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It is the time of the Reformation, when Henry VIII has ordered his henchman Thomas Cromwell to strip the monasteries of everything valuable and then destroy them. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer and one of the commissioners who are tasked with inspecting the monasteries prior to their dissolution. But now Cromwell has a different task for him. While acting as commissioner at the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast, Robert Singleton has been brutally murdered and an act of sacrilege has been carried out in the church. Cromwell sends Shardlake to investigate…
This is the first of the Shardlake books, a series which has been a firm favourite of mine for many years. Sansom seemed to spring fully formed onto the stage of historical fiction, setting exceptionally high standards with this first novel. As a historian, he clearly knows the period inside out, and Shardlake – a decent man trying to navigate his way through the murky manoeuvrings of the Tudor monarchs and their ever-shifting cast of right-hand men – is an excellent guide.
In this first book, Shardlake is a convinced Reformer. Cromwell may be rough and ready, a rare commoner in the corridors of power, but Shardlake believes that Cromwell too is working for the cause of reform, although he understands that Cromwell has to compromise occasionally to keep his Royal master’s favour. However, during his time in Scarnsea, Shardlake will learn many things that make him question Cromwell’s integrity and the morality of his own role in doing Cromwell’s bidding. He will also see the human cost of the dissolution of the monasteries – elderly monks and monastery servants thrown out onto the streets to fend for themselves in a world with no place for them. While intellectually he feels that the Catholic church has long abused its power and should be brought down, he finds himself sympathising with those of the monks who refuse to recant from the form of religion to which they have devoted their lives, even in the face of the King’s wrath.
But Sansom also shows us the corruption within the monasteries, both financial and moral, which Henry used as an excuse for his campaign against them. And in turn, we see how Henry used the fabulous wealth he looted from the Church to consolidate his own power by lavishing his cronies with the land and great houses that had belonged to the abbeys and monasteries. While Shardlake remains true to the new religion, we see the first signs of the doubts that will eventually lead him to take a more cynical view of the process of Reformation.
All this history is mainly why I love the Shardlake books, I’ve learned more from them than from all the weighty history books I’ve read over the years because Sansom has a true gift for humanising the history. His characters are of their time – he never allows anachronisms to creep in, either in language or in his characters’ thoughts. In this one, homosexuality features, since it was one of the accusations regularly used against the monasteries. Sansom avoids giving Shardlake 21st century opinions on the subject, but also allows him to have a level of sympathy with what he sees as a moral weakness rather than an unforgivable sin. It’s done very well, so that it feels true to the time but doesn’t make for uncomfortable reading for a modern audience.
However Sansom also realises the importance of strong plots and this one is excellent. He rarely takes us directly into court circles, but the plots usually have something to do with the main events of the Tudor period. I won’t go into this one too deeply for fear of spoilers, but one of the monks is related to the recently deceased Jane Seymour, giving a certain sensitivity to the investigation, while later it appears that there may be some kind of link back to the time of Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell’s betrayal of this woman who helped him come to power. Shardlake has the first of several assistants who appear throughout the series – Mark Poer, a young man whose career is already blighted by a scandalous liaison with a lady of the court. We also meet Brother Guy, the Moorish monk whose discussions with Shardlake allow Sansom to lay out the religious differences of the time.
I listened to it this time round, narrated by Steven Crossley who does an excellent job, providing the monks with a wide range of regional accents all sounding completely authentic. There are few women characters in this one, but those that there are, he does very well. Having thoroughly enjoyed revisiting this one through audio, I’ll now be happily looking forward to listening to the rest of the series over the coming months – or years, perhaps, since each book is exponentially longer than the last!