Cover image for The hawks of Delamere
The hawks of Delamere
Marston, Edward.
Personal Author:
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Minotaur, 2000.

Physical Description:
246 pages : map ; 22 cm.
General Note:
"First published in Great Britain by Headline Book Pub."--T.p. verso.
Title Subject:
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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When Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, leads a hunting party into the Forest of Delamere his prized hawk is killed by an arrow. Two poachers are discovered hiding in the forest, and the Earl demands that they be imprisoned, but unanswered questions linger. Meanwhile, Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret, Domesday commissioners for the King, are guests of the Earl while they settle a land dispute in nearby Winchester. Exploring their new surroundings, they uncover secrets that bear directly on the shooting incident, and they discover that the intended victim was not the hawk, but the Earl himself. Inspired by genuine entries in the Domesday Book, this thrilling and richly evocative eleventh-century tale will appeal to crime and history lovers alike.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

At the behest of William the Conqueror, Norman lord and royal commissioner Ralph Delchard continues to travel the length and breadth of the English countryside, surveying the land and settling property and tax disputes. When Ralph and his valued assistant, Gervase Brett, arrive in the county of Cheshire, their host, Hugh d'Avranches, the brutish earl of Chester, confides that he suspects that someone is trying to murder him. After an assassin's arrow narrowly misses the earl, killing instead his close friend and chief executioner, Raoul Lambert, Ralph and Gervase begin conducting a clandestine investigation. Fearing an uprising of Welsh malcontents, the earl mounts an army and prepares to do battle with the perceived enemy along the nearby border; however, before hostilities have a chance to erupt, Ralph uncovers an elaborate plot to create a diversion in order to liberate a valuable political prisoner from the earl's castle stronghold. Another authentically detailed and atmospheric addition to the popular Domesday Books. --Margaret Flanagan

Publisher's Weekly Review

Volume seven of Marston's acclaimed Domesday series (The Stallions of Woodstock, etc.), a solid historical mystery, provides plenty of conflict--between church and state, earl and king, Norman and Saxon, English and Welsh--as well as a lesson in medieval feminism. Loutish Hugh d'Avranches, Earl of Chester, is hunting in the forest when his prize hawk drops from the sky, pierced by an arrow. Enraged, Hugh sees to it that a pair of hapless poachers, father and son, hang on the spot for the crime. The next day one of Hugh's hunting companions, Raoul Lambert, also falls victim to a murderous archer, and this time there are no handy scapegoats. Meanwhile, a party of royal commissioners arrives in Chester to rule on some legal disputes, but first they find themselves helping Saxon beauty Gytha and her brother Beollan, whose father and elder brother have perished at Hugh's whim. Beollan has a vital clue to the actual killer's identity, though in a clever shift it develops that who shot Hugh's hawk and Raoul Lambert is less important than why. When Welsh warriors begin to march near the border, a scheming archdeacon thinks the key to averting bloodshed lies with Gruffydd ap Cynan, prince of Gwynedd, held hostage in the Chester castle dungeon. Some readers may be bothered that Gytha and Beollan fail to find justice, indeed drop out of the plot altogether, but the concluding political explanation for the deadly archery comes as a real and satisfying surprise. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One Ralph Delchard was in an unusually tetchy mood.     `What are we doing here?' he said with irritation. `Why did we have to come to this God-forsaken part of the country?'     `To serve the King,' Gervase Bret reminded him.     `The King! He's had more than enough service out of me. Twenty years of it, Gervase. Loyal and unquestioning devotion. It's high time the King started serving me for a change. Why am I always given the most boring assignments?'     `Try to see it as an honour, Ralph.'     `Honour!' snorted the other.     `You were chosen because you are trusted.'     `It is completely unjust.'     `Nothing could be more just,' said Gervase reasonably. `Ralph Delchard was appointed as a royal commissioner yet again for one solitary reason.'     `Nobody else was fool enough to take on the work.'     `You were the best man for the task in hand. Doesn't that make you feel proud? Are you not pleased that the King has shown such confidence in you?'     `No, Gervase.'     `Why not?'     `Because I have had my fill of riding the length and breadth of England on royal business. I am weary of travel -- and so are my buttocks. They are smarting like raw wounds. I need a rest. I yearn for the pleasures of retirement.'     Gervase Bret smiled indulgently. What his friend really yearned for was the company of his wife, Golde, but she was visiting her sister in Hereford and would not be joining the party until later in the week. Ralph missed her. Genial and buoyant when she was beside him, he became moody and irascible whenever they were apart. The further north they rode, the greater distance they put between man and wife.     Ralph lapsed into a brooding silence. The two commissioners were at the head of the cavalcade as it followed a meandering track through woodland. They were eighteen in total. To ensure safe travel on the long journey, fourteen knights from Ralph's own retinue acted as escort and their presence in Chester would emphasise the importance of the embassy. In helm and hauberk, they were fretful after hours in the saddle.     At the rear of the column, ambling reluctantly along on their mounts behind the sumpter horses, were the portly Canon Hubert and Brother Simon, the spectral scribe. They were even more unhappy about their latest assignment than Ralph Delchard. It was stretching their duty of obedience to the absolute limit.     Simon shivered so violently that his bones rattled. `Are the stories about Earl Hugh all true?' he asked.     `Alas, they are!' sighed Hubert.     `Is he really such a monster of depravity?'     `Yes, Brother Simon.'     `But I understood that he was married.'     `The state of holy matrimony has not, I fear, imposed any restraint on his carnal appetite,' said Hubert sonorously. `It is common knowledge that the Earl of Chester has numerous mistresses and a large brood of illegitimate offspring.'     Simon shivered afresh. `And this vile creature is to be our host in the city?'     `Happily, no. We will be the guests of Bishop Robert.'     `But we are bound to come into contact with Earl Hugh.'     `Unhappily, yes.'     `I will feel contaminated to be in the same room as him.'     `I feel appalled to be in the same county. Yet,' added Hubert with a wheezing practicality, `we must respect his position. Hugh d'Avranches is more than merely an earl. Cheshire is a county palatinate. King William has no land under his direct control here. To all intents and purposes, Earl Hugh is king. He is a law unto himself.'     `Will he accept the authority of royal commissioners?'     `He must, Brother Simon.'     `And if he does not?'     Canon Hubert displayed his most ecclesiastical scowl.     `Then we have all made a very long journey in vain!'     The riders ahead of them came to a sudden halt and Hubert had to tug on the reins to prevent his donkey from colliding with the rump of a bay destrier. Simon brought his straggly mare to a standstill and feared the worst.     `Is there trouble up ahead?' he wondered nervously.     `We are well protected, Brother Simon.'     `The countryside is crawling with outlaws.'     `That's why we brought such a sizeable escort with us. I am sure there is an explanation for this pause.'     Gervase Bret's horse came trotting back towards them.     `We have decided to break the journey here,' he said. `It will give everyone a chance to stretch their legs before the last few miles to Chester.'     Most of the riders were already dismounting. Tethering their horses, they took advantage of the stop to satisfy the wants of nature among the trees. Canon Hubert rolled off his braying donkey and tied the animal to a bush.     `Brother Simon and I are deeply disturbed,' he confided.     `About what?' asked Gervase.     `The character of Hugh d'Avranches, Earl of Chester.'     Gervase shrugged. `He is no saint, certainly, but he has served the King exceedingly well. North Wales has been quiescent since Earl Hugh inherited the earldom. He rules the border with a strong hand.'     `We have no complaint about his military exploits,' said Hubert with a sniff. `It is to the other activities to which he puts that strong hand that we take exception.'     `The earl's private life is his own.'     `Even when it spills so outrageously into the public arena? Come, Gervase, you must have heard the gossip.'     `Heard it and disregarded it, Canon Hubert.'     `How can one disregard such villainy?'     `We are not here to make moral judgements about Earl Hugh,' observed Gervase quietly. `Our task is simply to determine who owns what land in this county and how much tax they should pay on it.'     `It is not as straightforward as that,' said Simon, as he dropped from the saddle with astonishing nimbleness. `We are not able to separate Earl Hugh from his actions.'     `Indeed, we are not,' boomed his companion. `Actions, may I remind you, Gervase, have consequences. In the case of the Earl of Chester, those consequences are all too apparent. He has populated the whole county with his illicit progeny. I was expecting to see their faces peep out from behind every hedge.' He raised a homiletic finger. `More to the point, he has misappropriated land on a vast scale and the major victim has been Bishop Robert.'     `Earl Hugh is not directly concerned in any of the cases that will come before us,' noted Gervase. `If he were, then we would not be able to accept his hospitality at the castle. Show me where his name appears in our documentation.'     `It does not,' confirmed Simon.     `Exactly!'     `I have been through every inch of those documents.'     `Earl Hugh is far too cunning to be caught working his wickedness directly,' said Hubert with vehemence. `He uses others as the instruments of his evil will. They bear the blame while he pockets the benefits.'     `That is only your supposition, Canon Hubert.'     `I feel it in my bones, Gervase.'     `We need a more reliable test than that.'     `My instincts are never wrong.'     `Until now,' said Gervase, gently, `your instincts led you unswervingly along the path of justice and truth. In the past, you would neither prejudge someone you had not met nor reach hasty decisions about a case without sifting all the evidence very carefully.'     `The evidence here is overwhelming, Gervase.'     `Everyone deserves a fair hearing.'     Canon Hubert bit back a reply and nodded soulfully.     `I am properly rebuked,' he admitted. `You are correct. I should not condemn a man solely on the basis of common report. Reputation can often distort the truth. Look at King William.'     `Yes,' agreed Simon, `he has a fearful reputation.'     `Those of us privileged enough to get close to him have been able to appreciate his finer qualities. Earl Hugh may yet turn out to have some redeeming features.' His voice hardened. `Though I harbour grave doubts on that score.'     `Suspend your judgement,' suggested Gervase.     `I will try.'     `We must be strictly impartial.'     `You will not find me wanting.'     `I am sure we will not,' said Gervase. `You understand the implications of our work better than any of us.'     `That is so true!' chimed in Simon with an admiring glance at his colleague. `Canon Hubert is an exemplary arbiter.'     `He is, Brother Simon. And his even-handedness was never more in demand. Almost every case which comes before us sets Church against State. We must show favour to neither side.'     `It would never cross my mind to do so,' asserted Hubert.     `Quite so,' said Gervase.     `I judge every dispute on its individual merits.'     `So do we all.'     `This assignment will be no different from any other.'     `No different, Canon Hubert.'     `My integrity speaks for itself.'     `Loud and clear!' declared Simon.     Hubert basked in the unquestioning reverence of the scribe for a full minute before a tiny crack appeared in the façade of his impartiality. His eyes rolled and his cheeks inflated.     `I am prejudiced against no man,' he remarked with an upward tilt of his chin, `but I will not be seen to approve of drunkenness and debauchery. It is a mockery of all Christian precept. I condemn the earl's behaviour.'     `Robert de Limesey is not entirely without fault,' said Gervase softly. `Even bishops go astray at times.'     `Bishop Robert is above reproach. His name has no place in this discussion, Gervase, and I am disappointed that you strive to bring it in. All things are relative,' continued Hubert as if addressing a larger congregation than two people from his woodland pulpit. `Place the two men side by side and you see what so dramatically divides them.'     `What?' asked an open-mouthed Simon.     `Self-respect. Earl Hugh is sadly deficient. He lacks even a vestige of self-respect or he would not indulge so openly in licentious behaviour.' The finger came into play again. `Compared with him -- whatever minor indiscretions the bishop may have committed in the past -- Robert de Limesey is an archangel.' Robert de Limesey, Bishop of Chester, was a tall, thin, stately man of middle years with an odour of sanctity about him that was intermingled with a whiff of distant scandal. As he sat at the table with his Bible open before him, he wore the saturnine expression of someone who was not entirely content with his lot yet was unable substantially to improve it. There was an air of resignation in the sag of his shoulders. He stared at Holy Writ through lacklustre eyes. For once in his life, the Revealed Word failed to restore his spirits and provide sure guidance.     There was a polite tap on the door, then it swung back on its hinges. The bishop did not even look up when a short, stout, red-faced man in his thirties padded in to stand before him. Archdeacon Frodo waited in patient silence until Robert deigned to notice him. An obedient little smile lit up the archdeacon's chubby countenance.     `Well?' said the bishop.     `You asked to hear news of their approach, your grace.'     `And?'     `They will enter the city within the hour.'     `Much good will that do us!'     `Have more faith in the commissioners.'     `I wish that I could, Frodo,' said the other, clicking his tongue and shaking his head. `But they will probably get no further than their predecessors. Earl Hugh will tie them up in knots as he did the first commissioners.'     `They were shrewder than you give them credit for,' said the archdeacon. `They took the measure of Earl Hugh. He did not fool them for one moment. These second visitors have come to call him to account.'     `Nobody has ever done that with any success.'     `It has to happen one day, your grace.'     `Yes, Frodo -- at the Last Judgement.'     `That is effectively what this survey is,' reminded the other with outspread palms. `It is no mere inventory. Its inquiries have been so thorough and its scope so wide that it is a veritable Domesday Book. All our earthly deeds are entered neatly in its abbreviated Latin.' He clasped his hands across his paunch. `Our deeds -- and our misdeeds.'     The bishop grimaced. `They will need a separate volume to record the misdeeds of our noble earl in their gruesome entirety. Each day brings fresh horrors from the castle. I pray continually for divine intervention but the Lord sees fit to allow Earl Hugh to continue unchecked and unchastised.'     `Until now.'     `Do you really believe that these newcomers will be able to exert some influence over him?'     `They are royal commissioners.'     `The only royalty in Cheshire is the earl himself.'     `He is still a subject of King William.'     `He has never behaved like one.' Rising to his feet, he made an effort to shake off his pessimism. `I am sorry, Frodo. I must not despair of Ralph Delchard and his colleagues before they have even arrived. Who knows? Perhaps they can achieve the impossible. Perhaps they can muzzle that wild bear who holds sway over us. At the very least, they deserve our full support.'     `I will ensure that they are given it.'     `You must be my intermediary here, Frodo.'     `Gladly, your grace.'     `I will work zealously in the background but you must represent me in public. It would not be politic for me to be seen to be in direct opposition to the earl. Neither politic nor healthy. I must haunt the shadows. Speak on my behalf.'     `With full voice.'     `I trust you implicitly.'     Frodo allowed himself a complacent smile. Trained by the bishop himself, he was a skilful negotiator and a tactful diplomat. Robert de Limesey might have greater experience but his archdeacon had a tenacity and resourcefulness which made him, in some ways, even more formidable in debate. In the forthcoming dispute, the Church would indeed have a cunning advocate. The bishop felt partially reassured.     `What do we know of these commissioners?' he asked.     `They have built an excellent reputation.'     `For what?'     `Honesty, independence and firm action.'     `Where else have they been?'     `Hereford and York are the only places that have come to my ears,' said Frodo. `I have friends in both cathedral chapters and their letters were full of praise for this Ralph Delchard and Gervase Bret. In Hereford, it is reported, they helped to stop an uprising on the Welsh border.'     `Men of action, clearly.'     `And considerable guile, I suspect.'     `Is Canon Hubert held in the same high regard?'     `Not exactly, but he is reckoned to be an upright judge and a man of great moral certitude.'     `Such a person is much needed in Chester.'     `We already have one, your grace.'     `Thank you, Frodo,' said the bishop, responding to the flattery with a weary nod. `But the sad truth is that my moral certitude is slightly frayed at the edges. Living cheek by jowl with Earl Hugh is enough to make any man question his beliefs.' He drew himself up to his full height. `Canon Hubert must be given a cordial welcome. I had mention of him in a letter from Bishop Walkelin of Winchester. He commended the good canon to me.'     `There is approval from an even higher source.'     `Higher than a bishop?'     `Yes,' explained Frodo. `No less a person than Archbishop Lanfranc. Hubert was sub-prior at Bec when Lanfranc was the prior there. Canon Hubert's history is impeccable.'     `Not too impeccable, I trust, Frodo.'     `Your grace?'     `I like at least a hint of human fallibility.'     `We all bear that defect.'     `Indeed, we do. Indeed, we do.'     Bishop Robert crossed to the window to gaze out of it as he reflected on his own occasional wandering from the strait path of righteousness. An imperfect Christian, he had learned to accept his imperfections and to be highly suspicious of those whose lives seemed to be impelled by greater piety and purity. A man with an impeccable history was a disturbing phenomenon. He began to wonder if he was going to like Canon Hubert as much as he had first thought. More important, he feared that he might not be able to influence such a person in the way that he hoped.     Frodo seemed to read his companion's mind. `Leave him to me, your grace,' he whispered. Seen from a distance, Chester was a handsome city, surrounded by a high stone wall and cradled in a loop of the River Dee. Its dominant feature was the castle, built by the Conqueror over fifteen years earlier as the key fortress on the troublesome road to North Wales. Conforming to the motte and bailey design that was so characteristic of Norman military architecture, it rose high above the wall in the south-west corner of the city where it could command both the port area and the bridge across the river. Like the castle, the bridge was constructed of solid timber hewn from the extensive forests in the county.     Ralph Delchard brought his party to a halt in order to take stock of the place that was to be their home for at least a couple of weeks. Reactions to the prospect varied. Gervase Bret was fascinated, running a keen eye over every detail that was visible from their standpoint. Canon Hubert found nothing in the scene to enlist his interest. To him, Chester was no more than the lair of a wild animal who had assumed unlimited power. Brother Simon was plainly terrified at the thought of having to meet the dangerous creature who bore the title of earl, and wished that they could abandon their task and ride straight back to the safety of Winchester.     To the knights who made up the escort, Chester had no special significance. They were simply grateful that they had at last reached their destination and could look forward to rest and refreshment. Ralph took a wholly different attitude. He had been there once before. His second visit to the city was marred by uncomfortable memories of the first, when he had been part of a conquering army that crushed all before it. Chester might have a stark beauty when viewed from afar but closer acquaintance would reveal a grim legacy.     With the exception of Yorkshire, no county in England was as badly devastated by the Normans as Cheshire. Signs of that devastation had been seen everywhere on their journey but they would be most marked inside the city itself, where no fewer than two hundred houses had been destroyed. Ralph was not proud of his small part in the hostilities which had killed many citizens and made over a thousand others homeless. His guilt stirred.     Marriage to a Saxon wife had profoundly altered his view of his military career. Golde had made him feel sympathy for an indigenous population whom they had subdued with ruthless efficiency. Ralph could no longer dismiss what happened as the inevitable result of the fortunes of war. When an earlier assignment took the commissioners to York, he had been tormented by memories of his role in the Harrying of the North, the most brutal and merciless operation ever mounted by the King. Something of the same grief afflicted Ralph now. He would be riding into the city with blood on his hands.     Gervase nudged his horse alongside his friend. `What are we waiting for?' he asked.     `Nothing,' said Ralph curtly. `Follow me!'     With severe misgivings, he led the column on.     Gervase was under no illusions as to what they would find in the city. He had seen all the Domesday returns for the county in the Exchequer at Winchester and knew that Chester was described in more detail than almost any other city in England. What was omitted from the account was almost as eloquent as what was included. When they finally reached the bridge and clattered across it, Gervase was not surprised by what they saw on the other side.     The narrow winding street had a number of empty or dilapidated houses and other wounds of war were on display. Though the market was busy and the crowd thick, the atmosphere was curiously sombre. A resentful hush fell as the newcomers rode in through the gate. People pushed quickly to the side of the street and watched in sullen silence as the cavalcade passed. Citizens accustomed to the furious and uncaring canter of the earl and his cronies were taken aback by the civilised trot of the visitors. Murmuring their gratitude, they went back to their haggling at the market stalls.     Ralph Delchard, meanwhile, took his company in through the main gate of the castle and reined in his horse. The rest of the party followed suit. The courtyard was alive with soldiers and there was an impressive air of order, but the person who caught their attention was standing no more than a dozen yards away. He was a massive man in the cowl of a Benedictine monk and he turned to greet them with a gesture of welcome that had a strong resemblance to a papal blessing.     Canon Hubert and Brother Simon were relieved to see a fellow member of the order in such a godless place and they smiled back at him. They would have at least one friend inside the castle. But their optimism was premature. As the monk rolled slowly towards them on sandalled feet, they noticed how much deference the castle guards seemed to be according him. There was something extremely odd about the imposing figure in the black cowl.     Ralph introduced them in a clear, ringing voice. `We have come from Winchester on royal business,' he announced, `and we are to lodge here at the castle as guests of the Earl of Chester.'     The monk pushed back his hood and beamed up at them. `Welcome, friends!' he said benevolently. `I am your host.'     Earl Hugh's raucous laugh was distinctly unmonastic.