The Heaven Tree

by Edith Pargeter

First published 1960. Edition reviewed, Warner Futura 1993, ISBN 0-7515-0473-4.

Edith Pargeter also writes as Ellis Peters. The Heaven Tree is the first in a trilogy, and its sequel is The Green Branch.

The Heaven Tree is set on the English-Welsh border in 1200-1215, during the reign of King John. All the main characters are fictional.

Harry Talvace is the younger son of a noble family, schooled at Shrewsbury Abbey with his childhood friend and foster-brother Adam, son of a villein* stonemason. Returning home to manage the estate books for his father, Harry's sense of justice quickly brings him into conflict with the law and with his father's rights over the villeins on the estate. When he and Adam are falsely accused of poaching, they flee to Paris together to work as stonemasons on the great cathedrals.

Harry's talent as a mason and stonecarver is noticed by Isambard, a nobleman returning from crusade to his home in Shropshire on the Anglo-Welsh border. He takes Harry and Adam with him to build him a magnificent church, the Heaven Tree of the title. With them goes Madonna Benedetta, a Venetian courtesan and Isambard's mistress. She is in love with Harry, but Harry has eyes only for his childhood sweetheart Gilleis. Jealousy, injustice and bitter feuds with the Welsh conspire to push Harry into another fatal conflict with feudal law.

For me, one of the key strengths of the book is its unhurried pace and rich, evocative writing. The landscape and society of the time come vividly to life on the page. Feudal law, and its harshness to the have-nots on the wrong end of it, is portrayed with an immediacy that is inevitably missing from studies of social history. Similarly, the author brings out the excitement and creative spirit that must have gone into raising the great medieval churches. I've looked at and admired the wool churches in Suffolk villages - some of them, like Long Melford, resemble junior cathedrals - but this book makes me feel I understand a little about the craftsmen who built them. The creative fire in Harry is so strong that it compels him to complete his church, whatever the consequences. Another strength of the book is its characterisation. None of the main characters is entirely good or entirely bad, yet their different personalities and social positions bring them into terrible conflict with each other and with the social norms.

Some things did not work so well for me. I found the beginning unpromising, with a rather dull account of Harry and Adam joshing each other under the disapproving gaze of Harry's brother Ebrard (who then all but vanishes from the story). Harry's conflict with his family and in particular the scene where they are unjustly accused of poaching made me wonder if this was going to be a conventional Robin Hood sort of story. But after about 70 pages, when the boys are on their way to Paris, it picks up and then keeps getting better.

I also found it a little hard to be convinced that everyone is so absolutely constant in love. The characters fall in love at first sight (sometimes even before first sight) and then remain in love thereafter, no matter if it be unrequited or if years of separation intervene. There are no ill-considered infatuations to be grown out of, no-one is ever in any doubt, love never withers or fades away, and the women in particular love absolutely selflessly, without a trace of jealousy or reproach. This hangs together because all the main characters experience love in this way; a heart is given in an instant and never changed. It doesn't quite work for me.

This is a rich, dramatic tale of love, honour, injustice, jealousy and the joy of creativity in feudal England.

*villein: feudal serf, tenant entirely subject to lord or attached to manor. Villeins were unfree and could not leave their lord's lands without his permission. They had to work a certain number of days each week on his land or on his projects, which could be altered at his discretion, could be sold along with their land and had very limited rights.