Hildegard is the Abbess at a small country house in Deepdale, gone temporarily apart from the sisters of her mother house in Swyne to make a new house for the sisters of the faith. She is not alone, but with other nuns, but Hildegard is in charge, and she is happy exactly where she is. Until her former abbess sends her two young girls who might possibly want to become nuns, Petronilla and Maud.
Petronilla claims to be an heiress running away from marriage to a too-old man, and Maud can barely speak at all, it seems. But when her convent is attacked by armed men shortly after the arrival of the two girls and the house and all its holdings destroyed, Hildegard thinks that this may have something to do with Petronilla, the heiress. She, the rest of her nuns and the two girls decamp to York, where it will soon be time for the mystery plays.
There, her abbess bids her stay, and while she is there, asks her to show the Cross of Constantine, whom the Abbey is holding for some monks in France whose Abbey was destroyed, to the local Bishop. But two lords of the realm are entirely too interested in the cross, and when it is stolen out from under her by bandits, Hildegarde must turn her time and attention to retrieving it, as it is not the property of her abbey to lose. They only hold it in trust for others. But it seems that Hildegarde is the best person to retrieve it, as she is the one who rescued it for the monks in France in the first place.
But even if it isn't the real cross of Constantine, it still holds value for those who wish to take the throne of England, and with the two contenders circling around York with their men, Hildegard will have to work fast to ensure that the cross makes it back to the monks who are the real owners. At the same time, she must address the mystery of whose were the nights that destroyed her little holy house, and which of her two new girls the Knights were seeking, plus find out who has been killing some players of the mystery plays in York, and what that may have to do with a possible rebellion against the Lords and Ministers of York.
But Hildegard is just one woman. How can she do that and keep her nuns and herself safe and alive in a city seething with rebellion and murder? And will Hildegard be able to keep that symbol of victory, the Constantine Cross, out of the hands of contending Lords and where it should be, in the arms of the monks who have guarded it for so very long?
Anyone who's spent just about any time reading this blog will know that I absolutely love historical mysteries. I have a huge stable of favorite writers which I enjoy, and any time I spot a new historical mystery or writer I haven't tried before, I always decide to take a chance on him or her on the off chance I can add another name to that long list of authors I must read. So, you might be asking yourself, did Cassandra Clark make the cut?
And the answer is, yes, she did. Though this is the first book I have seen by her, it's not her first book, nor even the first book in the series. It's the third, and so I was missing some back story about Abbess Hildegard and her past, but there's certainly enough in the book to make you enjoy it quite thoroughly. Hildegard, of course, brings to mind another famous abbess with that name, Hildegard of Bingen, a German nun who wrote some very famous music.
But in her personal life, she reminded me of Heloise, the beloved student of Abelard, who joined the church along with him when her brothers made her mentor and love a eunuch. Because like Heloise, Hildegard seems to have joined the church over a failed romance, and her former lover is also now a churchman. It's perhaps a cliché that so many female medieval sleuths seem to be either women of the church or ex-women of the church, but the church was one of the few places where women could receive learning and not be considered unwomanly for it. And if one didn't feel the need to marry, the church was a place of sanctuary.
And this Hildegard, in addition to being clever and learned and all those other things, is also a very good detective, being mostly fearless and inventive and intelligent. Not only does Hildegard do all her abbess wants of her, she reunites both of her new girls with their loving families and saves the day in a timely and clever fashion. I found her a treat to read, and I do want to read more of her stories, I thank this novel showing up on the New Books rack at work for allowing me to find this author and her character. Hildegard is interesting and engaging, and I can recommend her with a whole heart.