Sovereign is the third title in a series relating the escapades of Matthew Shardlake, a 16th-century lawyer afflicted by a hunched back but blessed with an astute mind. He needs all his wits about him if he is to keep his head on his shoulders amid the dangerous forces of the court of Henry VIII. Plenty of other people have already lost theirs as a result of plotting against the King. Not a pleasant prospect but preferable to the fate meted out to some conspirators who were tortured then hung, drawn and quartered or dangled in chains from the castle ramparts until they died, ever so slowly.
It’s the rotting body parts of these failed conspirators that greet Shardlake when he arrives in the city of York. He’s there with his sidekick Barak to make sure one conspirator is kept in good shape until he can be taken to London for an appointment with the king’s skilful torturers. The city is in turmoil as it awaits the arrival of Henry, and his young wife Catherine (wife number five). The King is undertaking a royal progress to bring the rebellious north to heel and impress upon them just who is in charge of the realm. His visit is supposed to quell all possibilities of another insurrection but Shardlake discovered there is another plot afoot among a faction who disputes the King’s claim to the throne.
The story involves considerable manoeuvring as Shardlake tries to keep the prisoner safe, discover the identity of a murderer and find out who is behind the conspiracy all the while trying to avoid getting himself killed. It’s all good fun and very readable even if sometimes improbable that a man with Shardlake’s affliction has the physical stamina he is called upon to exert.
The real beauty of Sovereign, as with all the others I’ve read in the series, is the level of authenticity C. J Sansom brings to his narrative. This is a warts and all version of Tudor England; a country where northerners view those from the south with deep suspicion and hostility and the great edifices of the Catholic Church are torn down to be recycled as manor houses for those looking to increase their wealth and power base.
Sansom gives us fascinating insight into the exhaustive preparations needed to support the King on his travel through the land. It took an army of courtiers, soldiers, cooks, labourers and clerics to get the entourage from A to B and fed, watered and bedded each night. But those problems are as nothing compared to the challenge of dealing with basic bodily needs as one official confides to Shardlake.
‘Everywhere we stop vast pits have to be dug. With three thousand people, five thousand great horses you may imagine?’
‘Cannot the local people use the dung for manure?’
‘There was far more than they need. And the stink, you can imagine… Even with the pits, all the roads from London to Hull is littered with rubbish. It has been a nightmare.’
Far from a regal procession this is the progress of a force that spreads disease in its wake, personified in the figure of the King himself. The year is 1541 and Henry is no longer the upright athletic figure of his youth. Sansom makes us see the huge bulk of a man with “red jowly face, fringe of reddish grey bead, a pursed little mouth under a commanding beak of a nose and small, deep,set eyes.” We hear his voice which humiliates and humbles his subjects. We smell the stench of decaying flesh that oozes from his suppurating ulcerated legs and cringe at the image of him bedding his very young, fragile new bride.
The episode in which the crookbacked lawyer comes face to face with the King, is a tremendous set piece in which Sansom’s talent for period detail becomes clear. His Shardlake novels are rigorously researched but it seems none more so than with Sovereign. Sansom was so frustrated by the differences in historians’ accounts of the Royal Progress of 1541 that he wrote his own academic paper on the subject. The product of this is an episode which reflects the theatricalities of which Henry was enamoured as well as the mercurial side of his character.
This is a novel in which its easy to lose yourself in the world of sixteenth century politics and life. Just be glad that you can easily escape the reality of the smells, the basic bathroom facilities and the dangers to your head simply by closing the book.
Sovereign is published in the UK by Pan.
My reviews of other novels in the series are via these links:
Dissolution (book number 1)
Dark Fire (book number 2)
Lamentation (book number 4)