The story takes place in England in the late 14th century. John Wycliff is at Oxford but his ideas about bringing the gospel to the largely illiterate population soon oust him from his position as master of Balliol College. Wycliff believes, along with other prominent voices, that the Catholic church has become corrupt. Priests and even the Pope have mistresses and children, say prayers for payments from rich and poor alike. Finn the illuminator makes his living embellishing holy works but is also involved in doing the same for secret English translations. At at time when England is divided over loyalty to young King Richard and the church’s wealth and power are without rival, to be caught with these papers could mean death.
Lady Katherine is the widow of a man whom she does not mourn, but she does have two sons by him who are to inherit Blackingham Manor if she can keep it for them until they reach maturity. She gives a visiting priest her mother’s pearl necklace as tithe but struggles to come up with the king’s taxes. Beset on all sides by men who know she has little power she agrees to take in Finn and his daughter to appease the Bishop. This, she hopes, will bring her protection of a sort from a powerful ally. But almost immediately the priest who took the pearls is found murdered and Finn is accused and arrested.
If you ever despair of the state the world is in today, read this book and realize how very much worse it was a thousand years ago. Everyone was at the mercy of the church and royalty jousted for power with each other, betting their wealth and their lives on who could seize power.