The Matthew Bartholomew novels are about a physician living and working in Cambridge in the 1340s and 1350s. As the University’s ‘corpse examiner’, Bartholomew is regularly, if unwillingly, drawn into the investigation of unexplained deaths. In the summer of 1358, he and several companions from his College are sent north, as part of a Bishop’s Commission to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the Abbot of Peterborough. Murder and mayhem follow, as they discover a fierce power struggle within the abbey, which means not everyone is keen to see the prelate’s safe return.
Peterborough is less than forty miles from Cambridge, but in 1358 it represented a serious journey. Yet it was a trek that senior clerics would have made under the circumstances. I decided Peterborough would be a great place to set a book, mostly because of its cathedral, which is one of the best Norman buildings in existence. I usually travel there by train, and it never surprises me that this gloriously ancient building should stand amid all the new shopping centres, railway yards, brick factories and post-war housing.
It took quite a bit of research to know what the city was like six hundred and fifty years ago, but it was a lot of fun. It was in the course of trawling through archives and archaeological reports that I discovered a peculiar cult that had arisen around an executed criminal named Lawrence de Oxforde. It took two visits to Peterborough by the Bishop of Lincoln before the cult was stamped out, but the episode gave an intriguing insight into the medieval mind – how superstition and religion became intricately interwoven at times – and how monasteries exploited the need for such cults.
I also discovered that the Abbot of Peterborough, Robert de Ramsey, set off to visit the Papal Court in Avignon in at some point in 1360 or 1361, and nothing more was ever heard of him. The monks had to wait some time until he was officially declared dead, and only then were they free to look for a successor. Being the head of such a wealthy and prestigious foundation must have been a plum post, and I can’t imagine that greedy eyes weren’t set on it during this interregnum. So, the basis for The Lost Abbot was Robert’s curious fate, the machinations that almost certainly would have bubbled in his absence, and the odd business with Lawrence de Oxforde and his shrine.
Last year’s new publication, Murder by the Book, is just coming out in paperback. This is back in Bartholomew’s usual Cambridge setting, and revolves around attempts to establish a Common Library, with open access for all University scholars. The poor hostels are delighted with the prospect of reading books they might otherwise never see – before the advent of the printing press, books had to be copied by hand, and so were horrendously expensive. The wealthier Colleges, however, oppose the notion violently, afraid that gifts of books from rich benefactors will go to the Common Library, rather than to them. The idea for Murder by the Book came from the fact that Oxford had a Common Library in the fourteenth century, but Cambridge didn’t get around to establishing one until considerably later.
The Bartholomew novels are great fun to write. They allow me to explore all manner of interesting archives and historical reports, as well as imagining myself back in time in places I love – Peterborough, Lincoln, Ely, York, but most of all, of course, Cambridge. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of sitting on the low wall outside King’s College, looking down the road towards Trinity, imagining the centuries falling away and seeing the scholars in their academic robes or religious habits. What a wonderful way for me to make a living!
Susanna Gregory’s The Lost Abbot is published by Little, Brown