This short story is set 1451 and centres around a priest, Father Hugh, mass priest of St Osburga’s Abbey. Father Hugh has invited three other people to his house, for reasons not disclosed at the beginning of the story. What we do know is that one of the cottages in the village, belonging to Annie Bridges, had burned down, the most recent of three fire-related incidents in the area. The priest believes that the fires may have been started deliberately, so he begins to question a few of the villagers to see what they know. The first man, Robert Fitzralph was the first person on the scene at the latest fire; he rescued the widow from the burning building. The second man, Pers Hawkins, is the neighbour who covets the land belonging to his unfortunate neighbour. The final member of the group is another priest, Father Clement, who has his own theory as to the cause behind the fire.
As the story unravels we come to hear about a testing of guilt from an earlier age…ordeal by fire. The accused would have to lift a large iron bar that had been heated by fire and carry it ten paces with their bare hands. The hands would then be wrapped in bandages and left for three days. After the three days had passed, if the burns festered, the accused would be judged guilty. If the burns had already begun to heal and appeared clean, they would be judged innocent.
Will Father Hugh uncover the truth behind the fire that destroyed Annie Bridges cottage, and the other two fires that have occurred locally? And how does a no-longer-in-use punishment hold the key to the mystery?
Ordeal by Fire was an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable quick read, one I would return to and recommend.
This short story can be found in The Mammoth Book of Historical Detectives, ed. Mike Ashley.