Summary: Henry VIII really wasn’t a nice man. What could possibly go wrong if you upset him?
Matthew Shardlake, the lawyer protagonist of Sansom’s series of Tudor detective novels, is asked by the queen, Catherine Parr, to help with a most delicate matter. A book she has written, Lamentation of a Sinner, has disappeared from her private apartments. The book contains some ideas that the king, Henry VIII, might find heretical and hence could lead to her death, possibly by fire as a heretic.
Shardlake, smart, a bit grumpy, and tolerant is a compelling guide through the insanity of Tudor London. Here the idea of freedom of conscience is little known and life and death depend on being seen to be slavishly devoted to the whims of the king’s religious pronouncements. In this book Shardlake guides us through a labyrinthine plot involving multiple cases, complicated by suspicions of religious orthodoxy and multiple murderers with opaque motives and loyalties.
There is a pervasive sense of dread to this book. It is clear from the outset, a horrific multiple execution by burning, that even well-liked characters from earlier books are not safe, and skill, intelligence and decency are faint protections from the capricious cruelties of tyranny.
One bonus to this book is a detailed historical note at the end in which Sansom speculates on a range of historical issues – from the cause of Henry VIII bloating and death (untreated type 2 diabetes, Sansom reckons) to the fate of Catherine Parr. In this Sansom notes that Elizabeth I, as a child, was sexually abused by Thomas Seymour, Parr’s last husband. Disturbingly this sordid tale was turned into a romantic drama, Young Bess, in the 1950s. This led me to wonder what sort of sick mind would ever wish to turn the story of a child abuser into that of a romantic hero played by Stewart Granger?
The Shardlake novels are a fine portrayal of life in a theocratic police state, inviting us to imagine what life in such places may be like in the contemporary world, and reminding those of us lucky enough to live in the secular and more tolerant West, that we are not so far removed from the less tolerant societies that still disfigure our planet.
I liked your review but I am not sure about your criticism of ‘Young Bess’. The story of the young Elizabeth 1 and Thomas Seymour is quite fraught and ambivalent and it is arguable that Seymour’s attitude towards Elizabeth has only recently been regarded as child abuse. Historians today appear to disagree about it all.
In defence of the film, the makers may not have known about certain aspects of the relationship and it is good to see such a strong portrayal of the young Queen. I find it quite inspiring.
Many thanks Lisa for your thoughtful comment. I’ll think again.
Having said that, according to the article at TV Trope Seymour’s actions would have been considered child abuse in Tudor times and Elizabeth’s governess certainly tried to prevent it. Maybe we can view the movie as a separate story with some accurate aspects. I have always liked Elizabeth’s wonderful speech in the movie, for example.
The casting of the 25 year old Jean Simmons, alongside one of the all-time great action-romantic leads, Stuart Granger, did somewhat recast the sordid truth in a rather flattering light. Not really a fan of Elizabeth 1 – she did dreadful things to my country the consequences of which are still reverberating – but she was a startlingly impressive historical figure. Even more extraordinary that she lived through this and became one of England’s most formidable rulers.