The Twenty-Third Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
The appearance of an unknown killer in a formerly peaceful Suffolk community brings Bartholomew into what proves to be one of his dangerous investigations yet.
In 1360, a deputation from Cambridge ventures to the Suffolk town of Clare in the hope that the wealthy Elizabeth de Burgh has left a legacy to Michaelhouse. Yet when they arrive, they discover that the report of her death is false and that the college seems destined for bankruptcy.
Determined to see if some of its well-heeled citizens can be persuaded to sponsor Michaelhouse, Matthew Bartholomew, Brother Michael and Master Langelee become enmeshed in the town’s politics. They quickly discover that a great many people in Clare have recently met untimely deaths. These killings, combined with the arrogance of Lady de Burgh, have overshadowed the refurbishment of the church and the grotesque behavior of some of her entourage, and have created a dangerous restlessness in the town: an atmosphere intensified when yet more murders occur.
One of the victims is a fellow traveller of the Michaelhouse contingent, and Matthew Bartholomew and Brother Michael feel honour-bound to identify his killer. It is a hunt that takes them deep into Clare’s murky foundations and that threatens their own survival as well as that of their beloved college.Amazon.co.uk Kindle Edition Audiobook Waterstones Amazon.com US Kindle Edition The Book People
Clare, Suffolk, February 1360
The parish church of Clare had a unique claim to fame: it was the only one in the country with a fan-vaulted ceiling. Its vicar, Nicholas, gazed admiringly at it – or rather, he gazed at the parts he could see through the scaffolding. Fan vaulting – an architectural style where clusters of ‘ribs’ sprung from the supporting columns to form a fan-shape – was an entirely new invention. It was the brainchild of Thomas de Cambrug, who had first tried it in Gloucester Abbey. But Clare’s roof was better, because Cambrug had still been experimenting in Gloucester, whereas he had known what he was doing by the time he arrived in Suffolk.
It had been expensive, of course, but Clare was wealthy, and its inhabitants had leapt at the chance to transform their rather dull church into something remarkable. Donations had poured in, and work had started at once – removing the old, low roof and replacing it with a tier of elegant clerestory windows and the magnificent ceiling above.
Unfortunately, there was a downside. The Lady of Clare had been complaining for some time that her castle chapel was too small, especially when she had guests, but when she saw Cambrug’s innovations, she realised that a solution to her problem was at hand – the church was not only large enough to accommodate her entire household, but the rebuilding meant that it was now suitably grand as well. However, she was not about to subject herself to the unsavoury company of commoners while she attended her devotions, so she gave Cambrug some money and told him to design a new south aisle. The parishioners could have that, she declared, while she took the nave.
The townsfolk were outraged. It was their church and they resented her gall extremely. They marched to the castle as one, where they objected in the strongest possible terms to her projected south aisle. The Lady refused to listen. She ordered Cambrug to begin work, not caring that every stone laid destroyed more of the harmony that had existed between castle and the town for the last three hundred years.
As soon as the aisle was completed, Cambrug took a new commission in Hereford Cathedral, relieved to be away from the bitterness and hostility that festered in the little town. He left his deputy Roger to finish the roof, but promised to return and check that all was in order before the church was rededicated the following April.
Unfortunately, Roger was entirely the wrong man to have put in charge. First, he was a rigid traditionalist who hated anything new, so the fan vaulting horrified him. And second, he was a malcontent, only happy when he was grumbling, which was irritating to his employers and downright exasperating for his workforce.
‘I will not answer for it,’ he said, coming to stand at Nicholas’s side and shaking his head as he peered upwards. ‘You should have stuck with a nice groin vault, like I told you. This fan lark is dangerous, and will come to a bad end.’
Nicholas fought for patience. ‘Nonsense! Cambrug’s ceiling will be the talk of the country, and we shall be celebrated as men of great vision for having the courage to build it.’
Roger sniffed. ‘Oh, it looks pretty enough, but it should have taken twenty years to craft. We tossed it up in a few months.’
‘Yes, because we had so much money,’ argued Nicholas, although he did not know why he was bothering; he and Roger had been through this countless times already. ‘We were able to hire a huge army of masons and high-quality stone.’
‘The stone is acceptable, I suppose,’ conceded Roger reluctantly. ‘But the men … well, most are strangers, so their work is shoddy.’
‘Not so, because you dismissed all those you deemed to be unsatisfactory. Of course, the same is not true for the south aisle. The Lady’s donation was niggardly, so corners have certainly been cut there.’
He glared at it, resentful that such an ugly, functional appendage should have been planted on the side of his glorious church, but then his eyes were drawn upwards to the ceiling again. The artists were at work now, painting it with geometrical patterns designed to compliment the intricate stonework. It would be a riot of blue, red, gold and green, made all the more impressive for stretching unbroken across both nave and chancel. In Nicholas’s view, this made it far more imposing than the one in Gloucester.
As the new work made the older parts look shabby, Nicholas had arranged for the whole building to be re-painted, and Clare’s wealth was such that the murals commissioned were the best that money could buy. Nicholas could not resist a grin of pride. Here he was, a one-time soldier in the King’s army, in charge of a church as fine as any cathedral. How fortune had smiled on him since he had taken holy orders!
‘She does not like the fan vaulting,’ grumbled Roger. ‘She told me so herself.’
‘She’ was Clare’s anchoress, a woman who was walled up in a cell attached to the north wall. Her little room had two windows – the squint, which opened into the chancel and allowed her to receive Holy Communion; and a slit opposite that was used for passing in food and other essentials. Anne de Lexham had entered her ‘anchorhold’ two months before the renovations had started, so her life of religious contemplation had not been exactly peaceful.
‘She will change her mind once she sees it with the scaffolding down,’ said Nicholas. ‘Besides, she has benefited hugely from Cambrug’s presence here – her poky wooden cell exchanged for a nice new stone one, all designed to her own specifications.’
‘The church will not be ready for the rededication in April,’ declared Roger, who had an annoying habit of never acknowledging that someone else might be right, and usually conceded defeat by segueing to a different gripe. ‘The artists are behind schedule, and so are the glaziers.’
‘Only by a few days,’ retorted Nicholas. ‘And they will make up for lost time when they hear the latest news from the castle – namely that the Queen herself plans to be here for the occasion. They will not want to disappoint her.’
‘It is you who will be disappointed,’ warned Roger, looking upwards with a disparaging eye. ‘Because it will take longer than a few weeks to finish this lot, you mark my words.’
Nicholas was glad when the mason went to moan at someone else. He continued to watch the artists swarm over the scaffolding high above, but jumped in alarm when there was a sickening thud, followed by a babble of horror. It came from the chancel, so he hurried there at once. A number of workmen had clustered around someone who lay unmoving on the floor. Nicholas elbowed through them to find out what had happened – there had been surprisingly few mishaps so far, and he had been worried for some time that their luck would eventually run out.
Roger was dead, his skull crushed. A piece of wood lay on the floor next to him, and blood seeped across the paving stones.
‘It is part of the scaffolding,’ said Nicholas, squinting up at the mass of planking, ropes and ladders overhead. ‘It must have come loose somehow.’
‘Our scaffolding does not “come loose”,’ objected one of the carpenters indignantly. ‘I assure you, that plank did not fall of its own accord.’
‘Of course it did,’ countered Nicholas, startled. ‘What else could have happened?’
The workman shrugged. ‘Someone could have picked it up and belted him with it.’
‘You mean one of you?’ asked Nicholas, looking at each one in turn. ‘Because you are tired of his sour tongue?’
‘No, of course not,’ gulped the carpenter. He managed a feeble grin. ‘Ignore me, vicar. You are right – it was an accident. Let us say no more about it, eh?’