AN UNHOLY ALLIANCE by Susanna Gregory

11 03 2017

A Matthew Bartholomew Chronicle, Cambridge, England, 1350

He inserted a chisel under the lid and tapped with a hammer. The lid eased up, and he got a good grip with his fingers and began to pull. The lid began to move with a great screech of wet wood, and came off so suddenly that he almost fell backwards. He handed it up to Michael, and all five of them peered into the open coffin.
Bartholomew moved back, gagging, as the stench of putrefaction filled the confined space of the grave. His feet skidded and he scrabbled at the sides to try to prevent himself from falling over. Jonstan gave a cry of horror, and Cuthbert began to mutter prayers in an uneven, breathless whisper. Michael leaned down and grabbed at Bartholomew’s shoulder, breathing through his mouth so as not to inhale the smell.
‘Matt!’ he gasped. ‘Come out of there!’
He began to tug frantically at Bartholomew’s shirt. Bartholomew needed no second bidding, and scrambled out of the grave with an agility that surprised even him. He sank to his knees and peered down at the thing in the coffin.
‘What is it?’ breathed Cymric.
Bartholomew cleared his throat to see if he could still speak, making jonstan jump. ‘It looks like a goat,’ he said.
‘A goat?’ whispered Michael, in disbelief. ‘What is a goat doing here?’
Bartholomew swallowed hard. Two curved horns and a long pointed face stared up at him, dirty and stained from its weeks underground, but a goat’s head nevertheless, atop a human body.

Like the last Matthew Bartholomew story I reviewed here (The Tarnished Challice – six years ago!) An Unholy Alliance is long, and slow, but if total immersion in mid-fourteenth-century Cambridge appeals to you and you are in no hurry to return to the modern world, this is your book.

Dr Matthew Bartholomew, our hero, teaches medicine at Michaelhouse to students who, in the years immediately following the Black Death, are desperately needed in the community but are mostly either less than gifted, or less than committed, or (as in the case of the Franciscans among his students) less than convinced about his unorthodox methods; for Bartholomew is a scientific practitioner before his time and is forever clashing with bigots and in very real danger of being accused of heresy. A nice typical touch comes at the beginning of the book when he notices a film of scum on top of the holy water in the stoup:

Glancing quickly down the aisle to make sure Michael was not watching, he siphoned the old water off into a jug, gave the stoup a quick wipe round, and refilled it. Keeping his back to Michael, Bartholomew poured the old water away in the piscina next to the altar, careful not to spill any. There were increasing rumours that witchcraft was on the increase in England because of the shortage of clergy after the plague, and there was a danger of holy water being stolen for use in black magic rituals. […] But Bartholomew, as a practising physician, as well as Michaelhouse’s teacher of medicine, was more concerned that scholars would touch the filthy water to their lips and become ill.

The Michael referred to here is Bartholomew’s sidekick, the gourmet Benedictine monk with an eye not only for a tasty dish but for a beautiful woman – as when he and Bartholomew call on “Lady Matilde”, a well-known local prostitute, in the course of their investigation:

Matilde answered the door and ushered them inside, smiling at their obvious discomfort. She brought them cups of cool white wine and saw that they were comfortably seated before sitting herself. […] ‘How may I help you?’ she said. She gave Michael a sidelong glance that oozed mischief. ‘I assume you have not come for my professional attentions?’
Michael, his composure regained now that he was away from public view, winked at her, and grinned.
‘We have come to give you some information,’ said Bartholomew quickly

A lovely scene, and beautifully written – though you must read the whole thing.

In fact, the book opens with the death of a prostitute, her throat cut in a churchyard as she makes her way home in the darkness, and this turns out to be but one in a series of murders, not all of prostitutes and some by garotting rather than throat-slitting, though there is a link: the small red circle painted in blood on the victim’s foot.

This circle is the sign of a mysterious “guild”of devil-worshippers who meet in a local church, abandoned and decommissioned since the Black Death, one of a host of such cults that sprang up in the wake of the plague, when many had lost their whole family and God seemed to have abandoned his people and there were almost no priests left to minister to them.

But what apart from the circle on the foot is the link between the various victims? And who is organising this guild? What is his aim in all this? (Or her aim. A rather intimidating woman called Janetta is always there hovering in the background surrounded by a band of thugs.) Is it really satanism, or is he – or she – simply cashing in on people’s helplessness and gullibility?

Slow, as I say, but memorable, and well worth the time spent reading it.



19 05 2014


Another anthology of historical mysteries, this one focusing entirely on murder, with stories chosen by Maxim Jakubowski – an expert if ever there was one.

In the medieval period – which of course I turned to first – the tales range from Peter Tremayne’s “Who Stole the Fish?” (Ireland, AD 664), in which Sister Fidelma investigates the disappearance of a large salmon from the monastery kitchen (along with the brother who was cooking it, but no one seems to care about him), to Paul Docherty’s “Id Quod Clarum” (Oxford, 1441), in which the obnoxious professor of theology collapses and dies of henbane or belladonna poisoning while delivering a lecture.

Of the stories set between those two dates, I especially liked Kate Ellis’ “The Fury of the Northmen” (South coast of Devon, Britain, AD 997) where we see a young woman take the lead in unearthing the true facts of a killing in a male-dominated Saxon village, and Susanna Gregory’s “The Trebuchet Murder” (Cambridge, 1380) in which yet another obnoxious professor of theology is the victim. (I am beginning to wonder whether it is characteristic of medieval mystery writers that they once studied theology and fantasised about murdering the professor? From what I hear, academic theologians can indeed be an arrogant and obnoxious lot.)

Then there is a longer story, “Raven Feeder” by Manda Scott (Orkney/Norway, AD 999) that I enjoyed. Its theme is the clash between the old religion of Odin, Thor and Freya, and the religion of the White Christ which was being imposed on all and sundry by the brutal Olaf Trygvason, King of Norway. Excellently imagined and written.

Finally, two wonderful stories set 2000 years earlier. First, Amy Myers’ “Who Killed Dido?” (Carthage, 10th Century BC): the culprit is one of the gods, and the investigator Aphrodite, the goddess of love herself! Then there is “Investigating the Silvius Boys” by Lindsey Davis (of Falco fame), in which the victim is Remus and the “perp” his brother Romulus; brother against brother “one of the oldest crimes in the world,” as she says herself on the first page of the story. (I’m not giving anything away.)

A great collection


22 08 2011

Matthew Bartholomew, the Cambridge physician, and his friend Brother Michael go to Lincoln, where the friar is to be inducted as a canon of the cathedral. Matthew has his own agenda as he is also still in search of his great love, Matilde, who left Cambridge one night several years earlier (after he had failed – again! – to ask her to marry him) and has not been seen since. Now he has word that she has been seen in Lincoln, that she was in fact at one point betrothed to someone in Lincoln – and that is the real reason he makes the very friendly gesture of accompanying Brother Michael to Lincoln in the freezing December weather.

Matilde remains as elusive as ever, but Lincoln is a shock to them. There are murders connected with the selection of the canons – Michael is not the only new one – and there is the reappearance of a mysterious chalice (the “tarnished chalice” of the title) that went missing in Cambridge twenty years earlier when a man was hanged for stealing it. The city is riven between two rival factions, the bishop seems helpless, and the sheriff is interested only in bribes.

Our two heroes cannot wait to get back to their warm, comfortable, ivory-tower lives in peaceful Cambridge. However, they get embroiled in events and, as always with Susanna Gregory, we soon get caught up in them too.

Apart from Anya Seton’s Katherine, I hadn’t read anything set in 14th-century Lincoln. After The Tarnished Chalice, I feel almost as at home there as I would be in medieval London or Varanasi. And speaking of medieval Varanasi (aka Kashi, Benares – see my post on Kashi) did you know that India was way ahead of Europe in medical knowledge at this time? Unlike the Christian and Islamic civilisations, Hinduism had a very liberal attitude towards research and experimentation. There was no problem about dissecting dead bodies – the concept of the circulation of the blood was understood – and botany/herbalism was scientifically studied and researched. Matthew Bartholomew would have been fascinated!

Matthew is a bit of a prude, actually, even by medieval standards, but in this book at least that is more than made up for by the presence of some women who are quite the opposite, including not only Matilde hovering in the background, but a King’s ward, the young widow Christiana de Hauville and the older Sabina (my favourite).

It has to be said that it is rather long for what it is (Ellis Peters never needed 500 pages to tell the Brother Cadfael stories) but definitely recommended for a relaxed long weekend’s reading.


28 03 2011

We are in London, and the year this time is 1662. Which is to say, shortly after the Restoration. No one trusts anyone, not his neighbours, not his servants, not even members of his own family.

The Royalists are insecure and incompetent, and for the most part intent only on enjoying their new status. Some of them had all too obviously been playing a double game under Cromwell and the Commonwealth; as, it is now becoming clear, had some of the supporters of Cromwell –  just in case the monarchy was ever restored. Of course, everyone now claims to support the King and to have been against the execution of his father, Charles I, but how many of them are telling the truth? And how many are involved in plots to rtestore the Commonwealth and make sure the King’s return is a temporary interlude?

Caught up in this turmoil is our hero, Thomas Chaloner, who was for ten years a Commonwealth agent stationed in Holland where he learnt the language, had a Dutch girlfriend, Metje, and began to feel at home. Then, with the Restoration, Cromwell’s Secretary of State (and spy-master) John Thurloe fell from power, and Thomas, back in London and unemployed, is trying without much hope of success to gain employment under the new government.

Then, when the situation is desperate and Thomas has reached rock bottom, Buckingham employs him to find a cache of treasure hidden somewhere in the Tower by a fleeing regicide (one of those who had put their name to the warrant for the execution of Charles I).

Thomas soon learns that his predecessor in Buckingham’s service had been murdered. Buckingham, however, does not want that investigated. Why not? Then it turns out that not just one of his predecessors but a whole series of them came to an untimely end!

Is there anyone Thomas can trust? Certainly none of the men. Even Thurloe has not been telling the truth.

Then can he trust one of the four women involved? Apart from Lady Castlemain, the King’s mistress, who means nothing to Thomas (though he does get to see her naked at one point – life at the palace is very free –

Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland

Barbara Villiers, Lady Castlemaine, Duchess of Cleveland

Some of the King’s celebrations are very wild, and his barons copulate everywhere – with any woman who possesses the requisite body parts, usually” – one reason why many people would like to see the return of the Commonwealth), there is Metje, his Dutch girlfriend, now living in London and employed by a puritan family but slipping out to spend her nights with Thomas. There is Temperance, daughter of that same family, who is obviously in love with Thomas, and jealous of Metje. And there is Sarah, sister of John Thurloe, and very unhappily married, who kills a man to save Thomas’ life. He trusts Metje most (though not enough to tell her his secrets); he does not take young Temperance seriously; and he finds himself and Sarah Thurloe thrown more and more together.

Never a dull moment, as Thomas narrowly escapes with his life again and again (he is even attacked – twice! – by the King’s mad lion – a male named Sonja), and, en passant, you learn a lot of history (as always in good HF): for instance, I had never understood the importance of Holland, as an ally under the Commonwealth, and as a potential threat under the new royalist regime, and what is must have been like for Dutch people caught in London when the political pendulum swung and suddenly they were looked on as enemies.

This is “Chaloner’s First Exploit in Restoration London” according to the front cover. I shall definitely be looking for the others.