1216. England has been invaded. The country is divided. Some support Prince Louis of France; others remain loyal to the king. King John summons Sir Josse d’Acquin to support him, but can Josse save the king from himself? Meanwhile, Meggie attends a sick patient, who tasks her with retrieving a cursed treasure…
Here, author Alys Clare gives the background to her latest work.
One of the real-life characters I’ve most enjoyed depicting, over the course of the seventeen Hawkenlye books, is King John, who has flipped in and out of several of them. I’ve long felt that the handle Bad King John was a little unfair: bad compared with whom? I once had an interesting discussion with my son’s history teacher, who suggested changing the epithet to Could Do Better King John, which certainly seems fairer.
But even a loyal fan of King John would have to raise an eyebrow concerning his behaviour over his second wife, Isabella of Angouleme. Contemporary commentators cattily pointed out that she was very young – some daringly and scandalously said as young as nine or ten – when John first set eyes on her and decided he had to have her. It should be remembered, however, that virtually every contemporary commentator loathed King John and never passed up an opportunity to stick the knife in. Isabella was almost certainly precocious; this was an age where girls of the nobility were married off young and she was already betrothed to someone else. And, had anyone wanted to speak in John’s defence, they might have pointed out that there were sound political reasons for an alliance with the lords of Angouleme. Also, medieval monarchs were well aware of the facts of life and didn’t bed their young wives until they were fertile (Isabella’s first child wasn’t born until some seven years after the marriage).
A king who dies unremarkably of old age, in non-suspicious circumstances, doesn’t offer a novelist very much. The days around John’s death, by contrast, provide rich areas for speculation. First, there’s the old mystery of the treasure lost in the Wash: I came across an unattributed painting of a dejected John, soaking wet, riding a bright chestnut horse. Both the man’s and horse’s heads were bowed in misery as the rain pelted down and it served to make me wonder how the king felt about this catastrophe. Did he feel that the very land had turned against him? Did his dislike of the treacherous Fens turn to loathing and fear? Did he sense death was at his heels? Then there’s the question of what exactly killed him: dysentery was a catch-all term for all manner of gastro-intestinal illnesses, from straightforward diarrhoea caused by over-ripe fruits to the ingestion of poison. The facts concerning John’s demise are scant, so really you can take your pick. He had made many enemies and he’d recently been the guest of monks, the experts of the age when it came to secret, herbal preparations…
THE DEVIL’S CUP by Alys Clare is published by Severn House in hardback on 28 April (UK) and 1 August (US). For further information, please visit our website here.
Praise for Alys Clare’s previous book, A RUSTLE OF SILK
“As always, Clare has carefully researched the period she is writing about and offers authentic, engaging historical detail, but her real gift is as a superb storyteller whose clever, twisty plots; believable characters; and skillful writing will engross the reader from first page to last” Booklist Starred Review
“Clare vividly evokes 17th-century Devon. Characters who are complex individuals complement the well-paced and pleasantly twisty plot” Publishers Weekly