Historical faction has proved a popular genre but some are better than others and CJ Sansom in his Shardlake series is the best.
Tombland is his 7th Shardlake novel and it’s set in Norwich in 1549. At that time Edward, the son of King Henry and Jane Seymour, was 11 and the country was ruled – incompetently in the view of Sansom- by the Earl of Somerset of the Seymour family as Protector.
It was a time of some religious and social upheaval. Henry had dissolved the monasteries and adopted Protestantism with a book in English of Common Prayer; there was rampant inflation caused by debasing the silver in the currency to finance an extravagant royal lifestyle; the Scottish war implemented by Somerset had fared badly; the use of enclosures had deprived the poor farmer of land as the aristocracy preferred to graze sheep to produce and wool.
All this Sansom evokes graphically. It led to popular uprisings throughout the country – the biggest under the leadership of Robert Kett was in Norwich, then the second largest city after London.
Matthew Shardlake a chancery lawyer is a Serjeant of Lincoln’s Inn and is charged by the Lady Elizabeth, the future Queen, to investigate a strange death of a distant kinswoman of hers Eliza Boleyn married to John Boleyn.
After disappearing for 11 years , she is discovered head stoved-in, legs jutting in the air, privates exposed in a river. John Boleyn is a strong suspect. This is the mystery Shardlake has to unravel.
In the meantime he is captured and held, not entirely against his will, in the rebel camp at Mousehold run by Robert Kett. He is charged with dispensing justice there.
I had no idea that such popular uprisings the largest since the Peasants Revolt took place. Certainly the poor had many grievances and the aristocracy lived off the fat of the land. The rebels professed their allegiance to the Protector and vainly hoped his Commissioners would resolve their complaints but, after taking Norwich, they were brutally repressed by an army consisting of Swiss mercenaries under the Earl of Warwick who consigned the uprising to the footnotes of history. However 100 years later they were back under Cromwell, sharing the same vision of the Commonwealth.
Reading depends on mood and place. I happen to be travelling a lot and putting on my earphones for the audio version gave me much pleasure, whereas by reading such a hefty book I might be intimidated.
Sansom’s sympathies lie with the rebels. He does not disguise this and although he contributes an history essay at the end I would have preferred something more objective.
The real skill of Sansom is his ability to fill in the gaps with fiction. There is no account of the life in the Mousehold Camp so he supplies one. There is not much known about Robert Kett either. John Boleyn did not exist.
Finally characters. Matthew Shardlake is a thoroughly decent man. It was good to see again too his gruff number two Jack Barak who lost his hand in the last novel. Simon Shambler, an endearing half wit with a way with horses, the buxom earthy Isabella who sets up home with John Boleyn and his two thoroughly evil sons Gerald and Barnabas are some of the intriguing characters one meets on the journey.
Bring on the eighth in the series!