England and France, 1307. Mathilde of Westminster, a young woman trained in the healing arts, escapes the persecution of the Templars by Philip IV of France and becomes handmaiden to Philip’s daughter, Isabella, who is promised to Edward II of England. Between these events, Mathilde witnesses the aftermath of a massacre at a house in Paris and soon, as she accompanies Isabella to England, a number of Edward’s closest advisors, sent to mediate the marriage arrangements, begin to die one by one.
On reaching England, Isabella and Mathilde find Edward in conflict with his earls over his favouritism towards Piers Gaveston, and Edward and Philip are at odds over the Templars in England. Meanwhile the deaths continue. With various parties jockeying for power and an assassin on the loose, can Mathilde keep her Templar background a secret and bring the killer to justice?
OK, a digression first. As you will no doubt have noticed, I’m reviewing a lot of Paul Doherty‘s books recently and there will be many more to come. You see, I’m becoming more and more fascinated with this period of history. Basically speaking, in English schools, you’ll learn a) Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome; b) William the Conqueror; c) The Tudors and Stuarts and d) The First and Second World Wars. If you’re lucky, the Industrial Revolution might crop up. Henry IV to Richard III can be filled in if you know your Shakespeare, but from about 1100 to 1400, some people might mention Magna Carta, but that will be it. Doherty has set three of his series in this gap – Hugh Corbett works for Edward I, Brother Athelstan is in the reign of Richard II and this latest series, Mathilde of Westminster is set, as I said above, in the early reign of Edward II. Pretty much the only thing anyone – including myself – knows about Edward is that he died with a red hot poker inserted where the sun doesn’t shine.
The book, going from the acceptance of the marriage up to the coronation, paints a vivid picture of both life at court at the time, but also gives an idea of the political machinations at work. Doherty weaves this book around a large number of known events, even including a murder that actually happened – well, to be fair, someone died when a pavilion collapsed at the coronation – Doherty makes it into a murder. Not that this is a lecture – in fact a number of things are left undetailed. It would be up to the reader if they want to find out more about the Order of the Templars – you’re told enough, but clearly there is more to learn. It’s also a very personal story as, like the Memoirs of Roger Shallot, this is told in the first person – in fact, it’s the aged Mathilde’s confession. As with Shallot, she does let slip some hints of events to come, but unlike the old rogue, hers are probably true.
As for the mystery, to be honest, there aren’t a lot of clues flying around, but this is one of those novels where the mystery slowly takes shape until resolving itself into a logical conclusion.
So far, there are two more books in this series, and I certainly want to read more about Edward, Isabella and Mathilde. At this point in his reign, Isabella is a faithful wife, but as you may know, she’s the one who arranged Edward’s alleged poker-bottom interface. I’m looking forward to discovering how that state of affairs arises, but I also hope Doherty takes his time telling the story. This is a marvellous book – not the best mystery I’ve ever read, but a great book nonetheless.
Oh, I should mention, there’s a locked room murder in here too. Not a bad one, at that.