A murdered priest, a missing body, stolen treasure: Brother Athelstan tackles his most challenging investigation to date.
October, 1381. Brother Athelstan is summoned to the church of St Benet’s in Queenhithe to investigate the murder of a priest. Parson Reynaud has been found stabbed to death inside his own locked church. Other disturbing discoveries include an empty coffin and a ransacked money chest. Who would commit murder inside a holy church? Who would spirit away a corpse the night before the funeral – and who would be brave enough to steal treasure belonging to the most feared gangleader in London?
Meanwhile, the death of one of Athelstan’s parishioners reveals a shocking secret. Could there be a connection to the murdered priest of St Benet’s?
Athelstan’s investigations will lure him into the dark and dangerous world of the gangmaster known as The Flesher, whose influence has a frighteningly long reach ...
About the Author
Paul Doherty studied History at Liverpool and Oxford Universities, and is now a head teacher in Essex. He is the author of more than eighty historical mysteries including the Hugh Corbett, Mathilde of Westminster and Canterbury Tales medieval mystery series.
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Scrippet (Old English): he who sets the watch 'Blood stains the face of the moon, dark shadows mist the sun' – or so the Benedictine chronicler in the majestic Abbey of Westminster defined the times, the year of Our Lord 1381. A season for portents, auguries, dreams and prophesies. Strange lights seared the night sky above the King's own city of London. People stared and wondered. The Great Revolt had been cruelly crushed. The bloody winepress of the noble lords had ground it to nothing. The Masters of the Soil such as the likes of Norfolk, Beaumont, Fitzalan of Arundel and, above all, John of Gaunt, uncle of the young King Richard II and self-proclaimed regent of the realm, made their power known. The war in the shires was drawing to a bloody end. The peasant rebels, with all their high-sounding titles and claims to power; the Great Community of the Realm, the Upright Men, and their street warriors the Earthworms, were nothing more than a fading memory. Those rebels who had survived the great hunt and savage persecution by the lords could only quietly pray for hundreds of their comrades whose corpses still rotted on gallows and gibbets as far north as Alnwick and as far south as Dover. The Great Cause was finished. The dream was dead. No new Zion would come down from heaven and sink its foundations into the muddy banks of the Thames.
However, as the Westminster chronicler was quick to point out, the Great Revolt might be finished, but human wickedness, especially in London – the new Babylon – flourished richly and swiftly as cockle amongst the wheat. Peace reigned, but it was a peace which allowed every form of sin to crawl out of its hiding place. London had been brought back under the authority of the Crown. Parliament sat at Westminster. The Commons exercised their authority from St Stephen's Chapel or the great chapterhouse of the abbey. However, Crown, Lords and Commons, not to forget the masters of the city who sheltered in the Guildhall, were fearful of a new danger. A great scourge was now raising its head as peace and harmony allegedly returned. The great gangs of London, the rifflers and the roaring boys, were also making their presence felt. These legions of the damned, as the chronicler described them, were not supposed to exist. People could reject them and their wicked doings as the work of those who gossip and chatter, claim that the danger they posed was all shadow and no substance. Nevertheless, the gangs were there, like the great rats which plagued the sewers. They did not like to be caught out in the open, but their brutal acts were clear enough for all to see. The chronicler emphasised this important fact. Hadn't his own abbot expressed this riddle, a paradox for all the good brothers to ponder on? How the great London gangs did exist, but they only moved or acted by courtesy and favour of the lords: Gaunt, Arundel and the rest, who could whistle up their packs of wild dogs whenever they wished.
Of all the gangs and covens of rifflers, none was more feared than the Sycamores under their leader, Simon Makepeace, also known as 'The Flesher'; a brutal soul, tavern master, mine host, and owner of the Devil's Oak, close to the Thames in Queenhithe ward.
The tavern squatted like a great, fat, bloated toad with dirty, leprous warts, at the heart of a maze of alleys and runnels which reeked to high heaven of dirt and filth. The tenements lining these needle-thin paths were propped up by makeshift struts and rotten beams, their windows sealed with iron-bound shutters. Nevertheless, people lived here, the midnight folk, crammed as fast and as thick as lice on a slab of putrid beef. The denizens of these hellish dwellings clustered around makeshift braziers full of smoking, dusty charcoal. The stench of singeing clothes and unwashed flesh curled everywhere. The braziers provided a little light, some warmth, as well as being a source of putrid food. The tenements were places of perpetual twilight, where figures crawled – dark, crouching shapes against the poor light – so it looked as if Judgement Day had dawned and every obscure grave was giving up its dead.
Once night fell, men, women and children slunk out to hunt for whatever they could, along with the great, grey rats, though even these rodents sensed that the staircases and stairwells in these mouldering mansions were most dangerous, teetering on the verge of collapse. Instead both dwellers and vermin used the Jacob's ladders, rickety staircases built on the outside of the tenements.
Hell's buttery, as this part of Queenhithe adjoining the Thames was so aptly known, was a shadowy, dismal place full of steaming filth. Everything loathsome and decaying could be found here. Dens of depravity where murder had taken up residence under smoke-stained ceilings. Thieves and prostitutes, pimps and cunning men crawled amongst the cockroaches, which scampered in vast hordes across the rotting floors, where dirt swilled ankle-deep. Along the narrow runnels stood decaying alehouses, their taprooms nothing more than amphitheatres where a wooden circular fence about five feet high ringed a sand-filled arena. Here the huge grey rats from the nearby wharves were pitted against ferocious terriers and, when the rats had been specially starved, against each other.
All of London's grotesques gathered to watch: the likes of Daniel the Damned with his huge dead eyes in a coarse, bloated face, who offered to bite off the head of a rat for a penny and that of a mouse for a farthing. Daniel had clashed with some of the Fleshers' followers and had promptly disappeared, never to be seen again. Killings were commonplace. Murder in all its gruesome forms a daily occurrence. Just before the Great Revolt, one of the rotting tenements in Hell's buttery had abruptly collapsed. Officials of the ward decided to clear the site and they filled sack after sack with human bones found beneath shattered floorboards, above crumbling ceilings and between plastered walls.
One place amidst all this squalor was owned and controlled by the Flesher. Gossiping locals called it the 'Mansion of Murder', a three-storey building set in its own square of overgrown garden, fenced off by palings at least two yards high; each post was surmounted by razor-sharp spikes to deter anyone foolish enough to try and force entry. The only gate into the garden was iron-bound and studded: bolts at top and bottom held it fast whilst the main lock, although dirty and chipped, had been fashioned by the most skilled locksmith.
The Mansion of Murder had once belonged to the Guild at St Dismas, a group of men and women who tried to work amongst the dispossessed in Hell's buttery. The Guild had been forced to withdraw after three of its members had been found floating naked in the Thames, hands tied behind their backs, their throats slashed from ear to ear. Once the Guild had left, the mansion had immediately been seized by the Flesher, owner of the nearby Devil's Oak tavern. He had cleaned and swept it, raised the high paling fence, and had the great gate rehung and secured. No longer a House of Mercy, the mansion was a blasphemous mockery of what it had once been. According to those paid to glean news and information along the quaysides, this house of murder had been stripped of furniture, hangings and any ornamentation. Just three galleries of dusty wooden floors, plastered ceilings and flaking walls. At either end of this sinister dwelling stood a winding staircase. A kitchen, buttery and chancery chamber ranged along the ground floor, with more chambers on the galleries above.
The mansion also had cellars, which stretched the entire length of the building: dark, grim rooms once used for storage. The street sparrows who collect rumour, God knows how, claimed these cellars housed two war mastiffs, hell-hounds, long, sleek and short-furred, with bulbous heads and huge jaws. The Flesher kept these within and so transformed the House of Mercy into a place of terror. Those who crossed the Flesher, or failed this ugly-souled captain of the night, were taken to the Mansion of Murder, thrust through its one and only door, every other entrance being bricked up, whilst the windows on all three floors were mere lancets. The Mansion of Murder became a prison, though the captive did not survive long. Once the door was locked and bolted, the hounds soon learnt that new prey was available. Starved and ferocious, they'd slope up the cellar steps, eager for the hunt. People sometimes heard their growling, their horrid howling at some unearthly hour. Others claimed to have heard the screams and death cries of those the Flesher had imprisoned there.
However, what could be done during a season when there was blood on the face of the moon and a dark mist across the sun? A time when the King's writ did not run along the warren of filthy runnels next to the riverside in the ward of Queenhithe. What objection could be raised? The Flesher, if anyone had the temerity to question him, could cite the law. He would argue that the former House of Mercy was now his property. Consequently, he had the right to protect it and to use guard dogs to ensure it remained safe and secure, especially in this time of troubles when the law was, perhaps, not as strong as it should be. Moreover, he – or rather his lawyer Master Copping – would argue that it was hardly his fault that intruders, housebreakers, murderers and trespassers who broke into his valuable property paid the price.
On the eve of the Feast of All the Angels, the year of Our Lord 1381, Eudo Ingersol, mailed clerk in the secret employ of the city council, leaned against the door of the Mansion of Murder now firmly locked behind him. He tried to calm the terrors seething within him; his throat was dry as sand, his heart pounding so hard he found it difficult to breathe. The Flesher had tried him and found him guilty. Ingersol had been brought here to die.
The clerk peered through the darkness, eyes and ears straining. Then he heard it: the low rumble of a bark, the snarling and growling of the great war dogs in the cellar below, now alert to a new victim, of the fresh meat that he would supply for the hunt. Eudo wiped sweat-soaked palms on his leather jerkin. He did not have his dagger with him, he had left that at St Benet's, whilst Raquin, the Flesher's other henchman, had made sure he carried no weapons. A heart-chilling, blood-freezing howl echoed through the house. Ingersol crouched down. He fought to control his breath as he crossed himself. The ominous patter of clawed feet and that harsh breathing of the mastiffs echoing as they sloped up the cellar steps to hunt him.
Early in the morning of the feast of St Luke, the year of Our Lord 1381, Martha Ashby prepared herself for the day. Martha was housekeeper and confidante of Reynaud Filleby, parson and parish priest of St Benet's, an ancient church, its great sprawling graveyard almost stretching down to the Queenhithe wharves along the Thames. Martha had waited patiently for the first glow of sunrise when the bells of St Benet must begin their pealing, their clanging summons to attend the Jesus Mass and so greet the dawn. Parson Reynaud was strict in this, even if he ignored or flouted the more serious mandates of both Christ and Holy Mother Church. Martha would have to follow her usual routine. She climbed the steps up to the first gallery of the priest's house. She walked quietly down the passageway to the left, knocked on the door of Curate Cotes' chamber and, receiving no answer, opened it: the room was empty. The window shutters were pulled back, the small four-poster bed undisturbed, the curate's gown slung over the coverlet, his chamois slippers still pushed under the bedside table.
Satisfied that all was as it should be, Martha hurried to Parson Reynaud's chamber to the right of the staircase. She knocked and, without waiting, opened the door. Again the chamber lay silent, the shutters undisturbed, as well as the sheets and coverlet on the great four-poster bed. No candles glowed on their spigots and the capped taper on the bedside stall had not been lit. Mistress Martha tried to control her curdling anxiety and apprehension as she hastened down the stairs. All seemed to be going well, but Martha had certainly learnt how life was fickle and cruel.
She went into Parson Reynaud's chancery chamber and picked up the key to the devil's door, the postern on the west side of the church. She slipped this into the pocket of her gown, which she carefully patted, and hurried out of the house. Martha locked the door behind her and hastened down the coffin path which wound through the ancient graveyard. On either side lay the thousands of dead buried there since the church had been built at least two centuries ago, or so Parson Reynaud had informed her, a veritable forest of tomb crosses, memorial stones, funeral plinths, and all the other insignia of the houses of the dead which ringed St Benet's. All of these were to be removed as Parson Reynaud carried through his own proposed harrowing of this ancient cemetery.
The graveyard was a truly haunted place, with the darkness now thinning and a stiff morning breeze bending the long, coarse grass, bramble and gorse which grew so vigorously across the cemetery, as if to hide and smother all signs of death and decay. A ghostly place, so Parson Reynaud had declared, where the shades of the dead could often be seen trailing around the tombs and grave plots. Mistress Martha, however, was of a more practical disposition. She believed such wraiths were just the wisps and shapes created by the thick river mists which crept in from the Thames to smother this sombre place in its chilling embrace. Such a mist was now seeping in as dawn broke and the birds in the ancient yew trees began their own morning matins.
Mistress Martha paused halfway down the path: she glanced quickly around and shivered. This was God's Acre, the last resting place of Christ's faithful departed: it should be a sacred and consecrated sanctuary, yet Martha knew different. The housekeeper stared out over the sea of shifting gorse. In the poor light, the cemetery looked more like the place it truly was: a whitewashed sepulchre, all seemingly proper without but, in truth, full of all kinds of dark filth and rottenness within. Martha opened her eyes, drew a sharp breath to calm herself and hurried on. She reached the devil's door as planned and tried the key, but could not make it grip as it was locked on the other side. She leaned against the hard wood, then straightened up as she heard approaching footsteps. Glancing to her right she saw the bobbing lantern light and shadowy shapes hurrying through the murk.
'Good morrow!' she called.
'Good morrow, Mistress Martha. God's blessings on you.'
Sexton Spurnel, a small, thickset, fussy man hurried up, all breathless, in one hand a lanternhorn, in the other a key ring.
'I've been to the postern door at the front.' He leaned closer, his bearded lined face anxious under a mop of dirty-grey hair which, Martha believed, hadn't been washed since the bathing days at the end of Lent. The sexton stared pleadingly at the housekeeper, the cast in his right eye even more pronounced.
'All the doors,' he hissed, 'are locked. I've tried the main entrance, the postern door to the side, the corpse door and now this.' He almost pushed Martha aside as he tried a key.
'It won't go in,' Martha declared.
'Like the other three.' The sexton rattled the key in the devil's door. He took it out and pushed it back in.
'I've tried it,' Martha offered.
'This is no different,' the sexton wailed.
Both housekeeper and sexton turned to greet Curate Cotes, who came hurrying through the half-light with Nathaniel Cripplegate, leader of the parish council, close behind him. Martha considered both men to be a startling contrast to each other. Despite the poor light, how Curate Cotes had spent the previous evening was more than obvious: his scrawny black hair, thick with grease, was a tangle; his pasty face even paler; his bloodshot eyes and stubbled chin eloquent testimony to heavy drinking and hours of carousing. Ale and food stained the curate's shabby black cassock, whilst his breath stank like a brewer's yard. Cotes seemed all a-flutter, muttering questions about the whereabouts of Parson Reynaud.
'He is not in his bed,' Martha declared.
'And he doesn't seem to be in the church either.' The sexton added: 'If he was, he would certainly hear the clattering of these keys. I mean, I have now tried all four doors.'
'Something must be very wrong.' Nathaniel Cripplegate slipped through the pool of light thrown by the lanternhorn. 'Oh yes,' he repeated, 'something must be very, very wrong.'
Excerpted from "The Mansions of Murder"
Copyright © 2017 Paul Doherty.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fast read, loved it
When in October 1381. Brother Athelstan is summoned St Benet’s church in Queenhithe, finding the body of the priest is just the first discovery. There is the missing body of Isabella Makepeace, mother to the Flesher, the worst of the gang leaders, and hismissing hidden hoard of monies. But all the doors to the church are locked. The Brother and Sir John Cranston investigate. Another well-written mystery in this series. With the description of the awfulness that is the London slums, and the interesting rounded characters that make up these books. Received an Advanced Reader Copy