Prioress Eleanor
(creator: Priscilla Royal)

Priscilla Royal
Prioress Eleanor was only twenty when she was appointed as Prioress at Tyndal in 1270, as a direct result of her closest relations being faithful servants of the royal family, even though it was against the wishes of the priory. She had been sent to Wynethorpe convent, aged six, after her mother had died in childbirth. For her, "happiness was the cloister .... The world .... to Eleanor meant the sound of her mother's screaming and the memory of her death from childbirth". The convent, on the other hand, was "a home filled only with love and peace".

She was a small but shrewd and determined, even stubborn, young woman "with gray eyes alert with curiosity" who knew "she had to be careful not to change things quickly, and not to change anything without understanding why the previous decision had been made". She was "painfully aware of both her inexperience and youth compared to her predecessor". But she had "evident but understated intelligence" and soon won over most of the nuns through "her kindness, modesty, and willingness to listen".

She was still young, though, and found herself lusting after Thomas, a handsome young monk with a hidden past. "She felt as if a bonfire had been set alight in her entrails. This was no easily ignored and set aside desire". But she fought the temptation.

Priscilla Royal grew up in British Columbia and has a degree in world literature from San Francisco State University, where she says she discovered the beauty of medieval literature. Until 2000, she worked for the Federal government in a variety of positions. She is a theater fan as well as reader of history, mysteries, and fiction of lesser violence. She now lives in Northern California. As well as the Eleanor books, she wrote one other novel, also often found in the gay/lesbian section.

Wine of Violence (2003)
Wine of Violence is set in the late summer of 1270 in a small priory on the remote East Anglian coast. Although Tyndal Priory is fictitious, the French Order of Fontrevand really existed. It was one of the rare Orders of double houses where a woman was in charge of both male and female monastics. But the monks and nuns at Tyndal are far from pleased when the young and inexperienced Eleanor of Wynethorpe is appointed as their new prioress. Then the day after she takes office, a brutally murdered (and castrated) old monk is found in the cloister gardens. And a newcomer, Brother Thomas, arrives to work under cover to investigate the priory's shaky finances. More violence, lust and greed follow until Eleanor, Brother Thomas and crowner Ralf together unearth the killer.

This is a violent story, and some of the monks seem to have little religious faith: "Thomas had never pretended that his faith was other than a thing of habit, unconsidered and at no point in his life profound. Even now he went through the motions of priesthood as a necessary daily ritual and suspected that the majority of others did the same". To these monks the devil seems more real than God. Any feeling of God's love is conspicuously absent. The author seems more interested in the monks' homosexuality, whether real or imagined, and even Eleanor is left wondering about those who fall "into lustful acts between man and woman or man and man, whose union has not been blessed. Are they incapable of using that love they share to become better creatures? .... My heart tells me that that there is so much enlightenment yet to be granted from a Wisdom far superior to our own. Perhaps it will be given to us at a time and place when we are most open to understanding." Perhaps - but it all sounds more like 21st century California than 13th century England!

The characters too seem to belong more to modern times, although they have a strange predeliction for saying "For cert" at frequent intervals. Did they really say this in medieval times?

But the story of the monks' and nuns' resentment of their new prioress holds the interest, although even bits that are not meant to be amusing sometimes are, as when Ralf says, "You saved my lazy brother's life with that green and foul smelling poultice when the boar gored his leg, you know." Or even when a nun explains, "I believe the person who killed him (the first victim, Brother Rupert) was left-handed ... If you were gelding a man, you would hold his genitals in your left hand as you cut with your right ... but Brother Rupert held his severed organs in his right hand".

And the dialogue can get corny, as in "In that instant, she understood what it meant to meet Death face to face". But there are some nice cracks at the male Prior who condescendingly explains to Brother Thomas: "Being a woman, Prioress Eleanor is weak and lacking in good judgement .... Our descendant of Eve suffers much from the sin of arrogance, I fear, and shows no signs of realising she needs guidance and the greater wisdom of Adam".

The result is a fast-moving, entertaining and totally unlikely story, that I must admit I quite enjoyed. But I don't believe a word of it.

Tyrant of the Mind (2004)
Tyrant of the Mind sees Prioress Eleanor and Brother Thomas at the Welsh border castle of Wynethorpe, together with Sister Anne, a nun skilled in medicine, who has come to help tend to Eleanor's six-year-old nephew Richard, who is ill. But Eleanor's father, impotent Baron Adam of Wynethorpe, has marriage plans for her older brother Robert whom he intends to be the husband of Juliana of Lavenham, although, as Juliana tells Eleanor, "I desire a hermit's cell apart from other mortals where I may spend my life as an anchoress and ponder the complexity of God's love".

It develops into quite a lively, fast-moving story in which you never know what is going to happen next - and a lot does happen, including the death of a servant, the murder of one of the principal guests (with Robert accused of the crime), and the attempted killing of a priest, and an old friend of the family. Not to mention rape/attempted rape.

The characters are nothing if not down-to-earth, from handsome young Brother Thomas who says, "Fuck!" when he accidentally cuts himself shaving ("He is grateful to "his Saxon friends from the village near the priory for teaching him some of their more colorful words") to old Father Anselm, "a priest of middling intellect but much higher odor" who believes "it is ungodly to bathe". Then there's Adam's second wife, the Lady Isabelle, whom Thomas saw "poking at some part of Robert below the table edge". And Henry (Juliana's brother), Thomas could not help noticing, "was suffering from a rather impressive erection".

It's all fairly outrageous but written with a quiet sense of humor as when we are told: "Like Prioress Eleanor, Robert was in his early twenties, and had gray eyes that sparkled with intelligence and humor. Unlike Prioress Eleanor, he was wiry, muscular, and sported a curly black beard". Or Thomas teases Father Anselm, when Anselm warns him, "You seek meat. Avoid temptation! Fall on your knees with me and beg God to give you the strength your frail body lacks!"
Thomas managed not to laugh, "It is not meat I seek, priest. It is a kitchen wench who is lusty with desire ..."
Anselm's face paled in horror.
"... to warm my stomach with a bit of ale so I may better kneel in prayer."

Baron Adam tries to stop Eleanor her in her tracks: "The accused murderer is my son and the murder occurred in my castle. I have been far too tolerant of your involvement. None of this is woman's business." But it would need more than this to deter her and, in fact, she ends up by getting not just one confession to the crime, but a whole series of them.

There's an interesting author's note about the historical background. It was believed, she explains, that "a woman must ejaculate 'seed', much as a man did, if she was to conceive. (Pregnancy resulted from the union of male and female 'seeds'. ) If she became pregnant, she was presumed to have ejaculated and thus experienced the same sort of orgasmic pleasure as a man. This assumption of pleasure in the act made it very difficult for a woman to claim in a court of law that she had been raped if she conceived as a result of sexual assault. ....We shouldn't be too smug about how much wiser we have become. The rate of conviction for rape has changed little in seven hundred years; many continue to question whether a woman didn't really 'lead him on' or somehow 'ask for it' ." The author leaves us in no doubt about what she thinks about it.

Sorrow Without End (2006)
Sorrow Without End is set in the autumn of 1271. Crowner Ralf finds the body of a brutally murdered soldier in the woods near Tyndal Priory. The corpse is wrapped in a crusader's cloak and has been stabbed with a strangely engraved dagger. Could this be the revenge of one of the Assassin sect? Ralf takes the body to the priory for further investigation.

Meanwhile a new prior has to be elected. He comes second only to the Prioress, and Eleanor, who is now 21, hopes that the brother appointed will be Brother Andrew who wants to continue their hospital work, rather than Brother Matthew who would like to give it all up and instead purchase a relic of Saint Skallagrim to attract pilgrims - even if there is some doubt whether the saint ever really existed.

Despite two murders , there is less action than in previous stories. Eleanor is still troubled by the return of Brother Thomas "and her unrelenting lust for the man". Thomas, still working for the "raven-clad spymaster" who had a hold over him because of his guilty (sodomite) past, "had been ordered to York last spring to discover the instigator of a series of attacks against cathedral clerks". This is all we hear about this - it sounds as if it could have provided the story for another (and perhaps more interesting) novel, but, of course, Eleanor would not have been in it.

The narrative is full of such expressions as "By Satan's balls" and everyone still seems to say "for cert" at far too frequent intervals. And savagery and sexual misdemeanour are never far away. But the author moves briskly on, as when one chapter ends with Eleanor saying, "Our time is short. We must find this man". Then the next chapter starts, '"As soon as I found him, my lady, I confirmed that he was dead". No time wasted here.

Thomas himself gets locked up as chief suspect. Both Ralf and Eleanor realise he is hiding something from them, but he dare not tell them about his past. And there is an attempted rape of a shortsighted nun by a man she mistakes for Our Lord: "He stood with his arms open, calling me His beloved .... I crawled towards Him on my knees, weeping for joy and calling Him my Bridegroom ....but He grabbed me .... then He hit me with His fist. He cursed me .... I know He struck me because I have failed to understand the suffering I bring to Him. We are all so cursed with sin." She tells Eleanor that she can remember nothing about his appearance except that "his skin did not have the color of any mortal man, my lady. It was suffused with a purple tinge .... By this noble hue, I knew He must be the King of Heaven's Son. For cert, I have been blessed with a vision!" For cert indeed! One of the patients in the hospital has just such a face, so this puts Eleanor on his track.

Eleanor herself remains troubled by her feelings for Thomas: "In the days after the murders were solved she had slept but little, spending the dark hours on her knees, begging God for respite and wisdom". Then the book ends with her telling her cat, "Ah, sweet sir, it is times like these that I do most miss my aunt (a kindly nun) at Amesbury".

There follows a slightly odd author's note defending King Henry III against his critics, then there's a much more relevant one about the medieval use of relics: "Each site had records showing that the efficacy of cures diminished with some predictable regularity after the relic first arrived .... thus income from the site dropped as well". Finally, the author jumps right out of period to a quote from William Tecumseh Sherman in 1880: "There is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys it is all hell."

As with the author's notes, the story itself is more of a mishmash than the previous books, and it is understandable why she decided to move to an different subject for her next book (not described here).

Justice for the Damned (2007)
Justice for the Damned sees Eleanor's return. She is now 22, and has been head of her priory for 2 years. In early May 1272, recovering from a near-fatal winter fever, she goes on a visit to Amesbury Priory (where she had been brought up as a child) to visit her aunt Beatrice, the novice mistress and acting prioress. But she finds that a ghost seems to be haunting Amesbury. Could it be the spirit of a pregnant woman who had drowned herself in the River Avon? Then a man is decapitated near the river where the ghost has been seen.

Meanwhile Brother Thomas is also there on a secret mission connected with the famous Amesbury Psalter. Then there is a strange character, Sayer the roofer, whom Thomas finds all too attractive. "He had swyved the roofer in his dream" and guiltily calls out, "I am no man at all .... I am a creature made in the image of Satan with a man's sex and a woman's breasts!" Then "amidst the bursting buds and flowering shrubs of that silent monastic garden, he fell to his knees, bent his forehead to the earth, and wept. His howls of pain were as sharp as the ailings of one damned beyond any hope of forgiveness, and he beat his head against the ground as if one torment ciould numb the other". It is not entirely convincing, is it? Nor is the way that, as in previous books, characters keep on using the expression "for cert". It just never sounds right.

There is a lot for Eleanor to be concerned about - everything from period pains to murder, but, away from her own abbey, she seems less interesting - and she is not really an entirely credible 22-year-old. However, it is she who devises a trap to catch the murderer. This leads to a dramatic ending, but unfortunately the plot is not strong enough to hold the interest throughout.

Forsaken Soul (2008)
Forsaken Soul Is set in the summer of 1273. Prioress Eleanor of Tyndal Priory is going through another troubled time. Her friend, Crowner Ralf, is newly widowed with a baby daughter. Her new anchoress, Juliana, is terrifying her servants and welcoming visitors to her window at night. And then Martin the Cooper is poisoned at the local Inn. Could the murderer be his usual whore, about to be tossed aside for another woman? Or is it the innkeeper's niece who has secret reasons for fearing him? Or was it the blacksmith whose "manhood" he had mocked?

Eleanor does what she can to help with the investigation, as does Sister Anne, a former apothecary. Eleanor discovers that one of the nocturnal visitors to the anchoress's window had been Brother Thomas, a man she secretly loves. Now his loyalty to her as Head of Tindal Priory is suspect. And the murderer, when finally revealed, turns out to be the least likely of all the contenders!

It is not a very gripping plot, and all the sexual references to "swyving" and to men's "lances" standing raised get repetitious and so rather tedious. And Eleanor herself is not an entirely attractive character, what with her bad tempered rages and the long conversations she seems to have either with a cat ( who then "left the chambers in pursuit of those things deemed important by his ilk") or with herself. Realising that "murder was most extreme", she spends as many as six pages talking to herself about possible suspects and their motives until "Suddenly a possible answer came to her, and she begged God to forgive her for caring more about her petty jealousies and pride than putting facts together to catch a killer".

The most interesting parts of the story are those that describe various aspects of medieval life, such as the life of an anchoress. There is more about this amongst the interesting author's notes at the end of the book. The murders themselves somehow seem only to get in the way of what the author really wants to tell us.

Valley of Dry Bones (2010)
Valley of Dry Bones starts in the late summer of 1274 by which time Edward has become king. His Queen is considering a pilgrimage to Tyndall Priory. But when her envoys arrive, one of her courtiers is murdered near the hut where Brother Thomas now lives as a hermit. Each member of the party has reason to hate the dead man, including Crowner Ralf's eldest brother Sir Fulke. Prioress Eleanor Is determined to investigate and to find “the elusive reason for this crime" and, after a false start, it is she who eventually confronts the murderer

There is rather a lot of historical explanation, although some of this can be interesting as when we are told that Eleanor “had been taught that every one of the dead would rise aged thirty-three, reflecting Jesus' years on Earth at the time of his crucifixion". But it is difficult to feel very involved with the story. One young man reminded Eleanor of “some hellish cauldron, bubbling with tension. Maybe it was just his eyes, hooded like those of a bird of prey, which made her uneasy. Or was he truly cursed?" No wonder he “made her uncomfortable".

Other potentially sinister characters include the implacable Father Eliduc, and even Prior Thomas seems to have had a good reason for hating the murder victim as he had “castrated my brother, as others had de Montfort, then stabbed him in the back to suggest he had been fleeing the battle out of cowardice. To further insult our family, (he had) stuffed my brother's genitals into his mouth." And Andrew "wailed with indescribable agony." Wailed sounds a bit over the top.

The best part of the book is the lead-up to the monks' performance of The Play of Daniel when "accompanied by the choir, the tinkling of hand cymbals, and the softness of a harp, a young novice, his amice (a white cloth fastened around the shoulders) unfolded and draped over his head to represent a woman's veil .... began to sing in such sweet tones that Eleanor almost wept." Then the boys in the choir enjoy their chance to “roar like lions with all their might". It was a pity it all had to be interrupted by the discovery of another dead body.

The author has her own website.

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Wine of Violence cover
The cover is simple but appropriate.
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