A PLAY OF LORDS by Margaret Frazer

The Fourth in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, the autumn of 1435 

‘Lord Lovell’s players, come to play for his grace the bishop of Winchester!’

The guards gave no sign of being impressed. Their cool, disinterested glance at hamper and players said that far more important people than Lord Lovell’s players came their way every day.

Joliffe did not doubt it. Bishop Beaufort – the bastard son of a royal Duke of Lancaster – was not only bishop of Winchester but cardinal of England and the present king’s great-uncle, a power in England’s government these twenty years and more and very possibly the wealthiest man in either of the king’s realms of France and England. Certainly he was the man who loaned the royal government far more money than anyone else was able to, with sometimes his loans the only thing that kept the war in France possible. Through King Henry’s infancy and young boyhood, Bishop Beaufort and his nephew John, duke of Bedford, had, between them, held the ambitions of John’s brother, the duke of Gloucester, in check; but Bedord was now dead, the war in France was in the worst trouble there had been since the burning of the French witch Jeanne d’Arc five years ago, and Joliffe expected that the king, at almost fourteen years of age, was probably beginning to have a mind of his own, let alone whatever the Duke of Gloucester was now up to, and all in all, life must presently be very interesting for Bishop Beaufort of Winchester, cardinal of England.

The fourth book in this series featuring the player and playwright Joliffe (an off-shoot of the Dame Frevisse series of medieval mysteries – they know each other and have appeared in a couple of books together) is set in London in the autumn of 1335. The Duke of Bedford, chief advisor to the still under-age Henry VI, is dead, and the nobles and bishops are scheming and plotting and jostling each other for positions of power around the boy-king.

Meanwhile, in France, the Duke of Burgundy has reneged on his alliance with England and joined forces with the king of France, thus rendering all Burgundians in England the object of jingoistic hatred. Some are killed by mobs – but are these riots spontaneous or is someone stirring up trouble?

Joliffe and the players find themselves “lent” to Cardinal Beaufort by their own master, Lord Lovell. And Beaufort, son of John o’ Gaunt, grandson of Edward III, and great-uncle of the king, commissions Joliffe to write a play which will influence public opinion against France rather than Burgundy. He also wants Joliffe to act as his spy when the company visit the great houses of other magnates and rich London merchants to perform their play.

Then the players are attacked. And someone is killed …

Hobnobbing with royals and moving with the currents of high society (something Dame Frevisse is well acquainted with – indeed has deliberately turned her back on) is new for Joliffe. As one might expect of such a talented actor and improvisor, he does it very well.

All in all, this is one of the best of this great double series.

A PLAY OF KNAVES by Margaret Frazer (Review)

The Third in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, the spring of 1435 

He stopped at a gate into a ploughed field softly green with young shoots of grain. A lapwing was crying pee-wit from somewhere, but that was the only sound, and he bent and picked a small daisy out of the grass and chewed on its stalk for its sharp taste, leaning on the gate and gazing up at the White Horse on its hillside. Yesterday at this hour Medcote had been alive and now he wasn’t. That Medcote wasn’t a man to be mourned was beside the matter. Living and dying were a mystery deeper than any one man’s murder.
A man or woman lived and then they did not and mankind fumbled on its way and still there was the Horse, lifetimes old, in its flaring gallop across the hillside, its being a mystery among other mysteries.
Why had Medcote been such a curse toward everyone? […] Had he thought the power to make folk miserable was a greater power than to play fair with them? That was a mistake common to small-witted people – to think good was a weaker thing than evil. From all that Joliffe had see, evil – in both its greater ways and in such petty ones as bullying – was the weak man’s way, taking a fool’s pleasuer in his strength to destroy. To destroy was easy. To create was hard. And solid goodness to others was harder still, with maybe the hardest thing being to stand strong in the good against the anger and force of those who understood only ugliness and destruction. Against people like Medcote.
And like whoever had killed him.
Joliffe pushed back from the gate and went on toward the players’ camp, hungry for whatever was for dinner and ready to be away from his thoughts for a while.

In the third in this new series of books by Margaret Frazer, Master Bassett’s wandering players, now known as Lord Lovell’s Men, travel to the village of Ashewell, in the vale beneath the Uffington White Horse – to perform, but also to investigate, on behalf of Lady Lovell, an undercurrent of trouble in the area that no one has yet been able to put their finger on or do anything about.

And of course, among the players it is Dame Frevisse’s friend Joliffe who is the sleuth.

Three families, the Ashewells, the Medcotes and the Gosyns, are at loggerheads. An accidental killing by a young boy has never been forgiven ot forgotten. Now, in addition to that, young people are being forced into marriage with those they hate.

Then the first murder is committed – near the field where the players are camped. Of course, suspicion falls on them. To a lazy “crowner”, they would be convenient scapegoats. And while Joliffe is investigating, desperately trying to clear himself and the other players, a second murder occurs.

A little slow perhaps, sometimes, but that is not a problem when you enjoy the world and the company as much as I do these books. As always, her characters, both major and minor, are better than most, and the author’s in-depth knowledge of the period frequently leaves me with my mouth open. I am happy just to go on turning the pages, am always sorry when one of her books comes to an end.

But I want to quote a paragraph from the Author’s Note which I found very much to the point and in need of saying. By the late Middle Ages […] the feudal system still existed but no longer had the stranglehold on society that it had had even two hundred years before. Times do change. Think how different the lives we lead now are from those of two hundred years before our present time, and how different those times were from two hundred years before then. The Middle Ages were not a monolith that clunked down upon Europe with the fall of Rome and lasted like a solid, witless lump until the Renaissance arrived to Make Everything Better. There was change and growth, experiments in government and thought and religion that made the Renaissance possible.

 

A PLAY OF DUX MORAUD by Margaret Frazer

The Second in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries. England, 1434

He was on the curve of the stairs beyond sight of anyone at their head or foot when he met Mariena coming up. In the stone-walled narrowness he stepped as much aside as he could, flattening his back to the wall to let her pass. Though she had to turn sideways, too, there was room for her to pass without touching him but she did – and more than touched. She brushed her body, her breasts, and hips across his, for a moment paused with her fine-boned, beautiful face upturned to his, her lips slightly parted, inviting a kiss he might have given except that he was so startled he only stared at her in the instant before her gaze fell and she went on, with the slightest of smiles at the corner of her mouth and a sidelong look back at him from under her lowered lids before the curve of the stairs took her from sight.

Swallowing thickly, shaken by how easily she had raised him, he went uncomfortably downward, only to meet Sia on the last curve of the stairs. He would rather not have dealt with her just then and would have gone past when she stepped aside, out of his way, but she put out her arm, barring him from going down, and said, ‘She was waiting for you, you know.’

‘And so were you,’ Joliffe said lightly; and because Sia was almost as near to him as Mariena had been and her face was turned up to him the same way, he kissed her. The kiss turned into more than he had meant it to be, with Sia’s arms coming around his waist and her body leaning into his, pressing him back against the wall.

He was the first to break it off, but Sia, still leaning against him, smiled up into his face with a sigh of satisfaction. ‘There now,’ she said. ‘That’s better.’ 

This is the second in the series of books by Margaret Frazer in which Joliffe takes over from Dame Frevisse, and it follows straight on from A Play of Isaac. The players – now Lord Lovell’s Players – are sent by their new patron to entertain the guests at the wedding of Sir Edward Deneby’s daughter Mariena. A wedding gift.

But there is more to it than that. Mariena’s previous fiancé had died in what may well have been suspicious circumstances, and Lord Lovell for one is suspicious enough to want to know more. So he commissions Joliffe, whose powers of observation and deduction he has come to respect, to see if all is as well beneath the surface as appearances may lead one to believe.

I like these Joliffe books very much. I prefer them to her other, Dame Frevisse, novels. Not only are they well-written and beautifully constructed (as are the Dame Frevisse novels, of course) but it is a sexy story, which the Frevisse stories definitely are not. Margaret Frazer seemed to find Joliffe liberating. Is it just that things happen to him that would never – could never – happen to Dame Frevisse?

Mariena, Sia tells him, ‘heats men to where they don’t know whether they’re coming or going. Never satisfies them, just heats them. They’re easy to have then […] These past few years, while she’s had suitors here now and again, some of us have gathered a pretty lot of coins helping them ease their longings. If you know what I mean.’

He’d have to be both gelded and stupid not to know what she meant and he said, smiling, ‘I’m no wealthy suitor come to woo. I’ve no coins to give you.’

‘You’re fair-bodied enough with a face I don’t mind kissing’ – Sia slipped free of his hands, came close, and kissed him again to prove it – ‘that I’ll have you for my own pleasure and no need for coins.’

Enough was enough – ‘ [When Dame Frevisse had decided enough was enough, that was it. This, however, continues] and he’d not had nearly enough. ‘Where?’ he asked. ‘And when?’ Since here and now clearly did not suit.

‘Tonight after supper. There’s a loft above the cow-byre. Behind the stables. Can you find it?’

Or is it that identifying with her virile male hero, she sees the world quite differently. Suddenly the women are all sex-objects.

Joliffe is great, and I love the detailed background of medieval drama and stagecraft and the lives of the players.

A PLAY OF ISAAC by Margaret Frazer (Review)

It’s been a while since I posted here – personal stuff and travelling, and recently putting the finishing touches to my own historical novel – the first! More about that very soon!

Meanwhile, as well as several brand new indie books I downloaded, I’ve been rereading Margaret Frazer’s Joliffe novels. The late Margaret Frazer, I should say, for she passed away in 2013, and has been and will continue to be much missed. I reviewed all her earlier Dame Frevisse novels as they came out for MedievalMysteries.com. (which sadly is no longer with us in this universe either, though perhaps it is flourishing in some parallel universe!) but not the Joliffe stories.

Joliffe was a character who had appeared occasionally in the Dame Frevisse novels, and took over in a new series as the lead, the sleuth. For this, Margaret Frazer took us back in time from the mid-1440s, the date Dame Frevisse had reached by then, to 1434, soon after the events in The Servant’s Tale, the Dame Frevisse novel in which Joliffe made his first appearance.

The First in the “Joliffe” series of Medieval Mysteries

England, 1434

‘It’s not turned out so ill for you, though, has it?’
‘It hasn’t, true enough. But you?’
Penteney’s doubt was plain but Basset’s answer was unhesitant. ‘As far as any man is likely to get what he wants in this world, I’ve the life I want, no fear. And even if I didn’t,’ he added jestingly, ‘it’s a better life than the one I might have had if we hadn’t paid our price.’
‘Longer, at any rate,’ Penteney returned, matching the jest, but with something more than jest behind it.
‘Something less than jest was in Basset’s voice, too, as he asked, ‘And Roger? Do you ever hear aught of him? Or from him?’
There was silence then, making Joliffe wish for more than starlight by which to see Penteney’s face before he answered, ‘I’ve never seen him since, but I hear from him once a year. Sometimes twice. He’s well. He’s … doing well.’
‘And best not spoken of,’ Basset said.
‘Best not,’ Penteney agreed. ‘Basset, come inside. I’ve wine in my study. Let’s risk the time to talk …’
‘It’s not worth the risk, Hal. Even this is more than we should.’
‘But you’re well,’ Penteney insisted. ‘You can assure me of that?’
‘As well in my way as you are in yours. I swear it.’
Not knowing how long they would talk and afraid it would not be much longer, given their unease at it, Joliffe slid silently away along the wall. Given one thing and another, he thought he would rather be in his bed and seemingly asleep when Basset next saw him than be caught here listening.

Joliffe and the small company of players of which he is a member are in Oxford to perform The Play of Abraham and Isaac during the Corpus Christi celebrations. And of course they are delighted when a stage-struck “Eden-child” refuses to be parted from them.

But by then Joliffe had taken a clear look at the stocky, undergrown, widely smiling man in the doorway and somewhat eased out of his readiness for trouble. He had rarely seen one of that fellow’s kind grown to man-size because they mostly died young, but there was no mistaking their soft-fleshed slant-eyed faces. Eden children they were sometimes called, and children they stayed in most ways, no matter how long they lived, and there was rarely any harm in them …

This is Lewis, Master Fairfield, and when he refuses to leave them the Players are invited by his “keepers” to spend the next few days at his home, a large house on the outskirts of the city – not in the house itself – they are, after all, merely players – but a large barn is put at their disposal. They of course are delighted.

Then the mysteries begin. Why is Lewis, the Eden-child, heir to the family fortunes rather than his far more suitable brother Simon? What is the dangerous secret linking their host with the playmaster, Tom Bassett? And who is the dead man whose body is dumped outside  the barn door that night?

The first time I read this book, I was hooked. I knew at once that I would go on to read the whole series as it came out, book by book. This second time was even better in some ways.

Tomorrow I’ll do a post on the second in the series, A Play of Dux Moraud.