The ordered calm of Gloucester Abbey is shattered by the disappearance of one of the resident monks. Two novices, Elaf and Kenelm, show little concern for the missing Brother Nicholas. Rebelling against monastic discipline, they indulge in secret midnight adventures. Fearing discovery during their latest exploit, they hide in the Bell Tower, certain that they won’t be found. Elaf, stumbling in the dark, trips over something and realizes, to his horror, that it is a dead body. Brother Nicholas has been found, his throat slit from ear to ear.
The Abbey becomes paralyzed with fear. The Abbot is ill-equipped to deal with such a heinous crime and is still reeling from his conversation with the sheriff, who is convinced that one of the other brothers must be a killer. After all, who else would have access to the Abbey Church? Domesday commissioners Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret arrive, sent to resolve a land dispute. The vicious murder takes immediate priority, however, and they doubt the local sheriff’s ability to solve the baffling case. Before long, Ralph and Gervase realize that the killing is just a symptom of a sinister presence that threatens the whole community and must be stopped at any cost. Inspired by real entries in the historic Domesday Book, The Owls of Gloucester is the tenth mystery in Edward Marston’s spellbinding and richly drawn eleventh-century crime series.
About the Author
Edward Marston is the author of nine previous novels in the Domesday series. He also writes an Edgar Awardnominated series set in the theaters of Elizabethan England. He lives in the United Kingdom.
Read an Excerpt
The Owls of Gloucester
Ralph Delchard reined in his horse and held up an imperious hand to bring the cavalcade to a halt. Shading his eyes against the afternoon sun, he gazed into the distance. A rueful smile surfaced.
'There it is,' he said, pointing an accusing finger. 'Gloucester. That's where this whole sorry business started. That's where the King, in his wisdom or folly, had his deep speech with his Council and announced the Great Survey which has been the bane of my life for so long. Consider this: if the Conqueror had not spent Christmas at Gloucester, I might not have been forced to wear the skin off my arse riding from one end of the kingdom to the other.'
'Do not take it so personally,' said Gervase Bret, mounted beside him. 'The King did not order the creation of this Domesday Book simply to irritate Ralph Delchard.'
'I am more than irritated, Gervase.'
'You've made that clear.'
'I am appalled. Disgusted. Enraged.'
'Think of our predecessors. They did most of the work. The first commissioners to visit this fair county toiled long and hard without complaint. All that we have to deal with are the irregularities they uncovered. In this case, they are few in number.'
'How many times have I heard you say that?'
'Our task should be completed in less than a week.'
'That, too, has a familiar ring.'
'I have studied the documents, Ralph. Only one major dispute confronts us. It will not tax us overmuch.'
'What about the things that do not appear in the documents?'
'Do not appear?'
'Yes,' said Ralph wearily. 'Contingencies. Unforeseen hazards. Like the skulduggery we found in Warwick. The dangers we met in Oxford. The small matter of border warfare in Chester. The foul murder of our dear colleague in Exeter. Our documents failed to warn us about any of those things.'
'They were disasters, Gervase. Cunningly devised by Fate itself to torment me. Have you forgotten Wiltshire?' he added, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. 'I shuddered when we rode past the Savernake Forest again. Think of the problems we had there. And in Canterbury. And York. And Maldon. And every other damnable place it has pleased the King to send us.'
Ralph was checked. 'That was different,' he conceded.
'Very different,' Gervase reminded him with a grin. 'You went to Hereford to expose villainy and found yourself a wife into the bargain.' He glanced behind him. 'And an excellent bargain she was.'
'The best I ever made.'
Golde, the lady in question, was riding at the rear of the column with Canon Hubert, the portly commissioner whose donkey always seemed too small and spindly to bear his excessive weight. While her husband led the way, Golde enjoyed a conversation with Hubert and even managed to prise an occasional word out of Brother Simon, the emaciated monk who acted as scribe to the commission and whose fear of the female sex was so profound that he usually retreated into anguished silence in the presence of a woman. It was a tribute to Golde that she had finally broken through the invisible wall Simon had constructed around himself. He remained wary but no longer felt that the sanctity of his manhood was threatened.
Ten knights from Ralph's own retinue acted as an escort and towed the sumpter horses along with them. Like their lord, theywore helm and hauberk and bore swords and lances. On their latest assignment fine weather had favoured them all the way from Winchester and their hosts along the route had provided good accommodation and a cordial welcome. The pleasant journey had lifted the spirits of all but one of them. Ralph Delchard was the odd man out.
'Hereford was the exception,' he agreed for a second time. 'It gave me the most precious thing I have. My beloved wife. Though there's a strange irony in the fact that I spend most of my life fighting the Saxons then end up marrying one of them.' He gave a wry smile. 'Not that I regret the decision for one moment. It has brought me true happiness. Or it would do, if the Conqueror allowed me the time to enjoy it.' His gaze travelled back to the city on the horizon. 'The one saving grace of Gloucester is that it can be reached easily from Hereford. We have sent word for Golde's sister to meet us there.'
'I look forward to seeing Aelgar once more,' said Gervase.
'As long as she is our only visitor from Hereford!'
'What do you mean?'
'Don't you recall who else we first met there?'
'Do not mention that accursed name!' said Ralph with a grimace. 'He was a Welsh demon. Summoned from hell to make my life a misery. He stalked me both in Hereford and in Chester. Now can you see why I did not wish to come to Gloucester? Whenever we get near the Welsh border, that fiend of hell pops up in front of me.'
'Idwal is no fiend of hell.'
'His very name unnerves me! Do not mention it!'
'The archdeacon was a devout man.'
'He was living proof that the Devil speaks in Welsh.'
'I liked him,' said Gervase. 'We had some lively discussions. But you're quite safe, Ralph. I doubt very much that we shall encounter him in Gloucester. He is Archdeacon of St David's now.Far away in west Wales. What possible reason can he have to come to Gloucester?'
'I will be there.'
Ralph yelled a command then set the troop in motion once more.
Gervase had more reason than any of them to want a swift end to their latest assignment. Ralph preferred to take Golde with him on the King's business, but Gervase had left his own wife, Alys, alone at home in Winchester, pining for her husband and praying for his quick return. Devoted as he was to her, Gervase never even considered the notion of bringing Alys with him because he knew that he would be so concerned for her safety and comfort that he would be unable to give his work the concentration it needed. Ralph was different, seemingly able to separate his private life from his public responsibilities without any effort.
Marriage was still too fresh an experience for Gervase for him to be able to put its joys aside when his wife was with him, and he knew that Alys, so young and vulnerable, lacked Golde's ability to fade into the background while her husband discharged his duties as a commissioner. And there was another significant factor. Ralph and his wife had both been married before. They were seasoned in the art of togetherness, skilled in the nuances of love, sure enough to give each other space and freedom. Compared to them, Gervase was a raw beginner. He had vowed that Alys would be his one and only wife and he was still learning to understand the limitations of that vow.
Like Golde, and the two Benedictine monks in their black habits, he was an incongruous figure among the armed soldiers. Wearing the sober attire of a Chancery clerk, Gervase Bret was the lawyer in the party, a clever advocate with a subtle mind. He was also the recognised diplomat, able to relate easily to everyone and to reach each of them on their own terms. Ralph Delchard revelled in his mockery of both Canon Hubert and Brother Simon and it was left to Gervase to smooth ruffled monastic feathers ona regular basis. By the same token, he could act on behalf of his fellow commissioner or scribe with the acknowledged leader of the commission, representing their point of view in a way which made Ralph take it seriously. Golde was also very fond of him, not least because he could speak her native language fluently, having been born of a Saxon mother. Ralph Delchard might be nominally in charge but it was Gervase Bret who really bonded the group together.
A steady canter was bringing Gloucester ever nearer. Situated in border country between England and Wales, it occupied a strategic position on the River Severn, a fiercely tidal waterway which swept down to the estuary and made Gloucester a thriving port as well as a crucial Norman garrison.
Ralph came out of his reverie and turned to his young friend.
'We should all stay at the castle,' he said brusquely.
'Hubert and Simon have elected to go to the abbey.'
'Our business can be dispatched more readily if we are all under the same roof. Make that point to them, Gervase.'
'They already appreciate it.'
'Then why must they escape into the abbey?'
'For the same reason that a soldier like you turns instinctively to a fortress. They feel at home there just as you do in a castle. Besides,' said Gervase, 'Hubert is anxious to renew his acquaintance with Abbot Serlo. It is something we should encourage.'
'Because the abbey will be a useful source of intelligence. Nothing eludes the sharp eyes of a monastic community. What we fail to find out at the castle, Hubert and Simon will assuredly learn within the enclave.'
'Two holy spies, eh?'
'No, Ralph. Two Benedictine monks mixing with their brothers.'
'Relishing the latest scandal. Whatever it may be.'
'Picking up useful gossip. Canon Hubert is well known to theabbot. He will be taken into his confidence.'
'You are right, Gervase. Let them go to the abbey.'
'Not that there will be much for them to find out, mark you.'
'How can you be so sure?'
'I sense it,' said Gervase confidently. 'Gloucester will be a benign place for us to visit. No hidden menaces this time - not even a Welsh archdeacon to yap at your heels.'
'Take my word for it, Ralph. You may relax.'
'I have lost the art of doing so.'
'Rediscover it again in Gloucester. Trust me. It will turn out to be the least troublesome city we have visited.'
Abbot Serlo stared down at the naked body of Brother Nicholas with a mixture of sadness and anger. In life, the monk had been a plump man of middle height with an abnormally large head. Death seemed to have shrunk him. It was as if the knife that had slit his throat had let out half of his substance. The blood had been washed away and the wound covered but there was still an expression of horror on Nicholas's face. Herbs were scattered on the mortuary floor to sweeten the atmosphere, but the stench of death rose powerfully to the nostrils. Serlo gave a nod and Brother Frewine drew the shroud back over the corpse. The two men left the mortuary and went out into the fresh air.
'This is an outrage,' said Serlo quietly.
'The whole abbey is in a state of shock.'
'One of our holy brothers. Murdered on consecrated ground.'
'It is shameful, Father Abbot.'
'It is abominable, Frewine. A heinous crime. I have schooled myself not to be vengeful, but I do look for justice. Swift and unrelenting justice. I have impressed that upon the sheriff.'
'Who could wish to kill Brother Nicholas?' said the Precentor, shaking his head in bewilderment. 'And for what possible reason?'
'That will emerge in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, we mustmourn his death with all due solemnity and assist the sheriff in every way that we can.' He heaved a sigh. 'It will mean that the abbey is invaded by Durand and his men but that cannot be helped. Vital clues may lie here. They must be sought.'
A small, elderly, ascetic man with silver hair encircling his bald pate, Serlo had an extraordinary dignity. He looked around him with proprietary affection. A moribund abbey had been brought back to life by his arrival. It had been testing work and there had been many setbacks along the way, but the abbot had persisted, imposing discipline, raising morale, increasing the number of monks, enlarging the range of their duties and spreading the influence of the abbey throughout the whole county. Within a period of fourteen long years, Serlo had transformed Gloucester Abbey into a highly effective and respected institution, and what pleased him most was the sense of common purpose he had instilled in his monks. But one of them had now been brutally murdered, leaving an ugly stain on the purity of his vision for the abbey. It was a severe personal blow.
Brother Frewine hovered, shoulders hunched, owlish features puckered with concern. He knew better than to interrupt the meditative silences into which the abbot was accustomed to drop, particularly as he knew what thoughts must be racing through the other's mind at this moment. The Precentor had his own grief to nurse, tempered as it was by the very faintest sense of relief that, if any monk had had to be killed, it had been the unpopular Brother Nicholas rather than someone encompassed by the unconditional love he gave to the other monks.
Abbot Serlo understood exactly what he was thinking.
'This loss could not be more grievous,' he said in a chiding tone. 'Thrust aside any bad memories of Brother Nicholas. They have no place here. When one monk dies - whoever he is - a little piece of all of us perishes with him. Nicholas was a conscientious man. Pray earnestly for the salvation of his soul.'
'I will, Father Abbot.'
'Remember what I said during Chapter.'
'The words are engraved on my heart.'
'Consult them often.'
'Yes,' said Frewine, bowing his head in humility. 'There is one matter still to be discussed,' he added, looking up again. 'The two novices, Kenelm and Elaf. Their punishment has not been determined.'
'Brother Paul thinks that they should be flogged.'
'And what do you think, Frewine?'
'It is not my decision, Father Abbot. I am not the Master of the Novices. Only you and Brother Paul can pronounce sentence.'
'I would still like to take your counsel.'
'So be it.'
'What punishment should we mete out to these boys?'
Brother Frewine took a deep breath before he plunged in. 'I think that they have had punishment enough already,' he said. 'It was wrong of them to leave the dormitory at night and even more wrong of them to take food from the kitchens. I do not excuse them and feel that they should be given the sternest reprimand. But they are both very young, Father Abbot, still trying to fit their minds to the notion of obedience.'
'The experience of finding Brother Nicholas has put the fear of God into them. It is something that will live with them for the rest of their days and will, in my view, serve to shape them into true members of the Order. They are in pain, they are in distress. Kenelm and Elaf are covered in contrition.' The black-rimmed eyes widened hopefully. 'I know that Brother Paul feels that the birch rod is called for but they have already been lacerated by the events of last night. Spare them, Father Abbot. Show the mercy for which you are justly admired.'
Serlo ran a contemplative finger across his lower lip.
'Sound advice,' he said at length. 'I will speak with BrotherPaul.' He sensed the Precentor's fear. 'Do not worry, Frewine. I will not tell him that I am acting at your behest. My decision is my own. I had already taken the same path as yourself. I merely needed confirmation that I was going in the right direction. Flogging two novices may give Brother Paul's arm some practice but it will not bring back a murder victim.'
'I could not agree more, Father Abbot.'
'Good. That contents me.' He set off in the direction of his lodgings with Frewine beside him. 'This is a poor advertisement for the abbey.'
'I take such pride in this community. It is a joy to be part of it. But pride and joy have both fled now. I was ready to welcome his visit but now I face it with some trepidation.'
'We have a visitor, Father Abbot?'
'Two, in fact. Members of a royal commission, returning to the city to deal with unfinished business. I am well acquainted with one of them, Canon Hubert of Winchester, a learned man brought to God, like me, in our native Normandy.' He pursed his lips. 'I had thought to show him the beauty of the Benedictine Order here in Gloucester. Instead of that, he will be walking straight into a murder scene.'
'Murder!' exclaimed Canon Hubert, his fat cheeks whitening and his body trembling. 'Murder inside the abbey church?'
'Alas, yes,' said Durand.
'Can this be true, my lord sheriff?'
'Unhappily, it is. The body was discovered last night.'
'How? Where?' gibbered Hubert. 'Has any arrest been made?'
'Not as yet.'
'But we are due to stay at the abbey, Brother Simon and I.'
'That is why I thought it a kindness to warn you.'
'There is no kindness in these tidings, my lord sheriff. They arethe unkindest words you could have uttered. I am shaken to the core.'
On their arrival at the castle, Durand the Sheriff had been waiting for them. Ralph Delchard performed the introductions and was pleased with the courteous way in which Golde was immediately conducted to their apartment by a servant. He was also impressed when his men were led off to stable the horses before going to their lodging. They were expected. Preparations had been made. The sheriff himself, a big, brawny, smiling man with a rough handsomeness, was in the bailey to give them a warm greeting after their ride. He was evidently pleased to see them.
Left alone with the commissioners, however, Durand became a different person. The smile was replaced by a scowl, the pleasant manner by a preoccupied air. Instead of actually wanting them there, he was plainly exasperated by their presence. The sheriff's mind was on something else. When he told them what it was, he elicited a variety of reactions. Brother Simon fell to his knees in alarm and began to pray for deliverance. Ralph listened grimly then flung Gervase a look of sharp reproof. After answering it with a shrug of apology, Gervase made a mental note of all the details of the crime. Canon Hubert, quivering all over, needed everything repeated at least three times before he could accept it.
Durand the Sheriff forced himself to sound hospitable.
'It may be better if you and the scribe were to stay here.'
'We will not hear of it,' said Hubert, grabbing Simon by the arm to haul him upright. 'It sounds to me as if the abbey has need of us.'
'It will be a mean lodging at such a time as this.'
'Nevertheless, my lord sheriff, we will seek it out.'
'Will we?' asked Simon, stricken with doubt.
'Most certainly!' asserted Hubert.
The monks took their leave and headed for the abbey. Ralph was pleased to see them go. It enabled him to press the sheriff formore detail about the murder, but Durand had no time for further conversation.
'A crime has been committed, my lord,' he said peremptorily. 'It is my duty to investigate it as quickly and thoroughly as I may.'
'Where will you start?' wondered Ralph.
'In the place where the body was found.'
'The bell tower? How on earth did the victim come to be there?'
'It is too late to ask him.'
'Tell us more, my lord sheriff,' said Gervase. 'We bring fresh minds to this problem. We may be able to help you.'
'I have all the help I need, Master Bret.'
'You have a suspect, then?'
'Dozens of them.'
'How have you identified so many in so short a time?'
'By accepting the obvious solution.'
'What obvious solution?' asked Ralph.
The sheriff spoke with conviction. 'Brother Nicholas was killed by one or more of the other monks,' he declared. 'He was, it transpires, always something of an outsider. Nobody really liked him, not even the sanctimonious Abbot Serlo who purports to like everyone. Brother Nicholas was the rent collector for the abbey, a task which kept him away from it for most of the time. It was no accident. They deliberately wanted him out of the way.'
'Why was he so disliked?'
'That is what I am trying to find out, my lord.'
'I am not convinced by this,' said Gervase. 'I was raised in an abbey myself and almost took the cowl. I know the strong currents of feeling that can run in such places. But I find it very hard to believe that a Benedictine monk could be guilty of murder.'
'Look at the facts,' said Durand coldly. 'The victim's throat was slit within the abbey precincts and his body stowed in the abbey church. Who else would have had access to him there? Who else would know where to hide the corpse? Who else wouldhave had a motive to kill a monk? No,' he decided, mounting his horse, 'there is no shadow of a doubt in my mind. The killer wears the black habit of the Order. Finding him is another matter, however. It is a labour of Hercules. How do you solve a murder when almost any monk in that abbey might have committed it?'
'These are holy men,' argued Gervase. 'They deserve your respect, my lord sheriff, not your derision.'
'I speak as I find. Monks are all alike to me. They look the same, talk the same, think the same, and, when they break wind, smell the same. How am I to pick out the man or men I am after? Monks are trained in deceit. How do I get behind those blank faces and those lying tongues? How do I catch the one who cut the throat of Brother Nicholas?'
He rode off quickly before they could even speak.
THE OWLS OF GLOUCESTER. Copyright © 2000 by Edward Marston. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.