* See previous posts on Shardlake and Lamentations
Tombland is the seventh novel in C. J. Sansom’s superb Shardlake* series set firmly in Tudor England with its splendour, poverty, ignorance, cruelty, religious bigotry and power in the hands of the few. Matthew Shardlake, despite his lowly background and physical deformity, sensitive and humanitarian, has risen through the ranks of Lincoln’s Inn, struggling to keep his personal values aligned with demands of the state. A senior, clever and persistent lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, he is unwillingly embroiled in the often dangerous and threatening affairs of state by Cromwell, Archbishop Crammer, Catherine Parr and, and in this, the latest novel in the series, by the lady Elizabeth, Henry’s teen-age daughter by Anne Bolyn.
In 1549, about 2000 noble dukes and earls (gentlemen who did not have to earn their living with manual toil) lorded it over the rural and agrarian population of the kingdom, believing the feudal order matched that of the divine body, with the king as head and the nobles representing the arms and trunk while the vast bulk of the manually working population, so far below the head and the arms, could be looked down upon, and treated, as mere chattels.
The late 1540’s in Tudor England were not happy times – not that they were particularly happier under the vacillating rule of Henry VIII – with inflation rampant, and currency debased to finance disastrous wars against the French and the Scots while the noble elite, completely disregarding the needs of their tenants, pushed them off their meagre common land holdings and enclosed the land for rearing sheep to take advantage of the burgeoning trade in wool. Add to that the mistrust and resentment around the new religious changes, initiated by Henry as far back as 1534 and continued on after his death in 1547 by the lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, and facing the prospect of a poor harvest for that year, Merrie England was ripe for revolt and repression.
It is into Norwich, England’s second biggest city, that Matthew Shardlake, Lincoln’s Inn Sergeant-at-Law, is sent at the behest of the young Lady Elizabeth, to investigate and ensure the fairness of a trial for John Bolyn, a distant relative of Elizabeth’s mother, who stands accused of murder.
Assisting the persistent, intelligent and caring lawyer is Nicholas Overton, a gentleman, disinherited by his father. Jack Barak, his former assistant, incapacitated in a vicious sword fight in a previous Shardlake episode, also happens to be in Norwich, working in the Assizes and readily agrees to assist Shardlake once more, despite fierce opposition from his wife back in London.
And that is all so beautifully explained in the first few pages that the most devoted fan would nod in admiration at the succinct summarising of the previous 6 novels. For the newcomer, the summary brings everything into focus so that the story can begin.
Simultaneous with Shardlake’s seemingly hopeless attempt to discover the facts around Bolyn’s arrest, the agrarian unrest spills over, trapping Shardlake, his gentleman assistant Overton and the commoner Barak in a popular peasant uprising led by a prosperous small farmer and landowner or yeomen, Robert Kett and his brother.
With his strong sense of morality and justice, Shardlake is able to see and understand the wrongs the common people labour under their corrupt and selfish landlords yet because of his upbringing and education, is unable to commit himself fully to the rebellion. Nicholas Overton, his gentleman assistant, has no such qualms and speaks his mind so freely in favour of the divine order that he ends up in Norwich Castle while Jack Barack fully commits himself to the revolt.
Despite initial early successes and the bloody taking of Norwich, the rebellion is doomed to failure as the professional English army, bolstered with foreign mercenaries, advances on Kett’s makeshift force of farmers and peasants on Mousehold Heath and Shardlake is faced with the far-reaching implications of the murder case he was sent to investigate as his friends become entangled with what will clearly be the losing side. For the first time ever, the humanitarian and all too human lawyer must dissemble and gloss the events that threaten to overwhelm him unless he chooses to evade his past loyalties and beliefs.
Not a light read in the sense that the book is a hefty 800 pages with a further 50 pages of Sansom’s historical essay on the background to Kett’s Rebellion, ruminating on such things as the class and status of people at the time, the great inflation caused by the Tutor wars, the religious changes sweeping the country and the enclosure of the common land and the form the rebellion took on the huge encampment on Mousehold Heath overlooking the city of Norwich.
Once again, Sansom has produced a brilliant detective thriller firmly set within Tudor times and seen through the eyes of a honest and moral man struggling to make sense of the bewildering times he was living through. Fantastic.