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Tombland by C J Sansom – the peasants are revolting

One of the pleasures of reading the series by C J Sansom set in Tudor times, is that he seamlessly weaves a murder mystery into a vivid tapestry of historical events. Some of those happenings will be familiar territory to anyone with a basic knowledge of the period but Tombland, book 7 in the series, delves into one of the lesser-known events of the mid sixteenth century: a rebellion by thousands of peasants in East Anglia.

The year is 1549. Since the death of King Henry VIII two years earlier, the country has begun to slide into division and discord. The war against Scotland is going badly. There’s widespread unease about the abolition of the Mass and the imposition of compulsory services in English. Rampant inflation is hitting all but the very wealthy. In the countryside, landowners fence off more and more common land for their own use, leaving peasants with nowhere to graze their animals.

The mood is turning ugly.

Hunchbacked lawyer and sometime detective Matthew Shardlake becomes unwittingly embroiled in the ensuing rebellion when he is pressed into service by the late king’s daughter, Lady Elizabeth (later to become Queen Elizabeth). A distant Norfolk relative is to stand trial, accused of the gruesome murder of his wife. The case could have political implications for Elizabeth, so she calls upon Shardlake and his assistant Nicholas Overton to uncover the truth.

Kett’s Oak of Reformation, Norwich. Source Wikipedia, Creative Commons Licence

In the midst of their investigation, disgruntled peasants begin to rebel, demanding an end to enclosures and more fair treatment of poor people. Yeoman Robert Kett and his brother gather a force of more than a thousand at a camp outside Norwich and soon take control of the city. Shardlake and Overton are taken as prisoners at the camp with Shardlake “persuaded” to assist at trials of captured landowners and gentlemen under the Oak of Reformation.

History Trumps Crime

I suspect many readers will be disappointed that the murder mystery element isn’t more prominent in Tombland. A large chunk of the narrative is instead devoted to what became known as Kett’s Rebellion, one of the most successful uprisings of the sixteenth century.

In the hands of another author, this would have been just a tiresome info dump but Sansom deftly avoids this pitfall. The details of how a ragtag bunch of ill-equipped agricultural labourers were sheltered, fed and trained to face the canons and swords of mercenaries were fascinating. Sansom portrays life in the rebels’ camp so vividly that you feel you’re there on Mousehold Heath, hearing the grievances of the poor folk and their hopes that their King will see the justice of their actions.

There’s a tremendous sense of tension and drama too as hopes are dashed that the young King will respond positively to their demands and the peasants are left with little choice but to seize control of Norwich.

Lawyer With Social Conscience

As always with the books in this series, what makes them so readable and enjoyable is the character of Shardlake. He’s a methodical man with a sharp mind and equally sharp eye. He’s grown in substance with each book, undertaking commissions (sometimes reluctantly) to solve important mysteries of the time while having to keep his head (literally) amid the treacherous political climate of Tudor England.

Though he has a modest background as the son of a sheep farmer, he’s respected enough as a lawyer and a fixer to mix with the greatest in the land. Unfortunately his high standards of integrity and unwillingness to compromise often put him at odds with his illustrious clients. But he’s equally comfortable in the company of the lowliest, often siding with them out of a strong belief in social justice.

In Tombland he has to decide where his loyalties lie: with the peasants and their desire for fairness and equality or with the forces of law and order even though he’s appalled by the behaviour of the gentry and powerful landowners he encounters in Norfolk.

Tombland is a long novel at 800 pages (there’s a bonus 50 page essay on the background and causes of the uprising) yet it never sags or runs out of steam. I’ve enjoyed many of the other titles in this series but they were more of a whodunnit with a strong historical context. This one is all the stronger by making the mystery secondary to the history. The question now is whether there will be a return to crime as the dominating element in the next book in the series.

Tombland by C J Sansom: Footnotes

Chris J Sansom gained a PhD in history at Birmingham. After working in a variety of jobs, he retrained as a solicitor and practised in Sussex, until becoming a full-time writer.

The Matthew Shardlake series began with Dissolution in 2003 which saw Shardlake undertake a commission from Thomas Cromwell. In subsequent novels he works on behalf of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and Queen Catherine Parr. Tombland was published in 2018. For a time it seemed that might be the last in the series because Sansom was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer while writing the book. He’s indicated his intention is to write further Shardlake novels that will take the lawyer into the reign of Elizabeth I but as yet there is no indication of anything new in the pipeline.

A summary of the causes of Kett’s Rebellion and the key events can be found on Wikipedia.

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