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Authors: Ellis Peters

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Holy Thief

BOOK: Holy Thief
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Holy Thief

Nineteenth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, of the Benedictine Abbey of Saint
Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury


Ellis Peters






















THE HEIGHT OF A HOT SUMMER, in late August of 1144, Geoffrey de Mandeville,
Earl of Essex, deferred to the heat of the sun, and made the final, fatal
mistake of his long and opportunist career. He was engaged, at the time, in
planning the destruction by siege of one of the circle of improvized but
effective fortresses King Stephen had thrown up to contain and compress the
depredations of Geoffrey’s host of outlaws, rebels and predators in the Fen
country. For more than a year, from his elusive bases in the Fens, Geoffrey had
so devastated the countryside as to ensure that not a field should be safely
planted or reaped, not a manor properly tended, not a man with anything of
value to lose should be left in possession of it, and not one who refused to
surrender it should be left with even a life to lose. As the king had wrested
from him all his own relatively legitimate castles and lands and titles, none
too legally if the truth be told, so Geoffrey had set to work in defiance to do
as much to every man, poor or rich, who got in his way. For a year, from the
borders of Huntingdon to Mildenhall in Suffolk and over much of Cambridgeshire,
the Fens had become an enclosed robber kingdom in spite of King Stephen’s head,
and though his hasty ring of castles had done something to prevent its further
enlargement, it had not hampered the earl’s movements greatly, or brought him
to the battle he was expert at avoiding.

this strong-point of Burwell, north-east of Cambridge, irritated him because it
was beginning to interfere with his supply lines, almost the only thing
vulnerable about him. And on one of the hottest days of August he was riding
round the offending castle to view the best possibilities for attack. Because
of the heat he had discarded his helmet and the curtain of fine chain mail that
guarded his neck. An ordinary bowman on the wall loosed a shot at him, and
struck him in the head.

laughed at it, the wound seemed so slight; he withdrew to allow a few days for
healing. And in a few days he was burning with a fevered infection that pared
the flesh from his bones and brought him to his bed. They carried him as far as
Mildenhall in Suffolk, and there awoke to the knowledge that he was dying. The
sun had done what all King Stephen’s armies could not do.

was impossible was that he should die in peace. He was an unabsolved
excommunicate; not even a priest could help him, for in the mid-Lent council
called the previous year by Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, the king’s
brother and at that time papal legate, it had been decreed that no man who did
violence to a cleric could be absolved by anyone but the Pope himself, and that
not by any distant decree, but in the Pope’s veritable presence. A long way
from Mildenhall to Rome for a dying man in terror of hellfire. For Geoffrey’s
excommunication had been earned by his seizure by violence of the abbey of
Ramsey, and his expulsion of the monks and their abbot, to turn the convent
into the capital of his kingdom of thieves, torturers and murderers. For him
there was no possible absolution, no hope of burial. The earth would not have

were those who did their best for him, frantic in defence of his soul, if they
could not help his body. When he grew so weak that he ceased to rave and sank
into stupor, his officials and men of law began feverishly issuing charters in
his name, restoring to the Church various properties he had seized from her,
including the abbey of Ramsey. Whether with his goodwill or not, no one stopped
to ask, and no one ever knew. The orders were carried out, and respected, but
they did not avail him. His body was refused Christian burial, his earldom was
abolished, his lands and offices remained forfeit, and his family disinherited.
His eldest son was excommunicate with him, and partner in his rebellion. A
younger, and his namesake, was already with the Empress Maud, and recognized by
her as earl of Essex, for what such an acknowledgement was worth without lands
or status.

the sixteenth day of September Geoffrey de Mandeville died, still excommunicate,
still unabsolved. The only remaining mercy was shown to him by certain Knights
Templar who were in Mildenhall at the time, and took his coffined body back
with them to London, where for want of any Christian relenting they were forced
to let him lie in a pit outside the churchyard of the Temple, in unhallowed
ground, and even so a step beyond what was permitted by canon law, for by the
strict letter he should not have been laid in the earth at all.

the ranks of his motley army there was no one strong enough to take his place.
The only thing that held them together was mutual self-interest and greed, and
without him their dubious alliance began to fall apart, as the encouraged
forces of the king moved in upon them with renewed resolution. Parties of outlaws
withdrew discreetly in all directions to look for less frequented pastures and
more impenetrable solitudes, where they could hope to continue their lives as
beasts of prey. The more reputable, or those of more regarded birth and with
more to proffer, went roundabout to make their peace and retire into safer

everyone else the news of Geoffrey’s death gave universal satisfaction. It
reached the king quickly, relieved him of the most dangerous and implacable of
his enemies, and instantly eased him of the necessity of immobilizing the
greater part of his forces in one region. It was carried from village to
village through the Fen country as the raggle-taggle marauders withdrew, and
people who had lived in terror emerged cautiously to retrieve what they could
of a plundered harvest, rebuild their burned homes and reassemble their
families and kinships. Also, for death had been more than usually busy in those
parts, to bury their dead decently. It would take more than a year for life to
get back into any kind of normality, but at least now it could take the first
wary steps.

before the year’s end it reached Abbot Walter of Ramsey, with the deathbed
charter that gave his monastery back to him, and he gave due thanks to God, and
set about sending the word on to his prior and sub-prior and all his scattered
brothers, who had been forced out penniless and homeless to find shelter where
they could, some with their kin, some in other hospitable Benedictine houses.
The first and nearest hurried to answer the summons home, and entered a total
desolation. The monastic buildings were a mere shell, the lands untilled, the
manors the house had formerly possessed handed out to thieves and vagabonds,
all its treasures stripped away. The walls, they said, bled for very grief.
Nevertheless, Abbot Walter and his brothers set to work to restore their house
and their church, and sent out the news of their return to all those monks and
novices who had had to go long distances to find a shelter during their exile. Being
members of a wider brotherhood, having all the Benedictine Order as kin, they
also sent out an urgent appeal for help in alms, material and labour to speed
the work of rebuilding and refurnishing the sacred place.

due time the news, the invitation and the need arrived at the gatehouse of the
abbey of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, at Shrewsbury.




Chapter One


MESSENGERS ARRIVED during the halfhour of chapter, and would not eat, drink or
rest, or wash the mud of the roads from their feet, until they had made their
way in to the assembly in the chapterhouse, and delivered their charge. If the
suppliants failed in zeal, so would the givers.

stood with every eye upon them, refusing to sit until the message was
proclaimed. Sub-Prior Herluin, long in experience and authority, a man of
impressive presence, stood fronting the lord abbot, his lean hands folded at
his girdle. The young novice who had walked with him all the way from Ramsey
stood modestly a pace or two behind, devoutly copying his superior’s pose and
stillness. Three lay servants of their house, escort on the journey, they had
left with the porter at the gatehouse.

Abbot, you know, as all men know, our lamentable history. It is now two months
since our house and estates were restored to us. Abbot Walter is now calling
back to their vocation all those brothers who were forced to disperse and find
shelter wherever they could, when the rebels and outlaws took everything from
us, and drove us out at sword-point. Those of us who remained close returned
with our abbot as soon as we were permitted. To an utter desolation. By right
we were possessed of many manors, but after the dispossession all were handed
out to such lawless villains as would support de Mandeville, and to declare
them restored to us avails us nothing, since we have no force to recover them
from the robber lords except by law, and the law will take years to justify us.
Also, such as we do recover will have been plundered and stripped of everything
of value, half-ruined, possibly burned. And within the pale...”

had a clear, confident voice which had proceeded thus far with considered
force, but without passion, but throbbing indignation robbed him of utterance
for a moment when he reached the day of the return.

was there. I saw what they had made of the holy place. An abomination! A
midden! The church defiled, the cloisters an uncleansed stable, dortoir and
frater stripped of woodwork to feed fires, all provisions taken away, all those
valuables we had no time or warning to remove, stolen. Lead stripped from
roofs, rooms left open to the weather, to rain and frost. Not so much as a pot
for cooking, or a service book or a slip of vellum. Ruinous walls, an
emptiness, a barren void. All this we have undertaken to rebuild and make more
glorious than before, but we cannot do it alone. Abbot Walter has even given up
much of his own wealth to buy food for the people of our villages, for harvest
there has been none. Who could till the fields with death for ever at his
heels? Even from the poorest of the poor those malefactors extorted the last
wretched possession, and if there was nothing left to steal, they killed.”

have heard, all too truly, of the terror let loose on all your countryside,”
said Abbot Radulfus. “With grief we have heard it, and prayed an end to it. Now
that that end is come, there is no house of our Order that can refuse all
possible help to restore what was despoiled. Ask of us what can best serve
Ramsey’s needs. For I think you are sent as a brother to brothers, and within
this family of ours injury to one is injury to all.”

am sent to ask help from this house and from any among the laity who may be
moved to do a deed of grace, in alms, in skills, if there are any in Shrewsbury
experienced in building and willing to work for some weeks far from home, in
materials, in whatever aids may avail for our restoration and the benefit of
the souls of the generous. For every penny and every prayer Ramsey will be
grateful. To that end, I ask leave to preach once here in your church, and
once, with the permission of sheriff and clergy, at the High Cross in
Shrewsbury, so that every goodman of the town may search his heart and give
what he is moved to give.”

will confer with Father Boniface,” said Radulfus, “and he will surely agree to
have you speak at a parish service. Of the sympathy of this house you may
already be assured.”

brotherly love,” said Herluin graciously, “I knew we could rely. Others, like
Brother Tutilo here and myself, have gone forth to pray the aid of other
Benedictine houses in other shires. We are charged, also, with carrying the
news to all those brothers who were forced to scatter to save their lives when
our troubles began, to call them home again, where they are sorely needed. For
some of them cannot yet even know that Abbot Walter is back within the enclave,
and has need of every son’s labour and faith to bring about the great work of
restoration. There is one of our number, I believe,” he said, earnestly
watching the abbot’s face, “came here to Shrewsbury, to the home of his family.
I must see him, and exhort him to return with me.”

BOOK: Holy Thief
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