Cassandra Clark
Hildegard, Abbess of Meaux
(creator: Cassandra Clark)

Hildegard seems something of a contemporary figure set in medieval times. A Cistercian nun, even in the first book she seems perfectly happy to travel alone across the dangerous 14th century Yorkshire countryside: "Despite the dangers of travelling alone Hildegard felt only eagerness as she ... rode out towards open country. She was prepared as well as she could be to face the bands of masterless men who roamed the forests nowadays .... The small cross she wore, hand carved out of hazlewood, was little protection in such dark days, but her stave was as thick as a bowman's wrist and her hunting knife had a long blade, recently honed." So she can fight off potential rapists: "She brought her free hands up and jabbed two fingers hard into his right eye and rammed the hilt of her knife into his throat and, while his head jerked back and a cry of pain was torn from his lips, she twisted free."

Following the confirmation of the rather mysterious death of her husband fighting in France, "she had emerged from seclusion (seven years as an anchoress) in her hermitage at the Derwent Crossing determined to get on with life." She had inherited a substantial fortune and had decided to set up her own house of nuns where "she could teach the young and tend the sick". She seems far from the conventional idea of a medieval nun, and to be inspired not so much by religious fervour as by a feeling that "Only by joining forces with other like-minded women in our own houses can we garner the power to change anything". But first she has to seek permission from the Abbot of Meaux. This is what she sets out to do in the first book.

She has two grown-up children, but does not seem to give them a thought, and they do not appear in the story. She is essentially a woman of action, and not one for profound religious experiences. As she explains, "We take the veil for reasons that are often more secular than not," out of a "need to do good on the world". God does not seem to come into it. She is nothing if not self-sufficient (she has no difficilty in skinning and cooking a rabbit caught by one of her hounds), and is skilled in the "physick arts", so not only knows about herbs, but does not mind examining dead bodies even when "blood, congealed and sticky, had flowed over the stone floor".

Cassandra Clark was awarded an M.A. from the University of East Anglia, and went on to teach for the Open University on the Humanities Foundation course. Since then she has written full time as a playwright and has been the author of many contemporary romances as well as the libretti for several chamber operas. She lives and works in London, and explains that her childhood in the East Riding of Yorkshire was her inspiration for the stories. One of her daughters, Candida Clark, who is also an author, says that she was inspired by the memory of how her mother spent so much time writing.

Her agent arranged a two-book deal with John Murray for a medieval crime series. Hangman Blind is the first of the two books. The plot of the first book came to her in a dream, but required much historical research as she says she is really a philosopher and not a historian.

Hangman Blind (2008)
Hangman Blind starts in November 1382 in the 5th year of King Richard's reign, but he is only a boy. Hildegard, still a nun but no longer an anchoress, sets off for York and the Abbey of Meaux. It is at a time when there are rival popes in Rome and Avignon, and in England there is an uneasy peace in the savage aftermath of Wat Tyler's peasants' revolt. Hildegard encounters a gibbet with five bloodied, crow-stripped corpses, and in the next clearing, the body of a young man, brutally butchered. Who is he? And what is his connection with the murdered men?

Other violent deaths are to follow as Hildegard revisits her childhood home, Castle Hutton, which, she discovers, is riven by treachery. She needs all her skills and bravery to face up to the dangers when an attempt is made to poison Lord Roger de Hutton. Could his beautiful new (fifth) wife Melisen have anything to do with it? Roger describes her as "a silly, vain little creature", but later on we are told, "She did not seem stupid in the least".

There is no attempt to capture medieval vocabulary. Indeed the very opening sentence reads: "From the gates of the papal palace in Avignon issued a rider at a pace to make the sparks fly". But Hildegard is an adventurous lively character, even if she does not make an altogether convincing medieval nun.

By the end of the book even the initially hostile Abbot of Meaux, Hubert de Courcy, seems to succomb to Hildegard's charms: "Inhabitants of the real world with the ever-present threat of damnation in the next, they strolled together under the stippled shadows of the pear-tree walk. .... Hubert gazed into the darkening woodland, 'Hildegard - ' he began. It was the first time he had used her name. But then inexplicably his voice fell away to silence." Well, well. Then the book comes to a sudden end, leaving parts of the plot unresolved, with even the arch-villain still alive. All we are told is that "Whatever might happen, and whatever stood between them (Hildegard and Hubert), all fear fell away in the certainty that they would meet again." This is all very well for the author and publisher who have a contract for the second book, but it does not seem altogether fair on the reader. And even by the end of the book, Hildegard still isn't the Abbess of Meaux, as promised on the cover.

The Red Velvet Turnshoe (2009)
The Red Velvet Turnshoe starts in February 1383 when the nun Hildegard is improbably sent off across Europe to obtain a precious relic, the cross of Constantine. It is a long and dangerous journey, during which her life is often in danger. When she eventually returns home she finds that her old admirer, Hubert de Courcy, Abbot of Meaux, at first refuses to speak to her, and she also has a struggle on her hands to save the life of young minstrel Pierrekyn Haverel who had been accused of murdering his close friend (too close, it is rumoured), a man whose dead body is discovered at Bruges propped upright in a bale of wool. When she first helps him, she think he is probably only 14 or 15 and should be given a chance. But once their adventures begin, he seems to behave much more like a grown man - like someone quite different, in fact. As for the Abbot, his subsequent behaviour as warrior and besotted lover strains credibility more than a little. It is he who tells his loved one, "If angels exist anywhere but in our minds, then at this moment they are conjoined."

The author has explained that she began this medieval series because she "liked the clothes. And the music. The food sounds intriguing." So we are told that, before Hildegard set off on her long and arduous journey, "a new pair of buskins suitable for all terrain were cut and stitched in short order" and a pattern for some boots "was handed to a shoemaker .... and the finished boots appeared late the next day .... Hildegard pulled them on, then stamped about in them to soften the leather", and she packed a scrip "stuffed with foot balm, stomach powders, linen bandages .... With these necessities she rolled up in a small bundle a spare undershift, a light summer habit and a pair of much darned woollen leggings. On top of all that came her missal in its leather pouch." It's a pity she never seems to bother to read it - or to pray -- or for that matter, even to think of God. She is not the world's most convincing nun. And for a seasoned adventuress, she can be surprisingly naive, as, when confronted by a mob of drunken, aggressive mercenaries with "girls on offer .... as always, a sorry bunch, pock-marked, slatternly, resigned to an existence without hope or respite", she reflects, "How different it is to the priory at Swyne".

But back to trying on clothes. First she was offered a scarlet travelling cloak "lined with squirrel. It was a heavy woollen fabric died in a sumptious, eye-catching shade and was quite unsuitable for someone who wanted to travel unnoticed. Hildegard ran her fingers over it but said it was a colour her prioress would not allow." Never mind she could try "the green one with the cat-fur lining .... and there's that dark one of camlet with purple taffeta inside .... And I do believe there is a blue wool with a sheepskin lining ... Hildegard remembered liking blue in the past. It had been her husband Hugh's favourite colour." You can feel the author's enjoyment as she wrote all this.

There are some lengthy historical explanations, but unfortunately these are no substitute for an exciting plot. The author explains elsewhere that she dislikes writing about violence, and although there are some potentially exciting incidents, she seems to hurry through them with less reader involvement than you might expect. An example of this is Hildegard's crossing of the dangerous snow-covered Great St Bernard Pass when "sometimes there was nothing more than a few ropes to help them; at others there were frail cord bridges suspended over the ravines, which they could use only one at a time". But there is not all that much suspense, even when her guardian, Sir Talbot, makes the mistake of wearing her cloak and gets shot in the back by a crossbow, leaving Hildegard having to flee across the ice and snow, "leaving behind the body of a most chivalrous knight." Before that, he had kept Hildegard warm by putting "his arms around her to increase their natural heat and they huddled politely together in the snow house." All very charming, innocent, and somewhat unlikely?

The murderous Escrick Fitzjohn, arch-villain of the previous book, reappears and threatens her life once more. "Don't move, he snarled" at her. "You may as well die," he growled - and it is only the baddies in this book who snarl and growl.

At the end of the book, poor Hildegard is still not the abbess of Meaux as the cover describes her. But there are lots of loose ends and the main villains are left at large, so, assuming a publisher can be found, anything may yet happen - especially as (unfortunately) we can't even be absolutely certain that Hildegard's first husband really was killed in the war in France.

The Law of Angels (2011)
The Law of Angels sees Hildegard based, for the past year, in a little grange at Deepdale in the north of the county which she has been instructed to turn “into a minor cell of her mother house at Swyne." But after she takes in two runaway girls, Petronilla and little Maud, her priory is destroyed by aggressive intruders who set it alight.

So Hildegard takes the two girls with her to York which is about to celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi with decorated floats and local people acting out Biblical parts. All this pageantry, together with the preparations for it, are well described. So too are some other glimpses of life at the time, such as the fobidding Convent of the Holy Wounds in York where the hostile nuns reluctantly took Hildegard and the girls in, but actively encouraged the guilt-imbued little girl Maud to become a saint by leaving her lying on the stone floor below the altar, without food or water, for a whole day after encouraging her to cut herself with a knife!

However, all the plotting and planning and extended explanations involving Hildegard's possession of the sacred relic, the Cross of Constantine, and ruthless Henry Bolingbroke's attempts to overthrow King Richard's regime make the story difficult to follow, and the book, at 510 pages, is not only very long but seems so. Indeed it is quite a struggle to read, as there are so many historical explanations and unnecessary details, and Hildegard herself must be the most unconvincing nun ever. However, she remains a determined fighter: “She fumed at being trapped in York when all she wanted was to face up to the problem of Deepdale. She was damned if she was going to accept its destruction with the equanimity of a sheep. She was ready to fight back." Just occasionally “she knelt in front of the altar in the side chapel away from the sound of passing visitors and bowed her head." But as for her missal, “although she carried this with her, she hadn't opened it since they arrived." And “it was some time since she had attended a service".

The author is never worried by anachronisms so when the town mayor (whose life is about to be threatened by murderous attackers in the middle of the pageant) comments to her that, “We don't get many Cistercians listening to barefoot preachers, do we?", she replies, “I have no idea of the figures involved. it would need a proper survey before I could answer that." Proper survey indeed!

And characters like the mage (magician) who keeps on coming to her rescue are not very convincing either. The result is that it is hard to feel very involved with what is going on. Even when Hildegard perches precariously on a ledge high up inside York Minster, risking her life to save young Maud, it isn't really as exciting as it might have been. Then, as if all this was not enough, when Brother Thomas, Hildegard's good friend, tries to rescue the pair of them from the clutches of the villainous black knight, Thomas "spread his arms to demonstrate his good intentions but the knight took it as an opportunity to produce a knife and before anybody could move he stabbed Thomas in the chest. The onlookers gasped. A woman screamed. Hildegard gazed in horror as Thomas fell back with both hands to the wound. The knight still held the knife and now slipped it back inside its sheaf and reached again for Maud. Gasping with pain Thomas managed to shout, “Run for it, Hildegard. Take her to safety!" before sliding to the floor." It's almost comic. And it's even more unconvincing when at one point Hildegard even pretends to be a sort of mediaeval suicide bomber!

It lacks conviction too when Hildegard's spiritual superior, the once loving Abbot Hubert. suddenly surprisingly reappears from his long journeys abroad and tells her, "Your conduct is scandalous. It goes beyond any bounds of decency. Frankly, you horrifiy me." But luckily the prioress to whom Hildegard is responsible soon persuades Hubert that it was all a misunderstanding and he ends up by offering her “the deeds to a vacant Grange on the other side of the canal, opposite the Abbey of Meaux." But as to her becoming the "abbess of Meaux" as the cover still promises, not a word!


The author has her own informative website, and there is an interesting if not entirely accurate review of Hangman Blind, drawing attention to some alleged inaccuracies, on the Tangled Web UK site. The author rebuts these charges on my guestbook page!




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Hangman Blind cover
The book is described as "An Abbess of Meaux mystery" but this must be a look into the future, because in this story she is still plain Sister Hildegard.
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in the middle of the dance pageant