Figure of Hateby Bernard Knight
High-spirited young knights, drunken squires, pickpockets and horse thieves are pouring into Exeter for a one-day jousting tournament.
During the tournament there’s a serious altercation between Hugo Peverel, and Reginald de Charterai. When, two days later, Sir Hugo’s body is found in a barn on his estate, de/i>/b>
High-spirited young knights, drunken squires, pickpockets and horse thieves are pouring into Exeter for a one-day jousting tournament.
During the tournament there’s a serious altercation between Hugo Peverel, and Reginald de Charterai. When, two days later, Sir Hugo’s body is found in a barn on his estate, de Charterai would seem the obvious culprit.
But there’s no shortage of people who wished the hated Hugo dead. All three of his brothers have a motive; as do his stepmother and his young widow. The manor reeve, Warin Fishacre, had his own reasons to loathe his lord and master.
With so many suspects, Sir John de Wolfe, the county coroner, hardly knows where to begin.
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Figure of Hate
A Crowner John Mystery
By Bernard Knight
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2005 Bernard Knight
All rights reserved.
In which Crowner John goes to a celebration
'Cheer up, Crowner, at least there's plenty to drink, even if the food's lousy!'
The fat priest, who was the garrison chaplain, winked and moved away, stuffing another meat pasty into his mouth. Sir John de Wolfe, the King's Coroner for the county of Devon, looked sourly about him, unimpressed by Brother Rufus's optimism. The bare hall of Rougemont, the name by which Exeter's castle was generally known, was a dour place for a midday party. A high oblong chamber with the entrance door at one end occupied most of the first floor of the keep. Below it, partly subterranean, was the undercroft which housed the prison – and above was a warren of rooms for clerks, servants and stores. There were slit windows along two of the walls, their shutters wide open on this mild October morning. On the other long wall several doors opened into the quarters of the sheriff and the castle constable. Apart from a few battered shields and crossed lances, the grey stone walls were bare, and de Wolfe was not surprised that the previous sheriff had failed to persuade his wife to live here with him, rather than at one of their more comfortable manors.
The thought of his wife's brother, the former sheriff Richard de Revelle, jerked him from his reverie, as the reason for today's gathering was to celebrate the official installation of Richard's successor. The new sheriff, Henry de Furnellis, had been sworn in several hours ago by one of the King's Council at a brief ceremony in the Shire Court, an even more dismal building a few yards away in the inner ward of the castle. Before that, there had been a special service in the cathedral, from which Bishop Henry Marshal had been diplomatically absent, the Mass being conducted by John de Alençon, the Archdeacon of Exeter and a close friend of de Wolfe.
Now the great and good of the county, together with many lesser hangers-on, had adjourned to the hall for refreshment. The trestle tables and benches, which usually served ale and food to a motley collection of men-at-arms, clerks, merchants and supplicants seeking justice, were today filled with a cross-section of Devon society, from manor-lords to parish priests, from burgesses to bailiffs and constables to canons.
There were many wives among them, and John experienced a stab of conscience when he looked down at his own wife sitting at a nearby table, nibbling listlessly at a capon's leg. Matilda normally relished any public celebration where she could rub shoulders with the county aristocracy, show off her latest gown and gossip to her snobbish friends. But this gathering was almost a badge of shame to her, and he had had to persuade her to come with him, such was her reluctance. Though by no means a sensitive soul, de Wolfe realised that she must feel that people were casting meaningful glances at her and murmuring to each other under their breath. For was she not the sister of the man who had been ejected from the highest office in the county for corruption, theft and suspected treason? Some of them wondered why Sir Richard de Revelle still had a head on his shoulders, let alone being free to live peaceably on his manors near Plymouth and Tiverton.
De Wolfe sighed and turned his attention to the throng in the hall. Though many, especially the ladies, were sitting at the tables, there was a large contingent who preferred to stand or wander around with a pot of ale or cup of wine in their hand, meeting acquaintances and exchanging news and gossip. The new sheriff – though in fact he had already briefly held the same office the previous year – was talking to Ralph Morin, the constable of Rougemont. As John watched, they were joined by Sir Walter Ralegh, the member of the Curia Regis who had that morning administered the oath of fealty to the new incumbent, for as usual Richard the Lionheart was in France and was probably still unaware of the recent crisis in Devon. Then the archdeacon drifted towards the group and de Wolfe moved over to stand with them, as all four were friends of his, not least because they were all staunch supporters of King Richard. In these days of whispered intrigues about a renewal of Prince John's ambition to unseat his elder brother from the throne of England, loyalty could never be taken for granted.
'Once again, congratulations, Henry,' he said to the new sheriff. 'Let's hope you stay in office much longer this time!'
Henry de Furnellis grunted his bluff thanks. He was not an articulate man and spoke only when he had something to say, unlike some of the babblers here who paraded their tongues along with their stylish new clothes. In fact, Henry was a very dull man, elderly and reluctant to exert himself in his duties as sheriff. He had been chosen by Hubert Walter, the Chief Justiciar and virtual regent of England during the King's absence, for being a safe, if unenthusiastic, pair of hands, unlikely to indulge in the corruption and treachery that had caused de Revelle's recent downfall.
De Furnellis was a large, lumpy man, with a clean-shaven red face, watery blue eyes and a big nose. His sparse grey hair was cut short and his down turned mouth and the loose folds of skin under his chin gave him the appearance of a sad hunting hound.
'I doubt if I'll be here for much longer this time,' he added phlegmatically. 'I'm well aware that Winchester only put me here to tide things over following the sudden departure of de Revelle. I want to get back to my manor as soon as possible, de Wolfe – so I hope you'll not burden me with too many problems in the coming months.'
The mention of the former sheriff made them all uneasy, and the coroner noticed Ralph Morin look rather furtively over his shoulder.
'Has anyone seen him lately?' asked the constable, a tall, muscular man with a forked brown beard and the look of a Viking chieftain.
John de Alençon shook his tonsured head. 'I suspect he's lying low at either Revelstoke or Tiverton. In spite of his misdeeds, I feel some compassion for him, being ejected in disgrace from such a high position.' The archdeacon was thin almost to the point of emaciation, his ascetic mode of life relieved only by a dry sense of humour and a taste for fine French wines. He was dressed in a long black cassock with a plain silver cross hanging around his neck, above which a pair of lively blue eyes sparkled in his lined face.
'He was damned lucky to escape a hanging!' snapped Walter Ralegh, who was a Devonshire baron, though much of his time was spent either at the royal court or touring around the southern counties as an itinerant justice. A large, grizzled man with a bluff, impatient manner, he was an old comrade of de Wolfe's, having campaigned with him both in Ireland and the Holy Land.
This talk of Richard de Revelle's fall from grace again caused John to look across at Matilda, sitting alone and dejected at the table. Though she did not openly accuse him of being the instrument of her brother's downfall, the implication was always there. Relations between them had been strained for most of the seventeen years of their marriage, and this latest fiasco had done nothing to heal the wounds.
He was just about to move back to her, to keep her company and try to make some conversation, when thankfully he saw a dandified figure slip on to the bench alongside her. It was Hugh de Relaga, one of Exeter's two portreeves, the provosts chosen by the other burgesses to lead the city council. De Relaga, a prominent merchant, was de Wolfe's business partner and another good friend. The loot that the coroner had brought home from numerous campaigns across Europe and the Levant had been wisely invested with Hugh in a joint wool-exporting business. Second only to Dartmoor tin in the economy of south-west England, wool provided a steady income for de Wolfe – in fact, it was a prerequisite for appointment as a coroner that the incumbent had an income of at least twenty pounds a year. The reasoning was that those with such riches had no need to embezzle from the funds in their keeping – a rather naive hope in many cases, though John de Wolfe happened to be scrupulously honest.
As he watched his short, portly friend exert himself to be pleasant to Matilda, a voice in his ear jerked him back to the group of men he was neglecting.
'I said, John, d'you think there'll be any trouble at this damned October fair this week?' Walter Ralegh nudged his arm to emphasise his point.
'Fair? There's always trouble at fairs, it's the nature of the beast,' replied John. 'But it's the tournament on Wednesday that's likely to cause the most problems. High-spirited young knights, drunken squires and the usual run of cutpurses and pickpockets – probably even a few horse thieves.'
'But this is not going to be one of those terrible mêlées, surely?' objected the archdeacon, who strongly supported the ecclesiastical disapproval of tourneying. 'Men end up dead at those, a sacrilegious waste of human life, to say nothing of the damage they cause to property and the poor people in the vicinity!'
Walter guffawed at the canon's severe view of a true Norman's favourite pastime. 'They stop a good warrior from going rusty, Archdeacon! You'd be among the first to complain if England was overrun by Philip of France because our knights were out of practice!'
The coroner hastened to reassure his friend. 'Don't concern yourself, John, this will be a small-scale affair, just a one-day event tagged on to the fair. There will be only individual jousts down on Bull Mead – there's no room for rampaging there.'
'But there'll be even more high-spirited men in the city than if it was just a fair,' grumbled the castle constable, whose men-at-arms would have to patrol Exeter to try to keep the peace. 'These events attract too many thieves, rogues and vagabonds as it is, without adding to the trouble with a tourney!'
The four men continued arguing the matter as they stood between the tables. From his position leaning against a nearby wall, an unusually large fellow regarded them with a grin on his face. He was huge, being both tall and broad, but he was even more noticeable for his tangled mop of bright red hair and a huge drooping moustache of the same colour which overhung his lantern jaw. A large nose and a ruddy face were relieved by a pair of eyes as blue as the archdeacon's.
'What are you leering at, you great oaf?' snapped the man standing alongside him, one who was as great a contrast to the ginger giant as it was possible to imagine. He barely came up to Gwyn of Polruan's shoulder and was as skinny as the Cornishman was muscular. In contrast to the scuffed leather jerkin and serge breeches of the big man, a long, patched tunic of faded black hung from Thomas de Peyne's thin, stooped shoulders, giving him a clerical appearance. This was the impression he always strove for, as he had in fact been a priest at Winchester until unfrocked three years earlier for an alleged indecent act with one of his girl pupils in the cathedral school. Recently his name had been cleared, but the Church had still not got around to publicly restoring his reputation, which partly accounted for the habitually dismal expression on his narrow pinched face. He had a high, intelligent forehead, but a long thin nose and a receding chin added to his unattractiveness, made worse by a slight crook back and a limp, caused by disease in childhood.
'Why are you staring at our master over there?' he insisted in his reedy voice.
Gwyn, de Wolfe's squire and bodyguard, lifted a quart pot of ale and swallowed almost half the contents before replying to the little man, who was the coroner's clerk.
'I'm watching our crowner trying to be friendly to the new sheriff, though I know full well he thinks he's an old fool,' rumbled Gwyn.
'At least he's said to be honest and not ambitious for his own advancement, as was the last one,' objected Thomas, who almost on principle disagreed with everything the coroner's officer said. Though the two bickered incessantly, they were good friends, and Gwyn displayed an almost paternal attitude to the little man, born of the troubles that had afflicted him for much of his life.
Gwyn sank the rest of his ale and wiped his huge moustache with the back of his hand. 'True enough, but I suspect John de Wolfe will have even more work to do in future, as this new fellow is unlikely to move himself to do more than necessary.'
They watched the shifting patterns of men and women in the hall, as people moved around gossiping, taking more food and drink from the tables and from the trays and jugs held by servants. The costumes were many and varied, especially among the merchants and burgesses of the county, who tended to be more colourful in their garb than the soldiers and officials. Although most of the men wore belted tunics, some had long ones to their calves, slit at the front for riding a horse, whilst others sported thigh-length robes over breeches, many with cross-gartered hose above shoes or boots. The more dandified had footwear with long pointed toes, some curled back almost to their ankles. There were men like strutting peacocks, whose tunics and surcoats were bright red and blue, unlike some more sober knights and clerks, whose clothing tended to be of brown or dull yellow, with more practical boots designed for riding.
Thomas de Peyne nibbled at a mutton pasty – being poorer than a church mouse, to him any free food was manna from heaven. As he chewed, his sharp little eyes flitted around the chamber and settled on Matilda de Wolfe. He was a compassionate young man and felt sorry for her at a time when she must feel shame for her only brother's disgrace. He knew that Richard de Revelle had been almost idolised by his younger sister, which made his fall from grace all the harder for her to bear. For it to be her own husband who had brought about his downfall must be an even more bitter pill for her to swallow. The clerk said as much to his big companion, but Gwyn merely shrugged.
'The swine had it coming. Our crowner was too lenient as it was, I reckon. He should have denounced him long before, as de Revelle had been up to his treacherous tricks for months.'
Unlike the clerk, Gwyn was not a sensitive soul but a bluff soldier who saw everything in black and white, rather than shades of grey.
De Peyne went back to staring at the coroner's wife as she sat at the table, listening to the prattle of Hugh de Relaga. The portreeve was one of those who delighted in gaudy raiment and he wore a long surcoat of plum-coloured velvet over a tunic of bright green silk, girdled over his protruberant belly with a belt of gilded soft leather, the free end dangling to his knees. His head was covered by a tight helmet of saffron linen, laced under his double chins. As he chattered away to Matilda, obviously trying to divert her and raise her despondent mood, his beringed fingers rested on her sleeve.
Thomas had an insatiable curiosity about almost everything, especially people, and his gaze now returned to his master's wife. He knew that she must now be forty-five, as she was four years older than her husband. Matilda was a solid woman, not obese, but heavily built with a short neck and a square face. Small dark eyes were not enhanced by the folds of loose skin that hung below them, and her features always seemed set in a rather pugnacious, sour expression. The clerk felt that she had plenty to be sour about, with a husband like John and Richard for a brother! Even though Matilda despised him for being a failed priest, Thomas admired her for her devotion to the Church, as he knew she spent much of her time either at services in St Olave's in Fore Street or in the cathedral. He also knew that she had a leaning towards taking the veil, and not long ago had entered Polsloe Priory as a novice, after what she considered to be one of her husband's more outrageous lapses of morals. Though the outside attractions of good food and fine clothes had finally dissuaded her from taking her vows, Thomas still gave her great credit for her piety and devotion to God.
The Cornishman began to get restive, as he had little of the clerk's interest in people. Now that he had eaten and drunk his fill, he was anxious to be off to find a game of dice in the guardroom of the castle gatehouse, below the coroner's bleak office on the upper floor.
With a grunted farewell to Thomas, he lumbered across to the door of the hall and clumped down the wooden staircase outside, a defensive device that could be thrown down in times of seige so that there was no access to the entrance twelve feet above ground.
Excerpted from Figure of Hate by Bernard Knight. Copyright © 2005 Bernard Knight. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Bernard Knight is a retired Home Office pathologist renowned for his work on such high-profile cases as the Fred and Rosemary West murders. Bernard is the author of the ‘Crowner John’ series, as well as the Dr Richard Pryor forensic mystery series.
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