The Sanctuary Murders by Susanna Gregory – Medieval Cambridge in uproar as Matthew and Michael must solve a mystery

The Sanctuary Murders: The Twenty Fourth Chronicle of Matthew ...

A novel of murder, conspiracy and a town at war with a university, this is the twenty fourth novel in a series set in medieval Cambridge. It features Matthew Bartholomew and his good friend Brother Michael, two men who have worked together over the years to maintain the peace in a town where the townspeople are suspicious of the University and vice versa. This is a lively story of the angry and frightened, and the unlikely comedy of many nuns, monks and a town full of fear of the French. I have read all of these books and enjoyed them, but I am convinced that it can be read as a standalone novel. Matthew is a gentle soul, but as physician and defender of the poor in the town he is sometimes exasperated by the antics of his fellow scholars and is determined to act. Michael is Master of Michaelhouse  and Senior Proctor of the University, in charge of ordering the behaviour of the scholars whose varied backgrounds and commitment to their studies make them at best an unpredictable number of young men. A large and permanently hungry man, Michael has a determination to maintain peace, but has also some ambitions. As always with this series I recommend this book of a mystery that has to be solved and physical threat as Michael and Matthew must once again act.


The opening of the book is set in Winchelsea, a small town which is the victim of a brutal raid by a party of French soldiers, in which many die. Cambridge is relatively nearby, and soon the town becomes full of rumours of a potential raid there. Some of the students are of foreign origin, many copy the language and fashions of the French, and some of the townspeople become convinced that the colleges and hotels are concealing dangerous men. There are also those in Cambridge who are jealous of Michael’s power and influence, and would like to seize both for themselves. When fire breaks out in the Spital, a place where the mentally troubled find sanctuary, Matthew and Michael rush there to help. Sadly they discover that a family has been murdered within the enclosure, and it becomes apparent that they and others were not ill, but in fact French refugees hiding in the sanctuary. Rumour and suspicion spread across Cambridge, and the picture is made more difficult by the fact that there are many nuns visiting the town for a sort of conference organised by Michael who need to be housed. Meanwhile in Michaelhouse there is much fuss around Clippesby, an eccentric but brilliant fellow whose work is causing a stir, especially as he claims to talk to the animals who live in the college, a situation which creates much humour. 


This is a book which cleverly creates the town of Cambridge with complete conviction and a lively story. The characters, both those who have featured in the other novels and those who are new in this book, come to life in the descriptions and dialogue which works so well and consistently throughout the novel. The research informs the text well, but Gregory is a sufficiently able writer not to show the depths of her knowledge. This book has a subtle message as to what happens when a crowd is frightened by refugees and other people, and how a drunken element can be terrifying. I recommend this book for its story, characters and plot and the entire series for its entertaining and engaging consistency.    


I am not sure if there is going to be another Matthew Bartholomew book, and after so many stories if I were to go back to the start it would be after a long time spent reading each book as it came out, so it would almost like beginning again.  Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner series, which of which there are fourteen novels, set in Restoration London. I have read some of these, and enjoyed them, but I prefer the Bartholomew ones. Either way, Gregory is a consistently good writer, and should appeal to many historical fiction fans. Have you read any of her books?


The Habit of Murder by Susanna Gregory – or a tale of a small Suffolk town

The fact that this is the “Twenty – Third Chronicle of Matthew Bartholmew” may be a little off putting if you have no idea who Matthew is, or where or when this “chronicle” is set. Or you may be a devotee of these books, who has obviously been eagerly waiting for each new episode to emerge either in hardback or paperback at the rate of one per year. Either way, this book is undoubtedly a treat, and as I am definitely in the second group (so bad I buy the new hardback) I can only assume but fairly believe that even if you are new to these books, you will still find much to enjoy in the latest adventures of Matthew Bartholomew, physician in fourteenth century  Cambridge. Together with his great friend, Brother Michael, and in this book, Master Langlee, they have yet another murder or two to solve, and as usual find themselves in enormous danger while doing so.

This adventure takes place in the lovely and wealthy (to this day) Clare in Suffolk. Matthew, Michael and Langlee travel to the small town in the hope of getting more funding for their college, Michaelhouse, in Cambridge. They travel with other representatives of various colleges to attend the funeral of noted benefactor, Elizabeth de Burgh, and discover a remarkable state of affairs. The castle and household of Lady de Burgh is in a state of constant tension with the townspeople, often over the parish church which is a show piece of new and challenging architecture. When one of the travellers and a much loved inhabitant of the castle are found dead, suspicions, rumours and really dangerous situations occur, when no one seems innocent and suspicious deaths are recalled. Relations between town and castle deteriorate and in the midst of danger and distrust Matthew and Michael undertake to solve the murders. This is not a bleak story however, as much humour emerges as they meet an enclosed anchorite who is more sociable than those in the outside world, a hermit who enjoys shopping trips, and a gang of young men who follow outrageous fashions at all costs. There is also a group of monks who were soldiers before taking their vows, and who therefore take the role of peacekeepers and great drinkers.  As usual, Matthew finds himself in danger while trying to bring the killers to justice, see the sights of a beautiful town and raise funds for his desperately poor college.  Michael asserts his natural authority, while Langlee finds some old drinking friends.

This is a brilliant addition to the series of books, which are frequently but not exclusively set in Cambridge. Clare is a tourist attraction to this day, and it is fascinating to read a book where real characters in the town’s history are liberally brought to life. The style of writing is as ever funny, intriguing and draws the reader into situations where impeccable research into clothes, medical matters and religious observance are skilfully absorbed into the story. The characters are consistent and although there is murder and sudden death throughout, there is no gratuitous violence. Fear, suspicion and jealousy abound, but there are also ridiculous characters whose naivety and ineptitude in preparing for war or discovering the really guilty is staggering.  There are also disturbing concepts, such as the treatment of women and what they have to resort to doing in desperate circumstances, but these are dealt with in a sensitive manner and eventual justice emerges. This is a splendid book for all lovers of historical fiction with a murder mystery theme, and would probably work as a stand- alone novel for new readers to Gregory’s series.

When we lived in Suffolk we frequently visited Clare, which is a lovely little town with some superb examples of pargeting, which is a decorative tradition in which patterns and simple pictures are made in the wall plaster of various buildings. If you are ever in the area, do take a trip there, as there is a large park with a railway station in the middle, as well as lots of little shops to explore.

Murder on High Holborn – Susanna Gregory

There has been a bit of a gap in posts as we have been on holiday/annual book buying tour. Apart from the predictable places (Heffers in Cambridge, Persephone in Bloomsbury, second hand bookshops everywhere) we also found in the depths of Shropshire a Guildhall opened as an honesty bookshop full (yes, as in a room full) of second hand books for the choosing. One box full later (with a suitable donation, honest!) the car looked less like a car for luggage and more than a travelling bookshop. So nothing new there then…

One of the side effects of this travelling is the opportunity to listen to an audiobook. On thirteen discs we listened to Murder on High Holborn by Susanna Gregory. On this blog I have written often about Gregory’s other series, the Matthew Bartholmew books set in fourteenth century Cambridge, and I have been eagerly reading each book as they have come out in hardback from the library. The Thomas Chaloner series, set in Restoration London, have largely passed me by; I read the first when they started to come out and I went to an author event where they were launched – in 2006! I picked up the paperbacks more or less as they came out, but never really read them. I think that, having listened to this, I will change that…

In this episode of the ongoing adventures of Thomas, (possible spoiler alert, I’m not sure how much this reveals of the previous books), Chaloner is charged with trying to discover what is going on with a proposed plot to overthrow the King (Charles II) and government, and usher in the final millennium. Alongside this, he has to find the murderer of a courtier in a brothel and why the ship London has sunk with all hands in a peaceful stretch of river.

On a more mundane level his wife is spending freely and London is beset by rain and mud. There is adventure, more death and much running around London and its environs. There is comedy, as one of the characters goes by the name of Consti Pate. The other characters, including a drunken Admiral, Prince Rupert and spies of varying degrees of ineptitude have all got their own agendas, and many of them are willing to kill to achieve their aims. The pace of this novel is fast, to reflect the relentless nature of Chaloner’s many tasks and investigations, but he does get time to sleep and eat. This is not a seventeenth century 24, and there is enormous detail in the modes of travelling, clothing, weaponry and life generally. As in Gregory’s other series of books, there are many “how will he get out of this?” moments and generally given the high body count this is a good novel. There are few female characters, and I must admit I got some of the men muddled up in my mind. It is an historical murder mystery, thriller, and therefore perhaps not for everyone, but I enjoyed it. (As did Husband, as he dealt with yet another lot of road works). It would not be necessary to have read the other books in the series to enjoy this, but it would help to understand the setting. Medicine is a bit primitive, and there is a real fear of the supernatural as worked on by several characters. I can certainly recommend this book for as an historical adventure with great characters. I think that I will still prefer the Matthew B. series, but these books will certainly fill the year gaps between each episode of that series.

A Poisonous Plot by Susanna Gregory

Twenty one already! No, not my age ( I am  little past that…) but the twenty first chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew.

Susanna Gregory has written twenty previous books about the fourteenth century doctor, Matthew Bartholomew. He is a Fellow of Michaelhouse College in Cambridge. What makes this series interesting is that if there is a murder, untimely death or serious crime in the town, Matthew gets dragged into it by his friend, Brother Michael, who by this stage is Senior Proctor of the University. Town and gown battle it out between them as vested interests, local politics and strange personalities confuse the issue of detecting and preventing crime local before police, detectives and even detailed examination of victims are established.

While I can appreciate that not everyone is a medieval history fan, it is not necessary to even know who is on the throne to understand and enjoy this series of books. The personalities  and situation are far more than historic, and the language is flowing and easy to follow. There are many impossible – to –  escape –  from adventures, and many of the books see the characters leaving Cambridge for other interesting towns and cities such as York and Lincoln. It is a male dominated book, which reflects the time period, but often the female characters have far more clue than the hapless Matthew and Michael.

A Poisonous Plot is concerned with the mysterious deaths of several villagers, town notables and University fellows, against a background of controversial dyeworks and even a proposed exodus of the colleges from Cambridge.

It is a good example of the series so far, with many threatened riots and local skirmishes as a result of a fatal illness which seems to afflict the rich and leave the poor unaffected. Matthew is on good form, not distracted by his frustrated love life, as he chases around  trying to work out if Cew is really mad, his book bearer’s superstition is going to be fulfilled, and the frail sisters’ new enterprise is really replacing their original “profession”. Brother Michael is still overindulging, while being the only person who can suppress the simmering town.  My favourite eccentric  character, Clippesby, is still consulting the local wildlife to find out clues, while the wild son of the Sheriff, Dickon, is experimenting with further and better weaponry.

This is a good stand alone novel, with enough information for the first time reader of Gregory’s books to work out what is going on, though if you have read earlier episodes you will get more of the in jokes. It is a funny book, but it is essentially a murder mystery in a well established context.  Husband has enjoyed various books in the series, and would recommend them too. This book has only just come out in hard back, but the other twenty are to be found in various places, and in audio form. Give one (or twenty!) a try!

Happy Book Day! (And St. David’s Day, of course) And another Gregory novel

Happy World Book Day… or whatever it’s called. Happy St. David’s Day as well.

Here in Northernreader towers I’m still coasting along in a post – essay reading bubble. Two Carola Dunn murder mysteries have been consumed, as well as today’s book, The Mystery in the Minster, the Seventeenth Chronicle of Matthew Bartholomew, by Susanna Gregory.

I’ve posted before about my love of historical mysteries, and Susanna Gregory’s books in particular. I find her other series a bit tougher -( I think that the Thomas Chaloner books are a little stronger and more like C. J. Sansom.  Not that they are less well written at all, but somehow much more grim)

I usually wait for each of these books to go paperback and then buy them to read. I did see this one in hardback in my wonderful local library, so I thought that I would read it now then look for a cheap copy at some time to complete my set. And I couldn’t wait to read the next installment…

This book sees Matthew, Michael and assorted others travel from medieval Cambridge to York in search of an inheritance promised to the College. There is soon murder done, but not before we encounter some mincing priests with a shoe fetish, (Sex in the medieval City?)  a rather racy nun and a feminist theologian. There are the usual skirmishes, death defying escapes, fights and general hunting for guilty parties (with some light pathology thrown in for the really ghoulish). Fans of Dorothy Sayers will recognise the sense of impending doom as a flood threatens to overwhelm the city, obscure any clues and threaten the righteous and the downright murderous alike.

Although set in a different place from most of the series, like the episode set in Lincoln this is a faithful representation of a city and buildings that survive until today. I enjoyed this book. I know know the characters well enough that I know what to expect, although I am sure that if you had not read any of the earlier books you would still enjoy this one. There are a lot of names to remember, and a little technical stuff about churches, prayers for the dead and wills.It is the sort of book that you can coast along on the general flow, without worrying about every detail. There are some classic moments here as the heroes throw themselves into the hunt for miscreants and documents, with plenty of ‘how will they get out of this?’ moments.

In short, if you like historical murder mysteries this is great. If you are addicted to Susanna Gregory books as I am, this is a really good episode in the ongoing series. Longer than Ellis Peters’ classics, less disciplined and with a wider scope, it is a good book.

Two series of books – both with their funny moments

You may have noticed from this blog that I am quite fond of reading series of books. I suppose there is a form of security in reading about familiar characters, often in familiar contexts. Anyone who knows the smallest thing about the Harry Potter series will soon realise that Hogwarts School is a character in its own right, and that the setting is part of the charm of the books. I suppose it rather goes to the main point of why we read what we read. Do we read the Austens, Wodehouses, Heyers (my particular vices) because they feel comfortable, safe and we know what to expect? Or are we happier to read new things, new authors in search of new ideas, characters and situations?

Which is a long winded way of saying that I have re read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (Book 1)

What can anyone say about this book. The readers did grow up with this series; this book is a basically simple tale for children, with goodies and baddies, clearly drawn characters, carefully explained events. It does start the whole ball rolling, sets off lots of trails, and establishes the series brilliantly. I am half way through The Chamber of Secrets.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Book 2)

I’m not sure that it is such a good book as the first, and it hasn’t got the relative sophistication of the later books. It does move the story on, and does have the wonderful Gilderoy Lockhart. Perhaps I could have spent the time reading a new book, but one of the joys of reading this series is spotting things that you missed in the rush to discover what happened, especially as the films either stuck closely to the books, or were forced to leave out large chunks.  At least we have many copies of these books…

The other series is nowhere near as well known, but a lot more adult. I have written about Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Series before, and now I have read the latest to go paperback, number sixteen.

The Killer of Pilgrims is quite simply, brilliant. It is firmly set in Cambridge, features bitterly held grudges, clever tricks, the hapless Mathew being chased by a romantically inclined female and many murders. The beginning emphasises the importance in the fourteenth century of pilgrims badges to show that someone has made a challenging journey. This book also describes campball games, huge, dangerous ball games featuring large teams set on getting the ball at whatever the cost, including physical damage. A quick check on a certain online encyclopedia reveals just how dangerous a game this was, played between neighbouring parishes or similar groups, and having few if any rules. This novel makes particular use of two games to increase the levels of physical danger and tension between different groups. There is also a fearsome matriarch, a woman who “oozes” towards Matthew, as well as the college going through the usual food shortages and leaky buildings. This is just such a good episode in the series. I think that it probably stands alone as a novel,  as a medieval murder mystery, but if it is the first you read in the series, you will want to find the others.  I haven’t re read these books, partly because they are quite big, but I have kept them all, if only so I can go back and see how the series develops. Has anyone else got favourite series of books?

A Vein of Deceit – and leaving me speechless

Anyone who knows me will be surprised that I could be reduced to silence when on the subject of books; in fact on any subject. I was overcome with the inability to speak when I met the author of today’s book, Susanna Gregory. On one level  I don’t understand it, she is not a fearsome lady, and I believe her murderous ideas are confined to fiction.What silenced me is the fact that I have enjoyed her books so much for so long  that meeting her at a book signing a few years ago reduced me to silence, or at least a muttered “I so enjoy your books”

For this lady is responsible for many murders, in her books. The Chronicles of Matthew Bartholomew, of which this book is the fifteenth, are all set in medieval Cambridge, among the hostels that eventually became the colleges which together make up the University. I started to read this series many years ago because of the Cambridge connection, as well as the similarity to Ellis Peters’ Cadfael novels which had come to an end with the author’s death. These Bartholomew books also feature a medical man within an ecclesiastical setting depending on brute force and herbal remedies, as well defending himself and his allies from near certain death at the hands of many baddies. This series is made up of bigger, more complex books in which there are more characters and probably more unexpected deaths. They are filled with “how will he get out of that?” moments which I always appreciate as Gregory certainly has a way with words and a great narrative drive. There are very few moments of idleness for the hapless Matthew and his friend Michael, the slightly overweight senior Proctor and Monk whose obsession with good food relieves many a tense situation. Yes, women are not leading characters here, which probably represents society at the time, but they are shown as variously evil, good, wise and cunning as any man. In fact, women are often the only ones who drive the story, the discoveries and the truth of what is going on while the male characters flail about helplessly.

The Fifteenth book in the series is A Vein of Deceit which went paperback last year.

(Another book has gone paperback within the last few days, The Killer of Pilgrims, but I haven’t tracked down a copy yet. Boo!)

This book like others begins in Cambridge but features a visit to another place, on this occasion, Suffolk. In fact I know the couple to whom this book is dedicated. The beginning is a bit graphic, as a woman dies as the result of taking the wrong herb while heavily pregnant. After that it becomes a novel of deceit, betrayal and uncertainly about who has done what, and to whom. It is a really good example of the series, as deaths, bodies and attempts on lives beset Matthew to the point of him not knowing who is left to trust. There are other books in this series which depict Cambridge as a small place closing in on the guilty and innocent alike. This book never dawdles and really doesn’t slow down between mystery and threat. The research is impeccable and never intrudes; I’ve rarely had to pause and wonder if it really could have happened like that in the period throughout all of the books. Gregory does not write in a dated theatrical language, however. It is easy to read speech and narration which do not require a working knowledge of medieval England to enjoy. There are landmarks and references to make the books solid such as the plague, which dominates some of the earlier books.

I would recommend these books to anyone who enjoys murder mysteries in an historical setting. They are unfailingly well written and enjoyable. Each one stands alone as a good book, as well as having some running themes. They don’t have to be read in strict order, although there is the danger that you may want to go back to read the earlier novels if you start later on. I have seen them reduced in some shops and websites, but they are definitely worth getting hold of and enjoying. Gregory also writes the Thomas Chaloner  series, but they have not grabbed my attention in quite the same way. But there is still time, if only to fill the gaps while I await the next Bartholomew novel…