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Much Medieval Mayhem – piling up the bodies, or how E.M. Powell ended up writing medieval crime

I first came into contact with today’s guest when I picked up the first book in her Fifth Knight series. I was swept away to a vibrant medieval world, and I fell quite, quite in love with the protagonist Benedict—and with Elaine’s depiction of Henry II. Not that she pulls her punches: Elaine’s Henry is as energetic, as combustible and as manipulative as he probably was in real life, which makes him easy to like at times, easy to heartly dislike and fear at others.

By now, of course, Elaine has spent so many years with Henry II it is a miracle he hasn’t rubbed off on her, but so far she remains level-headed and distinctly free of any megalomaniac tendencies that reasonably would have been rife among medieval kings—especially a king as driven as Henry II. On the other hand, she recently shared with me that she was stuck indoors writing her latest book while having a whole group of builders descending on her home to do their thing. Dust settled on everything. I imagine there was a lot of tea-making. There was noise, more dust (I did mention dust, right?) and there was poor Elaine, trying to write. Being a “the glass half-full” kind of lady she managed to convert her frustration and irritation into one murder after the other—no, no, she didn’t kill the builders: she settled for murdering her characters. (And isn’t that a relief…)

Other than writing, Elaine and I have also met up on several occasions at the Historical Novel Society’s conferences. We usually end up discussing relevant stuff like hose points and braies or how best to murder someone with a dagger. But enough of all that. Let us instead turn to Elaine and begin by congratulating her on her latest release, The Canterbury Murders. Medieval sleuths Barling and Stanton ride again, hey? But before we touch on your new book, how about you tell us what inspired your fascination with the medieval period.

Elaine: As you pointed out in your introductory post to Much Medieval Mayhem, Anna, the medieval period is a very, very long one. I cannot claim to have a deep affection for the thousand years from the fifth to the fifteenth century. (Anna: WHAT???? Kiddin’…) But I am immensely fond of Britain and Ireland in the late twelfth century, and the reign of Henry II in particular.

Now, the name might not ring an immediate bell.  That is often the reaction when I mention Henry. However, when I add the name Thomas Becket, brows clear and I get responses along the lines of ‘Oh, as in, who-will-rid-me-of-this-meddlesome-priest Henry?’

People remember the Henry/Becket saga, not because of years of power struggles between the King and his then Archbishop of Canterbury. Let’s face it, arguments over matters of ecclesiastical law don’t tend to stick in the popular imagination. People remember because of Becket’s brutal murder.

In December 1170, Henry’s rage at Becket had reached new heights, ending with the words: “He has…shamed my realm; the grief goes to my heart, and no-one has avenged me!” Unfortunately, a group of four knights who were listening took Henry at his word. They set off for Canterbury to avenge their king.

And avenge him they did, in the most brutal manner. They slew Thomas Becket on one of the altars in Canterbury Cathedral. It was a murder that shocked all of Christendom and made a Martyr of Becket, with thousands of pilgrims flocking to his tomb in the years that followed. I used this murder as the inspiration for my historical thriller Fifth Knight series, where I added an extra fictional member to the group of murderous knights.

I’m happy to relate that readers took the fictional Sir Benedict Palmer to their hearts, as they did my twelfth-century world.  But even more happily, Henry was the gift that kept on giving.

I found out in the course of my research that Henry carried out major reform of criminal law. He established procedures of criminal justice, addressing how serious felonies such as murder, robbery and theft would be dealt with. Anyone who was accused of such crimes would be put in prison to await trial. Those trials could only be heard by the King’s justices, who travelled the country to do so. The justices provided a system of criminal investigation for the whole country.

As somebody who has always wanted a write a crime series, this opportunity was too good to pass up. Step forward Aelred Barling, my fictional King’s clerk, and his assistant, messenger Hugo Stanton, who was a minor character in my Fifth Knight series.

Stanton and Barling made their first outing in The King’s Justice, where they had to investigate the brutal murder of a village smith. Next came The Monastery Murders, where they were called to a remote snowbound monastery to solve the hideous death of one of the monks. Again, readers have taken Barling and Stanton and to their hearts. They are also very pleased with the numbers of characters that are dispatched in the course of the novels, in creative ways inspired by the twelfth century. (Anna: Ha! Creatively despatched peeps are always intriguing.)

On site, doing research

Stanton and Barling are now facing their latest case in The Canterbury Murders. I honestly did not plan a return to Canterbury, but I liked the idea of a pilgrimage setting and the hugely popular trip to Becket’s tomb was the obvious choice.

My head was full of ideas for a dead body discovered at the tomb to start the whole thing off, for the investigation to go off in a pleasingly neat direction…and then I opened the research books.

Reader, Canterbury Cathedral had been devastated by a huge fire in 1174. When Stanton and Barling show up, in the spring of 1177, it would have been a huge building site. Hello, Drawing Board: I have returned! Crying. (Anna: And doesn’t that happen to all hist fic writers who take their research seriously? “No, no, no! You can’t be in France in June—I need you in England!” say I to my character who merely shrugs and points me in the direction of the chronicles)

But you know what? The fire was a bit of a gift. For added to the Canterbury Cathedral mix of monks and pilgrims were the building trades: stonemasons, plasterers and many more. The first victim is now a stonemason who’s found viciously murdered, the dead man’s face disfigured by a shocking wound. For fans of the series, rest assured he’s not the only victim. (Anna: Phew. I think…)

Anna: so what are you working on right now?

Elaine: As for what’s next for Stanton and Barling, I’m weighing up whether their next murderer is going to be on the rampage in the forests or amongst the merchant class in the ports. I’m hoping they’ll get around to both.

Anna: I asked Elaine to share some of her excellent historical posts. I did think there’d be something about the flamboyant Hugh de Lacy, but instead, Elaine has chosen these three posts. I warmly recommend that you pop over and read them!

Medieval Crime and Punishment: Henry II and the Common Law

The Murder of Thomas Becket

Medievals and Their Dogs


Now, Elaine has decided to give us an excerpt from her latest release, The Canterbury Murders. Benedict, prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, is walking in the peace of his garden, grieving for his beloved cathedral….

The cathedral’s wounds had not been inflicted during the hours of darkness, when murderers and robbers and others bent on wrongdoing often chose to be abroad. It had been an afternoon. A September afternoon, unseasonably hot and humid, with the sun glowing a dull amber and a blustery gale that brought no freshness to the air.

Benedict could feel the pull and flap of the strong, warm wind on his black habit, though the garden around him remained quiet.

It so often happened like this. He could be perfectly content one minute. Or busy with his unending list of tasks as prior. Or having his face shaved by one of his servants. Or breaking bread for a meal. It mattered not.

He would be back in those fateful autumn hours.

The commotion from outside the south wall of the cathedral grounds. Three cottages, all on fire.

Outside. Not of my concern: his dismissive words to one of the monks who had come to alert him. ‘Make sure you keep the gate clear,’ he’d said to the monk. ‘We cannot have pilgrims delayed in their entry.’

The townsfolk had merged on the threat, making such a commotion and clamour as only townsfolk could. Not to mention the loudness of the excited mob of pilgrims and hawkers that followed them. After more uproar and shouts and soil and water and hooks to pull down burning walls, the flames had been vanquished.

Order has been restored. The monk’s report to Benedict.

Benedict had nodded and gone back to his work.

Such fuss at so very little. People did like to make a great happening of nothing. No doubt they crowded into the town’s alehouses, using the thrill of danger that had caused no actual harm to them to tell stories and exaggerate their own part in it. A danger that was safely past.

But it was not.

For the powerful wind, the wind that Benedict often thought of since as having blown from hellmouth, was doing its unseen, wicked work, silent as a serpent and equally intent on evil.

As the townsfolk beat down the flames of the burning cottages, as they tackled the flaring thatch, sparks and embers flew up. Up, up on the violent gusts of wind, cloaked in dust and yellowing leaves ripped from the trees. Up, up over the walls of the cathedral. Up over the very tops of the trees. Up to the roof of the cathedral, where the buffeting gale forced them between the gaps of the lead, like a shower of smouldering hail.

No one saw. No one knew.

On the ground, people proclaimed victory.

In the roof, the sparks met the rafters, the bone-dry, rotting wood that had held up the mighty edifice since the time of Saint Anselm.

On the ground, people cheered and raised their ales.

In the roof, the rafters were afire, feeding the crackling flames that jumped to the beams and the braces to greater life.

On the ground, people clapped their hands and sang.

In the cathedral, the lay brothers polished the carved wooden seats of the choir, as the lead-lined, brightly painted ceiling high above them hid the inferno of broiling heat and flames.

In his chambers, Benedict amended an account to order some extra grain for the monks.

On the ground, people sang on.

In the roof, the flames grew to such a height that the leaded roof began to soften. Melt. Dissolve.

The first smoke poured out in a white, billowing cloud.

And on the ground came a shout: ‘Look, look! God’s eyes, look!’

And another: ‘The cathedral’s on fire!’

The same shout at Benedict’s door, the shout that had him race outside, following the frantic monk’s lead. That had him jostle for position in the heaving crowd, staring aloft in disbelief, his heart thumping in his chest.

About the author:

E.M. Powell’s historical thriller and medieval mystery Fifth Knight and Stanton & Barling novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. The third Stanton & Barling mystery, THE CANTERBURY MURDERS, was released on November 12, 2020. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She’s represented by Josh Getzler at HG Literary.

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Did you miss out last week’s post by Annie? Check it out here! Tune in next week to meet Char Newcomb.


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