Cover image for The wicked winter
The wicked winter
Sedley, Kate.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
282 pages ; 22 cm
Reading Level:
1020 Lexile.
Program Information:
Reading Counts RC High School 9 18 Quiz: 20465 Guided reading level: NR.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks
X Adult Fiction Mystery/Suspense

On Order



Despite the wintry weather, Roger the traveling Chapman is once again relishing the freedom of his calling. As he journeys west, he finds himself following in the footsteps of an itinerant preacher, Brother Simeon, whose fiery sermons are the talk of the countryside. Roger, who has met the Dominican friar before, and finds his zeal wearying, is less than enthused when they meet at Cederwell Manor, where Simeon has come to pray with Lady Cederwell and Roger to sell her his wares.

But scarcely have the two men arrived when Lady Cederwell is found dead, sprawled on the frozen earth beneath the ancient tower she had converted into her private chapel, the circumstances strangely fulfilling the prophecy of a babbling hermit Roger had met on the road. Suddenly the friar and the Chapman are united by their aim-to discover the truth behind the death at Cederwell Manor.

In this, the sixth in her atmospheric and thoughtful detective series, Kate Sedley confirms her place in the world of medieval crime fiction.

Author Notes

Kate Sedley, an enthusiast of Anglo-Saxon and medieval history, lives in England with her husband. The Wicked Winter is the sixth in her critically acclaimed series featuring Roger the Chapman.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

It's not just the weather that's bleak in Sedley's well-told tale, her sixth set in the Middle Ages and featuring monk-turned-traveling salesman Roger the Chapman (Death and the Chapman, etc.). Unlike the others in his village, the sharp-witted, independent Roger has no patience for the preacher who has come to town. Simeon the Friar is the worst kind of fanatic: he has an answer for everything and disdains even his fellow Dominicans for being too worldly. Feeling restless again, especially after spending an evening with the preacher at his mother-in-law's insistence, Roger is eager to get back on the open road in spite of the winter chill. But the road isn't open enough, for it seems everywhere he stops people are talking of the holy man. It isn't long before Roger encounters the friar himself on his way to visit Lady Cederwell, a young and devout noblewoman who has urgently summoned him. When she is found dead, having fallen from her private chapel, foul weather and foul play conspire to keep the two men at Cederwell Manor. Roger, with his friendly and open demeanor, keeps his ears open, trying to uncover the mystery of the unhappy woman's death. Could she have been pushed by her much older husband, who is known to be in love with the widow who lives nearby? Simeon finds enough sinfulness and intrigue to fill his sermons for years. The mystery, though it has a tendency to turn gothic, is expertly plotted. But the richest rewards for readers come in the medieval worldÄits lonely and isolated landscapes, austere lives and demanding religionÄthat Sedley evokes with authority and empathy. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One It was bitterly cold. In the last few minutes a wind had arisen, blustering across the house-tops from the river Frome, moaning between the houses and rattling all their shutters like the teeth in an old man's head. My mother-in-law, standing beside me, reached across and pulled the woollen shawl closer about my sleeping daughter who weighed so uncomfortably against my shoulder. Elizabeth, now two months past her first birthday, as well as inheriting my fair hair and blue eyes also promised to have my height and build, and she was a heavy child for her age. I shifted her sleeping form as gently as I could from my right arm to my left, but even that, like the powerful voice of the friar who preached from the High Cross, failed to awaken her. But it disturbed several other members of the tightly packed congregation, who turned frowning faces towards me and bade me be still.     The reputation of the Dominican friar, Father Simeon, had preceded his appearance in Bristol by many months. It had already been one of the main topics of the marketplace when I returned to Margaret Walker's home, amongst the weavers and spinners of the city, the previous September. Now at last, in the first week of an icy January of the year of Our Lord 1476, the great preacher had finally arrived; and on this Monday morning, braving the treacherous conditions underfoot, the citizens had left their work and flocked to hear what he had to say.     Reluctant to quit the fireside, I had offered to remain at home with Elizabeth while my mother-in-law went alone, but Margaret would not permit it.     `It will do you good,' she had retorted, `to listen to a rousing sermon for a change. The Word of God is too little expounded in the churches nowadays. Not,' she added hastily, `that I am accusing the parish priests of failing in their duty. Heaven's my witness that I meant nothing of the kind! It's just that the poor men are too overburdened with the rigours of office to find time to explain the Scriptures. They're content to leave that to the friars.'     `Oh?' I questioned the truth of this judgement. `I thought the Church accused all the Orders of avarice, lechery and hypocrisy. You know the saying: "Friars and fiends be but little asunder."'     Margaret looked displeased. `I pay no heed to common gossip and neither should you. It ruins the reputations of too many good people.'     I knew she had cause for her dislike of unfounded calumnies and gently squeezed her hand.     `Mother,' I said, although the title had always been inclined to stick in my throat, `it's not just that I want to sit in the warm for a little longer on such an unpleasant morning, but surely it's unwise to expose Elizabeth to the bitter weather.'     She laughed mirthlessly. `And what, pray, would you know about what is and what isn't wise for the child? She's over a year old, and these past four months have been the longest time you've spent in her company since she was born. And you'll soon be off on your travels again. Oh, don't deny it! I recognise the signs. You've been restless for days now, peddling your wares from dawn to dusk. And since Christmas, as the days lengthen, you've ventured a little further afield each time. On at least three occasions you've travelled so far that you've been unable to return home at night.'     `I'm a chapman,' I protested. `I have to go abroad to sell my wares.' But I could hear the note of guilt in my voice.     Margaret heard it too, and smiled acidly. `There are enough villages and homesteads in the neighbourhood to keep you busy; and with ships from foreign parts constantly dropping anchor along the Backs, no shortage of supplies to replenish your pack. With the money I earn from spinning we don't lack for food or clothing, nor for a roof over our heads. We could settle down here very comfortably together until you decide to marry again -- as a big, strong, handsome lad like you is bound to do one day. I'm quite prepared for that. But there are plenty of local girls who'd be more than willing to have you, and Alderman Weaver, after what you did for him, would doubtless let you have one of his cottages to live in. You wouldn't be far away and I could still visit Elizabeth whenever I wished.'     `I see you've been making plans for me,' I answered, trying to make light of my resentment.     Margaret gave an emphatic shake of her head. `No, Roger lad, I shouldn't dare. I know they're only daydreams. You have the wanderlust in you. I accepted that fact very early on in our acquaintance. It was the reason you couldn't take your final vows and become a monk. It's why, in a way, I'm glad that Lillis didn't live beyond that first autumn of your marriage. She couldn't have borne all the partings, never knowing when she was going to see you again.'     `Forgive me,' I begged, once more pressing her work-roughened hand. `I know it must be lonely for you, bringing up Elizabeth on your own.'     `We are as God made us,' she replied philosophically. 'We must do His will as we think fit. You were born a rover and you won't change yet awhile. However,' she added in a brisker tone, `you aren't wriggling out of coming with me this morning to hear Friar Simeon preach. Elizabeth will do well enough if she's wrapped up properly, and you can carry her in your arms. It shouldn't be too difficult for someone as strapping as you.'     But she overestimated even my strength, for as I have already said, my daughter was not a delicate child. (Today, in her thirty-eighth year, Elizabeth has more than fulfilled that early promise. She is a big, tall, handsome woman, not easily roused to anger, but ruling her husband and children, and above all me, with a fist of iron concealed in a silken glove.) My arms were aching long before the friar had reached the halfway point in his dissertation.     Simeon was a tall, cadaverous man with the thin, dyspeptic face of the true fanatic. His arms flailed the air as he spoke eloquently of hellfire and damnation, and his eyes glowed like coals in their sunken sockets. Too little food and too much penance had made him feverish. Hectic spots of colour burned in either cheek and there was a bluish tinge around his lips. His black Dominican habit was mired and dusty about the hem with much walking of the winter roads, and the sparse brown hair hung lankly to his narrow shoulders.     At the end of half an hour my mind began to wander, going back over the extraordinary events of the previous year (which I have set down in detail elsewhere, but which at that time I judged it wise to keep to myself). By the end of another half hour I was unable to think of anything except the extreme discomfort caused by Elizabeth's weight. There was no feeling in either of my arms and I was in serious danger of dropping her.     But help was at hand. Friar Simeon was obviously coming to the end of his sermon. The crowd was hushed now, tense and expectant, as a great wave of elation seemed to wash through the preacher's body. He reached up into the heavens as though he could bring down God to fight on his side. Once again the impassioned tones rang out.     `Three things are necessary for the salvation of man! To know what he should believe, to know what he ought to desire, to know what he should do! Believe in God, desire God, serve God! Renounce the temptations of the flesh for they are the temptations of the devil! Prayer and purity, my children! These are the things we must strive after!'     Men were swaying now in a kind of ecstasy; women were weeping uncontrollably. The crowd was aflame, kindled by the spark of the friar's emotion.     `So I bid you all go forth and root out evil wherever you may find it! Perfect blessedness is a vision of God!'     There was a moment's profound silence, as if indeed we had all been vouchsafed that vision. Then with a sudden concerted movement his listeners began to disperse, drifting away like people awakening from a dream, back to their humdrum existence. For a while they had touched the heights, each one capable of a place among the saints. Now the real world intruded. Anger, envy and greed reared their ugly heads once more.     I heaved a sigh of relief at the conclusion of my ordeal just as my daughter stirred and opened her eyes, blinking placidly.     `Heigh-ho, lass!' I said and swung her on to my back, her little arms clasped trustingly around my neck. I turned to Margaret. `Can you tuck the shawl around her?'     But my mother-in-law had disappeared. Moments later I saw her stooping over the friar who had lowered himself to the ground, exhausted by his labours, his emaciated body hunched against a wintry blast of wind. She was smiling triumphantly, and I guessed correctly that she had beaten the two other local matrons who crowded at her heels in their bid to offer hospitality to the preacher. I sighed resignedly. I had hoped for a quiet dinner, during which I had intended to break it gently to Margaret that her suspicions, voiced earlier that morning, were well founded: I had to get away soon from the stifling domesticity of the cottage and travel the road for a while; not for long, only a sennight, or a fortnight at the most.     The need to go had become overwhelming. I had been fighting it for days, knowing from past experience that when the longing grew to be as powerful as this, God had work for me to do. Of course I argued with Him about it. I always did, although I knew that any priest would tell me that it is wrong to address oneself directly to the Almighty. He is too awesome, too clouded in glory, to be approached by lowly sinners. The multitude of saints, the Virgin Herself, are there to intercede on our behalf, to take upon their own shoulders the trivial burdens of our days. But I had always secretly rebelled against this notion. Throughout life I have found it better to speak directly, wherever possible, to the head man.     God, as usual, listened patiently to everything I had to say and then proceeded with His own plans as if I hadn't spoken. Naturally I'd known what the outcome would be, but protesting gives me a sense of independence and the prospect that one day I might even win.     Margaret returned, the friar walking beside her.     `Roger, Brother Simeon has done us the honour of agreeing to share our dinner. Brother, this is my son-by-marriage, Roger the chapman.'     `Master Chapman!' The pale blue eyes regarded me fiercely as if he knew that of all that crowd I was the only one who had paid his words scant attention. Fortunately, as my gaze shifted guiltily under his, he was diverted by the approach of one of the congregation, a fuller whom I knew by sight, bearing a purse full of money.     `A collection taken up amongst us, Brother,' the man said respectfully, `to help you on your way.'     `Thank you, my son.' Friar Simeon stowed the purse away in the shabby leather pouch which hung from his girdle. `And now, Dame Walker, shall we eat?' An hour later, as the pale winter sun rose towards its zenith, Friar Simeon scraped the last drop of stew from his bowl and drained the last dregs of ale from his cup before giving a contented sigh.     `That was an excellent repast, Mistress Walker.'     They were the first words he had uttered since saying grace, a silence which had inhibited both Margaret and myself from speaking throughout the meal. The only noise, apart from the sounds of eating, had been Elizabeth's baby prattle, which no one but her grandmother could understand. She sat, as good as gold, in her own little chair with the high carved back which a neighbour and friend, Nick Brimble, had made for her, sharing the contents of Margaret's dish. She was a quiet, mannerly child even at that young age.     `I'm glad you found it to your liking, Brother,' said my mother-in-law, preparing to rise from the table. `If you've finished, perhaps you'd care to draw nearer the fire. It's a bitter day.'     The friar needed no second bidding, dragging his stool closer to the hearth and pulling up his shabby gown so that the warmth could seep into his bony knees. Margaret sat beside him while I lowered myself to the floor, among the rushes, cradling Elizabeth, now released from her chair, on my lap.     `Do you come from these parts, Brother?' I asked, thinking that I had detected a trace of local accent in his speech, but he shook his head.     `I'm from the north, the far north. From the ancient kingdom of Northumbria.'     His tone was abrasive as though I had somehow insulted him with my suggestion that he was from the south, where existence was safer and softer than in those harsher regions, governed solely by the laws of survival.     Margaret asked placatingly, `Do you tarry long with us in Bristol?'     He shook his head. `I slept last night with my fellow Dominicans beyond the town, but tonight only Our Lord knows where I shall take my rest.' Simeon crossed himself. `His Will be done.'     Margaret was horrified. `Surely you'll tarry another night at the friary in the broad meads? It would be most unwise to set forward with the day so advanced and the weather so inclement and, above all, yourself so exhausted from your morning's labours!'     The friar turned his burning eyes upon her. `What God wills for us we must do without question, nor with any thought for our body's needs.'     I shifted a little uncomfortably at this, causing Elizabeth, who was crooning to herself and making a bed for her wooden doll among the straw, to glance up at me inquiringly. I bent my head and kissed her on one velvety cheek before asking boldly, `What is your mission from God, Brother?'     Again the eyes glowed like coals in a furnace.     `To bring back sinners into the fold! This is a godless age, Master Chapman, but what can you expect with a king upon the throne who thinks of nothing but bodily pleasures, and a queen whose family are eaten alive by greed? The court is a stinking cesspit of iniquity and only one member of it, My Lord of Gloucester, seems immune from its cupidity and licentiousness. He at least has the sense to stay away, living as he does on his own estates and visiting London as infrequently as possible. His, if report is true, was one of the very few voices raised against this late ignominious débâcle in France. The roads of this country are even more unsafe to walk than they were six months ago because of the disbanded troops, who are all working off their frustrated martial spirits by murder and highway robbery.'     There was a great deal that I could have said on that subject had I been so minded, but I kept my counsel. Instead I reminded Brother Simeon that King Edward, far from spending his entire time in `bodily pleasures', had been travelling the length and breadth of England meting out summary justice to the offenders.     The friar snorted. `Maybe, when he can tear himself away from the embraces of this new leman of his, Mistress Jane Shore.'     I could not help retorting, `You appear remarkably well informed.'     `I've come from London,' he hissed, `where the talk is of nothing else. It seems that Lord Hastings and the King's elder stepson, the Marquess of Dorset, are also besotted by the creature, and are only waiting for His Grace's affections to wane before snapping her up for themselves.' He reached down and laid a claw-like hand on my shoulder. `You think it wrong for a man of God to be concerned with such things? You fool! How else can I identify the evil which must be overcome? How else can I root out the sins which are destroying men's souls?'     His thin features which, in repose, looked like a parchment mask, were transformed by the light of reforming zeal. I recalled stories of the early Dominican friars who, in their fanatical determination to stamp out heresy, had forced families to testify one against the other, who had burned the unrepentant at the stake and who had even exhumed the bodies of those found guilty after death and burned them also. Their Chief Inquisitor had been Saint Thomas Aquinas, whose words Friar Simeon had quoted in his sermon this morning. Plainly, in the same spirit, he was carrying out his own crusade against lechery and debauchery, the sins which gave him most offence.     I thought it time to change the subject. `Where do you go when you leave the city, Brother?'     `I go as far as the coast, to Woodspring Priory, where Father Prior has sent word, asking me to preach to his flock. But between here and there, I shall spread God's message wherever men will heed it.' He leant towards me, the pale blue eyes seeming to change colour until they were almost black. `Lead a pure and untainted life, Chapman. Resist the temptations of the flesh.' He drew back abruptly and rose to his feet. `Thank you for your hospitality, Mistress Walker, and God's blessing on this house.'     He wrapped himself in his thick frieze cloak, nodded in my direction as Margaret and I respectfully rose to our feet, laid a perfunctory hand on Elizabeth's fair head and then was gone, letting in a short blast of icy wind as he first opened and then closed the door behind him.     The atmosphere inside the cottage lightened perceptibly with his departure. Even my mother-in-law felt it, although she said gravely, `A saintly man.'     I grunted and resumed my seat upon the floor beside my daughter. It had often crossed my mind that saints caused as much trouble in this life as sinners, but I did not speak my thought aloud. Margaret would have been scandalised at the idea and I needed her to be in a good mood. I was wondering how to break the news of my imminent departure, but she forestalled me, sitting down once more and regarding me with a shrewd, unwinking gaze.     `So,' she remarked, `you're leaving tomorrow morning, early.'     I jumped. `How ... how did you know?'     `I told you this morning, you have been restless for days.'     `But -- you couldn't have known exactly when I meant to go. I only made that particular decision a moment or two since.'     Margaret laughed. `Roger, yours is not a difficult mind to read. I had only to watch your face when Brother Simeon was speaking of travelling on to realise that his example had fired you with an immediate desire to follow in his footsteps. It was, however, unlikely that you would be off without apprising me of your plans and taking a proper farewell of Elizabeth first. It therefore seemed improbable that you would leave today. But tomorrow, at first light, yes, then you will take your pack, your cloak, your cudgel and we shall not see you again for weeks. Months, maybe, if the wanderlust grips you.'     I looked at her with respect. `You're a clever woman, Mother.'     She made a vigorous denial. `I can't read and write as the monks taught you to do. I just use my common sense.'     I smiled and heaved myself up off the floor and on to the stool which the friar had vacated, slipping an arm about her still trim waist.     `I'm lucky to have you to look after Elizabeth for me,' I said. `Don't ever think that I'm ungrateful, or sorry that I married Lillis.'     She sighed. `No, not now that she is dead. No, no! That's not meant as a reproach. You didn't love her, and I know that what happened between you was not your fault alone. Lillis was always a wayward girl, determined to get what she wanted. And now,' Margaret added on a more practical note, `I must see to it that your spare shirt is ready and take your boots to the cobbler by Redcliffe Church. You'll need a stout pair of soles on them in this weather, and Matt Cordwainer will mend them while I wait.'     I gave her a hug. `You're far kinder to me than I have any right to expect. I shan't be gone more than a couple of weeks at the most.'     `Don't make promises that you might not be able to keep,' she admonished me, standing up. `Give me your boots and I'll be off directly. While I'm gone, you can draw some water from the well and refill the barrel. Also replenish my store of logs from the common pile. Tie Elizabeth to her bed with this strip of linen so that she can't crawl into the fire when you're not here to watch her.'     She put on her cloak and hood, slipped her feet into their pattens and clattered away down the street. I was left with my deep sense of guilt and the rapidly mounting excitement which I always felt at the prospect of approaching freedom. And mixed with that excitement was apprehension, wondering where that freedom would lead me.