1549. Edward VI, the eleven-year-old son of Henry VIII has been on the throne two years. The country is effectively run by the Lord Protector, Edward Somerset. The preceding decade has seen war with Scotland, inflation, unemployment, rising rents and declining wages. A sense of grievance is swelling among the common people against the imposition of Protestantism and the encroachment of landlords on common lands, some even dispossessing tenants of farms held for generations to enclosed it to graze sheep. This culminates in 1549 with the Prayer Book Rebellion in Devon and Cornwall and a popular uprising in Norfolk led by Robert Kett.
It is twelve years on since Matthew Shardlake’s last foray into the shark infested waters surrounding the powerful. He is getting older and his disability troubling him more. His life is taken up with the routine of his legal practice, though for the past few years he has done legal work, mainly property transactions, for the formidable Lady Elizabeth, now fifteen-years-old. When a distant relative of Elizabeth’s, John Boleyn of Brikeswell, is imprisoned awaiting trial at the Norfolk Assizes for the murder of his wife Edith, Shardlake is called upon to uncover the truth behind the murder charge. Edith Boleyn’s body had been found exposed on the border of Boleyn’s land. She had disappeared nine years earlier and was assumed to be dead. To the disgust of many, Boleyn had soon moved his mistress into his home, marrying her once seven years had elapsed from Edith’s disappearance.
Shardlake’s enquiries provoke the ire not only of the Edith Boleyn’s callous and aggressive father but also her psychopathic eighteen-year-old twin sons. As he investigates, people who could shed light on case are murdered, one by one. Shardlake also needs to step wearily around the powerful and influential political figures of the county. Simmering in the background is the discontent of the common people with the increasing enclosure of common land by grasping landlords keen to turn the land over to sheep to gain the profits of the wool trade. Protector Somerset had issued a proclamation against illegal enclosures and promised to send Commissioners to look into the abuses of traditional land usage; the Commissioners are always expected but never arrive. When anger spills over in Norfolk, with fences erected by enclosing landlords pulled down, Robert Kett, a yeoman farmer, reluctantly takes on leadership of the commoners as they demand an end to abuses and put their faith in Protector Somerset to ensure they are treated fairly. Shardlake, in the course of his investigation, is caught up with Kett and his followers on in their march towards Norwich and becomes their prisoner.
A large part of the novel follows the development of the uprising and the day-to-day activities of Kett’s camp on Mousehold Heath. A fair man, with sympathy for the poor, Matthew Shardlake is drawn towards Kett’s aims. The mystery he has been sent to investigate reaches into the camp although there are times where it is not the driving element of the story. As always, Sansom recreates the Tudor world so evocatively that the reader can smell the refuse in the streets as well as the despair of the poor and the callous arrogance of the rich and powerful. There was a point where I wondered if there were any decent men other than commoners (and a couple of lawyers) in 16th century England. Sansom is unrelenting in his description of the brutality and indignities endured by the powerless of this period. It is sobering to be reminded of the waste of talent when people are advanced on the basis of wealth and parentage rather than ability, that serfdom was not something left behind in the Dark Ages but that people were in bondage in England at the height of the Renaissance, and that English kings and their representatives paid foreign mercenaries to kill their own people, not just in Norfolk but also in the Devon and Cornwall in response to the Prayer Book rebellion. The past is not a pretty place.
Tombland, the seventh in the Matthew Shardlake series, is a long book (over 800 pages) and there have been criticisms that the mystery is simply an excuse to write a history of the Kett Rebellion. I disagree, no one expects a Matthew Shardlake novel to have the history of the period as a painted backdrop; these novels have history eddying around the characters in the way it does in real life. Sansom’s characters, both great and small, historical and imagined, give a living believable face to the past. The central mystery is threaded through Shardlake’s time in Kett’s camp, and his experiences there and in the aftermath will, no doubt, have a lasting effect on the development of his character. The book ends with a wonderful bonus – a comprehensive essay by CJ Sansom on the rebellion in all its stages.
Tombland is historical fiction at its brilliant best.
Another review can be found here.