Book review: To Catch the Conscience of the King: a novel, by Martin White

White, Martin. To Catch the Conscience of the King: a novel. Sutton Coldfield, England: Di Butrio Books, 2016. 218 p. Paperback 9.99 pounds. ISBN 978-1-326-55399-9.

This is an historical novel about the capture, dethronement, imprisonment, and possible murder of the 14th century English monarch Edward II.  It takes place in 1327.  Most of the novel concerns the Dominican monk and priest Stephen de Birstin. In the first third of the novel, he witnesses the bloody torture, hanging, dismemberment, and castration of Edward’s most recent lover Hugh le Despenser. It was later that Brother Stephen was assigned to serve as Edward’s confessor in Edward’s prison cell in Berkeley Castle.  They are permitted but one hour a day together.  It is a rocky relationship, but over time it develops into friendship and even love.  Brother Stephen himself enjoyed a bout of same-sex love at Oxford as he prepared for the priesthood.  That ended in disaster and as penance, Stephen chopped off two of his toes, limping ever thereafter.  But he had experienced such a relationship and the king had gloried in several all of which affected their relationship, resulting eventually in hugs, kisses, and caresses, but nothing more.

Despite their experience of same-sex love, Stephen felt compelled to voice the church’s extreme condemnation of same-sex acts, a condemnation which has changed little if at all in the modern Roman Catholic Church after more than 800 years.  In the novel, Edward is kidnapped by his enemies and Stephen is killed as he tries to protect the king.  He is cleaned and dressed up for burial, passed off as the king and paraded through the countryside to a fancy funeral.

According to Wikipedia (which has a long article about Edward, en.m.wikipedia.org), historians are not in agreement as to what actually happened to Edward.  Most believe he was smothered in Berkeley Castle, but some believe he was spirited away and either murdered elsewhere or escaped to become a monk or a hermit. Some believe a porter at his prison cell was the one masqueraded as the dead king.  Our novelist prefers the escape story with Edward becoming a monk.  The only hint of the myth that he was killed by having a red-hot poker shoved up his ass (or in this novel molten lead via a funnel) was a brief glance at a manuscript being written by a monk.  To follow the rest of the story the author has Stephen ascend into the near atmosphere, where he can observe his own funeral and the fate of the king.  Stephen is surprised not to experience the purgatory that he was trained to expect.

Our author read history at Cambridge University but became a solicitor (British lawyer).  Upon retirement, he has taken up writing.  He grew up in Gloucestershire where most of this story takes place. This is his first novel.  He has done a good and convincing job, although the preaching of Stephen can get a little tiresome.  His characters are well drawn with lots of appropriate dialogue.  He reconstructs the language of the time to a certain extent, especially in place names.  Collections of gay historical fiction should be interested in this work and also individuals who like historical novels of the early English kings.

James Doig Anderson, Professor Emeritus, Rutgers University Department of Library & Information Science.

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