The Twenty-Fourth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew
Brother Michael finds that the new Chancellor is trying to curb his power, but rather than consolidating his position, he must concentrate on a series of murders in the University and town, as well as on the approaching ‘Chicken Debate’, the University’s most important philosophical statement in more than a decade.
In 1360, Edward III issues a call to arms, as sporadic attacks by the French threaten to turn into a full-blown invasion. In Cambridge, fear of the enemy is magnified by the belief that foreign agents are lurking in the area. Tension between town and gown runs even higher as rumours and ignorance fan the flames of suspicion amid preparations for war.
And then the first murder occurs – of a French scholar living in the town.
At Michaelhouse, Brother Michael is now Master, but his reach of power in the University is under threat by the election of a new Chancellor and his cohort of dubious advisors.Soon, the Colleges begin to squabble amongst themselves, as well as with the town that never wanted a University in the first place.
Amidst this atmosphere of swelling distrust, physician Matthew Bartholomew is called upon to investigate mysterious deaths in a nearby hospital. He quickly realizes that there is something odd about the inmates and their keepers – something dark and deadly, which seems to be connected to the growing number of murders in the town. Pressure mounts as the University and the town clamour for answers, leading Bartholomew and Michael in a frantic quest for a solution before the powder-keg of animosity in Cambridge is ignited.
East Sussex, March 1360
Robert Arnold, Mayor of Winchelsea, had many flaws, but chief among them was an inappropriate fondness for other men’s wives. His current lover was Herluva Dover, the miller’s woman. She had agreed to meet him at a secluded spot near the sea – on a little hill that afforded excellent views in all directions, thus reducing the chances of them being caught.
Herluva was plump and buck-toothed, so Arnold was not sure why she had caught his fancy. Perhaps it was to spite her husband, Valentine Dover, whom he detested. Or maybe he was just running out of suitable prey and Herluva was the best of those who had not yet succumbed to his silver tongue and roving hands.
Although there was a little hut on the hill, Arnold had chosen to entertain Herluva outside that day. It was a beautiful morning, unseasonably warm, and the scent of approaching spring was in the air. The heather on which they lay was fragrant with new growth, while the sea was calm and almost impossibly blue. A solitary gull cried overhead, but their hideaway was otherwise silent. Arnold sighed contentedly, savouring both the tranquillity and the giddy prospect of what Herluva was about to provide.
Then she spoiled it all by sitting up and blurting, ‘What is that? Look, Rob! A whole host of boats aiming for the river—’
‘The grocers’ ships,’ interrupted Arnold, leaning over to plunge his face into her ample bosom. It smelled of flour and sweat – a not unpleasing combination, he thought serenely. His next words were rather muffled. ‘They are due back any—’
‘I know the grocers’ ships.’ Herluva shoved him away and scrambled to her feet. ‘These are different. Lookat them, Rob.’
Frustrated and irked in equal measure, Arnold stood. Then gaped in horror at what he saw: a great fleet aimed directly at Winchelsea. His stomach lurched. It had been more than a year since the French had last come a-raiding, and he had confidently informed his burgesses that it would never happen again – that King Edward’s immediate and ruthless reprisals in France meant the enemy would never dare attempt a repeat performance.
He recalled with sickening clarity what had happened the last time. Then, the invasion had been on a Sunday, when Winchelsea folk had been at their devotions. The raiders had locked the doors and set the church alight, and anyone who managed to escape the inferno was hacked to pieces outside. The slaughter had been terrible.
‘Stop them, Rob,’ gulped Herluva in horror. ‘Please! My children are down there!’
But Arnold was paralysed with fear as memories of the previous attack overwhelmed him – the screams of those roasted alive in the church, the demented howls of the attackers as they tore through the town, killing and looting. He dropped to his knees in the heather, shaking uncontrollably. He had never seen so many boats in one place – there were far more than last time – and he knew every one would be bursting with French marauders, all intent on murder, rape and pillage.
‘Rob!’ screeched Herluva. ‘For God’s sake, do something!’
Arnold pulled himself together. ‘Sound the tocsin bell,’ he ordered shakily. ‘Then take your little ones to the marshes. They will be safe there. Hurry, woman!’
‘What about you?’ she demanded suspiciously. ‘What will you be doing?’
‘I have a plan to send them packing,’ he snapped, looking out to sea so she would not see the lie in his eyes. ‘Now go! Quickly, before it is too late.’
He watched her scamper away, but made no move to follow. By the time either of them reached the town, it would be far too late to organise any kind of defence. Besides, he knew what happened to those who challenged raiders, so why squander his life for no purpose? It would be better to hide until the attack was over, then take command once the enemy had gone. It was then that a man with good organisational skills would be most useful – arranging for the dead to be buried, the wounded tended, and damaged properties repaired.
He crouched in the heather and watched the ugly, high-prowed vessels reach the mouth of the river, where they furled their sails and rowed towards the town. On a gentle breeze, he heard the first frantic clang of bells, followed by distant howls of alarm as the residents of Winchelsea realised what was about to happen. He could picture the scene – people racing in all directions, rushing to barricade themselves inside their houses, rounding up missing children, loading carts in the wild hope of escape.
Like the last time, the French could not have picked a better occasion to attack. It was market day, so wares would be laid out for the taking, while half the town was in church, listening to a special Lenten sermon by the priest. Arnold’s eyes narrowed. Was it possible that they had been told when to come by spies?
France was not only at war with England, but with herself, and two years before, a small group of displaced Frenchmen had taken up residence in Winchelsea. They were tolerated because they were generous to local charities, never did anything to offend, and regularly professed a love of all things English. But were they decent, honest folk eager to adapt to their new lives, or were they vipers in the nest? Perhaps theyhad sent messages home, saying when Winchelsea would be most vulnerable. Arnold had suggested as much after the last raid, but the miller, Val Dover, dismissed the accusation as false and mean-spirited.
Arnold allowed himself a small, grim smile of satisfaction. But who had been right? Hehad, and the current raid was the price of Dover’s reckless support of strangers. He decided that as soon as the crisis was over, he would announce his suspicions again, and this time the foreigners would pay for their treachery with their lives.
He watched the first enemy ship reach the pier. Armed figures swarmed off it. A few brave townsmen raced to repel them – two invaders went down under a hail of kicks and punches – but a second boat joined the first, then a third, a fourth, a fifth, until the tide was impossible to stem. Then it was the defenders who were overwhelmed by sheer force of numbers. In the river, the ships jostled and collided as their captains struggled to find a place to land their howling, blood-crazed passengers. Then came the first wisps of smoke.
Unable to watch more, Arnold went into the little hut and closed the door.
Cambridge, late April 1360
‘The French are coming!’
Isnard the bargeman’s frantic howl attracted a sizeable audience, and folk listened agog as he gasped out his report. Then they hurried away to tell their friends and families, adding their own embellishments to the story as they did so. By the time the news reached the castle, Sheriff Tulyet was startled to hear that a vast enemy horde was marching along the Trumpington road, and would be sacking Cambridge within the hour.
‘They landed on the coast and headed straight for us, sir,’ declared Sergeant Orwel, delighted by the prospect of a skirmish; he had fought at Poitiers and hated Frenchmen with a passion. ‘They heard about the great riches held by the University, see, and aim to carry it all home with them. We must prepare for battle at once.’
Although small in stature, with elfin features and a boyish beard, Tulyet was one of the strongest, ablest and most astute royal officials in the country. Unlike his sergeant, he understood how quickly rumours blossomed beyond all truth, and was disinclined to fly into action over a tale that was patently absurd – particularly as he knew exactly how Isnard had reached the conclusions he was currently bawling around the town.
‘I had a letter from the King this morning,’ he said. ‘Rashly, I left it on the table while I went to Mass, and I came home to find my clerk reading it out to the servants. Unfortunately, Isnard happened to hear – he was there delivering firewood – and he seems to have interpreted His Majesty’s words rather liberally.’
Orwel frowned his mystification. ‘What do you mean, sir?’
‘The first part of the letter described how several thousand Frenchmen attacked Winchelsea last month,’ began Tulyet.
Orwel nodded. ‘And slaughtered every single citizen. It was an outrage!’
‘It was an outrage,’ agreed Tulyet soberly. ‘And although many people werekilled, far more survived. In the next part of the letter, the King wrote that the marauders went home so loaded with plunder that it may encourage them to come back for more. Somehow, Isnard read this to mean that they willreturn and that Cambridge is the target.’
‘And it is not?’ asked Orwel, disappointed to learn he was to be cheated of a battle that day. ‘Why did the King write to you then?’
‘As part of a country-wide call to arms. We are to gather every able-bodied man aged between sixteen and sixty, and train them in hand-to-hand combat and archery. Then if the French do mount a major invasion, he will have competent troops ready to fight them off.’
‘A major invasion?’ echoed Orwel eagerly. ‘So we might see the French at our gates yet? We are easy to reach from the sea – you just sail a boat up the river.’
‘Yes,’ acknowledged Tulyet, ‘but the enemy will opt for easier targets first, and if they do, we shall march there to fight them. Personally, I cannot see it happening, but the King is wise to take precautions.’
Orwel was dismayed by the Sheriff’s predictions, but tried to look on the bright side. ‘I suppose training new troops might be fun. Does the order apply to the University as well? Most of them are between sixteen and sixty.’
Tulyet nodded. ‘Which means we shall have a lot of armed scholars and armed townsfolk in close proximity to each other, which is never a good thing. Let us hope Brother Michael and I will be able to keep the peace.’
‘Why bother?’ asked Orwel, scowling. ‘Most of them University bastards are French – I hear them blathering in that foul tongue all the time. Fighting them would be a good way to hone our battle skills anddeal a blow to the enemy at the same time.’
‘Most scholars are English,’ countered Tulyet sharply. ‘They speak French because … it is the language they use at home.’
It was actually the language of the ruling elite, while those of lower birth tended to stick to the vernacular. Tulyet just managed to stop himself from saying so, unwilling for Orwel to repeat his words to the garrison. Soldiers already resented the scholars’ assumed superiority, and reminding them of it would not be a good idea.
Orwel continued to glower. ‘They live in England, so they should learn English. I do not hold with talking foreign.’
‘No,’ said Tulyet drily. ‘I can see that.’
Orwel regarded him rather challengingly. ‘Will you tell Brother Michael to stop them from strutting around in packs, pretending they are better than us? Because they are not. And if the French do invade and the University rushes to fight at their side, we shall beat them soundly. No scholar is a match for me and the lads.’
‘Underestimate them at your peril,’ warned Tulyet. ‘Some trained as knights, while others are skilled swordsmen. They are a formidable force, which is why the King has included them in his call to arms.’
‘We have knights,’ Orwel pointed out stoutly. ‘And all of them are better warriors than any French-babbling scholar.’
Tulyet saw he was wasting his time trying to reason with such rigidly held convictions, and only hoped the belligerent sergeant could be trusted not to provoke a fight. Relations between the University and the town were uneasy at best, and it took very little to spark a brawl. A taunting insult from a soldier to a student would certainly ignite trouble.
‘We shall have two more knights by the end of the week,’ he said, to change the subject. ‘The King is sending them to help us drill our new recruits. Sir Leger and Sir Norbert, both veterans of the French wars.’
Orwel was delighted by the news, although Tulyet was full of trepidation. He knew exactly what the newcomers would be like – vicious, hard-bitten warriors whose experiences on the battlefield would have left them with a deep and unbending hatred of all things French. The townsfolk would follow their example, and friction would follow for certain. He heartily wished the King had sent them to some other town.
At that moment, there was a commotion by the gate – Isnard was trying to force his way past the guards. As the felonious bargeman never entered the castle willingly, Tulyet knew there must be a very good reason as to why he was keen to do it now. He indicated that Isnard should be allowed inside.
‘I came out of the goodness of my heart,’ declared Isnard, all bristling indignation as he brushed himself down. ‘But if you do not want to hear my news, I shall go home.’
‘My apologies, Isnard,’ said Tulyet mildly. ‘Now, what did you want to tell me?’
‘That there has been a murder,’ reported Isnard gleefully. ‘Of a Frenchscholar named Baldwin de Paris. He was a member of King’s Hall, a place that is well known for harbouring foreigners, traitors and spies.’
‘And so it begins,’ sighed Tulyet wearily.