Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake 1) by CJ Sansom

Monastic murder…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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.

CJ Sansom

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!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

42 thoughts on “Dissolution (Matthew Shardlake 1) by CJ Sansom

  1. I really enjoyed this book! I agree – I think one of the things that Sansom does really well is depict accurate-to-the-time views about homosexuality, race, and sex, without making it too unpleasant for a modern reader – you never feel like the book itself is agreeing with those views, just presenting them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes. it’s a tough thing to do but he makes it look easy. And he keeps it consistent all through the books, whatever the subject he’s covering. Even in the later ones when he’s talking about riots, he keeps Shardlake in the middle, able to see both sides. A great series! 😀

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    • Yes, that sounds about right, although personally I love these even more than the Mantel books, maybe because I read them first, so this Cromwell is the one that I “believe” in. It is intriguing to see how they both use the same facts and yet come up with two such different interpretations of his personality… both plausible.

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  2. You’ve made me see so much more in the book than I did when I read it. Didn’t realise Sansom was a genuine historian but on reflection I guess he had to be with the wealth of convincing detail. I agree about learning more about the dissolution of the monasteries from this than I ever learnt at school !

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you – glad you enjoyed it! I think he started out as a historian and then became a lawyer, so I suppose Shardlake is the perfect character for him! The history books are great for giving us facts, but good historical fiction makes us know what it must have been like to live through them… 😀

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  3. I loved this, and the next one in the series, ‘Dark Fire’ but for me they then started to go downhill. I think Sansom started to value length over narrative cohesion and I haven’t bothered with the most recent, although I know a lot of people rated it.

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    • I still love them and thought the most recent one was great, although I do know what you mean. I find them immersive and so am quite happy about the length, and it’s not often you’ll hear me saying that! In a sense, the story is always secondary to me than the history in these and I often find I don’t remember the plots very well…

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    • Thank you! 😀 Oh, good, I hope you enjoy it! Steven Crossley really is great at all the different voices and accents – I’ve downloaded the next one, though at the speed I listen to audiobooks it may be a couple of years before I finish The Mayor of Casterbridge… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Some people find the books too lengthy and I can see that criticism. But I find them totally immersive so actually enjoy the length – not always the case with me! If you ever get around to them, I hope you enjoy them! 😀

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  4. I’m glad you’ve found a new narrator you like, I’ll try him out sometime. I read abridged versions of the first couple of books in this series years ago, but then lost touch with it, as I seem to do with all long running series after a while. I clearly have commitment issues. I’ll start again with this recording and try to get further on.

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    • Although they are long, especially the later ones, I’m not sure whether abridging them would work too well, since I actually find it’s all the background stuff that makes them so good, rather than the basic plot itself. But I know a lot of people think they’re far too long and digress too much, so I suppose as always it’s down to individual taste. Steven Crossley was great though – I’m looking forward to listening to him read the rest of the series…

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  5. This is such an excellent series, isn’t it, FictionFan? One of the things I like best is the way Sansom balances evoking the time and place, but at the same time telling the story – keeping the focus on the plot and characters. He really gives a sense of those years. And her does the ‘homework.’ It also helps (for me) that I like Shardlake’s character. He does a good job of negotiating some very tricky situations and politics. Just a great series, and I’m glad it sounds as good as it reads, if I can put it that way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I really think it’s the best historical fiction series I’ve read, both in terms of the accuracy of the history and the actual writing – plot, characters, setting, etc. And Shardlake is wonderful – such an unlikely hero, and grumpy and grouchy, but a fundamentally decent man! The Tudors may have been the original dysfunctional family, but they did provide plenty of material for great historical fiction! Maybe in 400 years or so people will be writing entertaining fiction about our leaders… 😉

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  6. I haven’t read this one, but your review makes it sound interesting. Probably too heavy for a summertime read for me though! Glad you liked it, and I’m stoked at your ending another week on a five-star review!

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    • For me, it’s an entirely different experience, more akin to watching a movie than reading a book. That’s why more and more I listen to books I’ve already read, to see how they’re “performed”. I still find listening to books I haven’t read problematic because my attention dips in and out and it’s not as easy as being able to flip back through the pages…

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  7. You’ve described this book so wonderfully and have now really made me reconsider reading it. The length of it and “heaviness” of the subject matter put me off but I’ve seen such great reviews, yours included, that I am wondering if I made the right choice. Glad to see that you enjoyed it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I hope you do reconsider, although of course like any book these won’t work for everybody. But they’re very good on the actual history and I find Shardlake such an appealing character, grumpy and grouchy though he is! Although they’re always long, I find Sansom’s style stops them from feeling too heavy – I tend to race through them, which doesn’t usually happen with me with lengthy books…

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  8. This is an excellent review! I love all the books in this series and he really did meet my expectations with each subsequent book. I’m hoping for more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! 😀 Yes, I’ve loved each book more than the last – I think my original reviews of every one says “best yet!” in it somewhere! I do hope there will be more – the wait between them is always too long though…

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    • I loved the most recent one, even though it’s about a million pages long – well, slight exaggeration, but about 800, I think… 🙂 Fiction definitely makes things stick in my mind more than history books – with them, I tend to forget what I learned within days… haha, makes me wonder why I read them sometimes… 😉

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    • I did read Winter in Madrid years ago when it came out, and to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as this series. However I think that’s because I know the Tudor era much better – the Spanish Civil War is a gaping hole in my history knowledge. But now that I’ve challenged myself to learn about it, I’ve put Winter in Madrid on for a re-read and I suspect it’ll work better for me with some background knowledge – hopefully!

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  9. These books are treasures of reading, and for me a wonderful way to be acquainted with English history. I do like to know that fictional writers are writing stories based on ‘sound’ history. It’s a great idea to listen to this series as a reread. Unfortunately the library only has a full cast version but I prefer a single narrator. I’ll keep looking for possibilities.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now that I’ve become an enthusiast for doing these mixed challenges – half history books, half fiction set in the period – I wish schools would co-ordinate classes so that kids could read books like these at the same time as they’re learning the relevant history. I’m sure they’d find it more interesting, and it would make the history stick in their minds more. I hope you can get hold of this one sometime – I really thought he did a great job of giving all the characters distinct voices and personalities.

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        • I had an inspirational history teacher at one point who used to make us “act” the history – children crawling down mines, suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, the Peterloo massacre and so on, and I remember what I learned in his classes much more vividly because of that. Another teacher used to just dictate notes for us to copy and I remember nothing – not even what subjects she covered…

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  10. This period of history is (sadly) such a blank spot for me. Whenever I hear about its trials and tribulations i find it fascinating, but I haven’t read much about it. In fact, I haven’t read a single Hilary Mantel book (gasp!). Her books just seem too long and daunting for me to really get into…maybe because I feel ignorant about this time period in general?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I find that too if a book is set in a period I don’t know at all. That’s partly why I’m doing the Spanish Civil War challenge – I’m fed up with avoiding books set then for fear I won’t understand what’s going on! We get the Tudors rammed down our throats in school though, so most of us have a pretty good idea about the main events.

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