Anchoress of Shere

Anchoress of Shere

by Paul L Moorcraft


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781464200519
Publisher: Poisoned Pen Press
Publication date: 10/02/2012
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Dr. Paul L. Moorcraft, a former war correspondent and film-producer, has written a series of books on politics, military and crime. After twenty-five years of travelling, he settled in Shere to write this book. His autobiographical Guns & Poses: Travels with an Occasional War Correspondent was published in 2001.

Read an Excerpt

Anchoress of Shere

By Paul L. Moorcraft

Poisoned Pen Press

Copyright © 2000 Paul Moorcraft.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1590580117

Chapter One

The Enclosure

The year of our Lord 1329

The bishop's gilded crosier shot into the air like the fist of God. It came down with a thump on cold stone, alongside his mud-splattered boots. John Stratford, Bishop of Winchester, shuffled as he completed the final blessing of the girl's enclosure.

    "Nomíne patre, filii et spiritus sancti," he intoned.

    The bells of St. James's church accompanied the dying echoes of the hallowed words as nature itself seemed to applaud the occasion. The beaten earth of the nave offered up a sudden surge of dampness and the early morning sunlight paid court to the eastern window, proudly haloing the rich, if crude, stained-glass impression of the patron saint. Even St. James himself nodded his assent, as three villagers later confirmed on oath.

    The final stone was placed and mortared into the northern wall of the chancel. All the months of instruction and years of devotion had at last converged in this final proof of God's grace. Christine had spent most of her eighteen years in the open air, working in the fields, but now she would see the world through two small holes. For the rest of her natural life the girl would live behind the stones. And it could be a long life, because she had been told that anchoresses in other shires of England had survived for thirty years or more.

    To dwell in the small medieval church was now her destiny. Gone was her previous life, a busy world of light and shade compared with her new inner life in her enclosure, utterly dark, except for two slim shafts of light. The squint and quatrefoil were cut on each side of an extended protrusion in the wall, like the bow of a ship. The squint permitted a sacred view of the altar while the carved clover of the quatrefoil enabled her to participate in the communion. These tiny stone windows would be the focus of her existence, the means of her immersion in total contemplation. She knew that a curtain, decorated with a raised golden cross, had been lifted temporarily to let her share this holy ceremony. Through the quatrefoil, to her right, she saw Father Peter, the priest of the parish of Shere. Pressing her face against the exterior wall, she sensed that she had caught his eye, and he smiled a little through his formal mask of piety, as kindness and weakness danced together in his small brown eyes. Her eyes had been closed in prayer, so had his, but just for a second, in the brief visual exchange, they had celebrated a little of the earthly friendship, that of student and teacher, which had fortified their spiritual endeavours.

    As the bishop completed the mass, Christine recited the words she had been taught, the words of St. Gregory: "In order to attain the Citadel of Contemplation you must begin by exercising yourself in the field of labour." She realised clearly that she had not yet cast off all the physical world for, when the chantry priest had reached the top note of the Magnificat, she thought—very fleetingly—of her favourite secular song, "Summer is a-coming in," which she had sung so often to her sister Margaret. She suffered a pang of doubt—but she had a lifetime to exile such baubles of her past. She would be enraptured by heavenly choirs, and her old songs would be like the croaking in the marshes of toads and frogs.

    Through the quatrefoil she watched the bishop lead a cowled procession from the altar along the nave of the church, incense cloying the atmosphere. Despite her sense of spiritual elation, she was angry with herself that she should feel frustrated by a column which partially obscured the last view of her family. Behind Father Peter, the girl could just see her mother, tired and fearful. Her father, William the Carpenter, stood absolutely still, betraying no emotion.

    The external curtain was dropped and her cell became completely black.

    She knelt to begin her initial twenty-eight hours of fasting and constant devotions. Except for a few sips of water, she prayed dutifully throughout all the canonical hours, from Terce to the following Sext. Christine had prepared herself, fully she believed, but she still felt the stiffness in her legs when she stood up after her hours of kneeling at prayer. She was also suddenly aware of the cold. Faintness began to creep over her, and she sat back on her rough stone bench.

    She remained sitting to regain her strength, which she tested by rising after a few minutes. The cell was just large enough to allow her to stand fully upright to explore her new domain. As she traced the walls with her hands, she cut her right forearm on the rough masonry, although the hurt was something she would train herself to ignore. She put her left hand over the gash and felt blood with her fingertips, raising them to her mouth to taste the blood now dedicated to her Saviour.

    "Bear in your heart the words of Christ, sprinkled with His blood," she quoted from the prayer.

     And, without thinking, she ran her bloodied hand over her head. Once she had worn her blond hair down to her waist, but now it was cropped close to the scalp as part of her preliminary penance. She had been proud of her hair, though that pride had been banished.

    Despite her vocation, Christine was still the practical daughter of a practical father, the best craftsman for many miles around, so she wanted to establish the precise details of her stone universe. Four feet from the bench, on the opposite outer wall, stood a heavy wooden trapdoor, opened only from the outside but inset with a small sliding iron grille, which she had licence to open and close. During her preparation she had been instructed how the parish priest, in silence, would bring her each week a large pitcher of water and bless it in front of her. She could drink sparingly and keep a little to wash herself. Every day, after Matins, her family would be allowed to donate food, sufficient for that day, and occasionally furnish her with a fresh robe. They would also take out and empty her night-soil bucket.

    Some weeks before, the bishop had loaned her a treasured copy of the Gospels. She could barely read the first line in the dim light, but the book had twelve gaudy illuminations of the saints, pictures to nourish her soul. When the curtain was lifted and she held the book to the shafts of daylight coming through her grille, she could see the words and pictures plainly. Except for her robe, her sandals, her bedding and her rosary, she had no other worldly goods in the cell, but that pleased her: she needed few earthly artefacts, for before her lay the immeasurable bounty of serving Jesus Christ. God loved prayers, she reminded herself, and these prayers would ascend to heaven, be stored in a treasury and later returned to her as part of her immortal glory. Her Heavenly Father would not only make her solitude bearable. Birth and death were solitary, so were thought and growth, and spiritual reward. Her single purpose now was to experience a foretaste of eternal sweetness, the mystical union with God, the crown of life on earth.

    It was the eleventh of August in the year of our Lord 1329. On the seventeenth of September, the fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, she would receive an extra woollen blanket for the winter cold. Christine was assured that God would protect His anchoress.

The telephone rang. The hands paused at the keyboard and reached for the phone. A wrong number. Cursing this intrusion of modern life, Father Michael Dural mumbled to himself about the casual caller who disturbed Coleridge when he was writing the story of Kubla Khan. The poet, he recalled, never returned to his unfinished masterpiece.

    "I will finish mine," he muttered defiantly. Stroking the sides of his old typewriter like a prize cat, Dural looked up at the plain wooden crucifix above his sparse, immaculately tidy desk. Focusing on the nine-inch Christ, he spoke to it as he did a hundred times a day: "I can do it; I can prove that God can still act through mankind."

    His first task was to complete his interpretative history of Christine Carpenter, the Anchoress of Shere. God had told Father Duval that He would guide him. Duval's quest was the pursuit of truth, not a mere collation of historical facts. His story would reveal the inner workings of God and, although he rejected the very idea of female priests, he knew God could speak to and through women, just as God whispered to him. All creation was a book which God had written and Duval's own work would follow His literary precedent.

    The priest returned to his work, his love. From deep within the almost suppressed memory of his childhood, he recalled, despite himself, the anguished look on his sister's face when their father ordered her, after a trivial misdemeanour, to "remove yourself to the broom cupboard until you are ready to rejoin civilised society." Duval imagined his sister trembling in the darkness. Involuntarily shaking his head to remove the unwelcome flash of memory, Duval pulled the page out of the typewriter, rolled it into a ball, and threw it very precisely into a wicker basket beside his desk.

    He ran both his strong hands through his abundant greying hair, and then placed them on the desk, flat and palm down, as if in Muslim prayer. He stared at the inch of bone and flesh missing from his right index finger. That had been a wound in the service of his mission, but he had also been a little too careless, too confident in himself.

    Trying to expunge doubts about his own faith, despite bouts of absolute certainty, the priest's mind swirled with conflicting thoughts. He went back to wrestling with the central issue of the biography of Christine Carpenter: to understand precisely why she opted for permanent entombment in the wall of the church. Was it a depth of asceticism—fanaticism—peculiar to the late Middle Ages? No. Duval calculated that it had to be a peculiarly personal decision. Such utter devotion to Christ could not be dismissed as a helpless sacrifice to the spirit of the age.

    He addressed his crucifix again: "Christine had to choose freely, because that is why God granted us free will. But why," he asked himself, "did she choose as she did?"

    The priest as writer needed to invent a tormentor, an agency which would provide the motive for Christine's entombment. He felt impelled to create the embodiment of evil, because he had become convinced that Christine's purity required an antithesis. If she came to love Christ in heaven, who better to hate than her earthly lord—to cast him as the central villain of the tale?

    Duval had scrupulously investigated the nature of evil. History had taught him that great leaders could dispense with God, but never a satanic scapegoat; the mass movements of recent history—communism, fascism, and for that matter capitalism—could flourish without a belief in God, but not without a belief in a devil. And even for those who presumed to eschew all "isms," nuclear destruction beckoned as a convenient symbol for all that was truly wicked. Evil was innate, the natural condition of man; what fascinated the priest was the really extraordinary facet of the human condition, the origin of goodness.

    Duval fingered his typewriter slowly, lovingly, as if it were a venerated church organ. Then he started to type furiously.

December 1326

Sir Richard FitzGeoffrey, despite his relatively humble estates, was an aggressive warrior, and renowned in his county as a crusader in the last doomed efforts to regain a foothold in the Holy Land. His demesne included all of Shere, Gomshall and Peaslake in the shire of Surrey. Sir Richard proudly traced his forebears directly to the Conqueror, and believed his French to be pure Norman, although his curses were base Anglo-Saxon. He saw himself as a warrior of Christ, just as long as the actual battles advanced his favour with his earthly king and increased his landed possessions. His two foreign forays had been careful: very bloody, but comparatively short for the long distances he had travelled. He had served his king in France and in the Levant, but slyly returned as soon as he could in order to secure his holdings at home. Jerusalem he regarded as a tool, not a vision.

    Sir Richard's men followed him in fear and awe. At home in his favourite tavern, Sir Richard's squire, Phillip of Gore, shall, would often hold court, regaling pilgrims and local villagers with tales of his master's ingenious treatment of captured Saracens.

    "It were near Antioch," the squire would always start. He would scratch his mop of red hair, wait for perfect silence, and then continue: "We had been ridin' since the break of day. Ten of us there were, two knights, two squires and six men but lightly armed. We sojourned briefly at a well. Bare slaked our thirst when we were surprised by the enemy—at least a score there were.

    "Sir Richard and his son Edward flew at the intruders. Sir Richard, still mounted, killed two with his long-sword. Edward—on foot—sundered one unbeliever's head with his axe. Most of the enemy then took flight, run they did like frightened hares, but we seized four, with the grace of Almighty God. Sir Richard said we should feast there and honour our Saviour with a toast.

    "Then my master ordered us to render naked the Mussulmen, to shame them before their false god. We bound them fast to trees and whipped them, for an hour, and so, in submission, they did our biddin'. We told them to dig—the earth was sandy—a hole six feet deep and near four feet wide. They did it speedily, too, with their hands and metalled scabbards, despite the heat and bloodied backs, though they knew it to be their grave. When it was done, Sir Richard bade the Saracens descend into the hole. Pricked by our swords, in fear, they did so.

    "Sir Richard then told us: 'Bury these men, but leave their heads above. We are Christian knights so we shall leave these men to pray to the true God. Place their heads a foot apart, facing east, west, south and north, so they can see that our one true God is everywhere.'

    "And so it was. Their heads were like the round hide-balls we throw on feast, days, but resting there in the sand."

    The squire would pause for a deep draught of his ale, and savour the wide-eyed look of expectancy in his audience. He would time his drinking actions to tally with his words: "We drank a little of the wine we had, and Sir Richard bade us share some water with the living heads afore us. The first head, desperate was he for the drops we gave, but the second Saracen—even though his eyes were wide with fear—took the drops and then spat at his provider—that were Thomas, my cousin from Netley. You all know him."

    The audience would murmur a rapid assent, eager for him to proceed with his tale. The squire would hesitate just a second or so longer than he ought, to tease his captivated listeners. "Ah, yes," he continued, as though he had lost his way for a moment, "Sir Richard saw this impudence, but said naught. He fell to joking with his son about domestic matters. When the sun was dyin' in the sky, Sir Richard instructed us to light a fire, and we collected some of the wood that lay scattered around. One of our soldiers made to start a fire in the lee of some rocks, but my master said he wanted the Saracens to feel the fires of Hell.

    "'Light the fire between their heads,' he commanded.

    "I could see that the soldier was not willin', though he did what he had been bidden. The man—Gilbert from London town—lit a small fire that did but heat the Mussulmen a little.

    "Sir Richard strode over to the fire and shouted, 'By the Holy Cross I wear, we will teach these Saracens the price of scornin' our Holy Father the Pope.' Those were truly his words."

    At this Sir Richard's squire would drink deep of his ale until his leather jug was empty. He would upturn the empty vessel and stay silent until a member of the rapt audience bought him more. Adopting a patrician smile as they rushed to satisfy his thirst, and with a softer—almost conspiratorial—voice, he would return to his tale: "Thereupon, my lord threw stout faggots on to the stuttering fire. As the flames rose, the Mussulmen's hair caught fire and they screamed to Allah. Their eyes bulged and popped out like corks from a jug of shaken ale. I must confess I could not bear the sight nor smell of burnin' human flesh. Just like the smell of roasted pig after Lent, exceptin' that the stench of burning beard and hair was stronger than the pork ... but Sir Richard was not discountenanced at all.

    "He used the black gargoyles with gaping mouths that before were heads as hearth-stones for the roasting of our meat. I felt I could not eat, but we had ridden long and hard, and hunger was on us, despite our battle and the smell of flesh. We feasted on the fireplace of the Saracens."


Excerpted from Anchoress of Shere by Paul L. Moorcraft. Copyright © 2000 by Paul Moorcraft. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

What People are Saying About This

Arnold Wesker

Very well written. Compelling...a tale of substance, dramatically, intelligently and clearly told.

Eric Newby

A remarkable picture of village life in medieval Surrey.

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Anchoress of Shere 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
bcquinnsmom on LibraryThing 5 months ago
Very bizarre book. But okay.In a very small town in England named Shere, a priest has embarked on a mission to chronicle the life of an actual historical figure, Christine Carpenter, known as the Anchoress of Shere. The catch is, that in his version of the story, he makes up a fictional life for her, one of pain and suffering before she "entombs" herself in a small cell adjoining a church where she is never to venture forth into the world again, in order to seek redemption and to become more Christ-like. All of that is well and good, whatever, poetic license is not a crime. But, he finds that without a real-life Christine figure, he has writer's block and cannot proceed with his manuscript. So he chooses a young woman living in the town who is seemingly all alone, alienated from her family, as his next Christine. I say next, because as Marda (his victim) finds out, she has not been the first...An intriguing story, and I think it could have been a lot better had it been a lot more in-depth. Granted, by the time you finish reading the story you are well aware of the priest's delusional mind; but everyone else, including the victim, seems to be very cardboard-ish.I liked it; it is a good piece for mystery fans who like stories about obsession leading to heinous crime.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In 1392 in what is now the quaint town of Shere in Surrey, England Christine Carpenter willing locked herself away from the rest of the world in an attempt to reach a state of oneness with God while still living on the mortal plane. Almost six hundred years later, fanatical Catholic Priest Michael Duval became fascinated with what Christine and other Anchoresses like her tried to do and decided to flesh out her story in a novel.

However, Michael¿s muse has deserted him so he is going to do what he has tried to do five times before. He is going to kidnap a young woman and incarcerate her in a specially created cell in his basement. He is then going to teach her about religion so that she can become ¿his¿ modern day Christine and he will able to finish his book. He successfully kidnaps Marda Stewart who, unlike her predecessors, intends to live to tell the tale about the killer priest.

Paul Moorcraft captures the atmosphere of fourteenth century England to perfection while telling Christine¿s ¿story¿. He also shows the mindset of a serial killer through his actions and thoughts. Though six centuries separate the two stories, they are held together by an intriguing plot that will keep the reader turning the pages until they finish this very unusual but nonetheless fascinating tale.

Harriet Klausner