Tombland by C.J. Sansom - book review: Packed with rich period detail, thrilling mystery and some forgotten corners of Tudor history

Tombland by C.J. Sansom
Tombland by C.J. Sansom
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Two years after the death of King Henry VIII, his son, the eleven-year-old boy king Edward VI, is on the throne but it’s chaos that reigns.

Religious change is ‘convulsing’ the country, a prolonged war with Scotland is proving disastrous, the coffers are empty, inflation is raging, and rebellion is stirring among the peasantry because enclosure of common land has robbed many of their livelihoods.

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Tudor England has never seemed so vibrantly alive and viscerally authentic than in the pages of the extraordinary Matthew Shardlake novels and after a four-year wait, C.J. Sansom’s mild-mannered, middle-aged, hunchback lawyer makes a magnificent return.

Tombland is the seventh book in a remarkable series which takes us as close as it is possible in fiction to the political and social realities of 16th century life, and deep into the everyday existence of the people who strived, fought, worked and – in this case – rebelled, in one of the most tumultuous periods of English history.

At the centre of the action is Matthew Shardlake, a London barrister and a man with close connections to the throne, and through his eyes we have witnessed – like awestruck bystanders – some of the major events of the age unfold in a gripping fusion of drama, menace, emotion and sheer terror.

Little wonder then that the BBC has commissioned an adaptation of Dissolution, first book in the series, with Sir Kenneth Branagh set to star as Shardlake, and the rest of Sansom’s series of books expected to follow.

Here, we are swept back to Norfolk in the summer of 1549 where Shardlake is investigating a particularly brutal murder, and a band of dissatisfied peasants led by Robert Kett are making camp on a barren stretch of grassland at Mousehold Heath near Norwich.

While England waits for young Kind Edward to grow into his inheritance, his uncle Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, rules as Protector. Radical Protestants, now firmly in charge of religion, are stirring up discontent amongst Catholics while the Protector’s prolonged war with Scotland threatens to involve France, and the economy is in collapse.

Since King Henry’s death, Matthew Shardlake has been working as a lawyer in the service of his younger daughter, the Lady Elizabeth, but the gruesome murder of Edith Boleyn, wife of John Boleyn, a distant Norfolk relative of Elizabeth’s mother Anne, could have serious political implications for the 15-year-old girl.

The case brings Shardlake and his trusty sidekick Nicholas Overton to the summer assizes at Norwich where they are reunited with Shardlake’s former assistant Jack Barak, and soon the three men find layers of mystery and danger surrounding Edith’s death as a second murder is committed.

Suddenly East Anglia explodes as peasant rebellion that has been brewing for some time breaks out across the country. The yeoman Robert Kett leads a force of thousands in overthrowing the landlords and soon the rebels have taken over Norwich, England’s second largest city.

Barak throws in his lot with the rebels while Overton, who is opposed to them, becomes a prisoner in Norwich Castle. As for Shardlake, he must decide where his ultimate loyalties lie as government forces in London prepare to march north and destroy the rebels.

And just as worrying is the discovery that the murder of Edith Boleyn may have connections reaching into both the heart of the rebel camp… and the Norfolk gentry.

Tombland is a big, beautiful blockbuster of a novel… 800 pages of the nearest thing to living real historical events as we are plunged into the sights, smells, sounds of Tudor England, and the political and social maelstrom of the 1549 peasant rebellions, ‘a colossal event,’ says the author, ‘that has been much underplayed.’

Little is known of Robert Kett and his followers but using wide historical research and the vast sweep of his powerful imagination, Sansom brings the rebels and their extraordinary assault on Norwich to vivid life.

Humane, intelligent and obsessively cautious, Shardlake is a simply brilliant creation, allowing us a window on to both court politics and the concerns of ordinary men and women. United here with his ebullient former assistant Jack Barak, the wily lawyer is only one step away from danger when his investigations into the Boleyn family unearth a veritable nest of vipers, and the rumblings on the heath turn into a battle royal.

Packed with rich period detail, thrilling mystery, some forgotten corners of Tudor history, and with a fascinating scene-setting essay by the author at the end of the book, there can be no more pleasurable read than a date with the inimitable Matthew Shardlake… and his talented creator.

(Mantle, hardback, £20)