THE PLYMOUTH CLOAK by Kate Sedley

18 01 2017

A Roger the Chapman Mystery; England, 1473

Roger reminisces about Richard III (in the time of Henry Tudor!)

The Bishop’s Palace at Exeter stands in the lee of the Cathedral, a red sandstone building, in sharp contrast to the pale Beer stone of the church. As I entered behind Timothy Plummer, there was no sign of Bishop John Bothe, but there was a hum of activity involving both his and the Duke’s officials, whose general deportment and disdainful expressions – particularly when they deigned to glance at me – indicated the measure of their self-importance. This was totally at variance with the Duke’s own courteous manners and pleasant welcoming smile […]

I had forgotten how small and delicate-looking he was, the dark curtain of hair swinging almost to his shoulders. His mouth was thin and mobile, and a deep cleft ran between the upper lip and the wide nostrils of the straight Plantagenet nose. There were shadows round the eyes, as though he slept badly, and the chin was just a little too long and full for the true handsomeness of his big, blond, elder brothers. Yet in his lifetime, I have often heard of him spoken of as the most attractive of the three, and I know women found him very good-looking. (To say as much today is akin to treason, but I shall tell the truth and hang the consequences.)

plymouth-cloakAnother – early – Roger the Chapman mystery (making a total of four now reviewed on this site: the others are The Wicked Winter, The Burgundian’s Tale, and The Prodigal Son).

It is September, 1473, and as Roger Chapman plies his trade along the south coast of England he finds the towns and villages “rife with rumours of an impending invasion. It seemed that the exiled Lancastrians were stirring, beginning to take heart once more after their defeat at Tewkesbury two years previously.One might have thought, with King Henry and his son both dead, that the focus of their disaffection had vanished; but they had transferred their loyalty to young Henry Tudor …

The problem is Duke Francis of Brittany. If he gives Henry his support, then England could be faced with a major invasion. King Edward has written a letter to Duke Francis and entrusted it to his brother Richard, later Richard III and murdered by that same usurper, Henry Tudor.

Richard has brought the letter to Exeter, where he is to meet the Royal Messenger of Edward’s choice, a certain Philip Underdown. There, hearing that Roger is in town, he asks him to accompany Underdown to Plymouth and watch his back and see him safely aboard the ship that will call for him in two days’ time. The Lancastrians are after Underdown in order to prevent the letter reaching Duke Francis. The Woodvilles are after him because they believe he knows something detrimental to the beautiful but unpopular Queen Elizabeth (Woodville). And he has deadly enemies of his own.

Reluctantly, Roger agrees – he has little choice – and they set out for Plymouth, where they hear that the ship has been delayed, so they take shelter in a manor house out in the country, not far from Plymouth. There, Underwood soon gets into trouble chasing the women, a young bride with a jealous husband, and a widowed housekeeper who takes a maternal interest in Roger but is still certainly very attractive.

After two attempts on his life, Underwood hands the letter over to Roger, saying it will be safer with him. But will he be safer with it?

Then Underwood is in fact murdered, and with Roger’s own cudgel – the “Plymouth cloak” of the title. Roger is left with the King’s vital letter to deliver, but is not allowed to leave as he is, naturally, one of the suspects.

An excellent story, and another vivid look at the period of the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. I like this series more and more with every volume I read. 

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