Solving Crimes and Smashing Monasteries

by Arthur B

Thomas Cromwell employing a hunchbacked lawyer to fight crime? It's more likely than you think.
Wolf Hall was one of the books from the first season of Text Factor that I enjoyed enough to read to the end after we finished, but I kind of felt it lacked closure - there isn't really a natural conclusion to the novel, it just kind of ends suddenly. Left wanting more Thomas Cromwell, I was drawn to the Shardlake series by C.J. Sansom, in which a hunchbacked barrister from Tudor London solves murders under commission from a succession of historical figures - with his patron in the first two books being Cromwell himself. I have no idea whether splitting up the Shardlake series and grouping the novels by patron is an even vaguely sensible way to analyse the series, but it's a convenient way to break it up for Reading Canary articles so hey, here's a review of the two Cromwell-themed books in the series.


Shardlake's debut, as the title implies, is set against the backdrop of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Specifically, the action unfolds in the latter months of 1537 - after Henry VIII has broken from Rome, after Anne Boleyn has been executed, and very soon after the death of Jane Seymour. Henry and Thomas Cromwell's attempt to dissolve the monasteries through force of law has sparked off the Pilgrimage of Grace - an armed rebellion with an extremely pretty name - which has been successfully suppressed, but the fact it happened at all has forced Cromwell to take a more subtle approach. He and his wide-reaching Court of Augmentations are trying to strongarm the monasteries into dissolving voluntarily - passing out pensions and parishes to the monks in order to sweeten the deal, whilst at the same time scrabbling for evidence of crime, corruption and immorality to use as leverage.

It was to this end that Cromwell has sent his commissioner, Robin Singleton, to the monastery of Scarnsea on the Sussex coast. But mere days after his arrival, Singleton has been brutally murdered, a black cock has been sacrificed on the chapel altar, and the monastery's holiest relic - the hand of the Penitent Thief - has disappeared. Cromwell is determined to have the matter cleared up quickly and quietly, since he does not want a controversy to disrupt the delicate negotiations surrounding the surrender of Lewes Priory, one of the greatest monastic houses in the land whose voluntary dissolution would be a major step forward in getting the other monasteries to give up the ghost. So, Shardlake and his assistant Mark Poer are sent off to investigate events at the monastery under Cromwell's authority, with instructions to handle the matter with discretion and convince the abbot to surrender if they can.

Historical novels end up walking a bit of a tightrope when it comes to incorporating historical facts, events and figures into their narrative. If you get too heavy handed and have your characters meet all the famous individuals of the time and take part in every event you'd remember from your school books like some sort of old-timey Forrest Gump then you're just rubbing the reader's face in the fact that This Is History. If you don't bother incorporating any historical incidents at all then people start wondering why you chose to set the story in the past in the first place. And if you try to focus mainly on lesser-known events and persons then you risk distorting history just as much as you would if you took the Henries and Hitler approach - yes, the Tudor period was about a hell of a lot more than Henry VIII marrying a lot, but you can't ignore Henry VIII's marital shenanigans because nobody living in England at the time could ignore them. The stability or otherwise of the country depended on the King producing an heir, and you couldn't very well pretend that the break from Rome was just business as usual when it was inspiring armed rebellions and monasteries up and down the country were being shaken down for their sweet loot.

Sansom more or less hits an appropriate balance. Shardlake is employed by Thomas Cromwell and therefore has occasionally taken part in those events that you'd expect someone enjoying Cromwell's favour to have attended - he was at the execution of Anne Boleyn, for example. At the same time, most of the novel sees him off at a fictional monastery, so he doesn't spend the book toddling around London tripping over Princess Mary or getting yelled at by Henry VIII. As far as the monastery itself goes, Sansom's approach is to use Scarnsea as a microcosm of the overall state of the monastic system in England at the time. For example, Shardlake and Poer note early on that the monastery only houses thirty or so monks, when in the past it would have housed a hundred; this provides an opening for Sansom, via one of the monks, to mention that the monastery's population had collapsed during the Black Death and had never returned to its former magnitude. Whilst this sort of technique can end up leading to Sansom telling rather than showing, arguably if Sansom just showed us the half-empty monastery and didn't mention the effects of the Black Death we wouldn't have picked up the same point.

As it is, over the course of Shardlake's observations about Scarnsea we see Sansom setting out his own ideas about the dissolutions, which seem be based on the views of David Knowles, whose history of the period (The Religious Orders In England: The Tudor Age) came out in 1959 and is claimed by Sansom to be the last major work on the destruction of the monasteries. Sansom summarises Knowles like so:
...Professor Knowles, who was himself a Catholic monk, acknowledges that the easy living prevailing in most of the larger monasteries was a scandal. While deploring their forcible extinction, Professor Knowles considers that they had become so remote from their founding ideals that they did not deserve to survive in their existing form.
This is the interpretation Sansom chooses to embody in Scarnsea. The monks, whilst they are trying to tighten things up in terms of their discipline, have a completely unrealistic idea of what is expected of them by the reformers. True, after a sodomy scandal two years prior to the start of the novel discipline has been tightened up, but the abbot still goes riding about with the local aristocracy, the bursar still negotiates lucrative sales of land and brings in ample rents from the lands the abbey still owns, and the monks enjoy plentiful food, a sedate way of life between sessions of prayer, and are waited on by a small army of lay servants. Meanwhile, every month come dole day they parade to the front of the monastery and distribute a pitiful amount of alms to the local poor, without knowing genuine poverty themselves.

The monks kid themselves that by simply sticking to the rules and not openly praising the Pope, damning the King, or buggering each other they can keep things going as they always have been, but that is not enough for the reformers. Those who believe in the Reformation have read the Bible and the history of the Church and they know that the institution of monasticism is based on a life of poverty, and they know that what the monks are experiencing is not poverty. They are also theologically Protestant, even if the King himself isn't willing to go that far at this time, and they do not trust the monks to accept the new interpretations of Scripture so willingly. And, ultimately, the monks are human and are subject to the same greeds and vices as the rest of us, so even if the reformers were genuinely willing to leave the monasteries alone if the monks impoverished themselves, it's hardly likely that the monks would be willing to do so in any event.

Sansom is careful to present both the good and bad sides of the Reformation (as represented by Shardlake and Cromwell), and the positive and negative aspects of the Catholic Church and monasteries at the time (as represented by Scarnsea and its residents). And in both cases, the bad seems to outweigh the good. Shardlake is an idealistic supporter of reform, and is absolutely convinced that the Church is corrupt and that it is an undeniably good thing to fight the power of Rome. At the same time, he is appalled to discover that Thomas Cromwell fabricated evidence of adultery against Anne Boleyn and is increasingly disheartened by the way the riches confiscated by Augmentations are being used to enrich the middle class sorts who are already riding high in the current economic climate rather than the genuinely poverty-stricken.

On the Papist side, Scarnsea's apothecary Brother Guy is one of the most sympathetic characters: born in Grenada, he and his parents converted to Christianity after the Reconquista took the last Moorish outpost in Spain, but found that the climate of suspicion towards people who had converted was so hostile they moved to France to try and find a more welcoming atmosphere. The Church was the only internationalist, universalist organisation which would accept Brother Guy and provide him with a refuge from a world which despised him both for the religion his parents no longer even practiced and for his ethnicity. As Guy and others point out, the Church was the only organisation in Western Europe at the time that extended across borders and had any hope of holding the ambitions of monarchs in check; although the idea that the Church could stop two Catholic nations going to war seems laughably naive, it's true that the loss of a universal religion could only make wars between nations even more cruel and bloodthirsty. Moreover, the shift from loyalty towards a universal, international Church to national kings and lords could only cement the balkanisation of Europe.

And yet at the same time the closed and secretive community of the monastery provides a cover for a range of abuses, which Shardlake uncovers over the course of the book, and it's evident that the Church's doctrine at the time had the end result of promoting a certain extent of the corruption and greed evidenced. (A major example is the practice of accepting money for the saying of Masses for the souls of dead relatives in Purgatory; an inescapable consequence of Catholic theology at the time was that the rich could greatly reduce or even eliminate their time in the torment of Purgatory simply by buying enough Masses and indulgences, whilst the poor had to serve their full term.) By the end of the book Brother Guy and Shardlake both appear to be having existential crises; Guy knows now that the institution he loved will never rise again and finds he has no place in the world, whilst Shardlake has realised that the Reformation won't rip aside all the distortions fallible humans have put in place and reveal the true and undistorted image of God, but will simply replace one constructed idea of God with another.

Oh, and there's also a detective story in here, and a good one too, stuffed to the gills with interesting characters - and with more diversity than I expected. The risk of writing a crime story set in a monastery in Elizabethan England is that all of your characters might end up being white English men, and Sansom does his best to counteract this. Brother Guy is a reminder that, contrary to popular belief, people who aren't white have lived in England for centuries (Shardlake mentions knowing a few who work in the docks in London as well). Several characters are clearly homosexual - the most important one, the sacrist Brother Gabriel, ends up being an extremely sympathetic character, not least because he knows that he can't actually pursue his desires because he'd be executed for them, and Cromwell could use that as a pretext to shut the monastery down. There are not many female characters present at the monastery - realistically, considering that at the time having numerous women around would have led to accusations of fornication being levelled against the monks - but the one woman servant, Alice, plays a major role as Brother Guy's assistant, as one of Shardlake's most important informants, and as an interesting character in her own right.

As far as the story itself goes, Sansom looks as though he's about to follow the classic detective story format but actually ends up destroying it, just as Cromwell is busily knocking over the old medieval social order which the monasteries were an integral part of. Your standard Agatha Christie detective steps in when the social order is challenged - the classic example is when the stability of a country house is thrown into turmoil by a murder - and in solving the crime restores the status quo. Shardlake, on the other hand, has come to Scarnsea to destroy the status quo by dissolving the monastery, and intends to solve the crime only to ensure that the monastery would be destroyed. Your classic detective possesses an unshakable code of honour, a moral compass which may be challenged by the events they witness but is eventually strengthened by their adventures, whereas Shardlake begins a convinced supporter of reform but ends up questioning the very basis of his work. Your standard detective's assistant has, ever since Dr Watson, been a loyal wretch, entirely willing to act as the detective's sounding board and sticking by the detective to the very end; Mark Poer, on the other hand, does not give his loyalty to Shardlake unquestioningly, detests being used as a sounding board, and eventually takes his leave of Shardlake entirely. Your typical detective story concludes with the detective being able to take some shard of comfort from uncovering the truth, bittersweet though that may be, but the outcome of Dissolution provides Shardlake with no such comfort and pleases almost nobody, except perhaps for a couple of folks whom Shardlake wasn't especially trying to please in the first place.

As for Shardlake himself, he's a great character - he's got enough of a conscience to feel bad about some of the things he does in Cromwell's name, but (before he's disillusioned) he's sufficiently convinced of the cause of reform to throw himself behind it with full force. His hunchback makes him a little bit of an outsider, which prompts him to feel more sympathetic towards outsiders than your typical commissioner might be - he eventually becomes friends with Brother Guy, and he feels genuinely bad about shaking down Brother Gabriel over his sexuality. He's a good man who's been given a bad man's job, and on that grounds it's not surprising that he makes a hash of it. Sansom seems to have structured the novel such that it could stand alone, in the event that his publishers didn't want more Shardlake adventures, but I'm glad that they did since it left me eager for more.

Dark Fire

Three years or so after the incident at Scarnsea, Shardlake is quietly plying his trade. The closest he gets to politics is trying to bring a case on behalf of the city council against Bealknap, an incredibly corrupt fellow barrister who - like many - has made a mint buying monastic land cheap and throwing up crappy tenements on it. That isn't to say his detective instincts are completely dormant - Joseph Wentworth, a regular client of his, has hired him to try and prove the innocence of his niece Elizabeth, who is accused of the murder of her cousin Ralph - but Shardlake doesn't expect to do any work for his old patron Thomas Cromwell any time soon, not after the debacle of Dissolution.

Shardlake, however, hasn't reckoned on the political fallout from Henry VIII's marriage to Anne of Cleves; it is no secret that the king is far from thrilled with wife number four, so Cromwell's avid support of the union has put him well and truly on the royal shitlist. This and innumerable other accidents, setbacks, and plots by his enemies have made Cromwell more than a little concerned for his future - and with the Catholic-leaning Duke of Norfolk poised to take his place as the king's head advisor, the supporters of reform, Protestantism, and bashing those godawful papists fear that if Cromwell falls England will return to Rome - and a nightmarish wave of purges will be unleashed.

Shardlake is drawn into Cromwell's political death spiral when, out of the blue, Cromwell hires him to conclude some business with the Gristwood brothers. Supposedly, Michael Gristwood discovered the long-lost formula for Greek Fire - a sort of Byzantine napalm - on the grounds of St. Bart's in the course of his work for Augmentations, and he and his alchemist brother Sepultus have managed to replicate it - and are willing to sell it to Cromwell for a steep price, so that he may present it to the king. Deciding that a devastating weapon of war is just what Henry needs to get out of his grumpy mood, Cromwell wants to take them up on their offer and hires Shardlake as his representative because he knows Shardlake is too scared of him to betray him. Inevitably, when Shardlake arrives at Sepultus' lab he discovers that the Gristwoods have been brutally murdered - and the formula has been stolen. With his new assistant Jack Barak - one of Cromwell's sleazier agents - Shardlake has just ten days to track down the killers, recover the Greek Fire, and save Elizabeth Wentworth on the side.

Whereas Dissolution was stuffed with monks, Dark Fire looks at the effects of the religious conflict of the time on the rest of society, Shardlake's perambulations about Tudor London bringing him into contact with whores, gravediggers, builders, plumbers, nobles, lawyers, assassins, sailors, landlords and all sorts of other characters. What Sansom wants to emphasise is the way the conflict between papal loyalists and Protestant reformers endangers all of them. Shardlake's stable boy dreams of going off and fighting for England against those beastly continentals; Godfrey, a colleague of his at Lincoln's Inn, gives up his career as a barrister in order to stand up for his radical principles. Because Henry has broken from Rome but not definitively sides with Protestantism, a situation has been created in which no one faction feels secure - Catholics are persecuted if they seem to be advocating a return to Rome, Protestants can expect short shrift if they espouse hardline ideologies like Anabaptism, and everyone is torn between stridently fighting on behalf of their beliefs and keeping quiet to avoid the consequences of being seen as too radical.

Shardlake, in particular, is thrown into a dilemma both by the progress of the Greek Fire investigation and by the historical events bubbling under the surface. On the one hand, he has every reason to believe that his well-known connection to Cromwell will result in him being bloodily purged by the Duke of Norfolk should Cromwell fall. (Historically speaking, no such purge occurred - though Cromwell fell, Norfolk didn't manage to bring the king under his sway and there was no return to Rome - but Sansom takes the view that this is as much of a surprise to the general public as it was to Norfolk.) On that basis, he has no reason not to want Cromwell to survive. On the other hand, Shardlake has few illusions about the implications of handing a weapon as dangerous as Greek Fire to the King and fears that the conflicts of religion across Europe will become even more devastating should one side - or the other, or both - end up in possession of the stuff. In particular, Guy - who, following the events of Dissolution has made a career for himself in London as an apothecary and Shardlake's forensics chap - passionately argues that Shardlake has a moral duty not to let the stuff fall into anyone's hands, and Shardlake can't actually bring himself to disagree.

Sansom's evocation of a time when believing the wrong thing could get you killed and the authorities were maddeningly vague about what exactly was the right thing to believe is interesting, but the conclusion of the Greek Fire plot undermines it horribly. It involves one of the principle advocates of the two sides acting like a cheap B-movie villain, which doesn't sit well with Sansom's general "both sides had their good and bad points, neither side were utter villains or unalloyed heroes" them - Sansom spends the entire novel constructing all of these parallels and then knocks over all that half work in one clumsy scene. And though he is careful to note where he has taken historical liberties, Sansom doesn't quite save the Greek Fire thing from slipping into alternative history territory. Ultimately, high octane spy thriller plots surrounding weapons of mass destruction feel incongruous when you expect a straight up murder mystery, and Sansom is far better at the latter than the former. (Although there are a lot of killings in the Greek Fire plot, it's ultimately no mystery who the killers are - who they're working for is a puzzle, but it's one resolved according to the conventions of spy stories as opposed to detective novels.) The real murder mystery plot - Elizabeth Wentworth's curious case - held my interest more, though the dark secret at its heart was entirely too predictable, as were the guilty parties' attempts to save themselves (which hinge on both Shardlake and Barak being far more stupid and naive than they've been depicted as being).

At the end of the day, I think it was a mistake for Sansom to put Shardlake as close to actual historical events as he does in Dark Fire. Sure, he and Barak are poking around at the periphery rather than being right on central stage, but the fact is that the fate of Cromwell is a key component of the novel, and we kind of know what's going to happen there. Whereas in Dissolution Sansom was able to create a situation which reflected the major events at the time but didn't steer them, so the story was able to play with all the coolest themes from the time period whilst still being free to develop in any direction that Sansom chose, the events of Dark Fire are simultaneously constrained and overshadowed by historical events. We know damn well that Henry VIII didn't have any Byzantine WMDs and Cromwell didn't save his own neck, so it doesn't feel as though anything is at stake in the Greek Fire investigation. Dark Fire is readable enough but really it's coasting along on the strength of the characterisation - of returning friends like Shardlake and Guy, and of new characters like social climber Lady Honor and Jack Barak himself, who's probably the best character in the book - he's good at swordfighting, he calls everyone arseholes, what's not to love?

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