The Clerkenwell Tales

The Clerkenwell Tales - Peter Ackroyd

It is 1399, the year in which Richard II of England was deposed and murdered, and the usurper Henry Bolingbroke, son of John o' Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, seized the throne as Henry IV – an act which led directly to the Wars of the Roses the following century.

In this fascinating novel, we follow a plot by a group called "Dominus", whose aim is to stir up unrest in the City of London by means of a series of murders and explosions in churches (things don't change) and so make it unlikely that the people of London will rise in support of Richard.

The author's arrangement of chapters, his way of telling the story, is strange and was – to me – a little off-putting, at least at first. Each chapter focuses on a different character – and the characters are nominally those of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales", though they are not to be identified with them (as for instance the characters in Doherty's Caterbury Mysteries series are intended to be): these are "The Clerkenwell Tales", not "The Canterbury Tales", and all the characters are linked by their association with the nunnery known as The House of Mary, in Clerkenwell. So, each chapter is like a short story, the tale of that character (not, be it noted, a tale told by that character).

But it works. The characters interact and chapter by chapter we become familiar with them all. Four of the most memorable are Sister Clarice, the nun who is prophesying and thereby causing much of the trouble: is she possessed, is she a witch, is she a heretic – or are the prophecies genuine? William Exemewe, friar and conspirator, Hamo Fulberd, "simple' or "silent" Hamo, abandoned as a child and brought up in the priory, who attaches himself to Exemewe. And, last but not least, Richard II, the deposed king, who has lost his wits.

Not only do we see the plot unfold and witness Richard's downfall, but we are told so much about the lives of the many different people that we come to feel completely at home in the London of the turn of the (15th) century.

Well written and, once you get into it, completely engrossing.