I have, since early childhood, always enjoyed telling stories, whilst history has constantly fascinated me. Add to this recipe a love of mystery and detection and my way forward was well and truly mapped out.
Whilst researching the reign of Queen Isabella for my D.Phil. thesis at Oxford, I came across the infamous story of Isabella’s husband, King Edward II. According to the accepted version, Edward was murdered in Berkeley Castle on 21 September, 1327. The killers inflicted a most gruesome form of murder, thrusting a burning hot poker up into his bowels.
An old woman, not a royal physician, dressed the corpse for burial; permission to have the royal body buried in the family mausoleum at Westminster was refused. Instead, Edward II was buried in what is now Gloucester Cathedral, and an exquisitely beautiful Purbeck marble sarcophagus raised over it. The tomb is still one of the great tourist attractions for those visiting the Welsh Marches. However, in my research, I discovered evidence that Edward II may have escaped from Berkeley Castle and that a look-alike lies buried beneath that gorgeous marble tomb. Of course, in a thesis, one cannot speculate; everything requires an irrefutable body of evidence. Nevertheless, I was deeply intrigued and determined to tell the story, so I wrote my first novel, Death of a King.
After that, I decided to continue writing medieval mysteries and I looked around for a suitable hero. In the 14th century there was no Special Branch, Scotland Yard or CID, but in London, the gangs thrived even then: the housebreakers, the burglars, all those ladies and gentlemen of the night who could not distinguish between their property and everyone else’s.
A prime example of this is an Essex boy, Richard Puddlicott, who masterminded the daring scheme of breaking into the Crypt of Westminster Abbey and stealing the Crown Jewels. You can still visit the Crypt with its deliberately broken staircase that needs a wooden bridge to cross it and feel the closeness of walls at least twenty foot thick. This did not stop Puddlicott. He entered into a conspiracy with some of the monks, organising midnight revelries where the wine flowed like water and the monks were favoured by certain ladies of the town.
In April 1303, Puddlicott pulled off his incredible theft. He had sown fast growing hempen seed to hide his preparations in prising loose the bars and sill of one of the ground-level crypt windows. Once this was done, he and his gang slid into the Crypt and began to pass all the treasure out. The king at the time, Edward I of “Braveheart” fame, was furious. He knew the monks would claim benefit of clergy and hide behind their priestly status so he chose a special man, a mailed clerk, a graduate of the Halls of Oxford who had seen military service in Scotland. John Drokensford arrived in London; he soon dealt with the monks, went hunting Puddlicott and succeeded in arresting him. Two years later Pudddlicott was carted to the gallows at Westminster in a wheelbarrow whilst I had found my 14th century detective – John Drokensford became Hugh Corbett.
I thoroughly enjoy the medieval period, particularly the Gothic: that contrast between light and dark, of walking through serene, sweet-smelling cloisters out through the majestic Abbey Gate to where a towering scaffold stands bearing the corpses of three wolfsheads. The medieval era is bursting with such vivid contrasts, as well as the most wonderful characters. Sometimes, I have left the well beaten track of historical mystery and gone searching for that truly Gothic element found in medieval art and literature. Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale is a prime example, a tale of three robbers who are hunted to a gruesome end by Death itself. This love of the Gothic is responsible for The Tales told on Pilgrimage to Canterbury and one of my most favourite novels, The Rose Demon.
I also have, I cheerfully confess, an obsession about Henry VIII. I was born in Middlesbrough in the north-east, where stories about Henry’s cruel and terrible suppression of the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536 are still part of the local lore. As a boy I would visit the visible affects of Henry’s wrath: the ruined abbeys and monasteries at Whitby, Mt. Grace, Fountains and Rievaulx. I plotted my revenge, which gave birth to the Shallot novels, the memoirs of a true Tudor rogue and libertine who claims to have advised Henry VIII. Shallot’s memoirs are crammed with insults and loathing for one of England’s greatest tyrants.
The Last of Days is a result of this passionate absorption with that tumultuous period, a vividly dramatic and exciting novel which focuses on the last three months of Henry’s life and, where possible, scrupulously follows the available evidence. Trust me, Henry VIII had not changed. Over 25 stone in weight, his fat torso and legs virtually an open wound, Henry continued to be truly dangerous. Was he about to turn again on those around him? And was his death as serene and peaceful as those equally dangerous men on his Council later proclaimed?
I thoroughly enjoyed writing The Last of Days; I am delighted that it is my 100th book; it helps to placate some of the ghosts in my own soul. Of course, I am aware that I have been writing for at least 25 years. Publishing has certainly changed, the internet and eBooks have had a dramatic effect, but, in the end one thing sustains me, as it does other writers: that surging passion to tell a truly good tale.
The Last Days by Paul Doherty is out now, published by Headline.