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Authors: Paul Doherty

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The Gallows Murders

BOOK: The Gallows Murders
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The Gallows Murders
Series:
Sir Roger Shallot [5]
Published:
1996
Tags:
Historical Novel
Historical Novelttt

In the summer of 1523, the weather has turned hot and the sweating sickness has returned to London to provide a fertile breeding ground for terrible murders and the most treasonable conspiracies. King Henry VIII has moved the court to Windsor, where he slakes his lusts while the kingdom is being governed by his first minister, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Wolsey, however, is not having an easy time. Someone is sending the king threatening letters from the tower, despatched under the name and seal of Edward, one of the princes supposedly murdered there, and demanding that great amounts of gold be left in different parts of London. If the orders are not carried out, proclamations will be published throughout the capital which, coinciding with the outbreak of plague, may make it look as though the hand of God has turned against the Tudors for usurping the throne. Henry VIII is truly terrified - and also intrigued by the mysterious and grisly murders occurring among the hangmen of London, whose guild also happens to meet in the tower. Wolsey has only two people to turn to: his beloved nephew, Benjamin Daunbey, and Daunbey's faithful servant, Roger Shallot, who reluctantly agree to go to London to unmask the blackmailer and end the macabre murders among the hangmen. Benjamin and Roger first meet with disaster in the murky Tudor underworld. They also become immersed in the ghastly world of the Gallowsmen, the royal executioners, many of whom are dying the same hideous deaths that they have meted out to others. And at the same time they must confront the mystery of the princes of the tower - an ancient murder that still haunts the English throne. When King Henry threatens that Shallot will hang from the highest scaffold in the kingdom unless the mysteries are resolved, the pressure mounts for Benjamin and Roger to find the answers - whether they be in London's foul alleyways or among the gorgeous splendor of the Tudor court.

The Gallows Murders

Being the fifth journal of Sir Roger Shallot concerning certain wicked conspiracies and horrible murders perpetrated in the reign of King Henry VIII

Paul Doherty

Copyright © 1995 Paul Doherty

The right of Paul Doherty to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

First published in Great Britain in 1995 by HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING

First published in paperback 1996 by HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING

10 9 8 7 6 5 4

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

ISBN 0 7472 4928 8

Printed and bound in Great Britain by Mackays of Chatham PLC
,
Chatham. Kent

HEADLINE BOOK PUBLISHING A division of Hodder Headline PLC 338 Euston Road London NW1 3BH

www.headline.co.uk

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www.hodderheadline.co.uk

To the memory of Bridge and Billy Clynes, my grandparents.

‘I

‘I
Some Historical Personages Mentioned In This Text

EDWARD IV: Yorkist King of England (1471-1483).

ELIZABETH WOODVILLE: his Queen.

EDWARD and RICHARD: Children of the above (the Princes in the Tower).

RICHARD OF GLOUCESTER (later RICHARD III): Edward IV's brother. He usurped the throne in 1483 from his nephews.

ROBERT BRACKENBURY: constable of the Tower under Richard III.

SIR JAMES TYRRELL: one of Richard Ill's henchmen.

DIGHTON and GREENE: two shadowy characters, charged with the responsibility of the young Princes.

HENRY VIII, King of England, the 'Great Beast'.

CARDINAL THOMAS WOLSEY: Archbishop and Chancellor; Henry's minister.

SIR THOMAS MORE: lawyer, humanist, Chancellor under Henry VIII, author of a book on the reign of Richard

SIR FRANCIS LOVELL: henchman of Richard III.

Prologue

Black-hearted, red-eyed murder! Like the mist which hangs above the marshes of Burpham Manor then spreads its tendrils out around the oak, sycamore and ash which fringe the far side of the lawn, so murder seeps up from my past. It plagues my sleep and jolts the enjoyment of my waking days. I lie in bed at night (between the lovely Phoebe and Margot) and stare up at the ceiling. Always the past! It's ever around me!

Two weeks ago, just before midsummer, the great Elizabeth came to Burpham as my guest. She sat and giggled in my private chamber. In that room there are no gaps between wainscoting and wall. No peepholes, no squints for any spy or eavesdropper like my little chaplain. Yes, that horrid little man, that viper vile, my sweet little tittle-brain is not above listening at keyholes. Oh, the little, noddle-pated fool, that greasy tallow-catch should be more careful of our Queen. Elizabeth once threw her slipper at old Walsingham, her master spy, and scarred him for life. On another occasion she wrote such a fierce letter to the Earl of Essex that he fainted, his body becoming so swollen that all the buttons on his doublet popped off as if cut away by a dagger.

Anyway, on this latest occasion, Elizabeth and I sat in my damask-draped chamber eating comfits and drinking sweet wine. The Queen looked magnificent, even though she's well past her sixty-fifth year. Her nose is a little more hooked, her teeth all black, her hair is false and she still insists on wearing very high-heeled shoes to make her appear more majestic. Not that she needs it. Her face is oblong and fair and those small eyes, dark pools of nothingness, still arouse in me a pleasant smile. We giggled as we talked, remembering this and recalling that. Abruptly Elizabeth put her glass down, the smile fading from her face. Only a small smile! You see her face is covered by so much white paint it cracks if her lips gape too widely.

'Before I leave, Roger,' she'd declared on a previous visit, 'I’ll need your fairest mirror and, for every crack I see in my face-paint, I'll fine you ten pounds sterling. In gold!' she added, rolling her tongue round her carmine-painted lips.

Of course I paid. That's one thing about Elizabeth, never mind about 'fair heart in a woman's breast'. She's as hard as flint when it comes to money! Mind you, a great girl! Lovely lass! My Queen, my lord, my monarch, my mistress, and mother of our dear bastard son. God knows where that rogue is! Last time I heard he was in Spain trying to sell that noddle-pate, the Spanish King, a map of Eldorado, the silver city of the Aztecs.

Ah well, back to the story. On her last visit, Elizabeth looked in the mirror counting the cracks. She stared at me standing behind her.

‘You owe me more this time, Roger!' she -exclaimed. "However, promise to bring me the other mirror and I'll cancel the debt.'

I just shook my head. 'Madam, I do not know what you mean.'

Elizabeth turned, those eyes, black pebbles in her white, snowy face. She seized my wrist and pinched the skin most cruelly. ‘You know what I mean, Roger!' she hissed.

I'd just smile back and shake my head. She may well be my mistress, the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the greatest Queen in all the world, but I will not show her that mirror! That's kept in my secret storeroom in a coffer secured by seven locks. A terrible mirror! The one Catherine de Medici used in her Chamber of the Black Arts at Blois. Nostradamus gave it to her. You know, the man who could prophesy the future and see terrible, burning things falling from the sky. Once in Blois, pursued by an insane assassin, I fled to that chamber. I killed the assassin and stole the mirror. I saw the real power of that mirror. I shall not tell you what I glimpsed there. Those sinister secrets which swam out of a black mist, dreadful scenes from the future!

I dashed the candle to the ground and drove the warlock from my manor, screaming that if I saw him again I'd hang him from the highest branch. I never showed Elizabeth that mirror, but somehow she knew I had it. Anyway, I digress ... On that day Elizabeth just smiled and turned in her chair. I could tell from her eyes she'd leave the magic mirror to another day.

'If not the future, Roger,' she whispered, 'do you remember the past? What you once told me about the Tower? Well, I have been there again!'

At the time I just looked askance. I did not know what she meant but, when she left and I lay on my great four-poster bed, I suddenly remembered. Now listen, I am well past my ninety-third year. I have lived a life full of mischief. I have met murder in the silken boudoirs of courtesans, the sewers of Rome, the perfume-filled gardens of Istanbul. I have been pursued through icy forests and fought for my life in the ruins of burning cities; but I never forgot the Tower! That narrow, bloody palace of secrets with its stone-walled chambers, secret passageways and hidden rooms! The execution ground of the Great Beast, the mouldwarp, that imp of Satan, His most diabolical Majesty, King Henry VIII of England!

Oh yes, I remember the Tower and how, so many years ago, in the summer of 1523, I and my master Benjamin Daunbey, gentle, dark-haired, serene-faced Benjamin, nephew to the great Cardinal Wolsey, probed its secrets. Oh, that dreadful hot summer when the sweating sickness raged in London and the most cunning of murderers was on the loose! Now I sit here, at the centre of my maze, squeezing the tits of Margot and Phoebe, sipping the finest claret as I prepare to dictate my memoirs. My chaplain is impatient to begin. He always hates these diversions. Oh yes he does, the little tickle-bum! I also know he is sitting there trying to pluck up enough courage to ask me permission to name his marriage day. Oh, I have met his betrothed: face like an angel she has. Eyes as round as saucers, they suit her nature! I wager she has been in more laps than a napkin. Or, to misquote the good book, 'She has been tried and found wanton'. No, no, I tease him. I have seen him walking her through the trees.

‘Why do you do that?' I asked. 'Is she a flower which grows wild in the woods?'

'You can never tell about a woman,' my chaplain quips back.

'In her case,' I retort, 'it's charitable not to.'

Oh, I tease. I am sure she's a delightful maid and I have fixed the marriage date for Michaelmas. See how excited he grows! His little bottom twitching! His shoulders shaking! The little bugger had better not be laughing at me. He stares innocently over his shoulder but I know him for what he is. Any man who has two chins must have two faces! No, no, I am cruel to my little chaplain. If he left me, I'd miss him, particularly his sermons on Sunday.

Now, I’ll be honest, I don't belong to the Reformed Faith. I am still a Catholic and hear Mass secretly in my private chamber. There I hide the statue that I rescued from Walsingham, carved in ancient wood, the Mother of God holding her child. I make sure candles burn constantly before it. Anyway, as the law says, I have to attend Sunday morning service in the manor church, so I trot along. I sit in my pew in front of the pulpit and spend most of my time smiling at any pretty face. I'm always armed with a catapult and try to take care of the rats which, every so often, try to scurry across the sanctuary floor. You see, the little bastards live in the church, feasting on the candlewax. Now my theory is that usually they hide, but my chaplain is such a windbag and his sermons so long that the rats give up all hope that he’ll ever shut up, and so take their chances out in the open against my catapult. As soon as one pops out, a small black pebble goes whirling through the air. The congregation love it. My chaplain never notices.

Indeed, I have tried everything. Once I fired my pistol and the silly bugger still droned on, so I tried a different ruse. Now, some of these prating parsons begin their sermons with a text or a sermon: my chaplain's no different. I thought I should indulge in a little audience participation. You know, the same sort of thing we do at the Globe, when Will Shakespeare's Macbeth appears, the lean-faced villain. I love going to see him and take all the rotten fruit I can, then, with the rest of the audience, throw it at the murderous rogue. Marvellous occasions! Last time I did it, Macbeth picked up the fruit and threw it back! Journeying home afterwards, I had a sweet thought: my chaplain's sermons are no shorter than any of Will Shakespeare's plays, so why shouldn't the audience be allowed to join in?

The next Sunday, up he gets, straight as a pole in the pulpit. Why?’ he began lugubriously, 'do people call me a Christian?'

'Because they know sweet bugger-all about you!' I shouted back.

It made little difference, so I sat in my pew, arms crossed, glaring at him. An hour must have passed. I slept for a while, drank a little of the wine I always take with me, and suddenly saw a fresh opportunity.

'Dear Brethren,' my chaplain intoned, ‘I ask you solemnly: reflect on the Gospels and ask yourselves, would you be in the light with five wise virgins, or in the dark with five foolish virgins?'

'Ask a daft question,' I bawled back, 'and you'll get a daft answer!'

The congregation collapsed in laughter. Oh, my lovely, lovely chaplain. I hope he knows what he is doing by getting married. I once asked for forgiveness from one of my wives as she lay dying. I murmured, ‘You must have thought many a time, of asking for a divorce?'

The sweet woman turned to me and smiled. She weakly grasped my hand and whispered something to herself.

'What's that?' I asked.

She turned her face towards me. 'Roger, in all the time I have been married to you, divorce has never crossed my mind. Murder has, but never divorce.'

Ah well, the poor woman died. A happy relief. She was always ill with this complaint or that. You can see her tombstone in the church: her name, her age, her virtue. Underneath, I wrote her epitaph: 'I told you I was ill.'

My chaplain is now glaring at me, though I can see the laughter bubbling within him. He knows I lie. I loved all my wives more dearly than life itself. Old Roger can only deal with tragedy by turning it into a joke; that's how I survive, that's how I sleep when all those ghosts swarm round my bed. Henry, the Great Beast, glaring at me with his red, mad, piggy eyes. Beside him Wolsey with his olive, Italianate face. The men I have killed; the murderers I have trapped. I always close my eyes and summon up a face that's never there: long and dark, gentle-eyed and merry-mouthed, my eternal friend, Benjamin Daunbey. So, I go back, searching for his soul down the long, dusty corridors of the years when Henry the Great Beast terrorised England and Wolsey ruled both Church and State. When London was all a-bubble with sickness, and murder, in all its horror, made its bloody hand felt.

Chapter 1

The year of 1523 was sharp and cruel. A violent, snarling time when princes dreamed of war; all of Europe teetered on the brink of a great precipice, ready to tear itself apart over divisions in religion. In Denmark, Christian II had been deposed for cruelty. In Switzerland, Zwingli attacked the Pope and called him the Antichrist, whilst in Brussels, two of Martin Luther's adherents were burnt alive in roaring flames. Across the Narrow Seas, Francis II dreamed of being another Charlemagne, whilst long-jawed Charles V, the Hapsburg Emperor, planned on finding rivers of gold in the distant Americas.

In England, however, little had changed ... thus far. Henry VIII, the fat bastard, the mouldwarp of Merlin's prophecies, still clung to sanity. So far he had not shown, except to me, that cruel streak of venomous temper which would drench his kingdom in rivers of blood: that was still a few years off. Henry was more concerned about his pleasures. He wanted to be a great wrestler, the keenest of archers, the best dancer, the most ferocious j ouster. Henry believed he was a fairy-tale prince, and those who danced with him little suspected that the nightmare would soon begin. By 1523, the worms were eating their way into the marrow of his soul. Henry's wife - plump, sallow-faced Catherine of Aragon - had not produced a living male heir, and the gossips were beginning to titter and chatter behind their hands. Some said Henry's seed was rotten (they were probably right). Others uttered darker words, that Henry was a Tudor: his father might have been a Welsh prince but his grandfather was a Welsh farmer, so what right did he have to the Crown and Empire of England? Henry heard them and, worst of all, Henry was growing old. I suppose Bacon was right when he wrote, 'Golden boys and golden girls must, in their turn, turn to dust.' Henry's body was beginning to betray him. An open ulcer on his leg, a belly like a beer-barrel. Phlegm stuck in his throat and nose, so thick and hard it turned him deaf. Henry himself was growing concerned. Oh, he had a daughter, pale-faced Spanish Mary, as well as the bastard offspring of golden-haired Bessie Blount. Nevertheless, in his bed at night (or so the Beast later told me), Henry began to wonder if God had turned his hand against him.

BOOK: The Gallows Murders
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