published 2014 set in 1546
[Lawyer Matthew Shardlake is investigating a theft from Queen Catherine Parr]
The interior of the building into which the guard led us was nothing like Whitehall, for all the fine tapestries adorning the walls. This part of Baynard’s Castle was a clothing enterprise; embroiderers and dressmakers working at tables in the well-lit hall. The shimmer of silk was everywhere, the air rich with delightful perfumes from the garments. I thought of what the Queen had said, how the richest of these clothes had passed from Queen to Queen.
Barak shook his head at it all. ‘All these people are working on the clothes of the Queen’s household?’
‘It has a staff of hundreds. Clothes, bedlinen, decorations, all have to be of the finest quality and kept in good repair.’ I nodded to the guard, and with a bow he led us over to one of the many side doors. We were taken down a corridor to a large room where several clothes presses stood, bodices and skirts kept flat beneath them. The Queen’s chest stood on a table; I recognized the distinctive red-and-gold fabric covering its top.
observations: Is there a lot of interest in the Tudors at the moment? I think there always has been, but it has helped that three excellent history novelists have been working in the era. Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies (all over the blog) are two of the best books of recent years in any genre, and are now being televised. Philippa Gregory’s Other Boleyn Girl changed historical romance forever. And CJ Sansom’s Shardlake series are mystery stories of the highest level. The first one, Dissolution, was one of those books that I kept pressing onto people, telling them they must read it – so good, so atmospheric, so convincingly-researched.
This one is the sixth in the series, and now everyone loves them: they are massive best-sellers, and this book, published in October 2014, already has an extraordinary 1000+ reviews on amazon, more than 800 of them 5*. Lonely lawyer Matthew tends his household and his work, and is again called in to help Catherine Parr, Henry VIII’s last Queen. She has had a compromising book stolen from her: it deals with questions of religion, and that’s not safe in 1546. Sansom explains the religious differences very clearly, just as you would expect, and as ever gives the feel that he really knows how Tudor London would have looked, sounded and felt. He has chosen to mix courtly olde-worlde language with more modern concepts and phrases: this bothers some readers, but it seems a reasonable compromise – actual language of the time would be close to incomprehensible.
I loved the description of the workshops dedicated to Royalty, above, and the details of clothes. Shardlake has several leads, and one is a piece of embroidery that he is trying to trace. It features blackwork – more on this in an entry on Lytton Strachey’s Elizabeth and Essex. There is mention of wadmol, a new word to me, which is a rough coarse fabric used for poor people’s clothes.
This wasn’t quite the page-turner that earlier entries have been – I could actually have done with its being about two-thirds of the length. But that’s churlish of me, as they are meant to be long expansive reads where you enter another world.
Sansom has written a couple of standalones: Winter in Madrid (set in the Spanish Civil War) is excellent, but Dominion, his alternative history thriller set in an England which has made peace with the Nazis, I found less compelling.
But I will certainly still be waiting when the next Shardlake comes along.
The picture was long thought to be Lady Jane Grey, but is now believed to be Catherine Parr.