Forty years ago, Exeter Cathedral close rang to the clamour of weapons, shouts of defiance and screams of pain. Afterwards, the bodies lying in their own blood bore silent witness to the conflicts that were tearing at the heart of the Cathedral itself.
Today, in 1323, more deaths have occurred. Is the first an accident? The second is surely murder, brutal and foul. Once again vicious slaying has polluted the Cathedral close, but this time the killer will not be so easy to capture and execute. The victim, Henry Potell, a wealthy saddler, was feared and hated - he held secrets that some were keen to keep hidden and others wanted to see him destroyed for his savage deeds all those years ago...
For Sir Baldwin Furnshill, Keeper of the King's Peace, and his friend Bailiff Simon Puttock, the truth is increasingly mysterious. Who among Henry Potell's companions could have wanted him dead? Was it someone whose ties to Potell are dark and sinister?
What first appears to be a matter of lust or greed soon grows much more troubling as Baldwin becomes aware of the disturbing and ominous Chapel of Bones, built long ago in reparation for a terrible murder...
The Chapel of Bones was first published by Headline in December 2004.
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In The Chapel of Bones, Baldwin and Simon return to Exeter Cathedral. They had previously visited the city at Christmas two years earlier, when they solved the murder of The Boy-Bishop's Glovemaker, and they meet again some of the Cathedral dignitaries first seen in that book. But the ghosts of a more distant past also make their presence felt in The Chapel of Bones. Its characters are still haunted by the terrible events of a November night in 1283, when Walter Lechlade (or de Lecchelade), the Chaunter of the Cathedral, was attacked and killed on his way home from prayers. This violent act appears to have resulted from political tensions between supporters of the Bishop, Peter Quivil, and the Treasurer of the Cathedral; it might be thought to result from the crime writer's blood-drenched imagination - except that it is historically factual. There is more information on the Devon Local Services website and in the Encyclopædia Britannia.
In the aftermath of this murder, walls and gates were constructed around the Cathedral Close, giving the enclosure its present form. The Cathedral was very much more hemmed in by buildings than it is now. The "Chapel of Bones", or Charnel Chapel (to which the bones of those long-dead were removed, in order to create space for new burials) is only one of the medieval buildings no longer standing, but the photograph above shows the West Front of the Cathedral as it is seen from the approximate site of the Chapel.
The Cathedral, too, would have looked quite different to Simon and Baldwin, because the massive task of rebuilding was far from completion at the time of their visit. The construction work forms a fascinating backdrop to the events of the book, not always to Simon's satisfaction:
"Then I shall see him now," said Simon with decision. "And I ask that you bend your mind to this affair, Treasurer. We have to learn who has been killing people here. If you can think of anyone, anyone at all who might have had a hand in these murders, you must tell me. Otherwise, there may be more blood spilled."
"If I knew anything, I swear I would tell you," Stephen said, and Simon believed him. The man's face was quite haggard. "I had thought that this whole affair was left far behind me, but now it has returned to haunt me once more. I say to you, Bailiff, I would that none of this had happened, not the death of the Chaunter forty years ago, not the death of the saddler, and not the death of the friar. I regret the execution of the Mayor and of Thomas's father. Just think of all these deaths, all unnecessary, all repellent when men should be bending their minds to the building of this magnificent Cathedral. It is enough to make a man despair."
"It is very sad," Simon agreed caustically as he beckoned Thomas to follow him. "Heaven forbid that the Cathedral should be delayed purely because of a few deaths!"
Photo © Roger Cornwell, 2004