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.
The second of C J Sansom’s Matthew Shardlake series sees the hunchback lawyer summoned once again to the aid of Chief Minister Thomas Cromwell. It’s 1540. London is sweating uncomfortably in an intense heatwave, the King is in pursuit of yet another bride more to his taste than Anne of Cleves and Cromwells hold on power looks increasingly precarious as his enemies circle and plot. He can keep them at bay and retain Henry’s favour if he can get his hands on a mysterious new weapon called Dark Fire or Greek Fire that could be a deciding factor if the French decide to wage war on Henry. Problem is, Dark Fire seems in short supply and the men who developed the formula have been murdered. Cromwell has only 12 days to find the formula and stage a demonstration for his royal master. There is only one man he can trust take on this quest, Shardlake.
It’s three years since Shardlake was last pressed into service of the state, an experience that left him questioning his faith and his belief in religious reform. He’s much happier doing battle with the law on behalf of his clients than getting embroiled in political affairs. He has a particularly tough case on his hands already, defending Elizabeth Wentworth, young girl accused of murdering her cousin by throwing him down a well. Time is running out – if Shardlake can’t prove her innocence in the next 12 days, she will go to the gallows. But what Cromwell wants, Cromwell gets.
The two plot lines combine into an intricate maze which sees Shardlake and his new assistant Jack Barak criss cross London, visiting stinking prison dungeons, the perfumed salons of the society elite and the whorehouses of Shoreditch in a series of chases and adventures that become increasingly dangerous. Shardlake complains of the pain he endures from his infirmity, but it doesn’t stop him clambering up walls, carrying women from burning buildings and throwing off would-be assailants. The pace is rapid, the list of potential villains lengthy and the solution satisfyingly unclear until the final pages.
Sansom’s writing can be clunky at times but what makes amends for this is the introduction of Barak as Shardlake’s assistant. Like all good side kicks he exists to do the grunt work, like clambering down wells at dead of night or trawling the brothels and taverns for would be assassins and to act as a straight man when the brilliant detective needs to test a theory. Barak’s uncouth behaviour and propensity to be rude to anyone in authority, make him a great foil for Shardlake’s more considered, temperate nature. Shardlake’s own character is more finely tuned in Dark Fire. His desire to seek justice for the common man shown in Dissolution is still in evidence but now combines with his passion to expose the type of corruption that preys on the defenceless poor. We also get to see another side to Shardlake as he forms an affection a woman whose wealth and family status put her well above that of a lowly lawyer. Does she return his affection or is she really trying to hoodwink him as Barak maintains? Sansom keeps his readers guessing on this point as on so much else in a novel that is an even more enjoyable read than Dissolution.