Matthew Shardlake

(creator: C J Sansom)

C J Sansom
C(hristopher) J(ohn) Sansom (1952 - ) had "traditional Presbyterian" parents and was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. He went to Birmingham University where he was awarded a BA and then a PhD in history. After working in a variety of jobs, he decided to retrain as a solicitor. He practised in Sussex as a lawyer for the disadvantaged, before quitting in order to work full-time as a writer. Dissolution (reviewed below) was his first novel. He usually spends three to four months researching each book and believes in getting historical facts right. He currently lives in Sussex.

Matthew Shardlake is a London lawyer who, largely due to Thomas Cromwell's patronage, had, at the age of 35 “a thriving legal practice and a fine new house. And work for him was work for Reform, worthy in the eyes of God; so then (at the start of the first book) I still believed."

He had been a hunchback almost all his life: "My disability had come upon me when I was 3; I began to stoop forward and to the right, and no brace could correct it. By the age of 5 I was a true hunchback, as I have remained to this day." He attended the Cathedral School at Lichfield where his “head had become increasingly filled with godly fervour" and he had explained to a monk that he believed he had a vacation and wished to be considered for ordination, only to be told that “Anyone with a visible affliction, even a withered limb, let alone a great crooked humpback like yours, can never be a priest." Devastated by this unexpected rejection, he explains that, "Christ spoke to me .... 'You are not alone' .... and suddenly a great warmth, a sense of love and peace, infused my being." Matthew was never to hear that voice again, but it was enough to start him down the road to protestant reform.

As he could not take over his father's farm, he had been sent off to study at the Inns of Court in London. He had found he had “an unexpected gift for disputation in court", which had led to his introduction to Thomas Cromwell who began to seek his assistance with legal matters - and so his career took off.

He admits to having a "melancholy nature .... Everything in the world is made of a mixture of the four elements, and I have too much of earth,“ but he makes a determined investigator who, as Cromwell said, “didn't let go once you were started". He is the narrator throughout.

Dissolution (2003)
Dissolution is set in 1537. Henry VIII has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church and the country is waking up to savage new laws, rigged trials and the greatest network of informers ever seen. Under the order of Thomas Cromwell, a team of commissioners is sent through the country to investigate the monasteries. There can only be one outcome: the monasteries are to be dissolved. But on the Sussex coast, at the Benedictine monastery of Scarnsea, events have spiralled out of control. Cromwell's Commissioner Robin Singleton, has been found dead, his head severed from his body. His horrific murder is accompanied by strange acts of sacrilege; a black cockerel sacrificed on the altar, and the disappearance of Scarnsea's Great Relic: the severed hand of the Penitent Thief, nailed to a fragment of the true Cross!

Matthew Shardlake, lawyer and long-time supporter of Reform, is sent by Cromwell as a commissioner to investigate the murder and to persuade the abbot to surrender his monastery to the King.
It makes a really intriguing story, full of dramatic surprises, during which Matthew's own attitude and beliefs develop and change. At first he has nothing but scorn for a monastery that “was built to provide for a hundred monks and a hundred servants. Now everything – buildings, lands, local monopolies – supports just thirty monks and sixty servants .... on the fat of the land .... No monk in a Benedictine house has done honest toil for hundreds of years. Servants do the work. Not only cooking and stabling, but tending the fires, making the monks' beds, sometimes helping them dress and who knows what else." Abbots “have their own separate households ....They all live in fine state, leaving most of the daily supervision to the priors."

The prior of this particular monastery is a bully and a blackguard, and the other senior obentiaries (officials) seem little better, ranging from the gay Brother Gabriel, who openly leers at Matthew's handsome young clerk and assistant, Mark Poer, to Brother Jerome, the demented Carthusian, who had taken refuge at the monastery after being tortured on the rack. But they certainly provide an interesting list of suspects.

The author himself is a strong and vivid storyteller and he brings the monastic scenes to life, as when he describes “almost 30 black-robed 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 a 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." He is very explicit too when it comes to describing such grisly events as torture on the rack, or Anne Boleyn's execution, or the discovery of more corpses.

Matthew eventually identifies the murderer (after getting it wrong the first time) and the story builds up to a very dramatic and exciting climax. But he has taken too long about it to please Cromwell, and his favour is withdrawn. Matthew himself explains that “I may not be the reformer I was, I am not turned papist either. The Bible says God made man in his image but I think we make and remake him, in whatever image happens to suit our shifting needs. I wonder if he knows or cares. All is dissolving .... All is dissolution."

It may be stretching a point (or several) to claim Matthew as a clerical detective but it is a fast-moving story with a thoroughly convincing religious setting, and is certainly to be recommended.

Dark Fire (2004)
Dark Fire sees lawyer Matthew Shardlake (already thinking about retirement, who reflects that “in two years time I would be forty, in which year the old man's age begins") defending a girl who refuses to say anything even though she is accused of brutally murdering a 12-year-old cousin by pushing him down a well. Then he gets commissioned by Lord Cromwell to recover the formula of long-lost Greek Fire (also known as Dark Fire), the legendary substance with which the Byzantines destroyed the Arab navies: "They fired it at enemy ships and it would set them ablaze from end to end, a rushing inextinguishable fire. It could burn even on water."

Apparently the formula had been discovered in the library of a dissolved London monastery, but the official who had discovered it and his alchemist brother get brutally axed to death. Matthew, helped by Jack Barak, deputed by Cromwell to accompany him, finds himself threatened by such important people as the Duke of Norfolk and Sir Richard Rich, who seem strangely confident that even Cromwell will prove no threat to them. But Matthew (despite his hunchback)) and Barak prove quite able to vanquish violent murderous rogues, or drink poison and survive (by hurriedly swallowing mustard)! It strains conviction even when it makes exciting reading.

Set in 1540 and the hottest summer of the 16th century, but with a less coherent plot than in the first book, the pace lags at times but there are moving human touches (as when Barak points out to Matthew that Matthew's apparently slow-witted clerk is actually half blind) but the Greek Fire episodes seem increasingly unlikely (at one point a jar containing the smelly black liquid is even found in an old grave!). Matthew's own motivation in helping the imprisoned girl is not convincingly explained. He seems to go to quite extraordinary lengths to help her just because he says he felt sorry for her.

However, historical details, such as a description of the pressing process, a form of torture in which the victim is laid in chains on the floor with a big sharp stone under her back on a board on top of which increasing number of weights are placed) are certainly vivid enough. And there is an intriguing description of a "sugar banquet" laid on by a noble lady that included such delicacies as “strange, pale yellow crescents. I understood the bawdy laughter, for the things with the size and almost a shape of a big erect cock .... I picked up one of the strange fruits and bit into it. It was unyielding, with a bitter taste. Then I saw people were peeling back the scheme is to reveal a pale yellow fruit within. I followed their example. It was flowery, rather tasteless."

At the start of the book Matthew is explaining, “Sometimes I think all that matters is faith in Christ and all else is no more than a jangle of words", but he is soon telling us, “I was praying less and less these days, feeling often that my words did not ascend to God but nearly dissolved inside my head like smoke." Sometimes he even doubts God's existence and asks his friend, the Moorish apothecary Guy, “Why does faith bring out the worst in so many, Guy? How is it that it can turn men, papist and reformer both, into brutes?"
Guy replies, “Man is an angry, savage being. Sometimes faith becomes an excuse for battle. It is no real faith then. In justifying their positions in the name of God, men silenced God.“
“But have a comfortable belief that, having read the Bible and prayed, they cannot be wrong."
"I fear so."

Sovereign (2006)
Sovereign Is largely set in York in the autumn of 1541. King Henry VIII, accompanied by his latest wife, silly teenaged Catherine Howard, has set out on a spectacular progress to the North of England to receive the submission of his rebellious subjects. Already in the city are lawyer Matthew Shardlake and his assistant Jack Barak. As well as legal work processing local petitions to the King, Matthew has reluctantly undertaken a special commission for Archbishop Cranmer to ensure the welfare of an important but dangerous conspirator who is to be returned to London for interrogation (meaning torture in the Tower). But the murder of a York glazier involves Matthew in deeper mysteries connected not only to the prisoner in York Castle but to the Royal family itself. When he and Barak stumble upon a cash of secret documents which could threaten the Tudor throne, he finds that, as usual, his own life is in real danger.

As always the historical details sound entirely convincing as when it is explained how York is tidied up for the King's visit by removing traitors' heads from the battlements, arranging a "mass shaving so all the gentleman should look their best", and getting all middens emptied, “people without proper cesspits having to keep everything in their backyards so that everything will be smelling sweet for the King".

It is a gripping story which, despite its length has enough dramatic surprises to hold the interest throughout, even if some of them, such as the murder attack on Matthew by a deliberately released bear do seem just a bit over the top. And the revelation of the murderer's identity, and later that of the other main villain of the piece, come as such surprises that you can't help questioning their probability.

This was a time when you could be burnt at the stake if you said you didn't believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the bread and wine, and Matthew, no longer a believer, has to face up to the dangerous hostility of powerful officials and the ever present reality of the rack and other forms of torture (such as having your teeth knocked out or a knife inserted under your fingernails), graphically described and threatening anyone daring to criticise the king - a grossly obese, diseased, and highly unpleasant character known to his enemies as "the Mouldwarp", who may, it turns out, actually have been no more than the grandson of a common archer, though the author admits in a historical note that he himself is not entirely convinced that this was so! But it is the ever-present threat or presence of torture that pervades the whole story - and even Matthew himself eventually experiences exactly what is involved. "I had never been so afraid in my life," he tells us.

Right at the end, Matthew begs Cromwell, “May I request that I be not asked to work in the service of politics again. Now, especially after what has befallen me, I desire only a peaceful life of such time as God allows me." Fat chance!

Revelation (2008)
sees Matthew Shardake (who "had passed forty the previous year") working on the case of a teenage boy who had been placed in the Bedlam insane asylum He fears that the boy's terrifying religious mania could lead to him being burned as a heretic. When an old friend is horrifically murdered, Matthew promises his widow that he will bring the killer to justice. His search is to lead him from Archbishop Cranmer and Catherine Parr (whom King Henry VIII is wooing and wants for his sixth wife), to more murders - and to the dark prophecies of the book of Revelation on which the killings seem to be based.

Matthew does not welcome this new challenge for “It was over a year now since Archbishop Cranmer had nominated me as one of the two barristers appointed to plead before the Court of Requests where poor men's pleas were heard. A sergeancy, the status of a senior barrister, had come with the post. I have never enjoyed my work is much." But all this was soon to change as Matthew, together with Jack Barak and his friend, Guy Malton (the Moorish ex-monk who has now, aged sixty, become a physician) find their own lives threatened.

It is the spring of 1543 and London's Bishop Bonner is busy preparing a purge of Protestants, and even Cranmer fears for his safety. All such details of the historical background are still convincing enough, as when we get descriptions of the false teeth (taken from the dead or poor) that are fitted onto wooden blocks in rich ladies' mouths, that may look good but have to be taken out before any food can be eaten. There are also vivid descriptions of Bedlam, where some thirty inmates “were usually kept for a year, at the end of which they were discharged whether cured or not" (though some had rich relatives who would pay for them to stay for much longer). "It was a paying institution, which meant that most of the inmates came from the wealthier classes" and “the wardenship was used as a source of profit". Meanwhile Catholics are planning that “a bill will be laid before Parliament shortly, restricting reading of the Bible to nobles and gentlemen only. No common folk, and no women."

However, the basic plot involving "something truly dark and terrible" that turns out to involve an insane serial killer, does not always carry conviction and the melodramatic conclusion seems distinctly over the top - even if it is quite exciting to read! The author's combination of historical and fictional characters sometimes jars, as when Matthew even saves Catherine Parr from a mad assassin and receives her graceful thanks!

The author explains in his Historical Note that,“Where the book of Revelation is concerned, I share the view of Guy, that the early church fathers released something very dangerous on the world when, after much deliberation, they decided to include it in the Christian canon." He sees a “remarkable similarity between the first Tudor puritans and the fanatics among today's Christian fundamentalists" that “extends to their selective reading of the Bible, their emphasis on the book of Revelation, the certainty of their rightness, even to their phraseology." But he certainly brings alive a world of hatred and persecution where even a 15-year-old apprentice can be burnt at the stake for denying the presence of Jesus in the Eucharist. As Matthew tells Barak, “This is not politics after all, Alec; it is religion. Mad, debased religion.“ So it is no surprise that Matthew's own “faith was almost gone" and he explains, “I did not pray often now".

All in all, although it still makes an interesting read, the slight, and unlikely, plot does not make it one of the better books.

Heartstone (2010)
Heartstone is set in the summer of 1545, a time when England is at war. Henry VIII's invasion of France has gone badly wrong, and a massive French fleet is preparing to sail across the Channel. Meanwhile, Matthew Shardlake is given a challenging legal case by an old servant of Queen Catherine Parr. Asked to investigate claims of "monstrous wrongs" committed against young Hugh Curteys by his ward, Sir Nicholas Hobbey, Matthew and his assistant Barak journey to Portsmouth. There Matthew also intends to investigate the mysterious past of Ellen Fettiplace, a young woman whom we met in the previous book and who had chosen to be incarcerated in the Bedlam for nearly twenty years.

Although it is an even longer book (715 pages plus eleven pages of unfailingly flattering book reviews), it makes an intriguing story and succeeds in holding the interest throughout. There are numerous surprises as the story unfolds and most of the characters come alive as real people. There is also a moving and highly dramatic account of the sinking of the warship Mary Rose (yes, Mattlew was on board!) that is graphically described, based on all the latest historical discoveries.

Matthew himself is now aged 43 but his motivation in taking so much trouble and going through so many hardships to help the possibly mad imprisoned Ellen *(who was just a woman he had taken pity on who had then falllen in totally unreciprocated love with him), does not seem too credible.

Matthew himself hardly believes in God: "It is long since I felt God listens to my prayers". By the end of the book, he explains that, "I have lost the art (of prayer) .... Faith is beyond me now". So there is no way that even I can go on claiming him as a clerical detective - although little crosses are still used throughout the book to break it up into sections! A pity, because it makes a really strong story.

Lamentation (2014)
Lamentation gets off to a gripping, if horrible, start with the public burning of the radical Protestant Anne Askew at Smithfield in the summer of 1546, a graphically described grisly ceremony at which a very reluctant Serjeant Matthew Shardlake (now 44) has been told he must represent Lincoln's Inn. It is a time when the obese King Henry VIII ("a mass of ulcers") is slowly dying while his Protestant and Catholic councillors struggle for power.

Matthew is summoned to Whitehall Palace and asked for help by his old patron, the now beleaguered Queen Catherine Parr who desperately needs his help as she has written a confessional book, Lamentation of a Sinner, so radically Protestant that if it came to the King's attention it could bring both her and her sympathizers crashing down. But, although the book was kept secret and hidden inside a locked chest in the Queen's private chamber, it has - inexplicably - vanished. Only one page has been found, clutched in the hand of a murdered London printer.

Shardlake's investigations take him into the dark and labyrinthine world of the politics of the royal court, a world he had sworn never to enter again but which the author convincingly brings to life. Indeed many of the characters in the story were real life people, even if, as he says, "the portrayal of their personalities is mine". The historical background is convincingly handled (with more pages about it at the end of the book), and the details are often interesting as when Queen Catherine explains to Matthew that "All these rich things I wear, the cloth of gold and silken tissue and bright jewels, so many of them have been passed down from Queen to Queen. Always, you see, they are returned to the Department of the Queen's Wardrobe, to be preserved or altered. They are worth so much that they cannot be discarded, any more than the great tapestries." She held up her richly embroidered sleeve."This was once worn with a dress of Anne Boleyn's. I have constant reminders of past events."

There is also a vivid description of how the king had to be winched up to the Royal Apartments on the first floor: "As the men pulled harder on the ropes, an immense figure rose into view, seated on a heavily wheeled chair, secured by a leather belt round his immense waist. I glimpsed a near-bald head, an immense, red, round face, folds of thin-bearded flesh wobbling above the collar of a caftan. The King's huge cheeks twitched in pain."

No-one could complain that nothing much happens in this story. In fact, there is so much going on, so many violent episodes and dramatic fights, that after a time it begins to strain credibility. And it is such a long book that half-way through it, the author even finds it necessary to get Matthew to produce a written summary all that has happened. He "no longer had sympathies with either side in the religious quarrel, and sometimes doubted God's very existence." And all this at a time when you could still be burnt at the stake for doubting that the bread and wine of the Mass were physically transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. It makes another strong story.

The author has his own website, and there is an informative interview with him on The Guardian site, as well as a rather less interesting 30 minute audio interview on the BBC Bookclub site.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


Dissolution cover
The disturbing cover sets the mood for this dark, arresting story.
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