In this sequel to An Ancient Evil (the knight’s tale) in Doherty’s series of novels based on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the man of law tells a story about the events which followed the death of Isabella, Dowager Queen of England and mother of Edward III. She was also the daughter of the French King Philip IV (yes, that Philip – the persecutor of the Templars and the Jews), and known as “The She-Wolf of France”. Many years earlier, she had led a rebellion against her husband, Edward II, and after he had been murdered she ruled England in his stead, with her lover, the English nobleman, Mortimer.
However, her son grew up, as sons will. He had Mortimer arrested and executed, and he incarcerated Isabella in Castle Rising, an impregnable fortress in a remote part of East Anglia. Twenty-eight years later, she died. But she had a secret, a secret that her son, the king, was desperate to prevent from getting to France and from being made public.
In his tale, the man of law, Nicholas Chirke, recalls those days, when, as a young man setting out on his career, he was called upon to act for the defence in a murder case that turned out to be only one of a series of murders all revolving around this precious secret so long guarded by the dead queen.
Not much in the way of occult phenomena here (unusually for this series) – apart that is from one very believable ghost – but a very real (indeed authentic) medieval mystery, set against the background of sleazy streets and taverns (and larger-than-life characters) that Doherty has made his own.
They left the tavern and hired a ride on a cart going up Fleet Street. The day was cold but the thoroughfare was packed with carts fighting to get in or out of the city. Pedlars with packhorses and sumpter ponies and wandering priests and scholars thronged around them. Crippled beggars, clutching makeshift wheel barrows, hurried into the city to take up their usual positions for the day. At Fleet prison, just past the stinking city ditch, the execution cart was being prepared to take convicted felons up past Farringdon into West Smithfield. The prisoners were bound hand and foot and some – a woman sentenced to be boiled for poisoning her husband with burnt spiders, a footpad guilty of stealing a silver crucifix from a church in Clerkenwell, a river pirate and two counterfeiters – had placards slung around their necks advertising their crimes. The red-masked executioner tried to drive off the bystanders and onlookers with his whip, helped by the sheriff’s men with their tipped staves. A drunken bagpipe player had to be helped to his feet so that he could give the death cart a musical accompaniment to the execution ground … …
Better than any film.