Britannia: Characters from the Crowner John Mystery Novels
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Introduction to
Fictional Characters in the Crowner John Mystery Novels
by Bernard Knight
Friends and Adversaries

Bernard Knight's brilliant new series of Medieval Mystery Novels transport their readers back in time to a grim, sometimes lawless, age, where the fictional Sir John De Wolfe, newly instituted Coroner for the County of Devon, fights to uncover the truth behind some disturbing cases of sudden death. Along the way he his helped by friends and hindered by adversaries. Meet some of the regular characters to be found in the semi-historical streets of 12th century Exeter:

Sir John de Wolfe
Coroner for the County of Devon.

Sir John is a local Devonshire man, born in 1154 to the Cornish wife of the far from notable, Simon de Wolfe, Lord of two obscure manors at Stoke-in-Teignhead. At the age of twenty-four, John's ambitious father pushed him into an advantageous marriage with the daughter of a well-known and moderately wealthy Devon family; but the match was not a good one and, after only eighteen months, John turned to warfare to escape his disagreeable wife.

John served King Richard the Lionheart with honour during nearly fifteen years of campaigning in Ireland, France and particularly on Crusade in the Holy Land. He became noted as a staunch protector of the King, and was made a captain in his personal bodyguard. However, he was absent from the monarch's side when the latter was captured at Erdburg in 1191 and has blamed himself ever since for Richard's subsequent years of imprisonment.

Now a veteran knight, Sir John has returned to comfortable investments at his West Country home: a burgage in St. Martin's Lane in the City of Exeter where he tolerates his wife's company, while seeking physical pleasures elsewhere - notably at his favourite haunt, the Bush Inn.

He is a handsome man with deep-set brooding eyes; a tall, but slightly stooped figure with the air of a bird of prey. His dark shoulder-length hair frames a long, stern, sinewy face with high cheekbones and deep furrows running down to the corners of his mouth. His full sensual lips, above the dark stubble on his long chin, are at odds with his otherwise flinty appearance, but make him more than agreeable to female companions.

At the age of forty and getting too old for war, his wife persuaded Sir John to allow himself to be put forward as a candidate for one of the three newly instituted Royal (though unpaid) Offices of Coroner for the County of Devon. Though his Royal connections made him a prime candidate for the job, his election was not without opposition, particularly from his brother-in-law, the Sheriff. But when only two candidates were forthcoming and one was killed in a fall from his horse, Sir John secured his place as the second most senior law officer in the county.

Now, as one of the Lionheart's most loyal subjects, Sir John is determined to uphold Royal authority by doggedly and single-mindedly enforcing the royal laws as best he can. An expert in corpses, having seen thousands in all states of decay on his campaigns, he is ideally placed to investigate cases of sudden death. However, he must also find his way through a maze of other responsibilities, whilst at the same time deciphering the ambiguous lines of local jurisdiction and fending off the sheriff's attempts to undermine him.

Practical and uncomplicated, though too proud to ask his own clerk for reading lessons, Sir John is a man of few words. He wastes none and, in turn, expects no fancy turns of phrase or beating about the bush. Not a vain man, though conscious of his Royal appointment, he soon begins to execute his new role with a demanding manner that gets results.

Gwyn of Polruan
The Coroner's Bodyguard

This ginger-haired and moustachioed Cornishman is the unofficial coroner's officer and henchman, as well as Sir John's squire and bodyguard. He is taller and more massive than the latter, with a booming voice when required. Though built like a bull, he can move fast over short distances. His huge body, of course, requires refuelling at frequent intervals, so he keeps the Coroner's little office well-stocked with bread, cheese and beer. Two years older than Sir John, he lives with his wife and children in a thatched hut in the village of St. Sidwell's outside Exeter's East Gate.

Gwyn's father was a Cornish tin-miner who had turned to fishing and moved to the coast at Polruan, on the opposite side of the river entrance to Fowey. Gwyn had followed the fishing trade there until he was seventeen, then came to Exeter to be a slaughterman in the Shambles. In 1180, necessity drove him to become a mercenary soldier and his huge size soon brought him to the attention of John de Wolfe just prior to setting off to War. He was employed as his bodyguard-cum-squire and the two have remained together ever since, fighting and travelling in Ireland and to the Third Crusade in Palestine. When his knight, at last, ran out of wars, Gwyn decided to remain with him, now acting as his officer.

Though they are master and servant, Gwyn and Sir John's relationship is one of fraternal comradeship: Sir John states what he needs to be done and Gwyn carries it out, usually without demur. Occasionally, the Cornishman will answer an order with a direct stare when Sir John knows that discussion is needed of an alternative strategy. If the coroner persists in his demand, Gwyn will carry it out to the letter, but with an almost palpable air of disapproval that usually causes Sir John concern about the wisdom of his decision. However, the two are usually thinking along the same lines. They have journeyed together for thousands of miles over the years of their acquaintance but, apart from the business of the day, they actually have very little to say to one another. Any silence between them is, however, not strained, but accepts each man's reserved personality.

A fierce independent Cornishmen, Gwyn delights in speaking his native language to annoy his colleague, the coroner's clerk. He, naturally, has little love for Norman forms of government and believes that the new coroner system has merely been created to screw even more money out of the poor for the Royal Treasury. Only his dogged loyalty to his knight makes him keep his criticisms to himself, but the occasional grunt and sniff gave vent to his Cornish autonomy.

Thomas de Peyne
The Coroner's Clerk

The fourth son of a minor Hampshire knight, there had been no land for Thomas de Peyne in the family's small honour near Eastleigh in Hampshire, so at the age of twelve he had been put into the cathedral school at Winchester. The entrance of such an unprepossessing lad, the runt of the litter, into such a prestigious college had been eased by his father's cousin, John de Alecon, now Archdeacon of Exeter but who had then been one of the prebendaries of Winchester Cathedral. Thomas spent five years at the school, never seeing his home the whole time. As a small child, he had suffered a cold abscess of his upper spine, contracted from the phthisis that affected his mother and which had killed one of his older brothers. Though his had eventually healed, it had left him slightly stooped and twisted, the object of ridicule by his schoolfellows. Yet he had survived and had been strengthened in resolve by his persecution. He excelled at his letters, perhaps as compensation for his physical disadvantage. He could soon read and speak Latin and Norman French, as well as native English, which was looked on with scorn by his aristocratic Norman contemporaries: even King Richard had never bothered to learn a word of English. His penmanship earned even the grudging praise of his strict monkish tutors, but with these narrow talents, only one course was open to him - to go into the Church. Thomas had no particular interest in theology, liturgy or pastoral care, but had a strong liking for books and manuscripts, and an insatiable curiosity about other people's business, probably because his own was so dull.

In due course and after years of study of logic, mathematics and more Latin, he became a junior deacon at Winchester. Gradually, over the next decade, he had become a workhorse in the administration of the cathedral and chapter. He was employed mainly in the treasury, his participation in religious life being minimal and confined to obligatory attendance of the several daily services - but he had also become a teacher of reading and writing, which had helped towards his eventual downfall.

On his elevation to Archdeacon in 1186, John de Alecon had moved to Exeter, where he now acts as one of the Bishop's right-hand men. Before he left Winchester, his valedictory act for Thomas had been to get him ordained. Soon afterwards, the latter was made prebendary of one of the smallest parishes on the outskirts of the city, although he still laboured as a cathedral administrator and schoolmaster.

Over the years, the malady that had affected his spine had grown worse: although the tuberculous abscess had subsided, the sinews and bone had contracted and shrunk so that his head was pulled slightly to one side and the lopsided lump on his back had become more obvious. His skin had seemed to coarsen and, though he was by no means grotesque, he was far from attractive. Although a prebendary was supposed to be celibate, many had mistresses or even illicit families - some had a whole clutch of bastards, often by different mothers - and although the cathedral precinct, where many canons lived, was forbidden to women, this rule was openly flouted.

Despite his physical shortcomings, Thomas de Peyne had a normal sex drive. He liked women, he desired women and, if he had been like his fellow prebendaries, his lust could easily have been satisfied. If only he had confined his activities to the stews that peppered Winchester - as they did every busy town - life could have carried on in its own humdrum, but comfortable way. But in 1192, one of his reading pupils in the cathedral day school, a fat fourteen-year old girl, had been his nemesis.

Thomas considered she had led him on with requests for an extra hour of reading practice after the other scholars had left, coy looks, fluttering eyelashes and suggestive conversation. Either he misread the signs, from wishful thinking, or was deliberately trapped by her, but his eventual clumsy efforts at seduction in the dingy schoolroom off the cloisters were met with screams that could have drowned the cathedral bells. The proctors came running and he was imprisoned for the next week in a punishment cell under the chapter house. Thankfully, the whole abortive ravishment had taken place on episcopal premises so no sheriffs sergeants had been called. If they had, he would probably have been hanged within days for attempted rape.

As it was, he kept his life, but lost almost everything else. After interminable delays, he was hauled before the consistory court of the diocese, found guilty on what he considered perjured evidence by the girl and her family, and stripped of his holy orders by an irate bishop and ejected from the cathedral precincts.

The loss of his priesthood meant little to Thomas, but deprivation of the prebend, his living accommodation and the comfortable ecclesiastical life were a disaster. He was thrown out of the religious community and escaped having to beg for his survival only by scribing letters and bills for tradesmen and tutoring a few youths for rich families.

This went on for a year and half, until his commissions dwindled as he became more and more dishevelled and despairing. Cut off from his family by the disgrace, he even contemplated suicide, but eventually summoned the last of his courage to walk to Exeter to throw himself on the mercy of his kinsman. Grudgingly, the Archdeacon agreed to help him, if and when he could, and some months later, when the new coroner system was introduced, he had prevailed on Sir John de Wolfe to take on Thomas as his clerk, recommending strongly his capabilities with pen and parchment.

Thanks to the Archdeacon and despite his expulsion from Holy Orders, Thomas now lives in mean lodgings in the cathedral close in Exeter. With his shapeless cloth bag full of parchment, inks and writing implements, he tramps around the countryside, side-saddle on his old pony, like a woman, acting as a scribe for King Richard's new law officer. He constantly records details of the cases they attend, translating dictation into Latin simultaneously; and though his work is slow, Sir John finds his rolls a work of art. Thomas is naturally a furtive little man, with a shifty pair of beady eyes that dart everywhere and miss nothing. However, his crook-back, bandy legs, lazy eye and cow-pox pitted face make him wholly unsuitable for his occasional duties as covert investigator. They furthermore make him the butt of scorn and ridicule of course, not least from Sir John and his colleague, Gwyn. The former occasionally has flashes of pity for the man though, on the whole, he finds Thomas only deserved of disdain. His squeamish reaction to many of their investigations - bringing frequent crossings of his body - have, even brought threats of dismissal.

With no money and few prospects, Thomas is full of self-pity and a fear of impending unhappiness seemed to be his lot. However, he is now content with at least having some purpose in life and a few pence from the coroner's purse to cover his minuscule needs. He is not a devout man, in spite of his former vocation, but he believes in God and trusts that, when he dies, his next incarnation will be a damned sight better than the present one.      Copyright ©1999, LLC