The Lady Chapel


Candace Robb


Mystery / Thriller


Date Reviewed:

January 12, 2022

he Lady Chapel is book 2 in the mysteries of Owen Archer, set in 14th century England. Owen is an ex-captain of the King's Archers, but after being blinded in one eye, which ended his soldiering career, Archer ended up married to Lucie Wilton, and now Archer is an apprentice in the apothecary shop of York. Owen also works part time for the powerful John Thoresby, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of the realm. When trouble appears in York, Thoresby sends for Owen to resolve it. Since the Middle Ages were a violent, brutal era, it is inevitable that trouble appear and Owen will be called upon to solve it.

The trouble that arises in The Lady Chapel is the murder of a wool merchant named Will Crounce. Someone slit Crounce's throat, and then chopped off his right hand. Even more alarming, the bloody right hand was then left in the hotel room of Crounce's business partner, Gilbert Ridley. It is an ominous sign, clearly the murderer knew Crounce and knows that his partner is Ridley. In the Middle Ages, the right hand of a thief was often hacked off as punishment. It seems clear that the murderer is sending a message to Ridley. Ridley flees York, but obviously the murderer knows him well.

Archbishop Thoresby directs Owen Archer to investigate Crounce's murder and apprehend the killer. The wool trade is crucial to England's economy - wool is sent across the channel to Flanders where is it made into cloth. The king of England, Edward III, needs the taxes on the wool trade to finance his endless war with the French. As Lord Chancellor of England, Thoresby does not want any economic calamity, which might happen if the wool traders guild feels that the King is not protecting them.

Owen has few clues. However, a young lad named Jasper de Melton was a favorite of Will Crounce. Jasper was following Crounce on the night of the murder because Jasper wished to tell Crounce that his mother, Katherine de Melton, was dying and wanted Crounce at her bedside. Katherine de Melton and William Crounce were quite close. But before Jasper could talk to Crounce, a tall, cloaked woman meets Crounce and lures him into the shadows - and soon Crounce was murdered. Because of the darkness and his distance from the crime, Jasper was unable to see any features of this mysterious woman, but it seems likely that the murderers will not take a chance of identification. Jasper is in danger. And because gossip spreads quickly, soon most of York is aware that Jasper saw the murder.

Before starting this novel, I had just finished reading The Verge, a non-fiction book describing the changes wrought by the Renaissance and Reformation. One of the chapters in that book describes an English wool merchant and how the devastating plagues had left a shortage of workers throughout Europe. The resulting labor shortage resulted in a change in the English economy (workers were treated much better when they were in short supply). So I had coincidentally just learned of the importance of the wool trade to medieval England, and here it turns up as a key plot point in this mystery novel. (The Lady Chapel is set in 1347, about a hundred and fifty years before the Renaissance, but things changed much slower in those days.)

The title of the novel, The Lady Chapel, refers to the fact that the wealthy wool merchant, Gilbert Ridley (the business partner of Will Crounce) had told John Thoresby that he would make a substantial donation to the York cathedral - this money will be used to build a special chapel dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Thoresby is feeling his mortality, and he would like his tomb to be in the newly constructed Lady Chapel, so obviously anything that imperils Mr Ridley's donation must be fixed. With the murder of Ridley's partner, Will Crounce, and the severed hand delivered to Ridley's room in the inn, it is clear that someone is threatening Ridley, and Thoresby wants Owen Archer to protect the wealthy wool merchant.

This a pretty good story. It excels at describing the harsh English life, full of violence, filth and poverty. But also some joy and kindness. The characters are believable, the mystery is interesting enough. I will look for the next book in the Owen Archer series (currently, the series contains 13 novels.)