It is the 14th century, and Lady Kathryn finds herself in a precarious position. She is a widow and owner of Blackingham Manor, the mother of 15-year-old twin sons. The church has been incessant in its demands for tithes, and there are also the king’s taxes. She suspects her overseer of being dishonest, and he is certainly disrespectful, but she has no one who could replace him.
When Father Ignatius makes yet another demand of her, she has nothing to give him but her mother’s pearls. Still, the church could make trouble for her, so she gives them up. Later Brother Joseph arrives with a message from the Abbott. If Lady Kathryn will house an illuminator who is working for the abbey, along with his daughter, the abbey will let up on its demands for tithes. For the price of food, Kathryn thinks this is a bargain.
Soon the artist Finn arrives, along with his beautiful daughter Rose. Lady Kathryn is immediately worried about her son Alfred, who likes to dally with the serving maids. Finn’s arrival is made more chaotic because of the news that Father Ignatius was murdered. Although this happened after he left her house, Kathryn doesn’t want to draw attention to herself, so she lies to the sheriff, Sir Guy, and tells him she hasn’t seen the Father recently. This of course turns out to be a lie she regrets.
Sir Guy, being the rapacious type, has his eye on Lady Kathryn and her estate, which is her own and does not go to her son. But Kathryn and Finn are soon drawn to each other. To get Alfred away from Rose, Kathryn asks him to supervise the overseer. Soon involved with Finn herself, she does not notice the depth of Rose’s friendship with Colin, the younger twin.
Other important characters in the novel are Half-Tom, a dwarf who befriends Finn, and the anchorite Julian of Norwich, a real woman famous for her writings about religion, reflecting unusual views.
I wanted to like this novel more than I did. Overall, my impression could be summed up as meh. At first I was worried that it was going to be a historical romance, which I usually do not enjoy, but it was not. It shows a solid grounding in the time period, with convincing detail. I think I was turned off by the depiction of the church. This was a violent time in history, and the Catholic Church was in a period of corruption, but I don’t think that is a good reason for depicting every representative of the church (except Julian of Norwich) as a cartoonish villain. It is clear that the author’s sympathies lay with the Reformation, but that movement had its own abuses. In fact, in the 14th century, it is doubtful that many people in England would have even envisioned a Reformation. Martin Luther didn’t put up his theses until 1517.
I think that my biggest problem with the novel is that only a few characters were at all developed. The others were simply villains. I also had problems with the situations created in the novel simply by both Kathryn’s sons departing without notice. Alfred pulls a nasty trick on Finn before leaving—one that endanger’s Finn’s life and leaves Kathryn open to blackmail. Both sons behave like spoiled adolescents instead of the young men they would have been considered at the time, and Kathryn makes several poor or dishonest decisions regarding them.
There is also a theme of Kathryn’s changing religious beliefs, but I found this decision sudden and unlikely. I would have liked to see more about Finn’s art, but there was very little.