Tombland*

* 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.

IMG_2738It 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.

 

 

 

Lamentation

I have just finished Lamentation, the sixth novel by C. J. Sansom in the Shardlake* series, a massive 700 page historical mystery and detective story centred on the last year of the reign of the Tudor monarch, Henry VIII from the summer of 1546 until his death in January 1547.

The humanitarian and caring Matthew Shardlake, lawyer at Lincoln’s Inn, is once again, unwilling, involved in the murders and religious mayhem that ran rife during Henry’s reign.

The novel begins with the ghastly account of the burning at the stake of Anne Askew, and three other unfortunates in Smithfield, accused of heresy, a charge which Shardlake himself will face later on in the novel, recalling the last time the hunchback lawyer was dragged to the Tower of London for a tortuous questioning.

IMG_0997Without giving too much away, as Henry VIII vacillates between reform and traditionalist religion during the last months of his life, his court is divided between the Catholic and Protestant councillors vying to control Henry’s successor, the eight-year old Prince Edward. Henry’s last wife, the reformist Catherine Parr, formerly Catherine Latimer and the unrequited love interest of the solitary and melancholic sergeant -at-law, enlists his aid as she desperately fends off attacks from within the court and from mysterious and powerful influences in the world outside Whitehall.

As with the previous five Shardlake novels, the multiple plots concern a legal case unconnected with the hunchback lawyer’s involvement with the Tudor courts, something he had previously sworn to avoid. The inevitable conflicts, brought about by intimidation and violence, confirm the determination and bravery of Shardlake, showcasing his conscience and the inevitable consequences in a world of religious and political turmoil.

As always, London itself plays an atmospheric role as Shardlake trudges the dusty and pungent streets and alleyways of the medieval city in his quest to aid the endangered queen and to solve the litigations case between two quarrelling siblings with which he has become embroiled. The authentic background, the rich characterisation, and the wonderful weaving together of plot and historical reality combined with the final, real-politic twist make Lamentation the apotheosis of this sextet of fantastic novels.

Excitingly, C.J. Sansom hints, in the very last pages of the novel, that Shardlake may continue to see further service, but this time, in the service of the future Queen, Elizabeth I. Like many others, no doubt, I hold my breath in anticipation and look forward to a continuing Shardlake saga.

  • See my earlier blog about the first five Shardlake novels in the series

Shardlake

What makes a book irresistibly good? What type of book garners remarks like “couldn’t put it down”, ” a real page turner” and so on?

Are they character driven, or is it the genre, the plot, the setting, the style, the twist or the originality? All of them, of course and much more as well.

But to find, not only all of the above in a strong, character-driven novel, but also a specific and vivid historical mystery in Tudor times, is a find indeed.

In the Shardlake series of novels by C. J. Sansom both mystery and a historical vividness blend seamlessly in the humanist form of a candid and honest barrister at Lincoln’s Inn during Tudor times. Unwillingly, he finds himself working for Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s first minister, and other members of the court as the massive task of dissolving the monasteries’ grasp on power and land begins. An ardent reformer in his youth, Shardlakes begins to withdraw from the capriciousness and cruelty of the court but finds himself investigating, on Cromwell’s behalf, the murder of a high official at an isolated monastery in the depths of winter.

The six novels in the series (so far) span the reign of Tudor Henry VIII, from the winter of 1537 to the summer of 1546. Tudor England, where Henry has already broken with Rome and assumed the role of Head of Church as well as State, is a dangerous world of fanatical religious reformers, ambitious and jostling informers and unscrupulous and powerful performers and where to speak one’s true thoughts on religion and God could lead to charges of heresy and death by torture and burning.

IMG_0231In Dissolution, the first in the series, Matthew Shardlake, single, a lawyer, a humanitarian and a hunchback, regarded with distrust and fear by most people because of his deformity, reviled but used by the nobility for his intelligence, diligence and ability, is sent to investigate the sacrilegious murder of one of Cromwell’s commissioners in a remote monastery in the midst of a freezing winter. Drawn into a world so completely realized, the actual setting is as palpable as the villians he encounters, Shardlake’s involuntary involvement with the politics of the law and church unravels murders and mayhem. Increasingly disillusioned, he must juggle personal and conflicting ideals, as reforms seep into the kingdom. Emotionally scarred by his brush with politics and greed, Shardlake is determined to withdraw to an ordered and quiet life at Lincoln’s Inn helping those who are most in need of his legal skills.

However, in Dark Fire, the second in the series and, again at Cromwell’s express IMG_0232command, Shardlake, with the help of his new assistant, Jack Barak, must discover the source of a lost secret weapon – Greek Fire – with which Cromwell hopes to regain the king’s favour while at the same time acquiring an apparently hopeless case defending a young girl accused of murdering her own cousin.

Fascinating in both the legal details of the time – “peine et dure” being a case in point – and the seething background of the London scene, Shardlake discovers that in the world of alchemy and greed, nothing is as it seems and avariciousness plays an equal part in the life’s of both the common and noble folk.

IMG_0234Hoping to avoid further contact with the court after Cromwell’s downfall, Shardlake is nevertheless involved on missions for Archbishop Crammer and in Sovereign, he travels with Henry’s court to York on the Great Progress, dealing with legal submissions to the king but also to oversee the welfare of a traitor due to be conveyed to the Tower of London for a torturous interrogation. A seemingly irrelevant murder in York involves the lawyer and his irreverent assistant in a cache of secret documents which undermine the sanctity of the Tudor throne and which brings Shardlake terrifyingly face to face with the torturers in the Tower.

Revelation, the fourth novel, delves into the twisted IMG_0306world of a serial killer – a concept so alien to the ordinary Tudor mind that it arouses fears of witchcraft and sorcery, all the more so when inextricably linked with the prophecies of the biblical Book of Revelations. Taking on the case of an accused heretic, confined within Bedlam insane asylum, Shardlake must navigate the treacherous waters of religious purges while investigating the murder of his best friend linked to the dark prophecies of Revelations.

IMG_0241Heartstone, the penultimate novel in the sextet, sees Shardlake set off for Portsmouth on a private mission for Catherine Parr in the summer of 1545 as Henry prepares the Mary Rose and The Great Harry for a imminent French invasion.

Strong, driven characters, grounded in a specific time or era, essential but often locations are cursorily sketched or taken for granted but not so, in these multi-layered mystery events set in Tudor times. Shardlake, with his modest and unassuming air, a strong moral integrity and a keen interest in using the law to help the downtrodden, is a true renaissance man who grows and develops through constant danger among the shifting thoughts and trends of Tudor politics, a vivid and immediate setting, dealing with bewildering and baffling murders, alien to the beliefs and understandings of the time.

Multiple plot lines weave seamlessly together as characters assume unexpected relationships which reverberate through the stark realities of the Tudor world where being different or out of favour risks cruelty or execution. Shardlake, determined, scrupulous but above all, human must investigate events as feared and misunderstood at the time as terrorist outrages are today.

I’m looking forward to getting my hand on the most recent in the series, Lamentations.