A NEW Winchester murder thriller.

Well-researched historical fiction with familiar settings and believable characters is great for getting to grips with the past, writes Barry Shurlock…

AN initiative to find the bones of Alfred the Great in the Hyde suburb of Winchester, sponsored more than 20 years ago by the City Council, has had a surprising outcome. This is the launch of a series of whodunnits in settings that many readers will find easy to imagine.

The first title, Charter for Murder, is now in bookshops, on Amazon and also available as an e-book. Set in taverns in the city, the cathedral and Hyde Abbey itself – still marked by a splendid gatehouse – it is a tale that pits the wits of churchman against politician at a time when monasteries were under threat and the teenage king Richard II faced the Peasants’ Revolt.

Former Times journalist and historian Edward Fennell, in his first work of fiction, has drawn on his experience of being involved with the community project Hyde900 from its launch in 2005 to 2018.

His mission was to keep alive memories and understanding of the great abbey that grew up outside the north wall of the city in place of the Saxon New Minster in 1110. He was astonished that such an institution so richly endowed and holding the last remains of Alfred the Great and his family could have been largely forgotten, not just locally but also by historians and archaeologists.

There were people living in King Alfred Terrace, King Alfred Place, Monks Road (today known for its street parties), visiting the King Alfred pub (another music venue), who knew little about the history that lay underneath their houses and gardens.

As it happens, although the ‘hunt for Alfred’ in Winchester began in the 1860s and has since resumed twice, it was no match for Leicester’s successful ‘hunt for Richard III’. By contrast, the search for bones from Hyde Abbey for the 2014 BBC2 documentary The Search for Alfred the Great yielded only part of a pelvis, possibly Alfred’s (although there is a cache of other remains yet to be fully examined).

Even so, the hunt for Alfred has awoken vivid memories of the great abbey that once dominated this part of. It is difficult now to walk by the impressive surviving gatehouse, or the parish church of St Bartholomew’s, without glimpsing cowled figures of Benedictine monks, crowds of pilgrims and the hangers-on who gathered there.

All this, and much else, has inspired Edward to extend his hand from the day job – a bulletin about the legal world, Edward Fennell’s Legal Diary – to his first work of fiction. Studies at school of Chaucer, and the survival of medieval charters, including the Golden Charter from King Edgar for the abbey, have been fed into the mix. Another spur was his chance discovery that the Tabard Inn featured in Canterbury Tales had been owned by Hyde Abbey.

Winchester's Heritage Open Day will feature readings by Edward from Chaucer and his new book on September 11 at 4.30 pm in the Hyde900 Marquee (free, but pre-booking required via: www. Hyde900: Launch of Edward Fennell’s “CHARTER FOR MURDER”).

The style of Charter for Murder makes it a hard-to-put-down tale. Written in the voice of Sir Matthew de Somborne (as in King’s Somborne), the action centres around a classic formula of three detectives - Sir Matthew in the lead, with his son Damian and servant Osric.

Murders and gruesome mutilations are investigated by the trio fanning out into the abbey and town – with its inns and bordellos – and reassembling in cosy chats to put together their findings and search out ‘the killer’. If you like Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie – or Robert Goddard, the prize-winning Hampshire novelist who studied at Price’s School, Fareham – you will recognize much in Charter for Murder.

For obvious reasons, historians love dates. If nothing else, they divide their subject into manageable chunks – waypoints of the past. No prizes for knowing 1066, but few would home in on 1381, the date that Edward has chosen for his tale.

This was, however, a year in which much happened. It was in a sense a ‘watershed’ between the old middle ages and a new era that stretched forward to the Tudors.

Stressed by the huge loss of life during the Black Death, religious communities were facing more-than-usual problems that would eventually spell their downfall. The learning that had once enabled them to run estates effectively was progressively migrating to universities.

In the forefront of these changes was William of Wykeham, Bishop of Winchester, who first founded New College, Oxford, and then Winchester College, to feed it students. He also directed visitations (not unlike unannounced Ofsted inspections!) that exposed the shortcomings of monastic institutions.

Readers will find no explicit sex in Charter for Murder, but the plot is laced with visits to Winchester’s medieval red-light district and even the equivalent of pimping by the occupants of Hyde Abbey.

Another strand of life at the time that the book explores is the rivalry between William of Wykeham of humble origin and John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, who was the third of Edward III’s five sons. His name was a corruption of Ghent and he had to suffer the indignity of a rumour that his actual father was a butcher from of that Flemish town. His son and heir became Henry IV, the ‘usurper’ king.

Gaunt’s estates were greatly enhanced by his first marriage to Blanche daughter of the 1st Duke of Lancaster. He is thought to have had a palace at King’s Somborne, probably to the south of the church, where a mansion house stood in 1591, according to Celebrating Somborne, edited by Paul Marchant.

What is known is that in 1353 Blanche’s father had ‘free chase’ in woodland to the southeast of the village. It therefore seems likely that the ‘palace’ was in fact a hunting lodge, perhaps like King John’s House. Romsey.

Evidence of visits of John of Gaunt to King’s Somborne are sparse. But he was almost certainly there in 1373 – close to date chosen for Charter for Murder – and there are numerous references to ‘Somborne’ in the archives

With this background, it is believable that the fictional Sir Matthew de Somborne and his son get asked to serve John of Gaunt. But an ongoing power struggle between a king’s son and a bishop makes it hazardous to agree. Read on!

As well as being a very good read, the value of well-researched historical fiction like Charter for Murder is that it sparks an interest in the real past and raises issues that, in any event, historians often have to explore. To avoid ‘fake news’, Charter for Murder includes notes for untangling the real and the invented.

To get closer to reality, the British Library holds a priceless manuscript from Hyde Abbey, Liber Vitae (Stowe MS 944, c.1031) which list the abbey’s monks and others. In 1892 Walter de Gray Birch edited a version for the Hampshire Record Series (available as reprint), overtaken in 1996 by Simon Keynes’ beautiful facsimile.

The print version of Charter for Murder is available from P & G Wells, College Street, Winchester or: www.bookdepository.com/CHARTER-FOR-MURDER-Edward-Fennell/9781919616117. The e-book can be purchased from: www.kobo.com/gb/en/search?query=Charter+for+Murder+by+Edward+Fennell.

For more on Hampshire, visit: www.hampshirearchivestrust.co.uk, or www.hantsfieldclub.org.uk.