leave, all the talk had been of an elixir of life. I didn't believe it. If there's a method of prolonging existence, it will never come in a stoppered flask but will be part of some inner process. When I was sent up to Cambridge, at fifteen, I decided one simple step towards an extension of time was to minimise the hours of sleep.

I knew I was lucky to be at the college, for Tad was not as rich as he liked everyone to think. Also knew, too well, that we lived in dangerous times and that the King he served, like to a huge bellows, blew hot and then deathly cold. I was certainly under no illusion that I'd be allowed to remain long at Cambridge, and so I'd hurled myself into study, reducing sleep to little more than three hours a night, all fatigue flattened under the urgency of learning.

Thus, I can still work long hours without sleep, when it's called for. But now I'll accept that this is partly because...well, because I'm a little afraid of it. Afraid of sleep, which is death's bedfellow. And of dreams, which give form to the deepest of fears.


And did, by means of sorcery, attempt to kill or grievously harm Her Majesty...


Take him.

Lurching up in bed, breathing hard.

For God's sake, it's a different queen.


No such accusations against my tad, but his Protestant's fall, under Queen Mary's purge, had been total. They took everything he owned, except for this house. By that time, I was almost famous in Europe, for my learning. In Paris, they'd stood on boards and crowded outside open windows to hear me lecture on Euclid. Famous men had come to consult me at Louvain. Whilst in England...

In England, even living once again in my mother's house, I couldn't afford to build an observatory, nor pay more than a single servant full-time.

This is yet a backward country.

Next summer, in July, I would be thirty-three years old. My God, the journey perchance more than half over, and so much left to do, so much yet to know.

The cold moon lit my wall betwixt the timbers. The cat purred. The scent of pastry still lay upon the air - my mother having laboured until close to midnight in the kitchen, baking and making what preparations she could in case the only surviving child of the late Harry should deign to cross our threshold with half an army in attendance. Me trying to help her but being sent away, in the end...for how could I welcome the Queen to Mortlake all wrinkle-eyed and slow from lack of rest?

So, I slept and fell into the worst of my recurring dreams.

My hands are tied behind me, my back is hard against the wood, my eyes are closed and I'm wondering when they'll do it.

Listening for the crackle, waiting for the heat.

There's a silence. I'm thinking, they've gone. They're not going to do it after all. I've been pardoned. I'm to be freed.

And open my eyes to a fine blue sky over London, with all its spires. Thinking to float away into it. Thinking of some way to free my hands and looking down...

...to find my thighs turned black and crisp, incinerated into flaking husks which, like Jack Simm and his frosted toes, I can no longer feel. My legs gone to blackened bone. The remains of my feet lying some distance away in the smouldering ash.

This is when I awake, down on the floorboards, having rolled away in a blind terror from the sudden roaring, guzzling heat and a ghastly sense of hell's halo around my head.

THE BONES OF AVALON Copyright © 2010 by Phil Rickman

Meet the Author

PHIL RICKMAN lives on the Welsh border with his wife Carol. He has worked as a BBC radio and TV reporter, and he currently writes and presents the book program "Phil the Shelf' on BBC Radio Wales. He is also the author of the internationally bestselling crime series featuring Merrily Watkins. Visit him online at PhilRickman.co.uk.

Phil Rickman lives on the Welsh border with his wife Carol. He has worked as a BBC radio and TV reporter, and he writes and presents the book program "Phil the Shelf" on BBC Radio Wales. He is also the author of the internationally bestselling crime series featuring Merrily Watkins. He is the author of The Bones of Avalon.

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The Bones of Avalon 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Sekhautet0 More than 1 year ago
The Bones of Avalon is the first Phil Rickman I have read and it did not disappoint. I love a good Elizabethan book and this murder mystery was well researched. In 1560, Queen Elizabeth commissions Dr. John Dee to return King Arthur's bones to England. But upon arrival in the legendary town of Glastonbury, Dr. John Dee becomes entwined in a plot of murder, intrigue, legend, and romance. And is someone out to kill the queen? Do not miss this one!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A quick read and entertaining.
Dreamshadow_6 More than 1 year ago
Once again Phil Rickman delivers a book that will not just keep you on your toes but one that is totally engrossing. Although it is much different than his typical horror novels like Crybbe or Chalice (both are totally awesome reads!!!), there is still a haunting theme wound throughout the plot. Set during the tumultous reign of Elizabeth I, daughter of Anne Bolynn and Henry VIII, the focus is placed upon the historically unique charactor of John Dee. A man of science who was believed to be dabbling in the supernatural by his peers; he is tasked by the Queen to find and bring the bones of King Arthur from Glastonbury to London. Traveling to Glastonbury in secret with the Queen's infamous lover, he soon finds himself caught up in the tenuous web of an ancient prophesy linked to the Queen as well as local intrigue including murder and witchery. A totally engrossing read that I highly recommend!!!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago