Brother Cadfael 19: The Holy Thief
THE HOLY THIEF. Ellis Peters. THE NINETEENTH CHRONICLE OF BROTHER CADFAEL.
In the height of a hot summer, in late August of 1144, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, deferred to the heat of the sun, and made the final, fatal mistake of his long and opportunist career. He was engaged, at the time, in planning the destruction by siege of one of the circle of improvized but effective fortresses King Stephen had thrown up to contain and compress the depredations of Geoffrey's host of outlaws, rebels and predators in the Fen country. For more than a year, from his elusive bases in the Fens, Geoffrey had so devastated the countryside as to ensure that not a field should be safely planted or reaped, not a manor properly tended, not a man with anything of value to lose should be left in possession of it, and not one who refused to surrender it should be left with even a life to lose. As the king had wrested from him all his own relatively legitimate castles and lands and titles, none too legally if the truth be told, so Geoffrey had set to work in defiance to do as much to every man, poor or rich, who got in his way. For a year, from the borders of Huntingdon to Mildenhall in Suffolk and over much of Cambridgeshire, the Fens had become an enclosed robber kingdom in spite of King Stephen's head, and though his hasty ring of castles had done something to prevent its further enlargement, it had not hampered the earl's movements greatly, or brought him to the battle he was expert at avoiding.
But this strong-point of Burwell, north-east of Cambridge, irritated him because it was beginning to interfere with his supply lines, almost the only thing vulnerable about him. And on one of the hottest days of August he was riding round the offending castle to view the best possibilities for attack. Because of the heat he had discarded his helmet and the curtain of fine chain mail that guarded his neck. An ordinary bowman on the wall loosed a shot at him, and struck him in the head.
Geoffrey laughed at it, the wound seemed so slight; he withdrew to allow a few days for healing. And in a few days he was burning with a fevered infection that pared the flesh from his bones and brought him to his bed. They carried him as far as Mildenhall in Suffolk, and there awoke to the knowledge that he was dying. The sun had done what all King Stephen's armies could not do.
What was impossible was that he should die in peace. He was an unabsolved excommunicate; not even a priest could help him, for in the mid-Lent council called the previous year by Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, the king's brother and at that time papal legate, it had been decreed that no man who did violence to a cleric could be absolved by anyone but the Pope himself, and that not by any distant decree, but in the Pope's veritable presence. A long way from Mildenhall to Rome for a dying man in terror of hellfire. For Geoffrey's excommunication had been earned by his seizure by violence of the abbey of Ramsey, and his expulsion of the monks and their abbot, to turn the convent into the capital of his kingdom of thieves, torturers and murderers. For him there was no possible absolution, no hope of burial. The earth would not have him.
There were those who did their best for him, frantic in defence of his soul, if they could not help his body. When he grew so weak that he ceased to rave and sank into stupor, his officials and men of law began feverishly issuing charters in his name, restoring to the Church various properties he had seized from her, including the abbey of Ramsey. Whether with his goodwill or not, no one stopped to ask, and no one ever knew. The orders were carried out, and respected, but they did not avail him. His body was refused Christian burial, his earldom was abolished, his lands and offices remained forfeit, and his family disinherited. His eldest son was excommunicate with him, and partner in his rebellion. A younger, and his namesake, was already with the Empress Maud, and recognized by her as earl of Essex, for what such an acknowledgement was worth without lands or status.
On the sixteenth day of September Geoffrey de Mandeville died, still excommunicate, still unabsolved. The only remaining mercy was shown to him by certain Knights Templar who were in Mildenhall at the time, and took his coffined body back with them to London, where for want of any Christian relenting they were forced to let him lie in a pit outside the churchyard of
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