The Nineteenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
A mysteriously missing bishop, a sinister cult revolving around an executed murderer, and a vicious power struggle in the ancient abbey of Peterborough…
In the summer of 1358 Matthew Bartholomew finds himself one of a party of Bishop’s Commissioners sent north to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the Abbot of Peterborough. He and his colleagues quickly learn that behind the beautiful façade of the Benedictine monastery, there is a vicious power struggle, and that not everyone would be happy to see the prelate’s safe return.
This unrest and discontent seems to have spread throughout the town: a feisty rabble-rouser is encouraging the poor to rise up against their overlords, and there are bitter rivalries between competing shrines and the financial benefits of the relics they hold.
One of these shrines is dedicated to Lawrence de Oxforde, a robber and murderer, who was executed for his crimes, but who has been venerated ever since miracles started occurring at his grave. It is here that a murder occurs, virtually in the presence of Bartholomew and his friend Brother Michael.
At first, it seems impossible that this killing should be linked to the abbot’s disappearance, but further deaths make Bartholomew think again, and he begins to realise that the brittle tension between Church and laity, and between rich and poor, might be connected to the ever-increasing body count.
Lawrence de Oxforde did not believe for a moment that he was going to be executed. A pardon would arrive from the King, the hangman would stand down, and Oxforde would live to fight another day. Or, to put it more accurately, he thought with a smirk, to burgle another house, because he had no intention of giving up the life that had turned him from a nameless clerk into the most celebrated outlaw in the region.
It was a grey day, clouds hanging flat and low over the little Fenland town, and the threat of rain was in the air. The scaffold had been erected on the far bank of the River Nene, and it seemed to Oxforde that the entire population of Peterborough had turned out to trail after his cart as it trundled from prison to gibbet. There were toothless ancients, brawny labourers with sun-reddened faces, maidens, children and monks from the abbey. Oxforde allowed himself a small, self-satisfied smile. It was only natural that work should grind to a halt on this of all days. He was famous, so of course everyone would want to see him in the flesh.
As the cart lumbered across the wooden bridge, he glanced behind him. Peterborough was a pretty cluster of red-roofed houses nestled among billowing oaks, all dwarfed by the mighty golden mass of the abbey church. Oxforde’s mouth watered – wealthy homes, shops loaded with goods, and a monastery bursting with treasure. It was a burglar’s dream, and he would certainly linger there for a few days once he was free to resume his life of crime.
He swaggered as he alighted from the cart, and called brash witticisms to the spectators. He was puzzled when they only glowered at him, and wondered what was wrong. He was a legend, a man who had relieved more rich folk of their ill-gotten gains than any other thief in history. The town’s paupers should be all admiration that he had eluded capture for so long.
‘Murderer!’ howled young Joan Sylle, the abbey’s laundress.
Oxforde was stung by the hatred burning in her eyes. ‘Only the rich,’ he snapped back at her. Surely she understood that he had had to dispatch the odd victim? What robber had not? The occasional slit throat was unavoidable in his line of business.
‘The potter was not rich,’ shouted Roger Botilbrig, a spotty lad who was never far from Joan’s side.
‘Neither was his wife,’ a deeper voice called out.
‘Nor his children,’ another added.
A chorus of condemnation rippled through the crowd, and Oxforde slowed his jaunty progress. He had had no choice but to kill the potter and his family – they had stumbled across him as he was poring over his latest haul. Unfortunately, he had been less than thorough, and one had survived long enough to identify him.
‘That was different,’ he said, less resonantly than before. ‘It was hardly my fault they—’
‘Keep walking,’ interrupted the priest who was behind him. His name was Kirwell, and lines etched into his thin, pale face suggested that he had not had an easy life. He was going blind, too, at which point he would lose his post as parish priest. It would not be easy for a sightless cleric to make ends meet, so Oxforde had decided to help him – and to help himself into the bargain. Kirwell had been unrelenting in his efforts to save Oxforde’s soul, and although the robber had scant time for religion, he thought Kirwell deserved some reward for his dogged persistence.
‘Do not worry about the future, Father,’ he murmured. ‘I have plans for you.’
‘It is not me you should be thinking about today,’ Kirwell whispered back, kindly but dismissively. ‘It is your immortal soul. Now ignore the crowd and keep moving. I shall stay at your side, so you will not die alone.’
‘I will not die at all,’ said Oxforde, loudly indignant. ‘My pardon will arrive soon, you will see.’
He spoke with such confidence that some folk exchanged uneasy glances. Oxforde laughed, gratified by their disquiet. Doubtless they were afraid that he might visit them next. Well, perhaps he would, because although he had amassed a huge fortune and hidden it in a place where no one else would ever think to look, there was always room for more.
The sheriff stepped forward. ‘Hurry up,’ he ordered the executioner sharply. ‘Every extra moment he lives is an insult to God.
‘And an insult to his victims,’ added Joan, while those around her nodded agreement.
‘Victims!’ spat Oxforde. ‘I am the victim here. A man has to make a living, you know.’
‘A little contrition would not go amiss,’ counselled Kirwell softly. ‘It would count for something when your sins are weighed. And they are many – too many to count.’
Oxforde sniffed to indicate that he did not agree. He climbed the steps to the scaffold with jaunty defiance, then turned to the priest, supposing it was as good a time as any to put his plan into action.
‘I like you, Kirwell, so I am going to give you something. However, there is a condition: you must never show it to anyone else. If you keep it secret, you will enjoy a long and comfortable life. But if you sell it – or even let another person see it – you will die.’
‘I do not want anything from you,’ said Kirwell, although not before hope had flashed in his eyes. He was terrified of the grinding poverty that lay ahead of him, a fear that Oxforde fully intended to exploit.
‘You will want this,’ he crooned enticingly. ‘It is the prayer I composed last night – the one thanking God for my pardon. You said it was beautiful, so I wrote it down for you.’
There was no mistaking Kirwell’s disappointment, although he accepted the folded parchment graciously enough. ‘Thank you.’
‘But remember: show it to no one.’
Kirwell nodded, but there were many who would pay handsomely for something scribed by England’s most famous thief, and the priest needed money desperately. Of course he would sell the thing. Indeed, Oxforde was counting on it.
‘It is time to think of more urgent matters,’ the priest said, shoving the parchment into his scrip. ‘Death is but moments away and—’
‘Rubbish!’ declared Oxforde. ‘The sheriff will not execute a legend.’
He continued in this vein until the noose was placed around his neck, at which point he became uneasy: the King was cutting it rather fine. He started to add something else, but the words never emerged, because the hangman was hauling on the rope.
There was a ragged cheer from the spectators as he jerked and twisted, feet kicking empty air. Kirwell bowed his head to pray, but he was the only one who did: everyone else was too relieved to see the end of the man who had plagued the shire for so many years.
When his struggles were over and the executioner had declared him dead, Oxforde was placed in a coffin. It was thicker and stronger than most caskets, and the hangman’s assistants fastened the lid with an inordinate number of nails. Most of the crowd followed as it was toted to the cemetery.
‘Are you sure it is right to bury him in St Thomas’s churchyard?’ the Sheriff asked Kirwell, as they joined the end of the procession. ‘He was impenitent to the end, and the Church does not normally let executed criminals lie in consecrated ground.’
Kirwell gestured to the long line of people who walked silently behind the coffin. ‘They have a terrible fear that he might return from the dead to haunt them, and there is a belief that only holy soil will keep him in his grave. I think they deserve some peace of mind after living in fear of him all these years.’
The Sheriff nodded his understanding, then gave a wry smile. ‘And there is a certain satisfaction in putting him in that particular hole.’
Two months before, a silversmith had been interred in St Thomas’s cemetery, amid rumours that he had bought the plot next to it for bits of his favourite jewellery. Oxforde had been in the process of digging for them when he had been caught.
So Oxforde was lowered into the pit he himself had made, and the hangman and his lads began to shovel soil on top of him. Then there was a different kind of thump, one that caused everyone to start back in alarm. Had it come from inside the coffin?
‘Continue,’ ordered the Sheriff urgently. ‘Quickly now!’
Several onlookers hurried forward to help, flinging great spadefuls of earth down so fast and furiously that even if another sound had emerged, it would not have been heard. They finished by stamping down the mound as hard as they could, and some folk brought heavy stones to pile over the top.
When it was done, the Sheriff breathed a sigh of relief. ‘There! That should hold him.’
The next morning was even more grey and dismal, with clouds so thick that it felt like dusk. Kirwell returned to the grave to petition the saints for the dead man’s soul, although he suspected he was wasting his time: Oxforde’s sins were too great and his victims too many. The prayer was on the table in his house, and he had already been offered a shilling for it. He was inclined to accept, because he did not believe for a moment that selling it would shorten his life.
He dropped to his knees, but his thoughts soon went from his devotions to Oxforde’s scribbles. Perhaps someone else might be interested in buying them, for a higher price. The notion had no sooner crossed his mind than a shaft of sunlight blazed through the clouds and bathed the grave so intensely that it hurt his eyes. He fell backwards with a cry. And then, just as suddenly, the light vanished, leaving the little cemetery as dark and gloomy as before.
‘Did Oxforde do that?’ asked Botilbrig, running over to help Kirwell to his feet. The youth looked frightened. ‘Because you were nice to him?’
‘I do not know,’ replied Kirwell unsteadily, crossing himself. But one thing was for certain. He would not sell the prayer now. Not ever.