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C.J. Sansom’s 16th Century Reality

Tombland by CJ SansomGuest Post by M.C. LeBrun 

In C.J. Sansom’s seventh addition to the marvellous Shardlake series, we find ourselves in 1549 and once more at the whims of the Lady Elizabeth, a self-possessed and impassioned fifteen-year-old with little hint of teenage naivety. A missing woman reappears and is then savagely murdered. Her estranged husband, a distantly related Boleyn, stands accused of the crime. Matthew Shardlake is sent to Norfolk to investigate and uncovers intrigue at the highest echelons of elite society. While there, he is captured and caught up in a Kett’s Rebellion, a revolt of the peasant classes against greedy land grabs of the local gentry.

Born with a curvature of the spine and an astute and clear-sighted intellect, Matthew navigates the unsanitary conditions and unjust realities of 16th century England in the years after Henry VIII’s demise, leaving an eleven year old boy on the throne and in the midst of a lion’s den of power players. He is a man of his time but the disability which has marks him as an outsider has also engendered an empathetic awareness of the plight of others. His own critical reckoning and that of those around him, crosses the centuries, offering more relevance to modern thinking while remaining plausibly within the realms of 16th century reality and experience.

The intimacy of Matthew’s asides along with the minutiae of his daily tasks enhances the sense we are shadowing this man through each hour of his life, adding to the immersive experience of the reader into his medieval reality. And what an existence it is: political intrigue, civic unrest, religious discord, intensely unequal economic disparity, ruptured innocence, and war crimes. Add to that Matthew’s own reluctant investigations into gruesome murders, the duplicitous doings of the social elite, and the undue suffering of the poor and powerless and we have a meticulously researched novel of such scope and depth that, by god’s wounds, it is often hard to pull oneself back from it into modern life.

Tombland by C.J. Sansom. Pan MacMillan, October 2018.

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