THE murder of Richard Hunne is a subject begging for a historical novelist. Hunne was a well-connected London merchant tailor, but also (probably) a Lollard, one of the miscellaneous group of disgruntled heretics in late-medieval England who looked to John Wyclif for inspiration.
A quarrel with his parish priest escalated until, on 4 December 1514, he was found dead in a cell in the Bishop of London’s prison. The Church said that it was suicide, and his corpse was burned for heresy. An inquest said that it was murder, and the Bishop’s Chancellor was charged. But Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey quietly intervened, and the trial collapsed. It became the scandal of the decade, and, to this day, no one knows for sure what really happened.
A fictional treatment, therefore, is really the only satisfying way of resolving this frustrating case. Richard Dale’s account, which takes Hunne’s widow, Anne, as its resourceful, determined, priest-hating protagonist, lays out the mystery and introduces us to scraps of evidence about the fateful night one by one, before finally giving us an account that feels plausible in terms of the novel and could very well be the actual truth.
In the mean time, Anne pops up at set-piece events from the Evil May Day riots to (implausibly) the Diet of Worms, and we meet a checklist of characters from Thomas More through Henry VIII to Martin Luther.
Historically plausible and well-informed enough, it does, however, lack something as fiction. The characters are a little thin and have the tendency to talk like textbooks; the churchmen are all either cardboard cut-outs of corruption or saintly “reformists”. Dale’s prose struggles to come to life; the narrative of even the most dramatic incidents is oddly flat. Factual accuracy is a dispensable luxury in historical fiction. Imagination and invention ought to be essentials.
Dr Alec Ryrie is Professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University.
Murder in St Paul’s
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