by Sharon Tucker
How marvelous books are, crossing worlds and centuries, defeating ignorance and, finally, cruel time itself. Gore Vidal
The lives of the Tudors populate literature frequently but rarely are the lives of their record-keepers and of court functionaries set down. These are intriguing stories, providing insight into everyday life—all the sights, sounds, and smells, as well as revealing history’s unfolding around them. Enter Matthew Shardlake, Lincoln’s Inn lawyer, who is C. J. Sansom’s record-keeper the last decade of Henry VIII’s reign.
The first three novels in the Shardlake series, Dissolution (2003), Dark Fire (2004), and Sovereign (2006) are Shardlake’s ongoing and rather reluctant evaluation of his times and involvement in Tudor politics for as Dissolution begins, Shardlake is already “weary of politics and the law, men’s trickery, and the endless tangle of their ways” despite his reformer’s zeal. Desire for reform bred religious differences and fomented rebellion throughout Europe rather than the universal peace and prosperity so many reformers intended.
At the start of Dissolution the year is 1537. Catherine of Aragon, Ann Boleyn, and Jane Seymour are but memories as the Vicar General, Thomas Cromwell, seeks a new politically advantageous bride for Henry. Shardlake’s initial endeavor is to trace a title deed in Surrey for a potential political ally to the crown when he is called back to Westminster immediately. That Cromwell’s emissary to Scarnsea Monastery in Sussex has been murdered horribly is the cause Shardlake’s expertise has been enlisted, but other outrages occur within the precinct once he arrives. As the investigation proceeds, readers are drawn into the pros and cons of Henry’s brand of church reform as Shardlake tries to stay alive long enough to investigate.
Three years later in 1540, Dark Fire finds Shardlake engaged to defend a young woman accused of murder who will certainly be found guilty if she continues not to utter a word in her own defense. Henry Tudor has dissolved his disastrous marriage to Anne of Cleaves, of course holding Cromwell responsible for the blunder, therefore Cromwell needs something spectacular to win his way back into favor. War with France is looming and the rumors of the re-discovery of Greek fire has Cromwell desperate to find both it and the alchemists who have it, and Shardlake is desperate for more time to investigate what seems an impossible defense for his silent client. In steps Thomas Cromwell who barters his influence with the judiciary for more precious time if Shardlake will discover whether or not the weapon exists and obtain it if it does. As the investigation proceeds haltingly, the body count rises and the multiple plot threads come together to form a surprising outcome.
The Great Progress of 1541 is the subject for much of Sovereign, Sansom’s third Shardlake tale. Cromwell has been summarily executed the year before, and Shardlake finds himself singled out by a new patron, Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer—less a political maneuverer than he is a religious reformer determined to keep the king’s feet on the right path. Cranmer sends Shardlake to York as one of Henry’s many lawyers handling legal petitions, but the lawyer, to his dismay, finds himself part of a guard detail for a rebellious Northerner who holds the key to a very specific plot against Henry. When Shardlake finds himself in the royal presence—something he has never sought and we soon see another side of Henry.
Royal blood, even today, possess a special glamor, a natural consequence of centuries of wealth and power. Despite whatever many royals lack in grace, charm, and intelligence, their highly publicized pedigrees are daunting, whether or not one goes in for that sort of thing. Historically, when they were good, they made just laws and planned for the country’s future, took great care of their citizens, and epitomized what is best in us all. At their worst, they were bloody tyrants, taxed their subjects to beggary, and indulged systemic corruption in their government.
Sansom’s lessons in Tudor history are as uncompromising as the events Shardlake is continually and unwillingly enmeshed in for the duration of the novels. Were it not for the physical disadvantage he has borne all his life, Shardlake’s stories would have been considerably different: less insightful and compassionate perhaps. But imperfect as he is, he is the hero of every novel and proves himself to be the most human and worthy of guides.
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