In 2000 Christopher Sansom took a year off from his job as a solicitor to write a novel: it had occurred to him that the dissolution of the monasteries might make a good backdrop to a murder mystery. He finished it, sent it off and returned from holiday expecting a stack of rejections. ‘To my delight,’ he told the Guardian in 2010, ‘my email was hot with people wanting more.’ Even then Sansom thought the book might flop, so he began another, set in 1930s Spain. As it turned out, Dissolution (2003) was a bestseller and a sequel was commissioned. He completed his Spanish Civil War novel, Winter in Madrid (2006), anyway. Since then he has published another modern thriller, Dominion (2012), which imagines Britain under Nazi occupation, and six further books set in Tudor England, progressing from publishing success to phenomenon. He has now sold more than three million books.
The appeal of the Tudor novels owes much to Sansom’s protagonist, a London lawyer named Matthew Shardlake. He is a methodical and candid narrator; there’s a hint that the novels are confessional memoirs written late in life. When we first meet him he’s in his mid-thirties, lives in a nice house in Chancery Lane, has a horse called Chancery, works in the Court of Chancery – you get the idea. Sansom has given his hero his own passion for the law, its stately, logical protocols, its civility and rationalism. Shardlake has a gimlet eye and a sharp mind. His character owes something to Chesterton’s Father Brown, except that where Brown draws on insights into human nature deriving from years in the confessional, Shardlake’s speciality is the sifting and weighing of evidence.
Like all the best detectives, Shardlake is also an outsider, courteous yet aloof and observant. The son of a Lichfield sheep farmer, he is helped up the social ladder by the most socially mobile of all Tudor lawyers, Thomas Cromwell, yet he remains principled, modest and compassionate, a humanist in the modern as well as the Tudor sense. It’s significant that he is a hunchback, a painful disability that affects how others see him as well as his own view of himself. He weeps for Kate, the unrequited love of his life, who died of the sweating sickness and whose mourning ring he wears. He sees her in every woman he meets and likes, all of whom he assumes are repelled by his deformity. Shardlake’s first sidekick, Mark Poer, is twittish, something of a Lord Percy to his Blackadder, but represents both the son he’ll never have and a masculine ideal he can’t measure up to. Poer’s face is smooth where Shardlake’s is angular, his hair cropped where Shardlake’s is floppy. Poer has a two-foot-long sword, Shardlake a blunt dagger, ‘usually worn only for ornamentation’.
Shardlake is moved by beauty and feels for animals. He talks to horses, reviles bear-baiting and is distressed by a cage of shrieking scabby parrots he sees unloaded at the docks. Only rarely does he resort to violence – though he is repeatedly jumped, punched, coshed, stabbed, shot at, half-drowned and drugged – and he is haunted by memories of his attendance at the beheading of Anne Boleyn and at the burning of heretics, one immolation so slow they ‘fairly sweated the blood out of him’. Poverty upsets him, most of all the children ‘thin and ragged, displaying their sores and deformities’ that drift through the novels. Shardlake’s faith is grounded in a secular logic. He shuns both the ‘mummery’ of Catholicism and the ‘air of brutal certainty’ displayed by Lutherans. He sees the devil not as some stalking bogeyman but as a name for applied ‘greed and cruelty and ambition’. His idealism, however, is threatened by disillusionment. He longs for a purer Christian commonwealth, but doubts ‘faith and charity would be enough to settle religious differences between men,’ and soon admits not only that ‘Reform was being built on an edifice of lies and monstrous brutality,’ but that as Cromwell’s man he is complicit.
It has been said that successful detective fiction is a quarter plot, a quarter character, and half what the writer knows. Sansom knows Tudor England well. The facts never impede the story, and rarely clunk as they’re dropped in. He makes historical details earn their place on the page by doing more than one job. The wretched parrots serve not only as objects of Shardlake’s pity but as a critique of England’s nouveaux riches and their craving for exotica, and as an image of England turned Babel. Scarnsea, the Benedictine monastery where Shardlake is sent to investigate a murder in Dissolution, mirrors the turbulent state of the nation (‘scarn’ is an ancient word for ‘shit’, or something equally repulsive). Scarnsea’s physician, Brother Guy of Malton, a Spanish moor worried about the position of immigrant monks in a post-monastic society, asks: ‘What has this house become?’ Shardlake replies: ‘You might as well ask what a country England has become.’ The English have reclaimed their country from Rome, but the future is clouded by uncertainty.
Brexity forebodings aside, Scarnsea’s decayed, chaotic state is fun to read about. Not only has Cromwell’s commissioner, who went to put the frighteners on the abbot, been decapitated but a popular cockerel has been sacrificed, which encourages a suspicion that devil-worshippers have crept in from some local blasted heath. The idea is supported by the fact that a relic, the mummified hand of Barabbas, has been stolen, presumably for use in a necromantic ritual. In this time of Reformation, the superstitions of Catholics and witches are deliberately conflated. Prior to setting off on his mission, Shardlake is briefed by Cromwell, who sits at a desk piled with confiscated relics destined for the bonfire. As ever, Shardlake has mixed feelings, which he admits to us alone and which of course make us like him. But he is unequivocally shocked by Scarnsea. The monks inhabit a ‘world of painted books, ancient chants, plaster statues’, with too much downtime for hunting, cards and green chartreuse. They live in denial until the rising body count forces the abbot to concede: ‘It’s all over … Our life here. The monastic life in England.’ Puzzles and deaths drift up like the snow that eventually transforms Scarnsea into a locked-room setting familiar from the ‘golden age’ of crime mysteries. Dissolution also owes much to The Name of the Rose, though Umberto Eco’s glum postscript (‘Very little is discovered and the detective is defeated’) does not apply. Shardlake always gets his man (and/or woman).
Dissolution introduces readers to Shardlake’s character and the condition of mid-Tudor England, establishing themes that recur in the sequels: dynastic strife, collisions of interest, shifts of identity, murderous conspiracy, disappropriation and dislocation, religious conservatism and innovation, demonic possession versus insanity (as explanations for deranged behaviour), paranoia about heretics and witches, and the spying of new intellectual horizons. Dangerous texts feature prominently. In Dark Fire (2004), the sequel to Dissolution, Shardlake hunts for the recipe for Greek Fire, the Byzantine naval equivalent of the Exocet missile, the rediscovery of which in an ex-monastic library, and its subsequent disappearance, have led to two grisly deaths. In the next novel, Sovereign (2006), Shardlake and his new, improved sidekick, Jack Barak, stumble across papers that cast doubt on Henry VIII’s legitimacy. Thomas Cranmer joins the action, and a couple of years later, in 1543, Shardlake enters the political forcefield of another real-life figure, Catherine Parr, soon to be the final Mrs Tudor, and the secret object of Shardlake’s affections. This is Revelation (2008), which Sansom buffs refer to, Friends-style, as ‘the one about the serial killer’, just as they call Heartstone (2010) ‘the one where Shardlake ends up on the Mary Rose’. Some readers find that particular finale a bit daft, but it’s thrillingly done. Shardlake survives, naturally, albeit traumatised in a way that suggests Tudor PTSD.
Sansom uses the span of the novels to show how Tudor heresies slowly morphed into orthodoxy, first vernacular bibles and the abolition of purgatory, then the shading of the miraculous mass into symbolic Holy Communion, which was Cranmer’s theology but not the king’s. Lamentation (2014) takes its title from ‘The Lamentation of a Sinner’, a real devotional tract written by Catherine Parr that threatens to push the Protestant envelope too far across Henry VIII’s groaning breakfast table. Sansom imagines its theft and the discovery of a scrap in the hands of a murdered radical printer. Shardlake is brought in to piece things together – a delicate and demanding brief, which a clever twist reveals to be a perilous fool’s errand.
All of which brings us to Tombland, Sansom’s latest and most ambitious blockbuster. The year is 1549. Henry has been dead for two years, and Edward, his 11-year-old son, perches hesitantly on the throne with his uncle, the Lord Protector Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, pulling the strings. The country is in bad shape. War with Scotland is costly and unproductive, while greedy landlords evict tenants in order to enclose and monetise their land. Prices soar and the people suffer, uncomforted even by their old religion, which the new regime is determined to purge of ‘superstitious’ rituals and images – whitewashing over angels and saints, smashing painted glass. Iconoclasm fights idolatry, but reform meets resistance from traditional custom, held dear by the commons – the same ‘very simple and unlearned people’ whose souls Cranmer would save from ‘beads, pardons, pilgrimages and such other like popery’, but who crave earthly sustenance, protection and fairness.
The story begins with allegations made against Thomas Seymour, the Lord Protector’s brother, and his marital designs on the 15-year-old Lady Elizabeth, the future (Protestant) queen. She is disliked by the Lord Protector, who favours her elder half-sister, Lady Mary, the future (Catholic) queen. William Cecil, a rising royal secretary, is protective towards Elizabeth, mindful of the role history may have in store for her. Shardlake is retained as one of her lawyers. Now 47, he is lonely, world-weary, and bored of drawing up conveyances and wills (perhaps as Sansom was before he packed in the law). He clings fondly to the idea of the commonwealth, defined as ‘the whole nation, held in economic balance, the rules ensuring that none are too poor to live’. But this prospect seems more remote than ever. Shardlake perks up a bit when Elizabeth summons him to Hatfield Palace. He has in tow a new assistant, Nicholas Overton, a budding lawyer disinherited by his father. In the pub the night before Shardlake’s audience with Elizabeth, Overton asks what she’s like. ‘You deal with her as with an adult,’ is his master’s advice. ‘She is extraordinarily clever.’
There is trouble in Norfolk, where people know their rights and the gentry ‘have a reputation for being as quarrelsome with each other as with their tenants’. But recent events, it seems, are abnormal even for Norfolk. The immediate difficulty concerns the Boleyns, Elizabeth’s maternal relations. A dishevelled woman calling herself ‘Edith Boleyn’ had turned up at Hatfield, but her story was full of holes and she was dismissed. Days later she was found murdered, head down in a stream with her legs in the air. Footprints incriminate Edith’s estranged husband, John, who had left her for a barmaid nine years previously. Shardlake suspects John Boleyn has been framed. If he hangs, which seems likely, it would scandalise Elizabeth, who orders an investigation and wants him pardoned if it turns out to be a conspiracy. Master Comptroller Parry, her fixer, thinks a pardon would be unwise. ‘Help me bury this business, Matthew,’ he enjoins. So Shardlake is dispatched to Norwich, England’s second city, to conduct an investigation. It’s a clever premise. He has to solve a murder not because murder is wrong – which it was, even then – but because it’s politically expedient to do so. In Sansom’s novels, affairs of state are more than stage dressing: they are the soil in which the plot grows.
As Shardlake investigates, peasants tired of talk start ripping down hedges. There is news of rebel camps appearing in the Home Counties, Midlands and West Country. Beacons are lit, church bells peal and the oppressed march – all absolutely true to history. In Norfolk protesters muster at Wymondham, where their leader, the yeoman Robert Kett, decries illegal enclosures while declaring his loyalty to the Edwardian regime. ‘Christ’s blood, sir, we’ll open the Protector’s eyes to the true state of things,’ he promises Shardlake and his company, grimacing at their finery and soft hands. Soon they are all part of a vast camp on Mousehold Heath overlooking Norwich, sunning themselves, eating liberated venison, sleeping in huts and waiting. The wilds of Mousehold Heath are a far cry from Chancery Lane, but it’s here that the true story of Kett’s Rebellion and the fictional story of Edith Boleyn’s murder converge, and Shardlake solves his case.
We spend many chapters in that rough camp, its revolutionary fury held in check by Kett’s orderly court sessions and religious services at the ‘Oak of Reformation’, until the final horrific battle at nearby Dussindale. Sansom recreates this hopeful yet fleeting and doomed moment with sensitivity and sympathy, evoking a remarkable rebellion that sprang from the trauma of social change. The uprising fails, of course, and Kett is hanged in chains, but its legacy is palpable, speaking loudly to modern immiseration and failures of social justice.
Detective fiction has never greatly appealed to me. At first I put off reading Sansom: the books sat on my desk like a squat tower – exactly a foot high – patient yet insistent. But once I got going I enjoyed myself, wanting to know who the murderers were, trying to guess the endings. And, mysteries aside, they are impressive pieces of history. Of course, if you wanted to understand Thomas Cromwell you would go to Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography rather than Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But then Wolf Hall refreshes the parts of the past academic history cannot reach. Mantel has zeroed in on gaps in the archival record, the shallows and silences of the past, and exercises there her superlative historical vision, extrapolating and triangulating from well-documented lives and incidents. Good fiction depends on the truth of human experience. Why should historical fiction be any different? Not everything in Sansom’s novels is factually accurate, yet by the measure applied to other fiction it’s true.
The Shardlake series is exceptionally well researched. Sansom engages with current historical debates and offers judgments modestly yet confidently in his afterwords. He believes the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy over-romanticises monastic houses in his Stripping of the Altars (1992), favouring the more critical view of another Cambridge professor (and Benedictine monk), David Knowles, put forward in Religious Orders in England (1948). When Dissolution came out in 2003, George Bernard had yet to advance his idea that the dissolution of the monasteries had as much to do with Henry VIII wishing to assert his royal authority after the Pilgrimage of Grace (a northern uprising in defence of the status quo) as it did a desire to appropriate the church’s wealth. But something of this thesis is already there in Sansom’s novel.
Not content with immersion in secondary literature, Sansom also digs around in the archives. While researching Sovereign, he became so frustrated with the historians he was reading that he published his own academic article, ‘The Wakefield Conspiracy of 1541 and Henry VIII’s Progress to the North Reconsidered’, in the peer-reviewed journal Northern History. Sansom wants to be taken seriously, the same urge felt by the bestselling historical novelist Philippa Gregory, whose Women of the Cousins’ War (2011) is scholarly non-fiction, co-authored with two historians, exploring the lives of three late-medieval women featured in her novels. Both have PhDs – Gregory in English literature, Sansom in history – and their training informs and regulates their invention. Tombland finishes with a full essay, complete with endnotes and bibliography, about Kett’s Rebellion. Here Sansom may have gone too far. The weight of historical detail certainly contributes to the book’s length: 801 pages, excluding the essay, which runs to more than twenty thousand words, twice the length of the average academic article. All in all, it’s serious hand luggage. But then it’s obvious that this time Sansom deliberately chose the grandeur of an epic over the pace and scale of a thriller. Some sections would have benefited from a degree of editorial tightening, but the bigger canvas is used to add nuance to feelings and relationships, and, like Brueghel, to fill a frame with the hurly-burly of 16th-century life.
Sansom’s deep reading about the past, creatively processed, gives Shardlake’s adventures special historical value. The series has so far covered a period of twenty years. In it we learn about the centralisation of the state, its power diffused through magistrates and other local law officers on whom ‘stacks of statutes’ are heaped. ‘New Acts have come, and others will follow,’ Shardlake warns the abbot of Scarnsea. Accordingly England becomes a more scribal, bureaucratic culture. ‘This tide of paper will end by drowning us,’ an armourer at the Tower of London complains. Print, too, proliferates: bibles, prayer books, pamphlets and ballads. Economic woes, like religious tensions, inform all of Sansom’s stories. There is inflation, unemployment, decline in manufacturing industries, debased currency, begging and poor relief, and a recalcitrant, restive commonalty. These days, we hear, ‘all men are consumed by greed’ and ‘landlords do nothing but cut down woods.’ Sansom’s description of the aggressive boundary dispute between the north and south manors of Brikewell – the context for the murder of Edith Boleyn – captures in a masterly way the friction typical of those times.
The novels also evoke atmosphere. Street scenes are vivid and varied, with cramped tenements, smoking chimneys and brimming sewer channels. London heaves with ‘blue-coated apprentices and workmen in leather or wadmol jackets jostling with goodwives in their coifs and aprons, while gentlemen with swords and bucklers at their waists, retainers beside them, pushed their way through’. The soundscape lifts the picture into rounded reality: dogs barking, hammers clanging, drunks singing, street-sellers hawking wares. Scarnsea assaults the visitor’s nose with ‘a mingled smell of salt and rot’; one monk reeks of sweat, another of sandalwood. Gaols are rank with urine, damp and despair, the battlefield of Dussindale with blood and shit and burnt gunpowder.
Many details come together to reconstitute the Tudor world. Shardlake is served roast capon at home, and at Lincoln’s Inn ‘vegetables carved into the shapes of stars and half-moons, richly sauced with sugar and vinegar’. In taverns, he gets rabbit pie if he’s lucky, otherwise mutton stew full of grease and gristle. Before their ‘wet suckets’ – candied fruits in syrup – Scarnsea’s monks feast on spiced soup and carp fattened, we learn, on a corpse in the pond. The gentry eat beef on a bed of herbs; prisoners stale beans and sheep guts. Popular beliefs include treating earache with powdered mice, touching dwarves to repel the bad luck inflicted by hunchbacks – Shardlake gets this a lot – and witches making magic from body parts. Daily life is scarred by brutality: traitors’ heads on poles; a scold in the stocks, her face swollen and black; the muscle-tearing, bone-cracking rack; felons crushed for not entering a plea. Anne Boleyn’s head ‘flies up and outwards in a great spray of blood’, the eyes ‘roving madly round the crowd, the lips working as though trying to speak’. The scene describing the execution of Anne Askew, straight from John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments (1563), shows in dreadful detail how fire consumes a living human being. Lupus est homo homini is the refrain of Dark Fire: ‘Man is wolf to man.’
Sansom’s resurrection of the past is both exotically alien and, in its political dynamics and emotions, all too familiar. Good history is like this, too. There is some anachronistic dialogue – Jack Barak is forever saying ‘shit!’ and calling people ‘arseholes’ – as there is in Wolf Hall. But Sansom, like Mantel, takes this liberty only to add force and clarity to speech. And besides, anachronism of thought is a far graver sin, committed by authors with little grasp of period and not by Sansom and Mantel, who are steeped in it. Some critics find Shardlake jarringly modern; yet, as Sansom has argued, he could have thought as he did in the Tudor age, though perhaps not a century earlier. It’s plausible that he believes accused felons deserve defence counsel, and that cheap news sheets – ‘making money for back-street printers and fodder for the hangman’ – are prejudicial to criminal trials. His revulsion towards blood sports is considered ‘an eccentric weakness’, but is not a futuristic sensibility. That’s where the truth of Sansom’s novels lies: in treating 16th-century England as modern in its own time. Posterity is never allowed to condescend to the past. Like E.P. Thompson, Sansom believes in a politicised social history full of respect for working people and restrained anger at their treatment. Along with his contemporary George Rudé, Thompson challenged the top-down assumption that plebeian crowds were inarticulate, a corrective reinforced by Andy Wood, whose book The 1549 Rebellions and the Making of Early Modern England (2007) was one of Sansom’s sources for Tombland. To feel the beating heart of Kett’s rebel camp is not to indulge in working-class romance, in history or in fiction.
One of Sansom’s finest achievements is his exploration of memory. The privilege of hindsight is not denied to his characters, who reflect on the past as it is to them, distant and near, to make sense of their changing situation. Common law builds on custom and precedent. Shardlake reads Pliny and Plutarch as well as Erasmus and More, and daydreams about the Knights Templar worshipping in the Temple church as he wanders among their graves. Catherine Parr likes old coins: ‘They remind us we are but specks of dust amid the ages.’ Monasteries echo with what had seemed the eternal verities of their Norman founders. Scarnsea’s bells were old Spanish trophies; its best relic travelled from 11th-century France and before that from Ancient Rome. English towns and villages are haunted by the ghosts of disappeared charity and credit, and by spectres of hunger and rebellion, tales of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. All this weaving and unweaving of time is rich in historical purpose. At the end of Dissolution, Shardlake remarks that ‘uncovering complicated truths is never easy.’ But, like his creator, he’s pretty good at it.