After Henry II dies, Richard Plantagenet, (Richard I, the Lionhearted), unexpectedly and by default is granted the crown of England, a country he knows little about and cares less. His mother, Eleanor of Acquitaine, newly released from her English imprisonment, has freed criminals awaiting trial in a gesture that she hopes will create hundreds of folk grateful for Richards humane treatment. When a nun belonging to the Abbey of Hawkenlye, modeled after Eleanors beloved Fontevraud Abbey, is murdered, Richard worries that his mothers naive act has backfired, and sends one of his trusted knights, Josse dAcquin, to Hawkenlye to investigate. There, Josse links up with the abbeys young abbess, Helewise, in hopes of solving this crime and, later, the murder of yet another nun. Abbess Helewise is worldly, having been once married and widowed, and heads a double monastery, one in which monks as well as nuns are under her command. There is a map of the abbey depicting the divisions of space, including the Virgin Sisters House, the infirmary and enclosed area for sisters who have elected to care for the lepers, and the vale where the monks tend to the sacred spring.
The reader learns facts about the Plantagenet family, 12th century life in Tonbridge, a town near the abbey on the road between the south coast and London, the manors, and the surrounding countryside. Author Alys Clare says that it helps that she lives on the spot where her fictional abbey would have stood. The Josse and Helewise investigative team is well matched. They continue their collaboration in Alys Clares subsequent Hawkenlye mysteries, in which Queen Eleanor and King Richard make further appearances. The only jarring note is having 12th century characters occasionally use modern expressions like, the only way was to sweat it out, or she gave us a right telling-off.