Authors: Bernard Knight
Tags: #_NB_Fixed, #lorraine, #rt, #Coroners - England, #Devon (England), #Fiction, #Great Britain - History - Angevin period; 1154-1216, #Historical, #Mystery & Detective, #Police Procedural
Professor Bernard Knight, CBE, became a Home Office pathologist in 1965 and was appointed Professor of Forensic Pathology, University of Wales College of Medicine, in 1980. During his forty-year career with the Home Office, he performed over 25,000 autopsies and was involved in many high profile cases.
Bernard Knight is the author of twenty-three novels, a biography and numerous popular and academic non-fiction books.
A Plague of Heretics
is the fourteenth novel in his highly acclaimed Crowner John Series.
You are welcome to visit his website at
Also by Bernard Knight
The Manor of Death
The Noble Outlaw
The Elixir of Death
Figure of Hate
The Witch Hunter
Fear in the Forest
The Grim Reaper
The Tinner’s Corpse
The Awful Secret
The Poisoned Chalice
The Sanctuary Seeker
LONDON • NEW YORK • TORONTO • SYDNEY
First published in Great Britain by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2010
A CBS Company
Copyright © Bernard Knight, 2010
This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.
No reproduction without permission.
® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.
The right of Bernard Knight to be identified as author of
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and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988
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A CIP catalogue record for this book is
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eBook ISBN: 978-1-84983-189-5
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters,
places and incidents are either a product of the
author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
Typeset by Hewer Text UK Ltd, Edinburgh EH10 7DU
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
CPI Mackays, Chatham ME5 8TD
I would like to thank Dr John Morgan Guy of the University of Wales, Lampeter, for his expert advice about medieval ecclesiastical matters and Alex Wallis for reading a draft and spotting errors.
Also sincere thanks to Kate Lyall Grant, Gillian Holmes, Emma Lowth, Libby Yevtushenko, Florence Partridge and all at Simon and Schuster, as well as my agent and good friend Sara Menguc, for steering Crowner John through fourteen adventures.
As always, heartfelt thanks to my wife Jean for acting as my inhouse constructive critic and eagle-eyed proofreader.
All through history, plagues of various types have been recorded, the most catastrophic being the influenza epidemic of 1918–19, which killed up to a hundred million people worldwide. Due to lack of accurate diagnosis until modern times, the causes of many plagues are unknown, but the notorious ‘Black Death’ of 1347, which killed a quarter of the population of Europe, is attributed to bubonic plague carried by rat fleas. However, some epidemics were called the ‘yellow plague’ due to the obvious jaundice, which is not a feature of bubonic plague. There are several mentions of the yellow plague in medieval Welsh annals, such as the
547, which killed Maelgwn Gwynedd, an early king of North Wales, and caused some Welsh saints to flee to Brittany. Ten years earlier, according to the
, in the year that Arthur died at the battle of Camlann, ‘there was plague in Britain and Ireland’. The cause is uncertain, but mosquito-borne yellow fever is a possibility, known to have occurred in Europe, including England, in the 1700s. Virus hepatitis, malaria or Weil’s disease, also contracted from rats, are other possibilities.
* * *
‘Heresy’ may be defined as the expression of any opinion which runs counter to the beliefs of the majority ‘Establishment’ and is most commonly applied to conflicting religious views. Almost every religion has its heretics and the Christian faith is no exception, with over forty different heresies being listed. Most challenged the entrenched views of the Roman Catholic Church right from its inception, including Arianism, Gnosticism, Catharism and Pelagianism. Further details are given in a note at the end of this book, though no doubt Thomas de Peyne will lecture you en route!
One of the problems in writing a long series, of which this is the fourteenth, is that regular readers will have already become familiar with the background and main characters, perhaps becoming impatient with repeated explanations in each book. However, new readers would wish to be ‘brought up to speed’ on the general situation and on some of the historical aspects, so a glossary is offered with an explanation of some medieval terms, especially those relating to functions of the coroner, one of the oldest legal offices in England, established in 1194.
Any attempt to use ‘olde worlde’ dialogue in a historical novel of this period is as inaccurate as it is futile, for in late-twelfth-century Devon most people would have spoken Early Middle English, which would be totally incomprehensible to us today. Many others would have spoken ‘Western Welsh’, a Celtic tongue similar to Welsh, Breton and Cornish, while the ruling classes would have spoken Norman-French. The language of the Church and virtually all writing would have been Latin.
The only money in circulation would have been the silver penny, apart from a few foreign gold coins known as ‘bezants’. The average wage of a working man was about two pence a day, and coins were cut into halves and quarters for small purchases. A ‘pound’ was 240 pence and a ‘mark’ 160 pence, but these were nominal accounting terms, not actual coinage.
All the names of people in this book are authentic for the period, being either real historical characters or taken from the Exeter Crown Pleas Roll of 1238. Unfortunately, though the identities of sheriffs and senior churchmen are known, history has not recorded the names of the Devon coroners until the thirteenth century, so Sir John de Wolfe had to be a product of the author’s imagination.
ABJURING THE REALM
A criminal or fugitive gaining sanctuary in a church had forty days grace in which to confess to the coroner and then ‘abjure the realm’, that is, leave England, never to return. France was the usual destination, but Wales and Scotland could also be used.
He had to dress in sackcloth and carry a crude wooden cross to a port nominated by the coroner. He had to take the first ship to leave for abroad and if none was available, he had to wade out up to his knees in every tide to show his willingness to leave. Many abjurers absconded en route and became outlaws; others were killed by the angry families of their victims.
See ‘Historical Note’.
A weak drink brewed before the advent of hops. The name derived from an ‘ale’ which was a village celebration, where much drinking took place, often held in the churchyard. The words ‘wassail’ and ‘bridal’ derive from this.
An extreme form of excommunication used by the Early Christian Church, implying complete banishment from the Church.
The voluntary rejection or abandonment of a person’s religion, who then became an ‘apostate’. In strict Islamic law, apostasy is punishable by death.
A medieval medicine seller and herbalist, who also offered medical aid and advice, as physicians were very rare outside large cities. Much medical aid was provided by monks and nuns.
See ‘Historical Note’.
Originally the defended area around a castle keep, as in ‘motte and bailey’, but later applied to the yard of a dwelling.
Many different types, but in medieval terms, was the officer of a manor lord responsible for organising all the agricultural work. Other senior servants in towns and other establishments could be termed bailiffs.
A lord who was a ‘tenant-in-chief , holding his land directly from the king, who owned the whole country. A ‘Baron of the Exchequer’ came to mean a judge of the royal courts, not connected with the actual Exchequer.
A merchant or property-owner in a town or city, his house and garden being his ‘burgage’. The burgesses of a borough elected the council and the portreeves and, later, the mayor.
A senior priest in a cathedral, a member of the chapter, deriving his living from the grant of a parish or land providing an income. Exeter had twenty-four canons, most having an entourage of vicars and secondaries who often attended the nine ‘offices’ (services) each day on their behalf.
A castrated male chicken, known since Roman times to be more tender than a farm fowl, which was thought suitable only for peasants.
See ‘Historical Note’.
Also known as a packman, he was a travelling pedlar, who hawked his wares, mainly needles, threads, ribbons and other haberdashery, around the towns and villages.