Paul Doherty: Satan in St Mary

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Paul Doherty Satan in St Mary
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    Satan in St Mary
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Once the clerk was gone, closing the door behind him, Burnell rose and sifted through the documents strewn across the table in front of him. Eventually, with a grunt of pleasure, he plucked one from the pile, rolled it up and tossed it over to Hugh. "Read it, " he ordered. "Read it now!" Hugh nodded and unrolled the vellum which he immediately recognized as cheap and the scrawled, badly penned writing as something certainly not produced by clerks trained in the royal chancery. It was the report of a coroner's inquest held in Cheapside at the church of St. Mary Le Bow:

"The findings of Roger Padgett, Coroner called to the church of St. Mary Le Bow on the morning of 14th January 1284 to view, in the presence of witnesses called from the ward, the body of Lawrence Duket, goldsmith. It was established that the said Lawrence Duket had killed Ralph Crepyn in Cheapside and fled to the church for sanctuary in the Blessed Chair. It was also established that the said Lawrence Duket out of fear of what he had done, took his own life by hanging himself from a bar near a window in the sanctuary of the said church. The coroner decided that the said Lawrence Duket was a suicide and should be treated as such. "

Corbett let the manuscript fall from his fingers on to his lap and stared at the King's Chancellor. "So, a man has committed suicide, my Lord! What is that to me?" The Chancellor grunted and shuffled his huge bulk as if the stuffed cushions he sat on did not protect his soft arse from discomfort.

"Was it suicide?" he asked. "Or was it murder? Duket, " he continued, not waiting for an answer, "Duket was a goldsmith and vintner. A man of good family and influential friends. He was also a loyal subject of the King and supported His Highness during the recent troubles. " He stopped and looked at Corbett, who knew too well what the "recent troubles" were.

In 1258 almost thirty years ago, civil war had broken out between Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, and Henry III, the present King's father. Indeed, the Lord Edward had first joined the rebels against his father before seeing the wisdom of fighting for a cause which threatened his own future livelihood, namely the crown of England. Edward had rallied behind his father and, after a long bloody civil war, the rebels had been smashed at the Battle of Evesham in August 1265, de Montfort's body being hacked to pieces as if he had been a mad dog.

Edward had then turned his wrath on London which had supported de Montfort, declaring itself a commune, a republic free of the crown. The Radicals, or 'Populares', had taken over the city, flying the black banner of anarchy. They had hunted down and killed those loyal to the crown. Even Queen Eleanor, Edward's mother, was attacked as she tried to leave the city for Windsor. The Populares had ambushed her at London Bridge and pelted her cortege with rocks, sticks and the rotting corpses of dead animals, forcing the Queen to seek sanctuary in St. Paul's Cathedral. Edward never forgave the city for their treatment of his 'blessed' mother and, after his victory at Evesham, returned to the capital to instigate a reign of terror, with all the usual apparatus of spies, torture, prosecutions, quick trials and even more abrupt executions. The city had to forfeit many of its privileges, charters and concessions granted by the Crown during the previous centuries. Edward exacted vengeance and only now, almost twenty years after Evesham, was the King beginning to relax his grip over the city.

The Chancellor had sat and watched Corbett reflect on his words. Burnell was pleased and smiled secretively to himself. He had chosen the right man, a human terrier who would seek the truth, whatever it was and so break the rebellious spirit in the capital. The Chancellor hated untidiness, irregularity and London was all of these. A seething bed of resentment against royal policies and justice where the weeds of rebellion festered and spread. They had to be pulled out by the roots and Corbett would assist in this.

"Well?" Burnell smiled as benevolently as he could, his lips wide displaying a row of rotten blackened stumps.

"Well, Master Corbett, you may ask what this suicide has to do with the troubles faced by His Highness in his governance of this city?" He waited till he caught the deep brooding eyes of the clerk before continuing.

"You know that the King intends to break once and for all the rebellious elements which still fester in the city. The Mayor, Henry Le Waleys, has issued a series of ordinances to bring the city to heel. " The Chancellor began to tick off on his fingers the more recent security measures: "Inns and all their inmates are to be registered: all trades and guilds have to register members, anyone over the age of twelve. A new system of watch in every ward of the city: a curfew after dark and confinement in a new prison, the Tun at Cornhill, for those who break it. "

The Chancellor stopped and stared at Corbett. The clerk was courteous but those hard, dark eyes showed the Chancellor that he was not subdued. A moment of doubt made Burnell falter. Was Corbett too hard, too thorough? Corbett, however, had no such doubts about himself. He was waiting for the Chancellor to come to the point and, like any good clerk, knew that when he did, it would need all of his attention. The Chancellor grunted and picked up a cup of mulled wine, drained it and leaned back, more comfortable, as the hot liquid warmed his belly and relaxed his aged body, so tense against the cold. He held the still warm cup between his hands and leaned across the table. "I know you, Master Corbett, with your obedient face and watchful eyes. You may well ask what has this suicide got to do with the King or, indeed, the tangled politics of the city. And, " he added, "you are too polite to ask what has it got to do with you, a clerk in the Court of King's Bench?" He put the cup down slowly and continued speaking: "You know that de Montfort, though dead for almost two decades, still has supporters in the city. Well, Ralph Crepyn, the man Duket killed, was one of these. A commoner. " The Chancellor stopped and smiled.

"I mean no disrespect to you, Master Corbett, but Crepyn was from the gutter. A sewer rat who used his ability to lend money and arrange shady business dealings to rise to high office in the city. His family were Populares, Radicals, supporters of the dead de Montfort but Crepyn survived the crash and even reached the office of alderman. Here, he ran into opposition from Duket, a goldsmith and also a member of the City Council. Duket resented Crepyn but this turned to hatred when Crepyn lent Duket's sister money at such high interest the silly fool was unable to repay. Crepyn exacted his price. He reduced the loan on one condition, that Duket's sister sleep with him. "

Burnell stopped to clear his throat. "Crepyn then proclaimed this to the city and the world, adding spicy details of how Duket's sister had performed in bed. It was this which led to the meeting in Cheapside and Crepyn's death. "

The Chancellor shrugged. "We are well rid of Master Crepyn but the King is furious at Duket's death, yet astute enough to use the incident to investigate Crepyn's links with secret rebels as well as the professional thugs of the criminal world. "

The Chancellor stopped and passed Corbett a small scroll of vellum tightly bound in the scarlet red ribbon of the royal chancery. "This is your commission, Master Clerk. You are to investigate the circumstances surrounding the death of Duket and report directly to the King through me. You do understand?"

Corbett accepted the scroll and nodded. "Oh, " he remarked, "are there records, manuscripts?"

"What do you mean, Corbett?" Burnell asked.

"Well, both men were merchants. Surely they kept horn books, records of their transactions?"

"No, " the Chancellor firmly replied. "Duket's records show nothing and Crepyn's disappeared within hours of his death!" He paused. "Anything else?"

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