Paul Doherty: The Poison Maiden

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Paul Doherty The Poison Maiden
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Paul Doherty

The Poison Maiden


Thus today the will conquers reason.

Vita Edwardi Secundi

‘What will you have to say for yourself when the wind no longer stirs your hair? When your gullet is dry and you can utter no word, your bloodless face is white and your eyes are set in their gloomy sockets? When your mouth cannot be moistened and inside it your tongue stiffens against the roof of your mouth? When blood no longer courses in your veins? When your neck cannot bend or your arms embrace? When your foot cannot take a step? What does that putrid dead body reply now? Let him say what vain glory has to offer him now. .’

I listened to Prior Stephen’s funeral homily on the man I had killed as I nestled in the shadow of the great rood screen in the cavernous nave of Grey Friars, the Franciscan house that lies between Stinking Lane near the Shambles to the south and the Priory of St Bartholomew to the north. I, Mathilde de Clairebon, also known as Mathilde of Westminster, in the Year of Our Lord 1360, the thirty-third year of the reign of Edward III, am still killing to protect myself. I have no choice. I am old and wasted, well past my sixtieth summer. My courses have long dried. My blood is sluggish, my bones ache, my muscles protest, but that is only the flower; the stem is still as strong and tenacious as ever, as is the root that defines me. The great Aquinas, quoting Aristotle, claims that ‘being’ is only being when it relates. Our relationships, he argues, define us, bring us into being and, in so many cases, make us murderers or the victims of murder. I am no different. I, Mathilde, formerly handmaid, henchwoman, counsellor, physician and even lover of Isabella, once Queen of England. Now I’m a relic, a survivor. Two years after my mistress died, I shelter amongst these cold grey stones. Isabella lies buried here in her marble sarcophagus, a majestic table tomb that stands in the choir to the right of the high altar. They buried her in her wedding dress, clutching the heart of her husband, Edward II, whose reign she so brutally ended. However, as in life so in death: Isabella also lies near the tomb of her great love, Mortimer of Wigmore, hand-fast in life, soul-fast in eternity.

The new father prior, the deliverer of sermons of doom, his fur-lined cowl framing a narrow, anxious face, favours me. He allows me to write my memories, my confession in a cipher only God and I understand. So close, so subtle is the cipher that even the most skilled clerk in the king’s secret chancery cannot understand it. They could spend their time in purgatory trying to break it, yet still fail. Oh, the king would love to know! He hungers for my secrets, whetted by his own mother’s fevered babblings as she lay in that cold, grim chamber at Castle Rising with the babewyns, griffins, gargoyles and other stone-sculpted grotesques staring down at her from the walls. She talked to those from the past. Names I knew well. I have watched them parade and posture in the sun before slipping into the dark: Philip IV, le Bel, the beautiful King of France; his helpmates, those demons incarnate, Marigny, Plaisans and Nogaret. Other sinister shadows gather. Chief amongst these is Clement V, pope, usurer and destroyer, shit-ting blood as he died, his corpse abruptly bursting into flames as it lay before the high altar of some church. Next to him, Edward of England screaming at the cross after his beloved Gaveston was executed. They all congregate: pictures, legends, frescoes in my mind. So many memories! Streets, havens of darkness, torchlight glinting on the weapons of hooded, visored assassins as they slip through a doorway intent on murder. Battlements prepared for war, packed with armures de fer, pots of flame brightening the darkness, the ominous silence broken by the creak of leather and the clatter of armour. Men, hearts full of fury, determined to hold fast against the dark mass of enemy approaching the walls. Churches with their hallowed light and shifting gloom; before their rood screens, coffins containing the corpses of the murdered, all draped in black and ringed by purple candles, tended by bedesmen telling their paternosters whilst in the shadow-filled transepts the priest is silently garrotted by those who plan more murder. Soaring castles overlooking battlefields soaked in bloody snow. Forests and woods alive with men moving silently round those they’ve left hanging from the outstretched branches of oak and sycamore. Towns burning. Gallows set up before cathedral doors. The pestilence slinking across a blighted landscape. The dead choking filthy ditches. The living on their knees in desperate prayer as Abaddon, the Angel of the Bottomless Pit, cuts the cords and empties the sack of God’s anger on to the land. I have also lived in a world of secrets, of amorous lechery thronged by the Judases and Losengiers, those betrayers of courtly love.

I may be dried and shrivelled as an ancient plum. My hair is grey and wiry, my skin a leathery brown; nevertheless, I have lived life to the full, drunk, even guzzled from the goblet of life. So why do I write? Well, every soul has its song, the very essence of its being, and this is mine. My confession to God. My discourse with myself. After all, aren’t the most intimate and enjoyable conversations those we have with ourselves? I have seen history unfold. I have watched in mounting apprehension God’s justice come to fruition. I have, the good Lord assoil me, witnessed the effect of that hideous curse Jacques de Molay, the last Grand Master of the Temple, hurled from the roaring flames and bellowing foulsome smoke that burnt his flesh to a cinder on the Ile-de-France and sent his soul fluttering like a dove towards God. A few words screamed out, yet that curse spread like a thick shower of arrows up and across God’s heaven, barbs cutting the air before falling on their victims. All this was helped by my mistress. She who became the Virago Ferrea — the Iron Virago, Isabella la Belle, the new Jezebel, the Destroyer of Kings, the Usurper of Princes, the Ouster of Thrones, the Shatterer of Lives, God’s anger incarnate. Isabella, mother of the one I call the Accursed, her son Edward III, bloody-handed, falcon-faced and hawk-hearted. Age has steeped him deep in villainy. He has drenched Europe in blood, blackened God’s sky with the sooty smoke of funeral pyres. Gog and Magog have risen and stalked the world. Edward and the Annihilation, the Great Pestilence, siblings who have roamed the earth hand in hand. Once I was a famous physician who witnessed all this; now I am a recluse, a pensioner no better than a servant girl. How times change! Fortune’s wheel spins so dizzily. Edward ordered me here to be with Isabella, his beloved mother, now interred beneath that cold, ornate sarcophagus.

‘As in life, so in death, Mathilde,’ he mocked, full red lips curling in derision. ‘Look at you,’ he hissed. ‘Grey-haired, grey-eyed, grey-souled. Yes, Grey Friars will suit you well. You have my permission to stay there. I could give you more, greater reward?’ He smiled and stroked my hair as if I was one of his limner hounds.

At the time I steeled myself. I stared over his shoulder at his Luparii, his wolf-men, the knights and clerks of the king’s secret chamber. They would have cut my throat if Edward had lifted a finger. Yet he dare not do that; well, at least not publicly. He probably knows what pledges I have lodged with powerful churchmen up and down this kingdom. They protect me. I smile, they have no choice! I know all about their secret lives. Edward recognises this. On that particular day he curled his finger round one strand of my hair, tightened it and pulled.

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