“This plot is ridiculous.” I was about a third of the way through The Canterbury Papers when I uttered those critical words to my husband. Eleanor of Aquitaine wanted Alais, the French princess who used to be betrothed to her son Richard, to travel to Canterbury and obtain some secret letters hidden in the altar near Thomas Becket’s tomb. In return, the princesse Alais would receive some information about a mysterious child that had long been presumed dead. “Why?” I kept asking myself. “Why in the world would Eleanor want the French princess to go all the way across the English Channel on such an errand, when it would obviously be so much easier to send a servant, or a knight, or at least someone who was already in England?” Little did I suspect that the author intended to answer that very question later on in the novel.
As Alais pursues her journey to Canterbury, she runs into many implausible characters and situations. Averroes, the famous Muslim scholar, is staying at an inn on the seacoast in France and seems very interested in the large jewel pendant that Alais wears. She also meets up with her uncle Robert, the Duke of Orleans, who shows a similar interest in the necklace. Even though her room is ransacked, she keeps the jewel safe and makes her way to Canterbury. There, she discovers that the abbot is away on a journey; she must apply for permission to visit Becket’s altar to the acting prior, William of Caen.
This William, an orphan of obscure parentage, was fostered in the house of the former King Henry during the same years that Alais also lived there. Alais and the English princes had despised William because he was good and obedient and much better at his lessons than they were. But now it seems that William has become a well-respected church leader. As prior, he warns Alais to stay away from Becket’s altar, and then forbids her to hold an all-night vigil there. Apparently, he knows something about the mysterious letters.
As any daring heroine would do, Alais finds a way to thwart William’s commands and search for the letters. While she is in the cathedral, King John and his knights show up. They capture Alais and drag her away to Old Sarum, the tower where Eleanor of Aquitaine had been imprisoned for so many years. Why does John want to imprison Alais? He feels sure that she knows the whereabouts of the mysterious child (that Eleanor had alluded to), a bastard son of Henry II whom the Templars are plotting to put on the English throne as a replacement for avaricious John. Like Herod, John is seeking the child so that he may destroy him and protect his position.
At this point I was halfway into the book, and although the plot continued to be ridiculous, I stopped caring that it was ridiculous because I actually had become engaged with the characters. A daring rescue saves Alais from the hands of John, and we find that William of Caen may not be the simple churchman he purports to be. Eleanor’s true intentions in sending Alais to England are revealed, the value behind Alais’ jewel pendant is disclosed, and we discover the real identity of the mysterious child.
If you’re looking for historical fiction, this book set during John Lackland’s reign is probably not the book for you. But if you’re looking for a good adventure story, this one is a pleasant romp through the twelfth century with a decent romance and fairly well-drawn characters. Three out of five stars, by my estimation.