Read Nightshade Online

Authors: P. C. Doherty

Nightshade

Certain malefactors and disturbers of our peace have, by force of arms, broken into our treasury within the Abbey at Westminster.
Letter of Edward I, 6 June 1303
‘The well-fed body and delicate complexion are a tunic for the worms and hell fire!' Brother Gratian, a Dominican of the Order of Preachers, shook one bony hand free from the sleeve of his black and white gown. A finger, thin and pointed as a bodkin, jabbed up at the lowering grey skies as if the threatening snow clouds would break to reveal Christ, seated in glory and surrounded by angels wielding swords of fire, coming to judge the people of Mistleham in the King's shire of Essex. Some of that market town's citizens would sagely agree that such a Day of Doom was just. For had not Mistleham become a haven of murder and mayhem? The Dominican's powerful voice rang out, cutting like a hiss of steel across the marketplace crowded in by town houses, the guildhall and the brooding mass of St Alphege's, the parish church, with its four-square crenellated tower, grey brick and grimacing gargoyles. The dirt-strewn, slippery cobbles echoed to the usual sounds of carts rumbling and horses clattering, their sharpened hooves sparking the stone. Peasants trod
wearily as they moved from one stall to the next, looking to barter or to purchase. Now all fell eerily silent under the preacher's eloquent voice: even the bailiffs gathered around the stocks, waiting to imprison a huddle of malefactors, paused in their shouting and cursing. Raucous laughter at an adulterer forced to carry a prostitute on his shoulders to the stocks, her skirt pulled up, bare legs swinging, faded abruptly away. The Dominican's voice rang as clear as the sacristy bell that announced the elevation of the host during mass, the ice-cold morning air serving as God's silver trumpet for this preacher, Lord Scrope's personal chaplain and confessor.
‘The body is vile,' Brother Gratian proclaimed, ‘stinking and withered. The pleasure of the flesh is, by its very nature, poisoned and corrupt. It brings down upon you a shoal of God's curses.' The Dominican's ever-growing congregation nodded and murmured amongst themselves. They realised Brother Gratian was referring obliquely to the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit, those wandering beggar-preachers who had swept into Mistleham and taken over the haunted, derelict village of Mordern deep in the nearby forest. The Free Brethren had preached how the flesh was sweet and its pleasures wholesome. Indeed, it was rumoured, if the men amongst the Free Brethren made love to a woman, they, like Adam did for Eve in Paradise, could restore her virginity. Lord Scrope, who'd recently gone riding by on a charger draped in a mantle, dressed in a costly diapered tunic woven in Constantinople, silken breeches pushed into pure leather boots, gold spurs winking in the sunlight, had brought a savage end to such nonsense.
‘Satan,' Brother Gratian's voice grew even stronger, ‘roams our
roads with his demonic packhorses! On each are millions of souls, bound and fettered, all destined for hell. Satan's head is larger than that of a horse or any other animal. He has bushy hair, and a sweeping forehead more than two hands broad. He has large soft ears like those of a baboon, enormous brows, owlish eyes in a fat face and a cat's nose. A cleft lip closes over fangs like those of a ravenous wolf, sharp and red.' Brother Gratian's voice was now so carrying it could even be heard inside St Alphege's with its graceful pillars, arches and columns, delicate stone tracery and windows glazed with jewel-like studded glass.
In a darkened corner of that church, near the mercy seat close to the lady chapel, Lady Hawisa Scrope and Domina Marguerite, abbess of the nearby convent of St Frideswide, paused in their conversation. They had been discussing a fresh approach to Lord Scrope about those corpses still hanging deep in the forest around the village of Mordern. Now they drew apart. Lady Hawisa's face, white as hawthorn blossom, puckered in concern. She rubbed her eyes, glanced at Abbess Marguerite, then raised her eyes heavenwards. She was about to continue her conversation when a more sinister, threatening sound echoed like the crack of doom, low but powerful: the drawn-out braying of a hunting horn. Lady Hawisa sprang to her feet and hastened towards the coffin door, the side entrance to the church. She threw this open and ran outside. Again the hunting horn sounded, promising violence and sudden death. The people of Mistleham were already scattering, fleeing for refuge; some even brushed by her, flinging themselves into the church. Across the square, archers and men-at-arms wearing the russet-green livery of her husband, Lord Scrope, came spilling out of the Honeycomb tavern, bows strung, arrows
notched. Others were drawing swords and daggers. Traders deserted their stalls; women clutched children to shelter in doorways. Again that dreadful horn brayed, but from where? Lady Hawisa gazed wildly around. More people were running towards the church, screaming, ‘Sagittarius, Sagittarius! The Bowman, the Bowman!' Brother Gratian came hastening across. For a man who preached so often about death, he now seemed particularly frightened at the prospect. He paused before Lady Hawisa, opened his mouth to speak, then thrust by her to join the others flocking into the church.
‘Come on, hasten!' someone behind Lady Hawisa shouted from the safety of the porch.
She turned and gazed back across the square. Eadburga, daughter of Oswin, ostler at the Honeycomb, was hurrying towards her clutching the hand of Wilfred, her beloved. They were shouting and screaming as they raced across. Lady Hawisa heard, or thought she did, the ominous twang of a longbow. Someone grabbed at her arm, trying to drag her into the church, but all she could do was stare at the fleeing lovers. Eadburga abruptly staggered, turning sideways even as the long barbed shaft that had pierced her back broke through her chest in a flurry of blood. The young woman crumpled to the ground as Wilfred, still clasping her hand, turned to help. A second arrow lanced his neck, straight through flesh and bone, cutting off breath and life. Wilfred collapsed to his knees, hands fluttering, blood bubbling between his lips as his eyes glazed over in death.
Who are the malefactors? Who knew about the robbery?
Who offered and gave the robbers help,
counsel and assistance?
Letter of Edward I, 6 June 1303
Sir Hugh Corbett, Keeper of the Secret Seal, personal emissary of Edward I of England and a member of the King's Privy Council, embraced Lady Maeve, his wife, and heartily wished he was back in bed with her at Leighton Manor in Essex. He held her close, her blond hair tickling his cheek, her soft lips brushing his skin, he hugged her once more, savouring her delicate perfume, then stood back. Maeve smiled even as her lustrous blue eyes brimmed with tears, and brought up the fur-rimmed hood of her dark green cloak. Corbett thought it made her look even more beautiful, but those tears! To curb his own sadness he glanced over his shoulder at his two companions waiting on their horses. Ranulf-atte-Newgate, Principal Clerk in the Chancery of the Green Wax, red hair tied tightly behind his head, green eyes watchful in his pale face, nose slightly pinched by the cold, caught his gaze and turned away as if distracted by the clamour around the palace gate. Beside Ranulf, Chanson, Clerk of the Stables, tousle-headed and garbed in grey, was doing his best to control
the sumpter pony carrying their bags and chests. Corbett glanced back at Maeve. She had now hidden her distress at her husband's imminent departure by bringing forward their two children, Edward and Eleanor. Corbett crouched to hug both, rose, kissed Maeve passionately on the lips, then turned, gathered the reins of his horse and swung himself up into the saddle. He pretended to busy himself with his war belt as well as adjusting the black woollen cloak about him. Then he glanced back at Maeve, mouthed a message of love and, turning his horse's head, led his companions out of the palace gate along the trackway to London Bridge.
Corbett, like Ranulf, kept his hood pushed back to give him a better view of this crowded thoroughfare, guiding his horse prudently along its icy rutted surface. He slouched low in the saddle, blinking away the tears, staring fixedly ahead of him. Ranulf rode just behind him to his right, Chanson to his left. The Clerk of the Stables had now hoisted the lance bearing the stiffened pennant displaying the royal arms emblazoned in glorious scarlet, blue and gold, the rampant leopards proclaiming to all and sundry how these were king's men, not to be interfered with or impeded in any way. Even a vexillation of royal knight-bannerets pulled aside for these clerks, whom they immediately recognised and saluted. Corbett nodded courteously. Ranulf raised a hand, aware of how these royal bully-boys were studying them closely. Corbett's departure from Westminster certainly caused a stir. Heads turned, eyes narrowed against the bitter cold. People watched these two important clerks garbed in black leather jerkins, their dark green hose pushed into red boots of Cordova leather, one gauntleted hand grasping the reins, the other beneath their cloaks ready to
draw sword or a dagger. Those who did business at Westminster recognised that the Keeper of the Secret Seal was off on the King's affairs. The presence of Corbett in the royal palace always provoked a sea of murmuring and whispering, speculation about what might be happening. After all, these were dangerous times. The war across the Scottish march was not progressing as well as the old king would have wished, whilst the powerful London merchants, with gangs of rifflers at their beck and call, were growing increasingly resentful at the King's constant demand for money to finance his struggle against Wallace in Scotland as well as to equip his war cogs patrolling the Narrow Seas against the privateers of Philip of France. Royal business, however, was secret. Corbett was the last man to discuss the reason for his departure with anyone. Instead he settled himself comfortably in his saddle, lost in his own thoughts about Maeve. Christmas and the twelve holy days had certainly passed like a dream, a heart-warming, grace-filling, soul-enriching period. Corbett had never felt so happy in his life. Once again he murmured a prayer of thanks.
‘
Ego tibi Domine gratias et laudem
— I give you thanks and praise, oh Lord.'
Oh yes, the turn of the year had proved good. Epiphany had come and gone like a watch in the night, then a royal courier had arrived at Leighton with a scroll sealed by Edward himself, a writ summoning Corbett
cum festinacione magna
— with great haste – down to the King's palace at Westminster. Corbett had ignored the great haste, insisting that Maeve and the children also join him at his lodgings in the old palace. Edward, of course, had proved to be a generous, hearty host, praising Maeve's beauty whilst merrily fussing the children. However, when all the courtesies
were done, the King, iron-grey hair falling down to his shoulders, had grabbed Corbett's arm and led him out across the frost-laced palace gardens, through the south door of the great abbey and into the cloisters. Corbett sensed where they were going. The King was now silent and morose, no longer the jovial lord but muttering to himself, clawing at his silvery moustache and beard. He pushed his way through the knight-bannerets gathered round the door and started down the steep steps broken off halfway, the gap spanned by a long wooden plank, and into the cavernous circular crypt of the abbey with its eight ground-level windows and huge central pillar. Corbett detached himself from the King and put his hand in the gap, then stared around at the empty coffers, caskets and leather treasury sacks that littered the floor. Edward sat down on a coffer, glaring round, face all fierce as he muttered his favourite oaths, ‘By God's hand' and ‘By God's thigh', followed by a litany of filthy imprecations against those who'd dared to dig their way through one of those windows to rob the royal treasury of gold, silver, jewels and precious goods. The riflers had even removed the stones from the
arca
, the stronghold built into the centre of the massive pillar.
‘They'll all hang, Corbett!'
‘Yes, your grace.'
‘Listen,' the King hissed, ‘how silent it is.'
Corbett walked back to the fortified door leading to the crypt steps. He was aware of the cold and the darkness, how the many candles and cresset torches flickered and flared in vain to drive back the gloom.
‘Silent, your grace,' he agreed. ‘The good brothers are still lodged in the Tower?'
‘Over a hundred of the good brothers will rot there,' the King snarled, ‘until I discover the truth and get all my treasure back. You know that, Corbett!'
The Keeper of the Secret Seal certainly did. He had been party to the ruthless investigation into the great conspiracy to rob the royal treasury in the crypt of Westminster. The King's own hoard allegedly safe in this hallowed place, the mausoleum of his family. It should never have happened. The crypt was protected by eighteen-foot-thick walls, narrow windows, fortified doors and stairs with the steps removed halfway down to create a gap that only a specially made plank could span. Yet the outrage had still occurred. The sheer effrontery of it had shocked even the cynical officials of the Chancery and Exchequer, who dealt every day with a legion of rogues and vagabonds. The robbery had been the fruit of an unholy alliance between London's underworld, led by Richard Puddlicott, a former clerk, and some of the leading monks of the abbey. Puddlicott had seduced the good brothers, supposedly followers of the rule of St Benedict, by bringing into the abbey musicians, courtesans, food and wine for midnight revelry, whilst other conspirators, under the cloak of night, had weakened one window in the crypt, working secretly in the cemetery beyond to create a gap. At last they had forced an entry on the eve of St Mark and the vast treasure hoard had been taken. The leading monks had been fully aware of the conspiracy and cooperated eagerly. So much treasure had been taken that precious items had been found at Tothill, in the fields around the abbey and even fished from the Thames. The rest of the haul had abruptly appeared on the London market, the greedy goldsmiths looking the other way as they bought and sold what was clearly not theirs.
Edward had been absent in Scotland, but his fury had known no bounds. He had dispatched commissioners, Corbett included, into London and the entire community of the abbey had been committed to the Tower. Courts of oyer and terminer moved through every ward of the city, names were mentioned, suspects were arrested, even dragged out of sanctuary in clear violation of ecclesiastical law. The King demanded, time and again, that the treasure be recovered whilst anyone involved in its disappearance was to be arrested and taken to the Tower.
‘I'll grind such arrogance to dust.' The King bit on the quick of his thumb and spat out a piece of skin. ‘Corbett,' he gestured at a nearby chair, ‘sit down. I need to talk to you.'
Edward scratched the corner of his mouth as he studied this enigmatic clerk, olive-skinned, cleanly shaven, his long face hard and resolute except for the laughter lines around the firm mouth and deep-set eyes. He glimpsed the grey amongst Corbett's raven-black hair, now pulled back and tied in a queue to rest on the nape of his neck.
‘We are getting older, Corbett,' the King grated. He stretched out and gently tapped the clerk on the cheek, ‘but you are still my soul companion, Hugh, my faithful servant.' His words echoed round that cavernous chamber. ‘I trust you as I do my own sword arm.' Edward's right eye drooped, almost closing, a common gesture whenever the King's humours were disturbed. ‘That is why I have brought you down here to talk in the silence.'
Corbett steeled himself. He respected Edward of England, a man of iron who, despite his many faults, imposed order on a chaos that, if unchecked, would sweep away Corbett's world of logic, reason, evidence, the rule of law and all the trappings that
kept the
utlegati
— the wolf men – lurking beyond the light. Nevertheless, Corbett was wary of princes, and none more so than Edward, especially when he acted maudlin.
‘Your grace,' he gestured round, ‘the light in here is poor, it's freezing cold, my wife and children …'
‘Hugh, Hugh …'
‘Is it this, your grace? I thought the conspiracy had been broken.'
‘This is not just my treasure hoard,' Edward declared, beating his chest. ‘It is part of me.' He edged closer, hitching up the neck of his sack-like tunic then plucking at his coarsely woven breeches tucked into cowhide boots.
Corbett hid his smile. Edward of England liked nothing better than to play the role of the peasant farmer when it suited him.
‘I brought you here because something about which I must tell you belongs here. I'll not keep you long. I must go to the royal mews,' Edward murmured. ‘One of our beloved falcons is ill. Whilst you, Corbett, must be off to Mistleham in Essex, to question Oliver Scrope, lord of the manor.'
‘Your grace,' Corbett protested, ‘you promised me rest until well after Hilary.'
‘I know, I know.' The King waved a hand. ‘But I need you in Essex, and I'll tell you why.' He breathed in deeply. ‘Early last year a wandering group of Beguines, male and female, who called themselves the Free Brethren of the Holy Spirit, landed at Dover. They journeyed into Essex on to the manor lands of Lord Oliver Scrope. You've heard of him?'
Corbett shrugged.
‘He owns vast estates, a man certainly blessed by fortune if not by God,' Edward added cynically. ‘Oliver is an old comrade-in-arms.
He and I have fought shoulder to shoulder in Wales and along the Scottish march. You do recall him?'
Corbett pulled a face, then shook his head.
‘Yes you do!' Edward teased. ‘You said he had the face of a bat: balding head, with protuberant eyes, puffed cheeks and ears that stuck out.'
‘True. I remember,' Corbett conceded. ‘A small, thick-set man, hot-tempered and violent. Your grace, comrade or not, Scrope has a nasty soul, a man of blood. He took to killing like a bat to flitting. He butchered some Welsh prisoners outside Conwy, didn't he?'
‘Yes, yes.' Edward grimaced. ‘Oliver is a fighter. He is also a hero, Corbett, a Crusader who escaped Acre when it fell thirteen years ago to the Saracens. Fought his way through, brought back a king's ransom in precious goods. I converted a great deal of it into land for him and married him off to a rich heiress fifteen years his junior, Lady Hawisa Talbot. However, one thing he did not hand over to me,' Edward narrowed his eyes, ‘was the Sanguis Christi.'
‘The Blood of Christ?'
‘An exquisite cross of thick pure gold,' the King's eyes gleamed, ‘studded with five huge rubies allegedly containing blood from Christ's precious wounds. According to legend, the rubies were embedded in the True Cross found by the Empress Helena a thousand years ago. The Sanguis Christi, along with other wealth, was seized by Scrope when he fled Acre. On his return to England, he solemnly promised me, after I had given him so much help and favour, that the Sanguis Christi would be mine, either when he died or after twelve years had elapsed. It is now January 1304.'
Edward smiled. ‘The twelve years have elapsed. The Sanguis Christi should be mine.'
‘Then summon him to Westminster!' Corbett declared crossly.
‘Ah, that's just the beginning.' The King smiled. ‘Scrope is a wily man. He was with the Templars in Acre. The Sanguis Christi and all the treasures he seized once belonged to that order. They have demanded everything back, particularly the Sanguis Christi. Scrope has utterly rejected their plea. I support him in this.' He grinned. ‘Naturally. The Temple, according to rumour, have sworn vengeance. They've sent formal envoys to Lord Scrope demanding the return of their property. Scrope has refused, so the Templars, in a secret consistory, have passed sentence of death on him. Now,' the King sighed, ‘I do not know whether this is the work of the General Chapter or just extremists, but so far they have made little progress.'

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