An England ripe for rebellion…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
It’s the summer of 1549, and young King Edward VI is on the throne following the death of Henry VIII two years earlier. Since Edward is still a child, the guardians appointed by Henry have in turn appointed a Protector to rule in his stead, his uncle Edward Seymour. There is great poverty in the towns and cities while, in the farming lands of the north and west, landlords are enclosing common land for their own sheep, fermenting unrest amongst the smallholders and tenant farmers who relied on that land to eke out their own precarious living. Throw in the usual religious turmoil – the new Book of Common Prayer has just been foisted on a population tired of constant change and with newly developed religious opinions of their own – and an unpopular and unwinnable war against those pesky Scots, and the time is ripe for rebellion. It’s at this moment that Shardlake is summoned by his new patron, Princess Elizabeth, to investigate a murder of which one of her distant Boleyn relatives stands accused. And so he must head for Norwich, a city that will soon be at the heart of the East Anglian rebellion, led by the charismatic Robert Kett…
Generally speaking, when I see that a book has 800 pages I groan and run in the opposite direction. But with Sansom, I sigh and wish it was a few hundred pages longer. His ability to create an entirely immersive and believable Tudor world is second to none, partly because his own background as a historian means that the history is accurate. Sure, he manipulates it a little for literary purposes and he uses his imagination to fill in historical blanks, but he never strays far from actual events; and his characters are equally well and credibly depicted, whether they are real or fictional. Matthew Shardlake, as fans know, is a decent man with real empathy for the poor and disadvantaged, so it’s no surprise that this is a sympathetic portrayal of Kett’s Rebellion, showing him and his followers in a light that may be a little more idealistic than was really likely. But I bow to Sansom’s greater knowledge – maybe they did behave as well as he suggests – and I bow even more deeply to his skill in story-telling, because I was happy to buy into the idea of Kett as a principled leader and his followers as mostly disciplined and fair-minded men and women.
The bulk of the book is spent with the rebels, as Shardlake and his young assistant Nicholas get caught up in events. Nicholas is a son of a landowner, so has a different opinion from Shardlake initially, although his viewpoint is shaken as he is forced to witness some of the cruelties the poor are forced to suffer at the hands of the ruling class. Sansom uses him, though, to give the other side – to make the case for the landowners. Jack Barak is back, too, coping well after the events of the previous book. Being from lower stock himself, he is naturally drawn to the rebels, so with all three of the companions standing at different heights on the social ladder, it’s unclear whether their friendship will be enough to hold them together when the fighting begins.
The murder plot is how the book begins and ends, and it rumbles on as a background to the rebellion plot in the lengthy mid-section, but Sansom never allows it to be lost sight of entirely. John Boleyn, a landowner and distant cousin of Anne Boleyn, stands accused of murdering his first wife, Edith. Edith had left him and disappeared some years earlier, and he had eventually had her declared dead and married again. But now Edith’s newly murdered body has been found, displayed in a sordid fashion near John’s estate. Shardlake must find out where she’s been for the last nine years, and who, other than John and his second wife, might have wanted her dead.
The personal lives of the recurring characters are brought up to date, too. Jack’s relationship with his wife Tamasin is rocky, partly because she’s never forgiven Shardlake for the events in the last book (avoiding spoilers, apologies for vagueness). Young Nicholas is of an age to consider marrying and Matthew is concerned that he seems to have set his heart on a woman Matthew thinks is shallow and unworthy of him. Guy is old now and ill, and Matthew fears he may soon lose the man he considers his closest friend. And Matthew himself is feeling rather lonely. The old Queen, Catherine Parr, is dead and Matthew misses her more than a commoner should miss a queen. But he also misses his old servants, many of whom he had taken in as waifs and strays, and who have now grown up and left for lives of their own. So one of the things he wants to do in Norwich is look up his old maidservant Josephine, now married and living in the city. The last time she wrote to him, she was expecting her first child and he’s worried that it’s been some months and he’s heard no more.
This is another completely satisfying addition to the series, confirming again my belief that Sansom is the best historical fiction writer certainly today and perhaps ever. He tells his story in a straightforward linear way, without stylistic quirks or “creative” writing, relying instead on creating a great historical setting founded on in-depth research, a strong plot, and a group of brilliantly depicted characters who have all the complexity of real, flawed humanity. Shardlake himself continues to be one of the most appealing characters in fiction – irascible, often lonely, occasionally a little self-pitying, but intelligent, determined, dedicated, charitable and wholeheartedly loyal to those he takes into his generous heart. If I ever stand accused of murder, I hope I have a Shardlake to depend on. A great book in a brilliant series – my highest recommendation!
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Mantle, an imprint of Pan MacMillan.