(creator: Domini Highsmith)
|Father Simeon de Beverley is a young Chantry priest of St John's, serving the altar of St Peter and the little church dependent on it in Beverley in Yorkshire in the late 12th century . He is "a gifted translator and copyist, a scribe and a keen historian, with a talent for assessing the hidden qualities of other men, of weighing and measuring almost at a glance and because his judgment was often unnervingly accurate this, among his many and varied talents, was least appreciated by his fellow priests. The younger son of a family of quality he bore an outward flaw, a rigid ankle that guaranteed him a lower status in the estimation of his peers." This had been the result of a childhood accident when he had been crippled by a horse. It was the reason why his father had handed him as a boy over to the church.
He "was also a contemplative man whose calm exterior concealed a thousand undertows. None knew his secrets, yet many were dismayed to find their own unveiled before his steady gaze." He had "searching, deep blue eyes" and, "strong-boned features, too handsome and too elegant, some thought, for a man of holy orders." He is "taller than most and broadly built" and is always ready to fight for his life (or to save someone else's) if need arises. In the first book, he is "not yet thirty years of age".
He "had never claimed to be a man of true vocation; God knew there were few of those in holy orders. His faith was simple, often uncertain, constantly questioning. He took little on trust alone, but it was adequate for his needs and had served him well enough for all his life."
Domini Highsmith (1942 - 2003) was a Yorkshire-born Jewish writer who lived alone in the shadow of Beverley Minster in Yorkshire. She began her career writing and broadcasting her comic dialect poetry and stories on local radio in Leeds and Bradford. She has also performed on stage and on national television and radio. She wrote six thrillers under the names of Domini Wiles and also used the pseudonym Amy Van Hassen. Her books include two semi-autobiographical novels about an abused child.
Keeper at the Shrine (1994)
Simeon's obsessive love of the child (he can sense when Peter needs him and always hurries to respond) sets him at odds with his church, not helped by the way that his own sudden cure starts to earn him an unwanted and dangerous reputation as a saint. He employs a beautiful young woman, Elvira, who was still married to a brutal husband, to be wet nurse to Peter and finds that she begins to mean too much to him. Meanwhile his godson Peter becomes more and more important to him as he is convinced that, "I have been chosen to guard young Peter until such time as his purpose here is known". And he comes to realise that it is Peter who is to be "keeper at the shrine" and save the bones of good St John from despoilation.
The author explains that the book "is the result of many years' meticulous research into the medieval history of Beverley", but she has added a wild invention and melodramatic style of her own, as when she describes the reaction of a priest to the opening storm: "He saw the sea rise up above the cliffs, its waves, steel-tipped with moonlight, riding and twisting in the howling wind. He saw the sky become a cauldron and the storm gush from its heart like black pus from an open wound. It poured across the land, dragging the sea after it, screeching and roaring like a thing possessed. Ahead of it the big horse flew as if pursued by a deadly pack, a brave and noble beast, but surely doomed." It is indeed, and it is not long before its "dark head lifted briefly and fell back, the eyes rolled, white-edged and wet with grief, and even as its master bade farewell, the brave heart, pushed too far beyond its measure, quivered a final spasm and was still."
The identity of the mystic hooded rider who hands over the baby, and who reappears at other moments of crisis calling out to Simeon by name, is never revealed, and nor is the parentage of young Peter.
Much of the characterisation tends to be over-simplistic, verging from the wholly good such as Father Bernard ("a well-loved, amiable man, his temperament was such that he could be moved to tears or rage or laughter with equal ease. He was that rare thing, a charitable man, who presumed no ill, no underlying mischief in his neighbour") to his murderer, the villainous, ambitious, lying priest Father Cyrus de Figham (who, you may be sure, was up to no good when he "narrowed his night-dark eyes and squared his shoulders" or when "his black eyes narrowed into peevish slits"), and his ally, the vicious fat rapist and sodomist Father Wulfric de Mortlund. It is Wulfric's lover, a young priest, who reassures him, "The church does not call sodomy with either man or boy a mortal sin. It would be considered far more serious if your partner in the act had been a woman or a beast." It is Cyrus and Wulfric who are Simeon's determined enemies throughout, and both of them survive against all odds, presumably so that they can reappear in later books.
The construction of the story is very episodic, with some odd breaks in the action as when Peter suddenly jumps to being six, then eight. He makes a remarkably precocious eight-year-old, saying things like, "Father, these precious relics would have changed hands at a profit a dozen times by now, had I not gathered them up and brought them here. I sat with a man at the church door, a pilgrim from the Lowlands, who boasted that he carried the finger of St Emerita of Rome in a pouch under his shirt. Another had the toe of St Isidor, another a lidded jar containing the blood of St Britwald of Canterbury. You must be aware, Father, that many thieves consider the theft of a holy relic more profitable than that of a whole purse full of gold, and Anthony says that even the Heathens now have learned to trade in the business of Christian Saints."
Although such major events as Beverley's near destruction by flood and then by fire are based on fact, it is not easy to believe in all of the author's inventions, such as the time it takes for Simeon to realise that his lameness has been healed, and the explanation of how, to save himself from a trumped up charge of heresy, he goes on pretending to be lame for many years to come, despite the fact that he has been seen by many people to be walking without difficulty.
Simeon cannot help thinking about Peter's wet nurse 18-year-old Elvira. On one occasion, he has to catch her when she jumps from the roof: "As she clung to him her gently rounded belly pressed against that part of him that rose now in sudden, forceful eagerness". He is "shocked by the intensity of the emotions she aroused in him", but "he believed his vow of chastity would survive .... Should the day ever come when he set that aside, it would not be in the adulterous bed of a ditcher's wife." And he goes on to live quite happily without her for the next eight years. Until the plot demands otherwise.
The author seems to have a very cynical view of church life and behaviour at the time. Father Cyrus, for example, has an arrangement with a fishmonger, father of "a girl of 14 years, quite plain of feature but with a decent body": "Lift your skirts and bend over," he ordered, gripping his penis in urgent readiness. "Come girl, don't keep me here all night. Bend forward and let me get this over with. There's work to be done and I have no wish to linger here a moment than is necessary."
The common people of the time seemed no better, ever ready to loot and pillage. When they crowd into the church, believing that Simeon may be able to miraculously cure them, the special "little stone seats built into the outer walls (intended for the sick and elderly) were occupied by those men and women bold enough to have stalked a firm claim upon them .... Some clerks were pushing through the crowds to clear a way, angrily trying to keep the crippled, the old, the blind and the infirm from falling beneath the greater press of people.
And then, when, starving starving people come across some food: "Men snatched from their wives and women from their children, and those too small or too weak to snatch at all looked out through hollow and accusing eyes while others prospered. And when the food was gone not one of them was truly fed. Those first in line had tasted and gone short; those at the rear had tasted not at all."
The author seems to agree with Elvira who, she tells us, had been "taught that God was merciful and just, and that innocence would have its own reward. She was taught it, but she had not found it so. Between the church's teaching and its purse, there was an abyss that swallowed such as she."
The author has little to say about Simeon's own religious experiences beyond passages like: "The morning sky was calm and still and beautiful. It hung above him, impervious, remote, and in its blue indifference he detected something more than the simple daily miracle most men dared take for granted. In that day's first glimpse of infinity he almost felt the presence of his God." But when he prayed, Elvira noticed that "He prayed not as a priest should, with his head lowered and his palms together, but with his clenched fists resting on his knees and his head raised up. He was not like the rest. While other men cringed before their god this Simeon met him face to face and unafraid. It was neither the tonsure nor the robes that made this one a priest, but something deep and powerful inside himself."
At times the author almost seems to relish all the misery and suffering she is describing, as when the whole town is set on fire and "The bailiff threw up his arms and screamed, knowing he was doomed. An instant later he was engulfed in a shower of flames. He rose up from the midst of it, screeching and beating vainly at the flames devouring his clothes and flesh. Blinded and choked and mad with pain, he moved once again by purest instinct, stumbling for home. His family was huddled together in the farthest corner of the room when the door of the house burst open and the ball of fire that was their lord and master staggered home."
I have quoted at length so as to capture something of the author's rather over-the-top style. But she certainly has an action-filled tale to tell, and it will be interesting to see if and how any further explanations of Peter and the hooded figure (a messenger from God?) are given in later books.
Guardian at the Gate (1995)
Simeon's godson, Peter, the beautiful mysterious boy they have been looking after for the last ten years, is still there to help them, as is the mysterious black hooded figure who is known "by many names" but does not seem to do all that much, except explain that he is "the Guardian at the Gate" and appear at moments of crisis.
However, it all makes a stronger story than that of the first book, and the author does nothing to tone down the violence, the misery and the apparently meaningless suffering of the times. When the whole district is flooded, "Looters and cut purses were hard at work amongst the crowds that gathered at every mud-pool. Chickens and eggs were carried off while the owners searched for missing relatives. Possessions was stolen from unattended houses, produce and implements from unguarded plots .... In Walkergate, where the flooding was at its worst, a family of vagrants was discovered looting the house of a local man. Every member, including seven children, was hanged from the rafters as a deterrent to others of their kind.
As before, the author seems rather to relish such bloodthirsty descriptions as when she describes a dying man who "had borne horrific injuries for five long hours after being savagely gored by a boar at dawn. Half crazed with pain, he screamed vile curses upon all manner of God's creation, and in the end his rage turned on itself. The hands that had held in his innards through the gaping hole of his stomach began to pluck them out, and with his own fingers he disembowelled himself."
Much less convincing is her description of arch-villain Father Cyrus who "was glowering in frustration at the day's events, his brows furrowed over his elegant nose and his lips pressed tightly together". Furious that he had lost men and possessions in the flood, he cursed, "Damn it. Damn Beverley in Hell for crossing me again." It is his intention to lay his hands on the secret treasure and the holy relics of St John of Beverley, as well as on the lovely Elvira, and her protector Simeon de Beverley, who, as he tells his steward, John Palmer, "is a deadly poison in my gullet". And he aims to dispose of ten-year-old Peter, too, whom he is certain is their bastard son.
Simeon's other arch-enemy the fat and frightful Wulfric de Morthlund is another over-the-top creation. It is he who tells his catamite priest, Daniel Hawk, "Let the rabble with their empty bellies and ragged clothes concern themselves with the afterlife ... We priests are privileged to take our Paradise in the here and now, for when we turn to earth we are no more. Let the peasant hope for better things to come. Our lives are sweet, my Little Hawk, so clear that pretty brow of scowls and savour it."
Simeon's own faith seems to be surer than it used to be: it "was just as enduring and as uncertain as the flickering light from a single candle. A thousand wicks could be lit from it and still its own flame would not be diminished. Sometimes it faltered, for it was vulnerable, but in its simplicity it had the power to ignite a forest or else to hold the darkest night at bay with its modest glow." Elvira, on the other hand, is still unconvinced.
A new character, whom the author obviously admires, is Aaron the Jew, who is a friend of both the Archbishop of York and of Simeon. Like Simeon he was " a brilliant scholar who suffered and yet preserved a deep compassion for his fellow man. Here too was a man of faith who could throw off the shackles, the pomp and show of religion and look his god full in the face and still believe. " So perhaps it should not come as such a surprise that both of them end up in love with Elvira.
The ambitious but charming Fergus de Burton proves an ally to both of them. He is one of the less sterotyped characters as there is an ambiguity about even his most generous actions. As he freely tells the Archbishop, "I am a younger son with no inheritance to call my own. The time has come for me to consider more than the pursuit of pleasure and the raising of maiden's skirts. My brothers and cousins have little love for me, so I must find a way to make my own fortune, if such is ever to be made." The Archbishop recognises him as "a self-serving man with courage enough to admit to his interest" and admires him for it.
After a great deal of plotting and conspiring, Cyrus succeeds in getting Simeon arrested, not only for fornication and heresy (for which he has built up a mass of false evidence) but for murder too, and excitement really builds up as his time of trial approaches and his friends make desperate attempts to save him. Young Peter even manages to worm his way into his cell, but no one can save Simeon from the horror of being "carted", that is, being carried at the rear of a cart "bound like a crucified Christ to a makeshift frame of wood. He wore a metal restraining yoke about his neck and shoulders, and every jolt of the cart set rivulets of fresh blood running down his battered chest. No part of him was left unbruised, no portion of skin unbloodied", as a howling mob pelted the cart with stones, bricks and rotten fruit.
Eventually, of course, Cyrus's diabolical plans are thwarted, Simeon is miraculously saved, and the arch villain Cyrus gets stabbed in the back, but has time to say, "By the devil, you have killed me, priest" before toppling into the river. Then "the sluggish current report bore his unprotesting form downstream." But we may be fairly confident that, one way or another, we'll be seeing more of him.
Master of the Keys (1996)
In the vacuum created by de Figham's absence, the violent struggle for power and profit flares again as the privileged few seek dominance over the town - men like Wulfric de Morthlund (a "vile debaucher of small boys").Geoffrey Plantaganent, the Archbishop of York determined to exert his authority over his unruly diocese; and Hector de Figham, the embittered brother (an impoverished curate who turned out to be just as nasty as Cyrus himself) who comes to reclaim his long-denied inheritance. And there's the wily Fergus de Burton who can persuade even the (unordained) Archbishop of York that he would strengthen his position by getting ordained!
The fate of the town lies in the hands of Simeon, the godly priest, who, despite the dangers, dreams of restoring the ruined minister to its former glory and fulfilling the destiny of his godson, Peter, as Keeper of the Holy Shrine of St John of Beverley.
This is the best book of the three, with plenty of exciting action, even though the identities of that strange hooded figure (that "they called the other, the self-styled Guardian at the Gate, whose presence always foreshadowed some disaster") and of young Peter (who, we are told, looks just like Simeon but is not his son) still spends most of his time, like a "young grey shadow", disappearing down wells or along old underground passages that are known only to him) are never really explained.
However, by the end, Simeon feels himself released from his vow of chastity - and about time too! And, after ten long years, he can at last stop pretending to be lame, something he had done in case his miraculous cure all those years ago might have given the church reason for accusing him for passing himself off as a saint. Not really a totally convincing situation.
There are graphic descriptions of fighting, floods and pestilence, and excitement mounts as the arch villain is brought to trial on myriad charges, including multiple murder, even if some of the characters, such as the main villains and the old witch Hannah, sometimes read like caricatures. And Aaron, the Jewish moneylender, for whom the author obviously feels real empathy, seems a bit too good to be true. She is determined to establish that he is nothing like the medieval Jewish stereotype, but "thirty years old, wealthy, compelling to a fault and devilishly handsome."
This book, like the previous two In the Beverley Chronicles, was inspired by, and dedicated to, the unknown priest whose tomb stands on the east side of the North Transept of Beverley Minster. The author writes about the Minister with real enthusiasm and commitment, but seems to have a greater understanding of the historical setting than of the specifically Christian teaching. Perhaps she would have gone along with Elvira who "had never believed that some vast, omnipotent being heard their prayers or cared a jot for their individual little lives." There was just too much suffering in the world.
She is stronger writing about the "corruption in the very corridors of the church, abuse of power, theft and rape, even murder", and is also good at details of life at the time, even if these are sometimes laid on a bit thick: When someone asks, "Osric believes he can keep the infection contained. Is that possible?", the reply he gets is, "It is if this is the common flux or the puking sickness, or any one of the wet distempers that come and go with the seasons. But if, as I suspect, it proves to be a pestilence, such as leprous flux or cankerous belly, this town of others will have no hope of fighting it."
It is Simeon's father who points out, "Behind the myths of Beverley was a truth more complex and more intricately knotted than any man could ever hope to unravel." But it does not get any more credible when the other ends up by ordaining ten-year-old Peter, a process that even the author describes as "unlikely".
|The covers look mock-medieval, and the stories may also be rather over-the-top, but they certainly don't lack action.|