The Sinner's Tale

The Sinner's Tale

2.0 2
by Will Davenport

From the acclaimed author of The Painter comes a mesmerizing novel of war, redemption, and love, as the timeless legacy of a medieval knight reaches across the centuries to help an embattled young woman discover that she can go home again.…


Raised in a remote English village, Beth Battock is now a beautiful and

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From the acclaimed author of The Painter comes a mesmerizing novel of war, redemption, and love, as the timeless legacy of a medieval knight reaches across the centuries to help an embattled young woman discover that she can go home again.…


Raised in a remote English village, Beth Battock is now a beautiful and ambitious rising star in British politics and a champion of America’s call to arms. But when a tawdry scandal threatens to destroy her career, Beth is forced to return to the one place no one will find her: Slapton, the provincial hometown she’s kept secret–and to the relatives she’s claimed are dead. There, sheltered by a constancy that both comforts and repels her, she discovers the enchanting tale of Sir Guy de Bryan. More than six hundred years later, his sweeping epic of the havoc wrought by war becomes a story for the present day. His love for a woman becomes the story of love itself. And as Beth becomes absorbed by his passions, his pain–and the mystery behind his fervent last wish–the shadows of the past begin shifting around her. From them will emerge the key to her restless spirit, the astounding truth of her own ancestry–and the powerful message a repentant knight once left behind that will challenge her deepest views.

Drawing from tantalizing historical fact, and echoing our most enduring classic tales of adventure and romance, this richly textured novel brilliantly blends history with current events, and offers unforgettable insights into the complexities of the human condition.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
Could a knight from olde England have an antiwar message for today's British government? Anything's possible in Davenport's mixed-up second novel. It's 1372, and Sir Guy de Bryan, veteran warrior and diplomat serving King Edward III, is leaving for Genoa on a vital trade mission. Behind him, in the village of Slapton, is a chapel where priests will sing Masses for his soul. Guy believes he has committed three great sins, and the details are buried like truffles, deep in the text. Once unearthed, two are clearly not sins at all; Guy is blaming himself for accidents beyond his control. The knight is almost unbearably virtuous; that's the view of Sir John Molyns, the impressive and underutilized villain. Molyns is a stone-cold killer, contemptuous of Guy's battlefield chivalry. Suddenly, vertigo, as Davenport fast-forwards to contemporary New York, where hawkish young Beth Battock, a British government aide, is assuring Americans of British support for preemptive war. Davenport's penchant for moving between centuries (see The Painter, 2003) is a shame. He's far more robust in the past. As for Beth's tenuous link to the 14th century, she's a direct descendant of the licentious priest who arranged Guy's masses; ever since, her family has continued to sing them. Davenport is on more solid ground going over the key episodes of Guy's life: the siege of Calais, the brushes with Molyns, two jousting tournaments for the hand of Elizabeth and his eventual blissful marriage to her. Towering above is the battle at Crecy, where Guy sanctioned the use of cannonballs and inadvertently ended the age of chivalry (his second big sin). This led to the antiwar Declaration inscribed in his chapel, which will inturn, after a series of absurd contrivances, be cited approvingly by the British Foreign Secretary, resigning to protest his country's support for war. The medieval episodes, like campfire tales, are enjoyable in their own right; otherwise, Davenport's latest is a mess.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.75(d)

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All my life I have been burdened with a good reputation. I do not deserve it. I will be ripped on the racks of Purgatory until the Day of Judgement for what I have done.

Do you know what that would be like? I'm not afraid of wounds. I have had plenty of them. In battle the pain arrives later and always passes in time. A man can stand that. To be burnt and torn and stabbed for a thousand ages is another thing entirely. The fear of it stalks in the animal form of my sin. It scratches at my door and leaps on me when I wake and I cannot keep it away. I am all the more guilty because my three sins came one after the other, a year between the first two and then two years to the third. I have confessed the first of them and been given inadequate penance. I have tried to confess the second but the priests will not see it my way. I have kept the third and greatest entirely to myself, saving it for my deathbed.

My wife Elizabeth shared that first sin and in the long and lonely years since she died, I have feared for her even more than for myself. Time crawls by in Purgatory and the punishment there is dreadful.

Now, in this year of 1372, on the day of the consecration of my chantry, I am given hope because I saw Elizabeth again. I looked up from where I was doing my stiff best to kneel in prayer and I saw her standing up there in the new stained glass blazing with sunlight. She was young again and she spoke with that angelic voice which always plucked directly at my heart, and she used it to bring me a gift.

I have been trying to make up for my second sin, you see. It took place in war and was a sin of omission, an act I failed to prevent. War has battered into me the slow realisation that it is man's most natural state, a base business painted with glory only for disguise. But this act was the basest of its parts. I will speak out now as I should have spoken then. Our war with France has lasted all my adult life, and now at last I know the shape of what I want to say. For an entire year I have been struggling for the right words. Then she came to me and flamed up there in the December sun. Elizabeth, a creature of pure light, gave me my opening line.

"Old men who stay behind," she said, "old men who stay behind, do not inflame the young with words of war."

Perhaps it came from inside me and not from her at all, but I don't think so.

There are days which lie in ambush for you from the moment you are born. I had thought it was a day of endings, the dedication of my chapel, the setting in stone of the knowledge that came too late, my plea for forgiveness. But before this winter day was finished I was to meet a man who would make me look at it all afresh.

As I stared up above the altar, Elizabeth slipped away from where she had stood smiling in the window and there was the Madonna Maria Virgine in her place, no less fine than she ought to be, but a picture on flat glass and no more than that. I fought down my keen regret, because one should never feel regret at the sight of the Madonna and there was some comfort to be taken. Elizabeth had seemed serene and the Madonna had let her share her space. She could be saved.

When Elizabeth died thirteen years ago, I had Hugh's tomb in the Abbey opened and laid her next to him, and there they lie, the two Despensers, just as if she had never been Elizabeth de Bryan, just as if two of my sins had never taken place. As if I had never been. It was not because I thought she loved him more than me. Indeed, I knew that could not possibly be the case. We had our years together, Elizabeth and I, and though they started later than they should have done, they were as sweet a time as I could ever have hoped for. Together, we found a natural harmony in everything we did, and our marriage felt to me like a long-delayed arrival home. It was just that in the Abbey, in the immediate sight of God, there was sin to consider, and it seemed more proper that she should lie there with Hugh. When death comes for me they will put me close by, just across the aisle, in a tomb to match hers so that I will be but a hand-clasp away.

Hugh Despenser, you see, was the bravest and most admirable of men, and he had to steel himself, against his natural inclination, to act that way, which makes my sins all the greater because two of them were against him. We first fought side by side a quarter of a century ago at the crossing of the Somme. He won the day for us at Blanchetaque, struggling through the water to beat the enemy off the far bank. He saved an entire English army that day with heroism that took your breath away and should have taken his.

Bad memories are the hardest rock and stand out more and more as the softer stuff gets washed away. What happened two days later in that August of 1346 ranks among the worst. We were across that bloody valley and they were coming up at us in numbers you could not believe. It was a late summer evening and with the low sun behind us they stood out so clearly, every detail of their equipment and their weapons, the straps and the steel, as fine and precise as a painting. In the glare they could not see how thin we were in our tired lines. We were dark reapers against the sun and we scythed our enemies down until we were astonished by the slaughter and unsure if they would ever stop.

My post was by the King, up on the hill with his final reserve, and my duty was to watch, which is the hardest thing. They came in ranks a hundred soldiers wide, pushed forward by the weight of thousands more behind. Those behind had no clear view until those before them fell. Only then could they see that they were already as good as dead, invincible certainty draining into despair in the very last yards of their advance.

My second sin is coming with the smell of sulphur on its breath.

This tale will not allow the absence of its villain for a line longer, and there's a pity. Molyns the robber, Molyns the murderer. The King had hunted Sir John Molyns for his destructive violence. Now he was valued for that same quality. Now he was restored and stood there just ahead of me, down the line, about to commit a terrible act that I should have prevented him from doing.

My hands and my arms were shaking with exhaustion, holding the butt of the pole, and the wind whipped up again, billowing the length of the King's standard, the Dragon banner of Wessex, over my head. I was groaning from the concentrated effort it took to hold that standard upright and immobile, but I knew how much it mattered. The flag, tugging at me in the gusts, was the weathercock of the battle, the final symbol. You could see the men snatch glances behind for the evidence that the Royal Will did not waver, that the Royal Person was resolute, sharing their own danger. The upright immobility of that standard was the proof. All very fine, but chivalry died that day.

There, in the torn and bloody earth of Crecy, chivalry died and perhaps I could have saved it.

Still in my reverie, half nightmare, half myth, embellished over the years until it shone with the untrustworthy precision of a jewel from the devil's diadem, I was remembering that moment in August of 1346 when three horses, lashed together, thundered at us through the piles of the dead.

A drizzle of holy water across my cheek pulled me back from that past, back to my chantry. In this other folded valley, a mile inland from the marching waves of Start Bay, I was pretending to kneel down. I was the sole member of the congregation in my own brand-new chapel and there was nobody here bar the priest to spot that my backside was still supported by the edge of the pew and my knees were a hand-span short of resting on the hassock. If the priest had noticed, he would have said nothing. William Batokewaye knew what a beating these knees had taken in the service of the King; after all, he'd been there for much of it.

A fine mist of sawdust still filtered down from the roof's new-cut beams, filling the air with a spray of stained-glass sunlight. The pews smelt of sap and the stone itself showed the fresh face of sliced cheese. It was the forty-fourth year of the reign of His Royal Majesty King Edward III, and it should have been a red-letter day.

I watched William stumping up the aisle towards the altar as if he were attacking in the front rank of God's army. He had always been a good man in a tight corner. Within a year of losing his sword-arm to a Frenchman's axe, the stump barely healed, he had learnt a left-handed flick of the wrist which reaped soldiers like barley. These days, his only weapon was holy water, but that same left wrist flicked back and forth to spread eternal life just as it had once spread death.

"Wake up," rasped the priest, glancing back at me. "This is all for you, so you might at least pay attention."

For a moment, I wasn't quite sure which was then and which was now because that voice belonged to both times. But in those days the priest had all his limbs and I had a clear conscience.

He stopped his chanting and his spraying, gazed around him at all the gilt and the fresh paint and the glory of the place. He pulled an oddly irreligious face.

"It's done," he said, swiveling to stare at me. "Blessed and dedicated. Are you happy now? You should be."

I could only look at him, and perhaps he saw something in my eyes because he put his thurible down, reached out to take me by the arm, and helped me clamber to my feet.

"Come on. Outside," he said.

There was complete and unexpected peace in the courtyard. It was warm for December. I had expected the usual scraping and hammering of the masons working on the rest of my buildings, forgetting I had sent them all off to work in the quarry to guarantee silence for the consecration.
There was no sign of human life, or so I thought for a moment. Then a tiny movement up above caught my eye. They are as keen as they ever were, my eyes, and I depend on them all the more now that my body is no longer quite so agile. It has always been second nature to watch for that betraying movement in the undergrowth that might save you from an ambush.

There was a man up there on the high ground, the hill which overlooks my village and my chantry, and I saw him stand up.

"Tell me what's going on," William demanded, distracting me. We sat side by side on a bench, the priest folding his robe under him. He looked at the mud drying on the back of it.

"I wish you'd put drains down the street," he said. "I went right over on my arse."

"They like it the way it is, the villagers," I replied. "It's always been like that. You know that better than I. This was your place before you ever brought me here. I didn't even know about it until you told me."

"Slapton, eh?" said the priest, looking around him. "It's thirty years since I lived here last. There's no kin of mine left here now, and I feel almost a stranger. I went away to see the wider world and I've learnt to like a drier path to walk on. My grandfather used to call it Slipton because of that slippery old street. If I'm really going to live here again, I might have to do something about that." He looked around him and sniffed the air. "Now, shall we take stock? What have we got here exactly? One brand-new chapel, for the ease of souls and your soul in particular. One chapel, not staffed by one priest, oh, no. Not even staffed by two priests. Your chapel will be staffed by one chaplain, which is to be me, plus five priests and four clerks, at a cost, I am told, of forty pounds a year. Forty pounds a year forever. Not to mention a stone-built college for us all to live out the fullness of our lives in prayer, study, and, if I know anything about my fellow priests, in dice and wine and maybe even the odd woman."

I frowned.

"Oh, yes," he went on. "It won't all be holy and they may be very odd women."

That wasn't why I frowned. I knew William Batokewaye well enough to overlook the licence he had just allowed himself. I'd often heard he had a wife tucked out of sight, though if so, that was one of the few things he had ever tried to keep from me. My reputation again, you see. That sort of thing was allowed for lower orders but not for a mendicant friar as he was, or at least had been. Would he presume to bring her here to Slapton? That might test our friendship. I frowned because since that moment in the chapel the echoes of sweet Elizabeth's forgotten voice, waking all my love, had been gradually fading in my head and now, knowing I had lost the sound of her, I was bereft.

"My question is this," he said. "Forgive me, I'm not complaining. I look forward to a comfortable retirement from the rigours of the last thirty years. It is generous of you in the extreme to provide it, but quite apart from the fact that I would have been prepared to mumble Masses for you all day and most of the night for half that sum all by myself, what's it all for?" The priest was a year older than I and had been asking me that sort of question for as long as I could remember. Having no arm for defence, he only ever knew how to attack.

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Meet the Author

WILL DAVENPORT lives in an ancient mill in the southwest of England, only a few miles from the village of Slapton, where much of this story takes place. A former television news correspondent, he now spends much of his time on historical research and exploring ancient landscapes of the area.

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