Petroc of Auneford

(Creator: Pip Vaughan-Hughes)

Pip Vaughan-Hughes
Petroc of Auneford (an 18-year-old novice monk known as Brother Petroc when we first meet him) is far from holy or even religious. "Fuck," he croaks, when attacked. He's fond of a beer or, better still, several. His friends call him Patch: "I was christened Petroc, but as I left my mother the midwife blacked my eye with a fat finger, and I was Patch from that day forth. Although the mark faded as I grew, the name remained."
Petroc was born in the village of Auneford on Dartmoor in Devon, his father being a yeoman sheep-farmer. It was his mother who taught him to read, butby the age of nine he had been noticed by the monks at Buckfast Abbey, where he joined them as a novice monk. His parents both died a year after he left home.

At the age of 17, he left the abbey "to study under the scholars who in those days had formed a college in the cathedral city of Balecester, a day's ride east of Bristol". There he made "only one friend, and a peculiar one at that. Brother Aldric was the abbey librarian. He was tall and sepulchurally thin, with the sharp nose and sunken eyes of a gargoyle. He was interested in me, I think, because I was interested in his precious books and had a wolfish appetite for knowledge." He was to play an important part on Petroc's later adventures.

Pip Vaughan-Hughes (1964 - ) grew up on the edge of Dartmoor in South Devon. He was educated at Dartington Hall School then studied medieval history at London University and later worked as a reader for a literary agency when he was not dabbling as a bike messenger, food critic, gardener and restaurant owner. He explains: "I don't have any formal writing training and I doubt it would have been useful to me, due to my general bloody-mindedness about being told what to do." He moved to Vermont with his wife and daughter, where he worked as a freelance journalist and, together with his wife, ran a deli. He and his wife have now returned to Devon where they have "three lovely children and one incredibly large cat".

Relics (2006)
Relics starts in England in 1235. Brother Petroc, who tells the story, is living a simple life as a novice, struggling to keep his soul fairly clean and worrying about resisting the local girls. Then one evening he stumbles into a vicious trap - and finds himself on the run, framed by Sir Hugh de
Kerveze, a sinister Knight Templar, and accused of murder and the theft of a precious relic (the hand of Saint Euphemia). When his best friend is killed by the knight, Petroc trusts his fate to one Jan de Sol who introduces him to his master, Captain de Montalhac, an enigmatic French treasure-hunter. Petroc remains determined to get his revenge on the man who wrecked his life.

It is the captain who tells him, "I deal in relics. I sell them to any man, woman, abbot, bishop, king or queen who can pay for them. I find relics. When I cannot buy them, I steal them. What cannot be stolen, I make myself." Petroc is happy to be among his crew of cut-throats.

There are lots of unlikely coincidences, and Sir Hugh, the arch villain who is pursuing Petroc, seems to turn up almost magically wherever Petroc goes, and he emerges as something of a caricature. There is much violent action too, as when "the deacon's blood burst from his neck in a thick roiling jet that hit me full in the chest I staggered back, burning liquid in my eyes, in my hair, my mouth, running down inside my habit."

Then when Petroc saw a man raising a huge stone to batter what looked like a child, he "kicked him hard in the ballocks ... His arms went limp and the stone dropped, bounced off the side of his head and landed on his shoulder before crashing harmlessly to the ground. There was a nasty, dry cracking sound. Retching, the man twisted around and collapsed sideways, blood spraying from his head .... The (child's) body lay face down. I could see the soles of bare feet, white and sorrowful. I dropped to my knees. Reluctantly, I reached out and rolled the child over. The cloak was wrapped tight and tangled, and I struggled to get my hand in amongst its folds to feel for a heartbeat. But I felt nothing save an odd, yielding softness. A hand shot out and grabbed my wrist. A slim hand whose fingers bore many rings of heavy gold and bright stones. I was staring into a pair of large, dark eyes under curved brows. Female eyes. As if from very far away, I heard a soft, amused voice .... 'I am the Princess Anna Doukaina Komnena. And if you don't get your meat-hooks off my tits right now, you'll be very, very sorry.' "

No-one is at all saintly. The Bishop is "no priest, he's a lord, and a rich one". Petroc's friend, brother novice monk Will, "was addicted to nocturnal escapades of one sort or another, and no stranger to the bawdy-houses" so is quite happy to break his vows to go off soldiering. Petroc himself is fleeing from justice, so he gives up all thought of resuming his life as a novice monk, and calls himself plain Petroc of Auneford. Indeed, he develops an interest in the captain's (heretical) Cathar beliefs. As he says to the captain, "You believe that the Devil created the earth, and that Christ is a ghost", a holy spirit rather than a human person. To Cathars, all matter is evil. This seems to leave them freer to plunder and kill.

The main problem with the story is that it goes on too long and parts of it, such as Petroc's journey to Dartmouth to meet Jan de Sol, are over-extended, although things get more interesting when he sets off on board ship with the band of desperadoes, led by Captain de Montalhac, on a truly adventurous, if unlikely, journey. During this, Petroc realises "I had not talked of God with another person for months, nor read a sacred text - I had not even prayed .... My faith had shattered like the frailest eggshell, and what had emerged? An unwashed, uncouth boy, the pet of a boat-load of heathen cutthroats". And his life is in constant danger.

He is now accompanied onboard by the Princess Anna, disguised as an unlikely Basque boy called Mikal - but, of course, that does not stop Petroc making love to her. It hardly needs Will to tell him, "She is arse over tit in love with you, you worthless Dartmoor sheep-shagger". It's all told with great gusto and a feeling for the period, even if expressed in very modern terms. But you can't really believe than even Petroc could survive the catalogue of disasters that befall him.

The Vault of Bones (2007)
The Vault of Bones sees ex-novice monk Petroc, two years later, still under the command of Captain de Montalhac aboard his smuggers' ship Cormaran. He gets involved in dramatic adventures in ruined Constantinople and scheming Venice, all in pursuit of the Crown of Thorns, the spear that pierced Jesus' side, the shroud bearing his imprint, and numerous other other holy relics including the heads of three saints and the rod of Moses, all kept in the mysterious Chapel of Pharos in Constantinople. There's a lot of violence involved. The author is even prepared to kill off one of his main characters in London right at the beginning.

Then Petroc himself falls off the mast and comes round ten days later to find they are in Rome. It is the celebrated Michael Scotus, once accused of sorcery, who has been sent by the Pope to bring him back to life. "Sent by the Pope himself. Is not that curious?", says Captain de Montalhac. "I did not think we merited such favour ... of course we do have some items that will interest him." They also interest His Majesty Baldwin, Emperor of Romania and Constantinople, a young man who desperately needs the money that could be obtained by selling the Pharos relics. The Captain recommends that, instead of trying to sell them, he should give thern as a present to Louis, King of France, who, much as he desires the relics, would not risk his mortal soul by buying them. But make it a gift, and the Captain promises, "I will ensure that Louis makes you an equally precious gift in return. Indeed he has heard him say he "would give every coin in my kingdom to bring them here to France". And the Captain is just the man to do it for "every important relic that is bought and sold in Christendom has passed or will pass through my hands in one way or another."

The Captain is close to the Pope too. The Pope thinks "the worst possible thing would be for it (the collection of relics) to be divided up, scattered liike so much plunder." He would rather Louis had it all, especially if it secures his support against Frederick von Hauffenstein "who carries the title of Holy Roman Emperor". "Your Holiness," the Captain asks, "if I am to be broker, who, then, is my client?" The Pope drew himself up to his full height on the dais.
"Our Lord Jesus Christ!" he thundered, pointing up towards the shadowed ceiling.
"Who, then, will be paying my commission?" the Captain asked.
"I am certain that Our Lord will provide," the Pope said, and "at that point his cackle was overtaken by a fit of coughing."

There are evocative descriptions of the squalor of Constantinople and of Venice, "that strange and terrible place, but also a lovely one, and when the sun shines, its warm stone and brick, the outlandish skill of its builders and artisans, and the gentle music of light and water, work a powerful conjuration upon the spirits".

There is real excitement as Petroc faces numerous threats to his life. The description of a boar hunt is particularly exciting, as are the fights, as when Petroc is threatened: "Now then, you Cornish maggot, I'm going to cut off your balls and make you eat them." Well, it's an alternative to being flayed alive. And Petroc's theft of the relics from the well guarded holy chapel is certainly gripping.

Petroc has by now left his always vague monkish beliefs far behind him. "Dear God!" he squeaks.
"Somewhat absent here," replies the Captain. But it is a real improvement on the previous book, as it provides a more coherent story, but, even so, it is often difficult to feel very emotionally involved with the characters, and interest is not entirely sustained throughout.

Painted in Blood (2008)
Painted in Blood starts in August 1239. The great Christian army led by the King of France, Louis IX, has decided once and for all to stamp out the heretical Cathar sect. He wants, above all, to obtain their ancient shroud that bears the ghostly image of Christ crucified, once the holiest relic of Byzantium, now called the "Cathar Crucifix" or Mandylion. It was Petroc (now aged 25, and still the narrator) who, along with the mysterious Captain De Montalhac, had originally stolen it from the Pharos Chapel in the ruined city of Constantinople and given it to the Cathars. Now he finds himself commissioned to recover it, and this leads him into a whole series of exciting, if improbable, adventures and a great deal of bloodshed, during which he proves to be a redoubtable warrior and even gets himself knighted!

The enigmatic Captain De Montahac, expert relic hunter and faker, is revealed as a committed Cathar, and, in his own way, something of a saint. When Petroc discovers that the captain and another ex-member of his crew have "both renounced everything and turned into believers", even he has to admit, "It's a little odd". Cathars believed "that this world is the devil's creation, and to people it he stole light from God and trapped it inside the flesh that is our bodies. If a man or woman becomes perfect, is perfected, as they say, at the moment of their death the spark of God's light is released and joins Him. For the rest of us, we are doomed to be reborn and reborn again, to drag our fleshly presence around with us and to pay, with the suffering of our bodies, the Devil's rent for occupying his creation."

Petroc, of course, cannot share Cathar (or any other) beliefs, no matter how much he is impressed by their way of life and the way they face eventual slaughter. "I've had enough of believing," he explains. "I used to believe in the Holy Mother Church, and nearly died because of it. I believed in power, but what a midden that turned out to be! And I have lost a dear friend (the captain himself) to belief, and though he is happy, I only see that he will die for nothing."

The strength of the book lies in its vivid descriptions of battles, sieges and slaughter, not to mention scenes of torture. The historical background is very well researched, but at times you're left wishing for just a little less history, and slightly more credible and consistent characters. At court, Petroc meets up again with his ex-lover, the ex-whore, Letice Londonseye, who had become Lady Agnes and was in line for a yet more important marriage. "Fucking hell," she said to Petroc. "I am the only widow here, and so every last one of them has sworn to find me a husband." You wonder how succesfully a foul-mouthed plebian like her would have fitted into such august circles.

Such historical details as the exchange of noble prisoners ring true and you cannot forget such after-battle descriptions as: "A rabble of soldiers, peasants and camp-followers was picking over the corpses, plundering and stripping them naked. The chalky ground was blotched everywhere with great dark stains and scattered with severed body parts: legs, arms, hands. Heads lay like grotesque root vegetables, black, distended tongues licking the earth, eyes staring glassily. Corpses lay heaped in butchered wantonness, pale as maggots, French and English knotted together, legs splayed, manhoods lolling. The ravens and kites were already gathering."

Petroc (now known as Petrus Zennitorius or Sir Peter Blakkedogg, and part owner of a Venetian bank) may be a champion relic finder, but it is not easy to accept how readily he is able to rub shoulders with royalty, both French and English, although life at court is well described.The way that he manages to be present at a private shouting match between Queen Isabella and her royal sons King Henry III and his brother, Earl Richard, doesn't seem any too likely, and there are the usual number of strange coincidences, as when he bumps into the Bishop of Balecester who asks him, as bishops do, whether he'd ever killed anyone. '" I could have told them that I had indeed killed, and that one of my first victims was his own son." And he could also have told him that the blessed relic in his own cathedral, known by him as St Exupius, was, in fact "that very son, hung and smoked like a ham until he looked 1000 years dead". You can't say that Petroc had lived an uneventful sort of life.

Petroc even manages to befriend Simon de Montfort, who enrols him in his service. But of one thing you may be sure: no matter how fiercely the battle rages around him (and the battle scenes often communicate a sense of real, if appalled, excitement), you may be confident that he will emerge relatively unscathed.

The author explains that the main events, such as the battles and royal intrigues, "are matters of record. The rest is a coarse weave of what-ifs and why-nots, but the loose ends I gathered up are also based on fact." So the Mandylion really did disappear in the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 and has not been seen since. The Cathars really were exterminated by the Catholic Church in the Albigensian Crusade. But Petroc himself, of course, is pure fiction - and reads like it.

The Fools' Crusade (2010)
The Fools' Crusade is the final Petroc book and starts in 1250. Petroc (I have continued to use this name to avoid confusion although he is now known as Sir Petrus Zennorius) had, for the last three years, been the wealthy co-owner of a Venetian bank. But unfortunately for him, King Louis of France (with whom he has had personal contact) was about to invade Egypt on his vainglorious Seventh Crusade. The Pope and the Emperor were at each other's throats. Petroc gets caught up in the middle of this, and realises that if he and his beloved Iselda are to stay alive, he must join in the doomed crusade, where zealot, infidel, mercenary and heretic fight to the death. Practically everyone seems to get killed - except for Petroc himself, of course, who ends up (like the author) happily back on Dartmoor.

Although the author is strong on period atmosphere (he is good at describing such things as the effects of scorbutus, now known as scurvy, and eels feeding on the bloated bodies of dead soldiers), it makes a rather slow-moving tale with all sorts of digressions (as with the unnecessary list of names of nobles and knights on page 271 and all the Dartmoor place names on page 308) and there are overlong descriptions of bloody battles in which, after a time, the reader feels strangely uninvolved. Few of the characters emerge as living human beings whom we can really care about, and even the murder of old Isaac, Petroc's long time friend and partner, seems used just as a means to inspire Petroc to seek his killer.

Petroc himself ends up as an interesting if rather unlikely adventurer who keeps on surviving against impossible odds. As a young French knight tells him, "God's stones, but you are a lucky man, Sir Englishman!" and the way that he seems to keep on bumping into the same opponents again and again, seems quite remarkable. And it is hard to accept the way that Iselda suddenly becomes the all-powerful representative of the Queen of France and even discovers herself to be a noblewoman.

Petroc's early training as a monk seems to have left him with little more than a profound cynicism about all the religious in-fighting. “Our difficulty is that we have to feign piety when we have no faith. We might as well be true heretics," he says, and goes on to talk about "the drivel of priests" and comments, "God, save us from those who believe in You." And he himself ends up by turning sufi, declaring that "God is everything. The stars, the sea, this ship. Us. God isn't just with us, or inside us. We are God.“

Despite all the detailed, and sometimes interesting, historical explanations, there is a lack of personal involvement. Petroc describes “living skeletons, all of us, plastered with our own dung, spitting our teeth out, dropping dead in the midst of a sentence", yet even this sounds oddly impersonal.

Towards the end of the book, Petroc comments, “If they ever write songs, or books, about our time in Egypt, I pray that I am left out of them .... Let the book tells of the eels, and the scorbutus." Yes, the bits about eels and scorbutus and the other historical details really are the most interesting parts of the book, although Petroc himself is a redoubtable character.


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Relics cover
The restrained cover looks quite appealing. This is the hardback version.
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