4 July 2020

Special Guest Post By Cassandra Clark, Author of Hour of the Fox (A Brother Chandler Mystery Book 1)

Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

Introducing reluctant spy and friar-sleuth Brother Rodric Chandler in the first of a brand-new medieval mystery series.

London. July, 1399. As rumours spread that his ambitious cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, has returned from exile in France, King Richard's grip on the English throne grows ever more precarious. Meanwhile, the body of a young woman is discovered at Dowgate sluice. When it's established that the dead woman was a novice from nearby Barking Abbey, the coroner calls in his friend, Brother Chandler, to investigate.

Why Richard II? 

The background to THE HOUR OF THE FOX, my new series, is the story of the regicide of King Richard II. I’d like to say something about this background because it’s what made me defy fashion (and the Tudors) in preference to the still neglected late fourteenth century.

As a fiction writer I find it intriguing that a story about one person is thrown into relief by a story about someone else. In this case it’s the two Plantagenet cousins, Richard and Henry, who stand like icons of good and bad kingship. They cast their light and shadow over everything that happened at this time.

It goes without saying it was a violent, dangerous and treacherous period of history. The murder of King Richard in Pontefract Castle heralded a massive political crackdown on the country at every level while the usurper, Bolingbroke, the man the French called ‘so-called King Henry,’ established what was no less than a police state.

Henry Bolingbroke. Why has his name not gone down in history as one of the major villains among the motley assortment of monarchs since William the Bastard’s Conquest in 1066?

I have the view that our history is written by the privileged who unthinkingly identify with the winners in this real life Game of Thrones. They prefer war to peace - all that exciting blood (of other people), all that derring-do, and if you’re an unreconstructed ‘girl,’ all that adultery and frocks.

If you go to Westminster Abbey when the lockdown is over, you’ll see a wonderful portrait of King Richard hanging near the west door. It’s the first painting of a living monarch made in this country and has been hanging in the same place ever since 1395.

It commemorates the affection in which he was held and the glorious building works he commissioned for the abbey and elsewhere. He is a mild, blonde, blue-eyed, somewhat wary looking young man, clearly afraid of the enemies who have surrounded him since he inherited the crown from his grandfather at the age of ten. Somehow, despite the threats, he held onto the throne for twenty two years. Yet the black propaganda about him continues.

To set the record straight his peace-making with England’s oldest enemies, the French and the Scots, was remarkable at a time when men would as soon strike you dead as draw breathe. He made serious attempts to end the Hundred Years War and managed to establish a twenty-two year truce.

A civilised young man, therefore, in a barbaric, militaristic realm, he also did his best to bring style and beauty to the English court. He introduced the (outrageous) idea of eating with a fork instead of your fingers, of using a handkerchief instead of your sleeve (ugh!) and he commissioned the first ever cookery book in English, the Forme of Cury. More importantly, he encouraged writers - Chaucer for one - and painters and musicians.

His love match with his young queen, Anne of Bohemia, set a standard of fidelity that gave rise to our celebration of St Valentine’s Day when the court would assemble on a royal pleasure island in the Thames to exchange love tokens.

How very different to many other monarchs who are praised to the skies despite their adulteries, war-mongering and greed. In the Italian or French courts Richard would have been respected as one of the first Renaissance princes. Only a country such as England was at that time could blacken the name of a monarch who preferred a more equal society to one based on bonded labour - slaves in all but name - and peace instead of endless war.

It’s the sheer injustice of how these two royal icons are now viewed that urges me to go back to them in search of truth so far as it can be found.

To be crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey with barons and prelates kneeling before you when you’re ten and not expecting to be king at all, and then to become a hero at fourteen behaving within the great code of chivalry as your grandfather and father had taught you and afterwards to be thwarted and mocked at every turn by your greedy, jealous and ambitious uncles until you finally lose your crown and your life to your vainglorious cousin, is unjust by any standards.

It amazes me that a usurper who had no right to the throne and lied and killed his way to it, seems never to be called to account. As German-Jewish poet Heine said in 1822: ‘Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.’ This is exactly what Bolingbroke/Henry IV and his advisor (usurping archbishop) Arundel, did. When writing about so-called King Henry this elephant in the room goes unnoticed.

Let me remind you that the first human being to be burned at the stake in England was a fellow called William Sawtrey, a priest who held fast to his belief in his right to read the bible in his own language and not have it presented in a bowdlerised form by the rulers of the pre-reformation church.

Sawtrey was burned alive at Smithfield in 1401, a year after Bolingbroke put the crown of England on his own head, but how many people know the name Sawtry or regard him as a champion of free speech? There’s a memorial to a Scotsman at Smithfield, one who was said to flay his enemies alive (no doubt that’s merely black propaganda) but there is no memorial to Sawtrey, the first Lollard martyr who, as far as I know, never killed anybody, and certainly didn’t indulge in such barbaric customs as the one that killed him. And yet - historians still pour out their slanted view of this usurping king, this barbaric Bolingbroke, as a good bloke.

I might give you the impression that my novels are intensely political but it’s only as I delve deeper into the period, and discover more about ordinary people and the impact the decisions of their rulers had on their lives, that my sense of injustice and dismay grows at the misinformation put out. The authentic voice of ordinary people and how they were forced to live at the bottom of the great chain of being needs to be heard.

The Hour of the Fox is a story about ordinary people in these extraordinary times then, a friar, Rodric Chandler, dedicated to a courageous saint, Serapion, with his own strict code of conduct, a maid, Matilda, working for the ambiguously employed poet Chaucer, and the mercenaries, soothsayers, guildsmen, market traders, shipmen, knights, nuns, duchesses, monks and pardoners and all the riffraff of London they encounter as they navigate the dangerous waters surrounding the doomed young king.

Despite themselves, Brother Chandler and Matilda are both caught in the cross-fire between the factions during that turbulent epoch when a king was murdered for his crown.

Next time St Valentine’s Day comes round I hope you’ll remember who made it popular. Let’s take our eyes off the domestic squabbles of the Tudors for a while and hear it for the turbulent Plantagenets. Let’s hear it for King Richard - Good Queen Anne - and the true Commons.

Cassandra Clark
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About the Author

Cassandra Clark has an M.A. from the University of East Anglia and taught for the Open University on the Humanities Foundation course in subjects as diverse as history, philosophy, music and religion. Since then she has written many plays and contemporary romances as well as the libretti for several chamber operas. The Dragon of Handale is published on 17th March 2015. Find out about Cassandra's other books on her website at www.cassandraclark.co.uk and follow her on Twitter @nunsleuth

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