When you see the name of King Henry VIII, what’s the image that comes to your mind? One in which the monarch has the physique and appearance of a model (as portrayed by Jonathan Rhys in the TV series The Tudors)?
Or one of an athletic king with steely eyes as played by Damien Lewis in the BBC television adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall? Or the way that Henry himself wanted to be portrayed; A man of authority who, even when he’s not kitted out in full royal regalia exudes power. One of the most famous of contemporary portraits shows him directly facing the viewer, legs firmly planted apart and arms akimbo to emphasise his powerful physique. The message is clear: don’t even think of messing around with me.
In C.J Sansom’s historical series featuring a ‘detective’ lawyer, Shardlake, the man of law has learned over the years to fear his encounters with the King and the powerful men who surround him. Lamentation, the latest episode in the series, sees Shardlake once again become embroiled in the kind of political intrigue that could easily cost him his head. This time it’s the King’s wife Katherine who needs his help when a book of spiritual reflections she has written is stolen from her bedroom. In the religious turmoil of the 1540s, this book could incite even further discord in the land if it is published. Katherine’s own safety as risk. For the King;s own wife to write such a text without his knowledge could be considered as treason. Shardlake has a soft spot for the queen so accepts her plea to find the book before the King discovers what’s happened.
What ensues is a romp around London, from its leafy Inns of Court and the splendour of its royal palaces to the seedy streets of the poorer quarters as Shardlake tries to discover who is behind the theft and why. It brings him into personal danger with sword fights and a spell in the dreaded dungeons of The Tower. It’s all very entertaining if somewhat improbable on many occasions —although Shardlake suffers from his physical deformity and often refers to his aching back, the man still seems to have an extraordinary level of stamina, always dashing about on horse or foot for hours.
That’s really a minor point in a novel that otherwise exudes authenticity. Sansom’s evocation of the period always feels authoritative and sure (he even provides extensive notes at the back of the book to substantiate his interpretation.) In Lamentation he plunges us into a time when the King’s health is a matter for concern though he and his courtiers go to great lengths to keep up a pretence in his public engagements that all is well. Shardlake however stumbles upon some scenes within the inner sanctum of the palace that show the extent to which this once powerful man has declined. In a quiet courtyard he sees the King propped up by two helpers shuffle along the path:
The man I saw now was the very wreck of a human being. His huge legs, made larger still by swathes of bandages, were splayed out like a gigantic child’s as he took each slow and painful step. Every movement sent his immense body wobbling and juddering beneath his caftan. His face was great mess of fat, the little mouth and tiny eyes almost hidden in its folds, the once beaky nose full and fleshy.
Later he sees Henry winched up to his stateroom, his immense body and folds of fat strapped into a wheelchair.
As shocked as Shardlake is, he knows well that to merely comment on the King’s health let alone reveal the truth, would be treasonable.
This is an age where lips must be kept shut if you fear for your life. One unguarded comment could lead to a charge of heresy. The tone is set within the first few pages of the novel where Shardlake is despatched, reluctantly to witness the burning alive of a heretic.
There was a smell of smoke around Smithfield now as well as the stink of the crowd and of something else, familiar from the kitchen: the smell of roasting meat. Against my will I looked again at the stakes. The flames had reached higher: the victims lower bodies were blackened, white bone showing through here and there. their upper parts red with blood as the flames licked at them.
Shardlake must navigate this atmosphere of fear and contend with the King’s circle of unscrupulous advisers to achieve his mission. By the end he yearns for a quieter life in which he becomes a lawyer in a provincial town far from the corruption of the capital and the machinations of the court. But Shardlake is ever a sucker for the ladies and how can he resist when he is offered a new role, as adviser to the Princess Elizabeth. And thus, very neatly, Sansom sets us up for another chapter in Shardlake’s life and – thankfully – a few more novels to look forward to reading.
My reviews of other novels within the series can be found via the links below.