Two medieval mysteries featuring Hugh Corbett
In his cold, cramped cell in the monastery outside Worcester, Florence the chronicler lifted his milky, dim eyes and stared out at the darkness beyond his cell window. How should he describe these times? Should he recount all that he had heard? Was it true for instance that Satan himself, the prince of darkness, had reisen from the depths of hell with his horde of black-garbed legions to tempt and terrorise the human soul with visions from the pit? He had been told that an evil sea of demons, rumbling and boiling over the face of the earth, amused themselves disguised as snakes, fierce animals, monsters with crooked limbs, mangy beasts and crawling things. At midnight, so Florence had heard, the heavens rumbled with thunder and lightning flashed above a restless sea of heads, hands outstretched, eyes glassy with despair.
In the dark streets and alleyways of Paris, which ran together in a spider's web on the far side of the Grand Pont, more practical men laid their schemes and drew up plans to discover Philip's true intentions. Sir Hugh Corbett, Edward I of England's most senior clerk in the chancery, master of the King's secrets and Keeper of the Secret Seal, had flooded the French city with his agents: merchants osensibly looking for new markets; monks and friars supposedly visiting their mothr-houses;scholars hoping to dispute in the schools; pilgrims apparently on their way to worship the severed head of St Denis; even courtesans who hired chambers and entertained clients, the clerks and officials of Philip's secret chancery.
Two more of Paul Doherty's Sir Hugh Corbett novels have recently come my way. Both are excellent – of course – this is Paul Doherty – but I especially enjoyed The Assassin in the Greenwood. I imagine this was because it features such familiar characters as Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlett, Maid Marian and, of course, the Sheriff of Nottingham, the evil Sir Guy of Gisborne. But – this being Paul Doherty – it is not as simple as Hugh Corbett meets Robin of Locksley and we all have fun in the greenwood. Far from it.
The book opens with the other plot. Philip the Fair of France is planning to invade Flanders, an important ally of England's (the wool trade!) while Edward of England is engaged in his ongoing war with the 'rebellious' Scots. As England and France are officially at peace, Edward cannot interfere directly. What he can do, though, is learn exactly when and where the French army will cross the border, and inform the Flemings. Ranulf, Hugh's right-hand man, is in Paris with a team of spies trying to find out just that.
Meanwhile, in Nottingham, Robin Hood, who had made his peace with the King and retired to his estate, suddenly takes to the woods again, where he, Little John and Maid Marian begin robbing and killing with a ruthlessness and ferocity they had never shown before, including seizing the King's own taxes en route to London and killing all the soldiers who were guarding it. Then the Sheriff of Nottingham himself is poisoned during the night in his locked room.
Sir Hugh is sent to Nottingham and Ranulf joins him there with a document supposedly containing the information Edward is waiting for. But it is in code and they cannot break the code.
Then Hugh receives a message from London telling him that Philip has despatched an assassin to murder him. The assassin, who might be anybody, is already in Nottingham.
As always, the minor characters are a joy. Take Henry de Lacey, Earl of Lincoln, the King's cousin. How would you picture him after reading about him in the history books? Ah, but after reading this book he will be there vividly in your mind for ever – and all from one brief appearance.
The events recounted in The Song of a Dark Angel take place as winter sets in later in that same year, 1302. On a beach near Hunstanton in Norfolk, where the wind sweeps in off the North Sea all winter long (the Dark Angel of the title is the local name of this north-east wind), a headless corpse is discovered. The missing head has been impaled on a pole, and hanging on the gallows nearby is the body of the wife of the local baker.
But why has the King sent Sir Hugh and Ranulf to investigate what seem on the face of it two quite ordinary, if violent, deaths, one of which may have been a suicide?
Can it have anything to do with the fact that the King's grandfather, Bad King John, lost all his treasure in the Wash when the treacherous tides swept in faster than anticipated? And that certain items from that lost treasure have recently surfaced in a London pawnbroker's, and that the present King is strapped for cash?
Another great tale by the inimitable Paul Doherty, full of unexpected twists and turns and the usual unforgettable medieval characters.