Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Bishop Must Die by Michael Jecks

Bishop Walter Stapledon used to be close to the King, but with the failure of Stapledon to persuade the Queen to come home from France- and away from both her brother,the King of France, and her Lover, Roger Mortimer, Bishop Walter's star has fallen far. And even worse, he left her son, the Prince of England, behind in France, thus making the King's position in England even more precarious.

And why is the King's position precarious? Because he has overturned the country in favor of his best friend, and perhaps lover, Henry Le Despenser, who has been busy gobbling up lands, titles and properties from those of lesser status. Whatever reason King Edward has for favoring Despenser, his people cannot stand his crimes and villainies any longer, and are becoming fractious. While Edward assumes that all the people will come to his defense should Queen Isabella and Mortimer invade, it is becoming less and less likely by the day that the people will prop up either Edward's reign or Despenser.

But Bishop Stapledon is only slightly less loathed than Despenser himself. Mainly because he has also taken lands that do not strictly belong to him, but also because when he was Lord Treasurer of the Realm, an Eyre, or circuit of Judges occurred that investigated who owned the properties of London and their actual worth, with an eye to taxing them more accurately to increase the wealth of the King's coffers. Even though he had nothing to do with setting the Eyre in motion, everyone blamed him as Lord Treasurer.

Now that he is no longer quite so much in favor with the King, Walter Stapledon is ripe to take a fall, and there are several people who have begun stalking him. One leaves threatening letters where the Bishop is sure to find them, even to his very rooms, and the Bishop is no longer the confidant man he once was. Worn out by his battles with both the King and Queen, and their son, the Prince, he seems to look older every day.

Part of that is also other problems. A Priest had been caught kidnapping a virtuous woman, the wife of a minor landholder. Not only had he kidnapped and held her, but also raped her numerous times. Bishop Walter wants this priest to be held to the strictest standard of the law, but the brother of the Priest is also the Sheriff, and frees his brother. The malicious Priest heads for France, and of course, ends up blaming Walter Stapledon for his having to flee the country, not his own crimes.

After receiving a number of nasty notes, Bishop Walter's nephew contacts the Bishop's old friend, Baldwin Furnishill, hoping he can track down the source of the letters. But Baldwin realizes that while he and the Bishop definitely support the King, neither he nor his old friend Simon Puttock want to defend Hugh le Despenser- and that the King is slowly losing support with the common people because of Despenser's predations.

And the Bishop is no longer the man he has been for most of his life. His ruinous diplomatic mission to France, wherein he could not persuade the Queen to leave the care of her brother, the King of France, nor her Lover, Roger Mortimer, and had to leave the Crown Prince of England behind in France when the boy refused to leave his mother, has shocked and aged him tremendously. While once he might have recovered his equanimity quickly, being out of the King's favor and coming to realize how many people want him dead causes Bishop Walter to regress into a scared and fearful old man who has none of the qualities his friends and his King once prized in him. But can Baldwin and his close friend Simon Puttock save the Bishop from his apparently foredestined fate and save him from the many who would have the Bishop die?

This book series is a historical mystery, and in some cases, authors try to keep their favorite characters alive just a little longer than history allows, but here, Jecks must bow to history, and write out some of his most favorite characters. Anyone interested in the history of English Monarchy knows that the King is not long for the throne, and while he really did run his realm into the ground by relying too much on "favorites" (close friends, or homosexual lovers? Only history knows for sure), first Piers Gaveston, and then the Despensers, father and son- both named Hugh.

King Edward had been loved greatly by his people, but his love for his favorites, and his breaking the law on their behalf, incited the ire of many people- almost as many hated the Bishop as well, for the Eyre that was called on London when he was Lord Treasurer, and because he became associated in the people's minds with the King and his favorites, and he was brought down along with the King.

It's no secret that great changes are coming in this series, but Baldwin and Simon have so much invested in serving King Edward II, it will be interesting, and disquieting, to see how the series goes forward from here. Or can it? I don't know if Baldwin and Simon will go down defending their King, or if they don't how Jecks will have them live with the fact that they didn't. And how they will deal with the new King, and the Queen and her lover. Recommended.

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