Sovereign by C. J Sansom: a King’s life in danger


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.

End Notes

Sovereign is published in the UK by Pan.

My reviews of other novels in the series are via these links:

Book 1: Dissolution 

Book 2: Dark Fire

Book 6: Lamentation


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

13 thoughts on “Sovereign by C. J Sansom: a King’s life in danger

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  • February 13, 2016 at 5:52 pm

    This series sounds like an excellent way to understand the times of Tudor England. And, it would make the reader grateful for modern hygiene!

    My history classes in the US covered precious little of British history — just enough to remember that Henry VII was the one with all the wives and broke with the Catholic Church.

  • February 13, 2016 at 5:30 pm

    I rather fell out of love with this series after this point. They became too predicable and too cumbersome for me. The second, ‘Dark Fire’, was definitely my favourite. I found that I didn’t even bother to finish the latest and so I don’t suppose I shall pick up any more. Still, many readers would completely disagree with me so I shall be interested to see how you respond to later books in the series.

  • February 12, 2016 at 9:49 am

    Oh, he’s great isn’t he? He’s one of my all time favourites. He’s so good on character. Well, he’s so good at everything. I was lucky in my history teaching in that the teacher who taught me at A Level (and we were doing the Tudors) marched us off to the National Portrait Gallery and talked us through all those iconic portraits. Being able to look into Thomas Cromwell’s piggy little eyes told you all you needed to know about his ruthlessness! Sansom conveys incredibly well how dangerous it was to be close to the King. The rewards were potentially huge but the risks …

  • February 11, 2016 at 9:31 pm

    This post has reminded me: I read Sovereign too and I always meant to chase up the rest of the series because I really enjoyed it.
    Interesting to see Nordie’s thoughts about history at school: my recollection is that back in the 1960s we were taught to look at the issues and themes and patterns that flowed from events *scouring rusty brain for an example* so while I could not tell you now when the closure of the fields took place, (but could use Google if I needed to) I remember the human cost, and the economic & political consequences, and how there was a pattern of people in power making decisions without any thought of easing the transitions for those affected. I think it is those big themes that Sansom and Mantel draw on when they give us the human story.

  • February 11, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    the big difference I think is that writers like Sansom and Mantel give you the human dimension. they tell you about people whereas unfortunately a lot of history in school was about dates and dry stuff like that. it was only when i get into a history class at school with a teacher who could address history as a story that I got interested. so interested that I ended up taking it at university

  • February 11, 2016 at 8:12 pm

    There was a conversation at work the other day about Horrible Histories, and I asserted that if I’d such a learning resource when I was younger, I’d have more interest in history. As it stands I know more about history from what I’ve picked up AFTER school than I ever did whilst IN school. (a stupid side effect in that I know more about the Peasant’s revolt than I know about 18th Century English Monarchy)…..

    I digress. It’s from books like this that I know that there was more than one Cromwell. That it’s because of Peyps I know that Charles II was restored to the monarchy a few years previously (etc). I know that books like these are essentially fiction, but they put things in historical fiction that my school teacher never did….


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