by Mary Delorme.
The early medieval age is difficult to research, and yet author Mary Delorme has pieced together enough evidence to bring us the origins of St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
In this story of the orphan Rahere, raised by monks, a lover of music and healing, the author takes us into the world of 12th century England, where kings and bishops were all-powerful, and education could only come through the Church.
This is a well-written and beautiful novel about the power of faith. Freed from the monastery, Rahere goes on to become a remarkable court musician. But his talents bring him to the attention of William II, the Conqueror’s son. A brutal and dissolute monarch, William Rufus takes Rahere, beats and abuses him, and leaves him incarcerated – until the King himself is killed in mysterious circumstances.
Enter the more enlightened monarch Henry I – and as Rahere is released, we meet a very different man. Gone is the light-hearted innocent. On a pilgrimage to Rome, we learn something of his suffering and despair, although the details suggested rather than spelled out. But thanks to a meeting with a young woman whose faith restores him, he experiences a spiritual moment that changes his life. Returning home to devote his life to God, he vows to build a hospital in the name of St Bartholomew, dedicated to relieving the poverty and suffering of London’s poor.
The description of this bleak place on the marshes – formerly a place of execution – made the idea of building anything there seem like madness. How the hospital rose from the mud, and the talents utilised, makes a fascinating story in itself. The characters who turn up to be rescued are each touched in turn by Rahere’s energy and loving kindness, willing to repay in whatever way they can.
If I have any criticism at all, it concerns the later chapters. The conflict between monarchs Stephen and Matilda – which erupted into civil war after Henry I’s death – felt somewhat rushed. Hardly surprising, since this was a complex and appalling period. But the account of Rahere’s death, with the hospital functioning, and his demons finally exorcised, made for a satisfying ending. This is a beautiful and heart-warming story – well worth reading.