Skip to main content



The Mercy Seller

Chapter One
Prague, Bohemia
July 1412

The Avon to the Severn runs,
The Severn to the sea,
And Wycliffe’s dust shall spread abroad,
Wide as the waters be.


Anna never went to the hrad, the great walled castle on the western hill overlooking Prague. It hunched just across the Vltava River, a world away. Nor did she go to the great cathedral standing guard over the castle lest she encounter the dread archbishop. Zybnek. The burner of books.

Anna attended mass at T´yn Church or met with the rest of Prague’s dissidents at Bethlehem Chapel. After Zybnek’s great bonfire of the Wycliffe tracts and the translated gospels, Lollard texts the Church called them, heretical texts because they charged papal corruption and challenged priestly authority, Hus had warned his growing congregation, “The day will surely come when Rome’s prelates are not content to burn the Word but seek out for their fires those who would bring the Word to the people. We must pray for the strength to stand for our beliefs. We must fasten our courage against such a day.”

Her grandfather had warned his little clutch of scholars and translators too, chastising them for their careless zeal.

And wasn’t he the one to talk!

After all, it was he, her own grandfather, Finn the Illuminator, Finn the Lollard scribe, who, along with Master Jerome, had started Prague’s secret enterprise to disseminate the banned translations. As a young exchange student, Jerome had returned to his Czech homeland from Oxford, bringing with him the Lollard texts. The Trialogus and De Ecclesia of John Wycliffe. Banned in England, they’d found new life at the new university at Prague. Its rector, Jan Hus, had translated the condemned texts, along with a good portion of the gospels, into Czech. And for years, right under the archbishop’s nose, her own grandfather, a refugee from a long-ago brush with English Lollardy, had gathered a wellspring of university dissidents into his little town house, where they copied the banned pages.

Anna glanced at the castle and the cathedral spires of Saint Vitus standing sentinel behind it. She shivered even in the summer heat. But she would not think about the monster on the hill today. Not on a day when the sunlight flung dancing diamonds on the water and no smell of burning tainted the air. Not on a day when the birds wheeled in joyful circles above the river, their wing tips flirting with cloud pillows.

Not on a day when she was meeting Martin.

She turned her back to the castle and looked downriver. In the distance she could make out a camp of some sort, likely pilgrims traversing Christendom to any number of shrines --- Jerusalem the holiest --- in penance. That was what sinners did, sinners who could not afford to purchase expiation from the Church.

From the town sprawled on her left a familiar figure approached, but not the figure for whom she was looking. “Master Jerome! I thought Martin was coming,” she said, feeling her face redden, her disappointment all too obvious.

“Martin is otherwise occupied, it seems,” the gray-haired master said wearily. He handed her the bag that held the translated texts to be copied at the next meeting. “Thank you for doing my laundry, mistress,” he said loudly.

Who knew the carp in the river had eyes and ears? Or that the woodcutter hauling his cart across the stone bridge might be a spy for the archbishop? But she bit back her sarcasm. She would not belittle him for his excess of caution. She had too much respect for all he had accomplished.

Anna took the university master’s “laundry” and was about to bid him good afternoon when she heard rapid footsteps approaching from the other end of the bridge. She turned to see a lone figure running toward them as though the devil gave chase. Seconds later Martin joined them beneath the sheltering shade of the gate tower. He was gasping for breath and his face was flushed and his black hair fell in an unruly wave across his forehead.

“I’m sorry, Master Jerome. I was detained --- ”

“You didn’t have time to put on your cap?” Anna pushed Martin’s hair away from his forehead with her hand, a ruse to caress his face.

“I lost it. But in good cause,” he said, breathing heavily. Winking at Anna, he sucked in air and lowered his voice to an almost whisper. “I’ll show you at the meeting --- No. I can’t wait. I have to show it to you now.” He drew them deeper into the shadowy hollow of the tower gate and pulled from his plain brown student’s doublet a black velvet packet. It was marked with a Jerusalem cross.

“Put that away,” Jerome hissed. “How did you come by it?”

“Is that what I think it is?” Anna asked, not remembering to lower her voice. “I’ve never even seen one. May I see it?”

Alarm showed in Jerome’s face. “Not here, Martin! You didn’t --- ”

“No, we didn’t hurt the pardoner, didn’t even scruff him up --- well maybe a couple of . . . you know, smallish bruises. He was just setting up shop outside Saint Vitus Cathedral. Stasik kicked him in his shins, and the pardoner dropped his ‘grace notes.’ While he was nursing his shins --- he even curses in Latin --- we took off down Crooked Alley. Stasik made for New Town. I headed for Old Town. As easy as taking pennies from a blind beggar.”

You’d be more likely to give pennies to a blind beggar, Anna thought, but kept silent, letting him enjoy his moment.

Martin was grinning broadly as he darted glances across the bridge to assure himself he had not been followed. As was usual in the heat of the midafternoon, the bridge was deserted except for the woodsman who was exiting on the other end and a beggar who sat at the gate on the other side of the river.

Anna could see from Jerome’s scowl that he was not impressed. “Fool, do you want to bring the archbishop down on our heads? Wait till Finn hears what you’ve done. This is not our way.” He snatched the little packet of papal indulgences and hid them quickly in his shirt.

At the mention of her grandfather’s name, some of Martin’s bravado vanished.

Jerome’s gray eyebrows bunched together in a scowl. “I don’t think such exploits will weigh in your favor when the illuminator seeks a husband for his granddaughter.”

He was nothing if not direct. Not now. Not ever.

Martin’s smile vanished quickly.

“I want to see one, Master Jerome,” Anna said. “All my life I’ve heard my grandfather and you ranting about the pope’s sale of indulgences to finance his wars, as though they were written by the devil’s own hand, and I’ve never even seen one.”

The old man looked at her and shook his head. “You’re as stupid as your suitor. You deserve each other,” he said. “Just pray I’m not arrested before I can dispose of them.”

“Please, Master Jerome. Bring them to the next meeting. Let us all see what it is we are risking so much to rid the world of. Then you can burn them. We’ll have a little bonfire of our own.”

She smiled at him, her wheedling smile, the same smile she had used from childhood on her grandfather to push him through the occasional cloud of melancholy that sometimes descended upon their little house in the town square. “Please. A wee little bonfire of our own. Sweet revenge. To rally our troops.”

“Methinks our troops have a surfeit of rallying.” That was his parting jibe, but his scowl had lightened somewhat.

“He’ll bring them,” Anna said as the old master walked away.

“Of course he will. How could he resist such pretty pouting? I know I couldn’t.” Martin reached up and touched her lips with the tip of his finger, bent forward as if to kiss her.

She pushed him away. “Not here, Martin. Somebody will see. Besides, we are not betrothed. Not yet. Not until Dˇedeˇcek gives his consent.”

“Aye,” he said, letting his arms drop to his side. “Your grandfather. And therein lies the curdle in the coddle.”

Now it was his turn to pout. She resisted the urge to kiss the pout away.

“I don’t think he likes me overmuch,” Martin said.

His lips were full, and round, and cherry ripe.

“Don’t be silly. He likes you, Martin. He just thinks you’re a little headstrong. He thinks nobody can take care of me the way he does.”

“Well, for my coin, putting you in the middle of a twice-weekly meeting of heretics is not taking very good care. Why do you call him Dˇedeˇcek, anyway? I thought both of you were English?”

She reached for his hand. “Come on. You can walk me back to my door,” she said, leading him. “I have called him that since we first came here, when I was a child. Besides, I don’t feel English, even though my grandmother was from England too. She was a grand lady and lived in a manor house. But I wouldn’t want to live there. I can’t imagine living anywhere but here with you and Dˇedeˇcek.”

He glanced up at the castle on the hill, his eyes widening in mock terror. “Don’t tell me I’ll be taking a blue blood to bed as wife.”

“My grandmother was lesser nobility. But we climbed down from that hill long ago. If you take me, you will be taking a humble artisan’s granddaughter to wife --- with a dowry to match.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Not the dowry part, maybe.” He grinned. “Did you know her?”

“My English grandmother? Only her name, Kathryn. She was not Dˇedeˇcek’s wife. His wife was named Rebekka, and she died giving birth to my mother. Kathryn was my father’s mother, but she and Dˇedeˇcek knew each other. I think they were lovers. Though he seldom speaks of her, I think he loved her very much. She died when I was hardly more than a babe. I have this faint memory --- more dream than memory --- of her singing to me. She called me ‘poppet’ or ‘moppet’ or something. And she took me to see Dˇedeˇcek. He was shut up in some kind of castle.”

Anna looked up at the hrad and shivered. The sun had gone behind one of the pillow clouds, turning its underbelly gray. The castle looked even more menacing under the sunless sky. “A castle on a hill like that but more . . . fortified. ‘Castle Prison,’ they called it. Whenever I think of England, I think of that awful place.”

“Did you know your parents?”

She shook her head. “My mother died when I was born. I was scarcely old enough to walk when my father died.”

“In battle?”

She wished he hadn’t brought it up. She didn’t like thinking about it, but she supposed if he were to be her husband he was entitled to know her history.

“He died in the Lollard cause. Killed by the bishop’s soldiers. Kathryn died in a peasant rebellion when they burned her manor house. The Church blamed the Lollards for the uprising and killed everyone they could find. My grandfather and I escaped from England to the Continent.”

Martin whistled low. “So you come from a royal line of heretics. And your grandfather continues in the cause. A wonder that he never returned to England. Old Jerome says in England some of the nobility have embraced the idea of reform. It might be easier there.”

“He says there is nothing for him there but painful memories. Why should we want to leave Prague? We have been happy here. He has his art and his friends from the university. I have friends here too.”

She tried to make her tone teasing, playful, but talk of so much death had spoiled the mood. As they neared the square, he slid his arm around her waist, pulling her back toward the cover of the twisting street. She shook her head and pointed to the great two-faced astronomical clock.

“Hurry, Martin. Look. It’s almost three o’clock. My grandfather will be worried, and he gets cross when he’s worried. Besides, I still have to prepare his supper. It will have to be fish now; there’s no time for anything else.”

The sun did not reemerge from behind the cloud, and suddenly it seemed to Anna that the joy --- like the sunlight --- had drained from the day.

“Don’t walk with me the rest of the way. You do not want him to think you’re the reason that he must have fish and not a nicely roasted joint for supper.”

“No. I want him in a good mood for what I have to ask him,” he said. “Why shouldn’t I ask him now? Before he finds out about the fish?”

Anna looked across the street at their little town house of baked brick and half-timbers with its pretty carved door standing open to the square. By now her grandfather would have finished his day’s work, cleaned his brushes, neatly stacked his paint pots along the window ledge, and would be napping in his chair.

“Not now, Martin. Give me a chance to prepare him.”

He frowned. “That’s what you said last week, Anna. How much longer do you want me to wait?”

“Just a few days more, I promise.” She reached up again and brushed his hair away from his eyes --- eyes that flashed his frustration as she turned to leave.

Now I’ll have both of them angry. In trying to please both, I’ve pleased neither. She sighed as she hitched up her skirt so she could make it to the fishmonger before he closed shop for the day.

Chapter Two

Canterbury, England 
12 July 1412 

But though his [the pardoner’s] conscience was a little 
He was in church a noble ecclesiastic. Well he could 
  read the
Scripture or saints story, But best of all he sang the 
For he understood that when his song was sung
That he must preach and sharpen up his tongue
To rake in cash, as well he knew the art


Friar Gabriel had set up his indulgence table just outside the portal of Canterbury Cathedral. He was almost hoarse from a day of preaching and bone-weary from witnessing so much misery in the faces of the penitents.

“Find pardon for your sins. All who are contrite and have confessed and made contribution will receive complete remission for all their sins,” he cried in his best preacher’s voice.

Hands reached toward him from all sides, pulling on his black habit, entreating him to take their ducats and shillings and pennies in exchange for the little pieces of paper he carried in his velvet pouch. The pouch was embroidered with the Jerusalem cross and held bits of parchment tied with ribbon. Receipts of grace dispensed, penance paid. His pouch also held the papal bull that granted him his pardoner’s rights. This he displayed on a gold-embroidered banner and --- unlike the many counterfeit pardoners --- his was real. He’d received it himself from the pope’s own hand.

“Listen to the voice of your poor father, your poor mother, who nurtured you and loved you and who now suffer torment, pleading with you for the pittance that will release their souls from purgatory. As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

A well-rehearsed refrain, but his heart was not in it. It was late in the day and the crowd of pilgrims was thinning. The bells tolled vespers. Their peals, muffled by the rising fog, crept across the valley like the ghosts of saints long dead. Something about the bells saddened him. There was a loneliness in the approaching eventide.

For the first time in hours, he sat down on the velvet-cushioned stool he’d borrowed from the chapter house and surveyed the last of the pilgrim line. A bloated sun draped a mantle of light, like a blessing, on the shoulders of the penitents: old men, young men, maids, wives, widows, masters, and vassals, garbed in plain pilgrims’ smocks and hooded capes as they crawled on their knees into the great cathedral, into Trinity Chapel, a muddy river of them, oozing up the stairs to worship at the jewel-encrusted shrine of the martyr Thomas à Becket.

The veterans among them sported multiple badges on their cloaks and hoods, small lead pins from Little Walsingham shrine, cleverly contrived, holding tiny receptacles of the virgin’s tears, or the image of Saint Peter or Saint Paul from Winchester shrine. Both were stops along the Pilgrim’s Way --- the penitential way. He noticed with a smile that all the pilgrims wore Canterbury bells and little tin bottles of water from Becket’s well. The tiny Latin inscription below the bottles read “Optimus egrorum medicus fit Thomas bonorum.” Thomas is a good doctor for the worthy sick. Thomas was also a good doctor for the coffers of Church, town, and crown, Gabriel reflected. Like the souvenir sellers in Mercery Lane, his pardoner’s collection box was heavy with coin.

The price of mercy was not cheap: six gold florins for a duke or earl, four for lesser nobility, two for a wealthy merchant, and on down the social ladder. He even had an allowance for dispensing free pardons for those who could not afford to pay and who could not perform their penance. But the guidelines were strict and he had already exhausted that. It was time to close up shop, he thought, and rose to do so. He had promised to preside over the Divine Office.

“Please, Brother, how much?”

He turned around to see the pilgrim that matched the voice. A young woman. A very pregnant young woman.

“I cannot climb the steps to the chapel on my knees.” She smiled and blushed. “I can’t even get on my knees.”

She had traveled far. He could tell by the condition of her cloak, not the “pilgrim’s cloak” that so many purchased just for the journey, but a too-small mantle well-worn and threadbare. Her scrip was a bundle tied with a rope knotted high over her protruding belly.

“Where are you from, mistress?”

“I come from Charing. This was the closest shrine.”

A journey of several days on foot, harsh for a pregnant woman, he thought, cursing in his mind the priest who had given her such a penance. Her eyes were red and shadowed by deep circles. Dust and grime from the road covered her bare feet.

“What was your crime, that your confessor thought such an untimely penance necessary?”

“I desecrated the host.”

Oh, he thought. She’s one of those. One of the Lollard dissidents, who question the truth of the Eucharist, one who denies that it is the real blood and body of the savior. His sympathy faded.

“That is a grievous sin,” he said.

“I know, Brother, but I did not do it on purpose. When the father went to put the wafer in my mouth, his furred sleeve tickled my nose and I sneezed. The wafer fell to the ground.” Her eyes grew round and frightened at the recital of her great sin.

Gabriel might have laughed had she looked less pitiable. Instead, he felt a little swell of anger. He could almost see the parish priest who, infuriated at this young woman’s interruption of his performance, lashed out at her with this ridiculous penance. He knew the kind: pompous, pulpit-proud. Any compassionate priest would have known it was an accident. Then, of course, many of his brethren denied the possibility of an “accident.” Everything was the result of direct intervention by either God or the devil.

She gestured toward the cathedral doors. Her voice was soft and carried a slight tremor. “I thought I could do it. I did not know there would be so many steps. But I’m afraid if I . . . I have money for the indulgence,” she said. “My husband sold our cow to pay for my pilgrimage. He would have come with me, but he stayed behind to care for our little girl and gather in the grain. I have two shillings left.”

“He sold your cow?”

She looked down at her large belly, meaningfully. “Brother, I cannot go into labor in a state of mortal sin. I might not --- ”

She couldn’t even finish. But she didn’t have to. Even from within his insulated cloud of ignorance, he knew how many women died in childbirth. He reached in his pouch and withdrew one of the bits of parchment, untied the ribbon, and handed it to her.

“Is that it?” she asked, peering at it. “What does it say?”

“It says that you have found pardon in the eyes of the Church and God. It says your sin has been forgiven. And it is good for two months. That should get you through.”

She closed her eyes and grasped it as though it were made of gold and precious gems rather than paper and a bit of ink. A tear tracked its way from the corner of her eye down her dusty cheek. She rolled the parchment up carefully, retying the ribbon, and put it in her bundle, then withdrew the two shillings and put them on the table. He pushed them back at her.

“You sold the cow. You’ll need the shillings to buy milk for your children. You have completed most of your penance anyway by making the journey.”

After she had stooped as low as she dared to kiss the ring upon his finger, after he had dismissed her with the admonishment to “go and sin no more,” he gathered up his indulgences and went into the great cathedral to say vespers, wondering as he went why God had called him for a job to which he seemed so ill-suited.


Only midafternoon and already the drunkards gathered in the taverns. Friar Gabriel steered his horse through the north gate of London Bridge. He looked forward to enjoying a cool drink himself on the other side of the river. The sun beat down on his tonsured crown and his horse was foaming and restless as he waited for a parade of royal barges to make their slow and splendid progress beneath the bridge. No doubt a cutpurse or three in this crowd, he thought, cursing the mayor of London under his breath that he had not cleared the bridge for the archbishop’s conference.

“Make way. Make way,” he shouted when finally the bridge was lowered and he spurred his horse to the front of the heavy foot traffic. He ignored the curses and grumbled imprecations from the carter his horse nosed aside. Others in the crowd also muttered their dissatisfaction, but he ignored them. The peasants always nattered against the clergy --- until they needed them.

The closeness of the multistoried houses and shops huddled along the bridge fed his claustrophobia. He had almost forgotten the stench of Southwark. It wafted up from Lambeth marsh. Not just the swampy, brackish smell of the Thames south bank in summer, but the smell of squalor and lust boiling out of the stews and brothels of Bankside Street. Open sewers, refuse, rotting offal, even a bloated carcass washed up at the river’s edge added to the foulness of the heat-burdened air. Animal or human? It was hard to tell from the south gate of London Bridge. But huddled on the bank of the river he saw a tavern. the tabard inn, the sign said. A familiar name, yet he was sure he’d not been there before. It looked a decent enough place to enjoy a cool drink.

The room was long and low and blissfully dim after the hot summer sun. He chose a spot by a window in the corner, away from the midafternoon carousers who were entertaining themselves by flirting with the barmaid. The innkeeper approached him.

“A little surprised to see you here, Friar.”

“Oh, how so?”

“Just the reputation of this place. Thought you might not appreciate it. Might take offense.”

“I’d like a tankard of beer, please. From your cellar, if you have one. Why would I find your establishment offensive, publican? Do you water your beer? Or fail to give good measure?”

“Best beer this side of the river and poured with generosity. Bailey. My name’s Harry Bailey. This be the Tabard Inn.” He waited expectantly. “Of the famous Canterbury Tales.”

That was where he’d heard of the Tabard Inn. The poet Chaucer. With his unflattering portrait of the pardoner.

“And why should that offend me?” Gabriel took a slow, deliberate sip of the beer. It was good and cool to his parched throat.

The publican had the good grace to look embarrassed. He pointed to the velvet pouch with the Jerusalem cross. “I see you carry the indulgences. You’re a pardoner as well as a friar.”

“An honest pardoner, Master Bailey. My papal indulgences are not counterfeit like those of the poet’s pardoner. Every dime I collect goes to Rome to build hospitals and feed the poor. I’m sure there are charlatans in every business, wouldn’t you say?” He took another sip. “Even in the tavern business?”

The tavernkeeper only shrugged and moved on with his tray of tankards to the next table. Gabriel swallowed a few sips, relishing the cool liquid. His gaze traveled around the room. Little knots of yeomen, a trio of pilgrims --- more literary than holy, judging from the way they nudged each other and pointed to the placard above their table that said geoffrey chaucer sat here. The publican laughed with them as he gave them their drinks, then pointed to the crudely drawn illustrations, probably by his own hand, of the Canterbury pilgrims along the walls. The portrait of the richly dressed pardoner was the most offensive, charlatan to the core. A clever caricature. That was all. He looked nothing like Gabriel in his black habit.

On the other side of the room, a scarce two tables in breadth, the only other person who sat alone, was another cleric. But there the similarity ended. He looked like one of the self-styled poor priests, as barefoot and threadbare as the Franciscans, though these belonged to no holy order. The priest in his brown cassock sat near the other window, studying a crudely bound book.

Gabriel cleared his throat loudly to draw his gaze. The poor priest raised his head, looked straight at Gabriel, and went back to reading his book.

What had he expected? That the Lollard priest would be so intimidated by Gabriel’s Dominican habit that he would rush to hide his book? Maybe. In a world where the Divine Order was not being threatened by rabble-rousers and spiritual dissidents. Or maybe he wasn’t reading a Bible at all, but another English book. Perhaps the house copy of The Canterbury Tales. The proud innkeeper was sure to have one poor copy for his patrons’ enjoyment.

Gabriel motioned for the publican.

“Buy yon priest a tankard and tell him Friar Gabriel would like to discuss with him the book which makes such great claim upon his attention.”

The innkeeper raised his eyebrow in surprise, took a mug of beer to the poor priest. Gabriel could see him whispering and gesturing in his direction. He came back shortly. Alone.

“He thanks you for the drink, but says to tell you he has no desire to debate with you. However, if you wish to see the Holy Word in English he will be privileged to share it with you.”

How brazen they’d become! No wonder Archbishop Arundel was calling his special council on orthodoxy at Lambeth Palace. Lollardy was a cancer growing in their midst. Their growing following threatened the very foundation of the Church, its teaching, its power.

“Tell him to enjoy his drink in peace, and one day soon he’ll perhaps have the opportunity to share his English Bible with the archbishop.”

Gabriel finished his beer in one gulp and made a great show of withdrawing twopence to pay for it and the Lollard’s, not waiting for the innkeeper to offer it to him gratis as he might have. The coins clinked on the wooden deal of the table.

“Perhaps I’ll read Mr. Chaucer’s poetry sometime. You seem to recommend it so highly,” he said as he left.

He mounted his horse and headed for Lambeth. But the experience at the inn had made him ill at ease. He should not have come this way. He should have ridden around to the west and crossed by the ferry closer to the archbishop’s residence at Lambeth Palace. Gabriel’s mentor, Friar Francis, would not have sullied the hem of his habit with Southwark dust.

By the time Friar Gabriel approached the archbishop’s palace, low-hanging gray clouds were humped on the horizon. Lightning crawled through them like glowworms.

The smell of the marsh and the heat were still heavy in the air, but the stench was gone. Across the Thames, the high towers of Westminster Abbey gleamed golden in the lambent light, lifting his spirits. A light breeze cooled both him and his horse. The heat lightning in the distance promised rain. As he approached the gatehouse of Lambeth Palace, two grooms welcomed him, one to take his horse, the other to guide him to his quarters.

“His Excellency will attend you in the chapel in the undercroft, as soon as you are refreshed from your journey. He said that you should know that Prince Harry will be at the meeting.”

An archbishop and a prince!

Friar Francis would be very proud of the company his protégé kept.


“What do you know of a man by name of Sir John Oldcastle?” Archbishop Thomas Arundel belched his question in Gabriel’s direction.

Gabriel was the first to arrive and now sat with the archbishop at a large oblong table in the center of the chapel. At one end was a high-backed chair, larger than the rest. That was for the prince, Gabriel conjectured. The support arches that held up Lambeth Palace lent strange shadows to the place. No sunlight spilled upon the candle-banked altar at the far end of the room.

He looks even thinner than when I last saw him, Gabriel thought. He could play the grim reaper in one of the guild plays without darkening the hollows in his face. The heavy torchlight lighting the subterranean chapel lent the archbishop’s face an orange pallor. Or maybe that was his natural complexion. Gabriel had heard that he was ill. Perhaps that was the reason Arundel felt so driven to rid England of heresy. Maybe he was looking out for his legacy.

Gabriel rephrased the question. “You mean Lord Cobham?”

“One and the same,” Arundel said.

He was always uneasy in the archbishop’s presence. Gabriel did not remember ever having seen him smile. He answered carefully. “Only that he is a man of some standing, congenial, his merit and mettle proven on the battlefield.”

The archbishop frowned. That was obviously not what he wanted to hear.

Gabriel added, “I hear he is a particular friend of Prince Harry’s.”

The archbishop’s scowl deepened, and he emitted another belch behind his skeletal fingers. “He is a heretic.”

“I did not know. I had not heard --- ” Gabriel stammered.

Those same beringed fingers gestured Gabriel to silence. “We mean to stop him. Even if we have to burn him. He is an enemy of the Church.”

Arundel’s fierceness almost took Gabriel’s breath away. “Stop him from what?”

“He is publishing the English Scriptures abroad and holding secret Lollard meetings where he entertains poor priests, as they call themselves --- as if we weren’t all sworn to poverty.”

Gabriel thought of the poor priest he’d seen at the Tabard, contrasting his worn brown tunic with Arundel’s ermined cape --- even in this heat --- and gem-encrusted pectoral cross. What kind of poverty was that? he wondered, and then immediately rebuked himself for the unworthy thought. But when Arundel prissily crossed his skinny legs, encased in their costly silk hose, his glove-leather shoes pointing sharply upward in the latest silly style, Gabriel suppressed a smile and had to pinch himself to bring his thoughts back to the orthodox view that even the archbishop’s riches belonged not to him but to the Church.

The archbishop continued. “Oldcastle speaks openly against papal abuses, spreading the Wycliffe heresy. He has succeeded in getting Parliament to pass a ruling whereby all prisoners of the Holy Church are under the jurisdiction of the king. So we must first gain permission from the king for Oldcastle’s prosecution, and since the king is too sick to give it, we must get it from Prince Harry.”

“But I thought Oldcastle was a friend of Prince Harry’s.”

“And I am the Archbishop of Canterbury. Without my approval how can young Prince Harry become King Henry the Fifth? We’ll get his permission.”

And where do I fit into this scheme of yours? Gabriel wondered, suddenly wishing he were somewhere else.

Chapter Three

We therefore decree and ordain that no man shall hereafter of his own authority translate any text of the Scriptures into English . . . this most wretched John Wycliffe of damnable memory, a child of the old devil and himself a child or pupil of the anti-Christ.


Prince Harry was not looking forward to this meeting. It was his first official ecclesiastical council, and he was going to be late. He’d nodded off after dinner and would still be dreaming had not his chamberlain shaken him awake. And it had been such a pleasant dream! Truth to tell, he’d been most reluctant to waken from it.

In his dream he’d still been Prince Hal, not Harry at all, not soon to be Henry V, and he was back with Merry Jack and the old gang. He and Jack were arm-wrestling mightily across Mistress Quickly’s alehouse board while the others gathered round and egged them on, the winner to pay for the next round of ale.

“Get the whippersnapper, Sir John!” came Pistol’s guttural growl.

“Nay, my money’s on Prince Hal. What ’e lacks in weight, ’e makes up in spirit!” Bardolph punctuated this with a slap to his thigh.

“Be careful! You’re going to break the bottle. I’m calling the constable on the lot of you!” That high thin wail belonged to Mistress Quickly.

Back and forth they’d wrestled, leaning first to Jack and then to Hal, then back to Jack until Hal took one deep breath and almost --- 

“Your Grace, Your Grace, wake up. Lord Beaufort is without. He says you are to be at Lambeth within the hour.”

Harry had opened one eye to see the harried chamberlain leaning over him.

Those dear, glad days, swept away in a cloud of garlicky breath.

He opened the other eye and leaped up, drawing on his own boots. “Bid him enter.”

By the time Beaufort entered the room, Harry was shrugging into his jerkin. With one hand he buckled on his sidearm while reaching for the cup of wine with his left.

“Your Grace,” Lord Beaufort said, “I’m not sure it’s such a good idea for me to go with you. Arundel will not be happy to see me.”

“All the more reason for you to be there,” Harry said after he’d drained the cup. “The archbishop must learn to share power.”


Gabriel was about to gently protest to the archbishop his lack of credentials for participating in a hunt for heretics --- in spite of the signal honor bestowed upon him to be summoned to the conference --- when from beyond the chapel he heard scurrying feet. He recognized the cleric Flemmynge from his fine dress and affected manner. He’d met him only briefly once at Blackfriars Hall, and had not particularly liked him. He had something of the sycophant about him. Red-faced, the newcomer took the seat opposite Gabriel as he muttered about traffic on London Bridge.

Arundel scowled. “I believe you know Friar Gabriel. He crossed the same bridge. He arrived early.”

Flushing even deeper at the implied reprimand, Flemmynge nodded perfunctorily in Gabriel’s direction. He was stammering an apology when he was interrupted by a short blast from the horn of the king’s herald. The sound echoed discordantly in the undercroft. The archbishop and the bishop sprang to their feet as if jerked. Gabriel followed suit.

Two men entered the room.

The prince took his place in the high-backed chair reserved for him at the head of the table. The other stood beside the chair to the prince’s right, directly opposite the archbishop.

Gabriel considered the prince from beneath a respectfully lowered gaze. He looked nothing like the scapegrace youth who was the subject of so much tavern gossip. He looked older, more sober. His hair had been shorn high above his ears like a monk’s, and he was simply dressed in a studded leather jerkin and hose, the costume of a soldier. He cleared his throat and spoke in a well-modulated --- almost practiced --- tone.

“Archbishop Arundel, you may introduce us. You are, of course, acquainted with our honorable uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, who is here at our invitation and whom we will soon see restored to the post of chancellor.”

The archbishop’s strained look and the pink stain on his sunken cheeks showed his dislike for this decision. As John of Gaunt’s bastard, Beaufort was uncle to the king, but his bastardy would be enough to exclude him from the Privy Council, in the archbishop’s estimation. Gabriel had heard there was bad blood between them though he didn’t know the particulars and didn’t want to know. The less one involved oneself with court intrigue, the better. Indeed, the initial glow Gabriel had felt at being summoned to this august assemblage was beginning to wane. He had thought there would be many participants, all discussing orthodoxy, an erudite body representing the finest minds of the Church.

“Chancellor? Ahem. As you wish, Your Grace,” Arundel said. But the frown he bestowed upon Beaufort would have withered a cabbage. “Next to Lord Beaufort” --- the sour expression on the archbishop’s face suggested Lord Beaufort’s name tasted of vinegar --- “is Richard Flemmynge, of Oxford College, bachelor of divinity and commissioner appointed by His Highness, your father, to examine the writings of the late John Wycliffe for heresy and to act upon their extinction.”

Flemmynge stepped forward and dropped to one knee, his elaborate sleeves dusting the floor with their dagged edges. “Your Grace.”

Gabriel suddenly wished he were somewhere else.

“And on your right?” Prince Harry looked point-blank at him, taking his measure with his eyes.

“Your Grace, this is a friar by name of Brother Gabriel of the Dominican Order of Friar Preacher. Young in years, but already much advanced in service to the Church. As an envoy to Rome from Battle Abbey, he was given an audience with His Holiness, and now he has a unique opportunity to travel in circles some of us never see. As he preaches, he keeps his eyes and ears open, always alert for heresy.”

Anywhere else!

“Brother Gabriel.” Prince Harry inclined his head in slight acknowledgment of the introduction.

Gabriel gave an attenuated bow, hoping it would satisfy protocol.

“Have you replaced the archangel Gabriel’s horn with that pardoner’s velvet scrip tied at your waist?” the prince asked.

The archbishop answered for him. “Brother Gabriel serves his church not only as preacher and ordained priest, Your Grace, but he is that rare jewel, an honest pardoner. The crown is also enriched with each and every soul who receives forgiveness from the holy treasury of merit built by Christ and all the saints.”

A politic answer, Gabriel thought, reminding the prince that the sale of the disputed indulgences enhanced his own exchequer, thereby giving the crown all the more reason to suppress the Lollards because they railed against the practice.

“Then you do double service, Brother Gabriel. To both your church and king.”

“My liege, we all who are gathered in this room --- Commissioner Flemmynge, Friar Gabriel, and myself --- are committed to stamping out this heresy that your father the king fought so hard against. Except of course for Bishop Beaufort. I do not know where Bishop Beaufort stands on the matter of the Lollards.”

It was a direct challenge to Beaufort. But Prince Harry answered in his behalf.

“As chancellor, Lord Beaufort will concern himself with more secular matters. He will advise us on the war with France. But he is here today because as chief adviser to the king he serves ex officio on all matters important to England. You may be seated, my lords, and we shall begin the discussion.”

Thomas Arundel cleared his throat above the sound of scraping chairs and shoe soles, the rustling of silk stockings.

“Your Grace, it is my thinking that it is not enough to go after the peasants and the so-called poor priests. The Lollard heresy has spread beyond the peasants who are drawn by the heretical notion that God created every man equal. At the universities and in the towns, people meet without fear of retribution to discuss the Wycliffe harangues against Holy Church and read the profane English Bibles. Moreover, we can now say that we have the distinction of having exported this heresy to other lands. The exchange of academic ideas between Oxford and Charles University of Bohemia has carried the Lollard teachings there.”

“So far as that!”

Gabriel too was surprised at first but then remembered that an exchange of scholars between Charles University and Oxford had begun during the time of Queen Anne, who was of the royal house of Bohemia. It was logical enough --- especially in the early days --- that they would have included the texts of John Wycliffe among their exchanged works.

“It is spreading across the Holy Roman Empire like a plague. Two summers ago, Bishop Zybnek of Prague burned Wycliffe’s heretical scribblings in the public square and prohibited the teachings. But with little avail. A heretic named Jan Hus still preaches these teachings daily from the pulpit, and the people of Prague are rallying to him in great numbers. If we do not act now, England will become another Bohemia.”

The prince looked thoughtful. Arundel looked impatient.

Finally the prince spoke. “Why is the reading of the Bible for oneself so bad? With the renewal of our own interest --- under the tutelage of my lord archbishop in matters of faith --- I’ve often thought I’d like to read the Scriptures for myself, but my mastery of Latin renders such a task more burden than joy.”

Gabriel heard a sharp intake of breath and hoped it was not his own. Arundel’s face turned the color of bile. Gabriel cringed as the archbishop pounded his fist on the table.

“I shall tell you why, Your Grace. Bible reading by the unlearned masses fosters rebellion. You are too young to remember the riots in eighty-one. I remember. Ignorant peasants used their imperfect understanding of the Holy Scriptures as an excuse to burn and pillage the property of their betters. Your father remembers. Ask him. Ask Henry Bolingbroke how the rebels burned the Savoy Palace, beheaded the archbishop, blackmailed the young King Richard by marching on London. Why do you think your father has spent his effort and his treasure to root out this heresy? If the Lollards would kill an archbishop, Your Grace, do you really think they’d quibble to overthrow a king?”

Arundel paused to let this sink in, then resumed in a more reasonable tone. “And there is the matter of the sale of indulgences, which the Lollards despise. The crown gets a portion of those monies.”

The prince held up his hand to indicate that he’d gotten the point. “If these Lollard Bible readings have been forbidden, why don’t we just break up the meetings and confiscate the materials?” he asked. “If it is the law of the land --- it is the law, is it not?”

Thomas Arundel nodded. “The Act of De Haeretico Comburendo, on the burning of heretics.”

“Well, then, if it is the law, just enforce the law. Have we not soldiers?”

“We’ve tried that. We even burned a heretic priest named William Sawtry. They call themselves lay priests --- who flout the law --- and their numbers grow daily. They get away with it because some of your nobles have succumbed to the heresy and protect them. Some who even sit in Parliament. Surely you can see the danger there; if the heresy spreads in Parliament, well . . . Until we prosecute one or more of these, we will make no headway.”

“The nobility?” Prince Harry asked. “This is a serious charge. Have you proof?”

“Not enough to stand in court. But we are determined, with your permission, to obtain it.”

“You mean spying on my nobles? I would be loath to commit to that, I think.”

Gabriel felt a kind of sympathy for him. It was plain he did not want to make the same mistake as his father, Henry Bolingbroke; he did not want half his nobles turning on him. Civil war would not be an auspicious beginning for a new reign.

The lines in Archbishop Arundel’s lean face deepened with his frown, then relaxed into a smile. Gabriel knew what was coming.

“Those who commit heresy are in danger of hell,” the archbishop said. “You as their prince are responsible for their souls. Surely you must know that. Your father knew it well. He would have no problem spying on the nobles to save their souls. If this heresy is allowed to gain full sway, the whole of England could be placed under papal interdict. Are you prepared to have all those souls on your conscience?”

It was the whip the Church always used to bring a monarch in line. Excommunication. The gates of heaven barred. The king and all his subjects turned away. Gabriel’s unease was growing with Prince Harry’s. What his own part in this matter was to be he was not sure, but anyone who stood too close to Arundel was bound to have his own soul scorched by so much fiery zeal.

“What of the evidence gained?” the prince asked. “Who would decide on prosecutions?”

“Any evidence gained must be presented to His Majesty, if he recovers, or to Your Grace, if His Majesty remains indisposed, before any punitive action can be taken. That is the law too.” He frowned as though this were one law he did not like. “It will probably only take one prosecution from you to bring the rest in line.”

Gabriel watched the young prince pursing his petulant lips in concentration. He could almost imagine what was going on in his mind. One prosecution. One nobleman, who would have his own retainers. One nobleman who would spread sedition, gather arms against a king who imprisoned his own nobles. One nobleman with a banner under which all his enemies could unite. Yet the threat of papal interdiction was not to be taken lightly.

Prince Harry exhaled deep and long. “I suppose we may proceed if we are only gathering evidence. Just to see. But no action shall be taken against any of the nobility without the king’s assent.”

“Your Grace is in accordance, then?”

Prince Harry nodded. “Only for the gathering of evidence. Under the greatest secrecy.”

Arundel rubbed his hands together impatiently as though he relished the idea of beginning immediately. “It shall be done, Your Grace. As I told you, Commissioner Flemmynge is in the process of studying all of Wycliffe’s written documents and outlining the heresies therein. We will post these heresies, so that none can say they were not informed of the law. In the meantime, we have chosen where to begin. Brother Gabriel will gather evidence by inserting himself as confessor to an abbey within proximity of the household of a known heretic who sits in Parliament. He will begin gathering evidence there, and when he has a sufficient preponderance, we will bring formal charges.”

Gathering evidence! So. He had not been summoned for theological consultation. Stupid fool, to feel flattered by the archbishop’s attention! Pride always goeth before a fall. His was the Judas role. He was to be a spy. He had been right to wish himself well away. He felt as though he’d just been punched in the stomach.

“Does Brother Gabriel have your permission to proceed immediately?” Arundel asked.

Arundel had not even asked him, not given him the opportunity to refuse.

“Brother Gabriel has our permission to begin. But only to gather evidence.”

Arundel smiled.

“May I ask who the lord is?” Prince Harry asked.

“An acquaintance of yours, Your Grace. By name of Sir John Oldcastle, Lord Cobham,” the archbishop said, unfurling a rolled parchment.

Now it was the prince’s turn to receive the fist in the stomach. Gabriel saw the blood drain from his face. He’d not known it was his old comrade of battlefield and tavern haunts. How cleverly Arundel had worked his prey!

“There must be some mistake. The Sir John I know cares not a fig for religion. He is a scoffer, yes. But he’s harmless.” Prince Harry’s alarm showed in the working of his mouth. He chewed on his lip.

“Harmless no more, Your Grace. He has become a Lollard. And he takes no pains to hide it,” Flemmynge added, handing the prince a quill. There was a gloating in his tone that Gabriel despised. “Sir John Oldcastle has found religion,” he said and snickered. “From what I hear, he could use some. Trouble is, ’tis the wrong religion. And now he’s going to burn.”

The prince put down the pen and scowled at him.

“In hell, I mean. If he does not repent, of course.”

The archbishop scowled at his lackey for the second time that day, then shoved the order in front of Prince Harry.

The prince picked up the quill, laid it down, picked it up again, fiddled with it.

“Your Grace, the soul of England --- ”

Prince Harry signed it with a flourish, blotting the parchment in his anger. He exchanged glances with none but Beaufort, who made no attempt to hide the sympathy in his eyes as he reluctantly nodded encouragement.

From outside the chamber, thunder grumbled. Gabriel felt the threat of it settle in his soul. With the slash of a pen, the prince had turned a nobleman into a fugitive and a preacher into a spy.

Excerpted from THE MERCY SELLER © Copyright 2011 by Brenda Rickman Vantrease. Reprinted with permission by St. Martin's Griffin. All rights reserved.

The Mercy Seller
by by Brenda Rickman Vantrease

  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • ISBN-10: 0312331932
  • ISBN-13: 9780312331931