[Set in 1537. Matthew Shardlake is a lawyer in London: Thomas Cromwell is his patron]
This was not the world we young reformers had sought to create when we sat talking at those endless dinners in each other’s houses. We had once believed with Erasmus that faith and charity would be enough to settle religious differences between men; but by that early winter of 1537 it had come to rebellion, an ever-increasing number of executions, and greedy scrabblings for the lands of the monks.
We reached the cloister just as the monks were leaving the church in procession. The sight made an impression that comes clearly to mind all these years later: almost thirty blackrobed Benedictines walking in double file across the old stone cloister, cowls raised and arms folded in their wide sleeves to give protection against the snow, which fell in silent curtain, coating them as they walked, the whole scene illuminated from the church windows. It was a beautiful scene and despite myself I was moved.
commentary: CJ Sansom is about to publish another book featuring Matthew Shardlake, Tudor lawyer and detective – it may well be the last one. Tombland, out in October, will be the seventh in the series, and is eagerly awaited.
It is hard to remember how very unusual Dissolution (the first in the series) was when it was published. Before the millennium I had little time for historical novels. And then the new century produced Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl, and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies to change my mind about novels. I had a particular dislike of historical detective stories, and Dissolution was the book that changed my mind on that. They were good years for Tudor fiction.
Dissolution completely immersed the reader in Tudor life: Shardlake is sent by Thomas Cromwell to sort out a problem at a monastery on the south coast, a monastery that surely knows it is going to have to close soon. The weather is freezing, the combination of snow and fog is beautifully described. (This was an excellent book to read in the current UK heatwave.)
Shardlake and his assistant settle into the monastery to try to find its secrets, and yet more crimes are committed. The story turns out to be horrible and violent, and tied up with events outside the cloister…
Sansom is a master at creating atmosphere, and believable characters. These are not modern people in Tudor clothes, and he makes their thoughts and decisions and difficulties very real and convincing. Nobody has nice 21st century views about religious tolerance. Shardlake is very much pre-disposed to dislike the monks, and the excesses of the Catholic church as well as its good points are both shown. There is a feel for a genuine look at both sides of the argument, as well as some painful lessons about the reality of politics and what the King wants.
Altogether this book was just as good as I remembered, although I was surprised by the mention above of the scene that ‘comes clearly to mind all these years later’ – I don’t particularly remember many references to Shardlake writing his memories years later.
And having followed our hero through Henry VIII’s reign, am very anxious to read the new book, which follows him further into the 16th century.
Lamentation, the most recent of the series, is on the blog here.
Picture by Holbein of Sir Richard Southwell, a Tudor courtier, who I felt had a look of Matthew Shardlake.
The other picture is Two Monks Standing by Pontormo - circa 1524-1525.
Both from the Athenaeum website.