It’s been a few weeks now since I finished reading Tombland, the seventh novel in C. J. Sansom’s Shardlake series. I wrote a Friday post, quoting the first paragraph and a teaser from page 56 and have been wondering what to write about the book as a whole. It is very long, is based on primary and secondary sources with notes and a bibliography. ‘Tombland‘ is an area within the city of Norwich and there’s a street plan on the endpapers of my hardback edition, showing the layout of Norwich and the position of Mousehole Heath in 1549. It is a most impressive book full of detail with a large cast of characters, and whatever I write will not do justice to it.
It’s 1549, Edward VI is king, a minor and England is ruled by the Duke of Somerset as Lord Protector. Rebellion is spreading in protest against the landowners’ enclosures of the common land. Edward’s sister, the Lady Elizabeth has asked Matthew Shardlake to make discrete investigations into the murder of Edith Boleyn, the wife of John Boleyn – a distant Norfolk relation of Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn. John Boleyn has been arrested and will be on trial at the Norfolk Assizes.
The murder mystery, however, is not the main focus of Tombland. Shardlake and his assistant, Nicholas Overton leave London for Norwich, begin their investigation, but as they leave Norwich they get caught up in a rebellion as thousands of peasants led by Robert Kett march on Norwich and establish a vast camp on Mousehole Heath on the land overlooking the city.
I knew about the early enclosures of common land, but hadn’t heard of Kett’s Rebellion before. A large part of the book follows the sequence of events that made up the Rebellion (with more detail given in the Historical Essay at the end of the book). Shardlake is forced to join the rebels. He then has little control over events in the rebel camp and has to search his conscience to decide whether to help them and where his loyalties actually lie. His sympathies lie with the common people ousted from the land they had previously used and so, when Robert Kett asks for his advice at the trials held at the ancient oak, they called the ‘Oak of Reformation’ to ensure that the proper legal procedures are followed he agrees.
Meanwhile Shardlake has not forgotten about Edith’s murder and as the rebels take over the city of Norwich for a while he is allowed to visit John Boleyn, held a prisoner in Norwich Castle, and convinced of John’s innocence he is determined to discover who really had murdered her. Surprisingly, he finds the key to the mystery back at the rebel camp.
Of course, it is far more complicated than I have outlined. Sansom’s research is thorough, so much so that reading his book takes you back in time evoking the sights, smells and atmosphere of the mid 16th century. The characters become real people, with their place in society clearly defined, and the changes in their economic conditions explained as a new ‘rural’ gentry class came into existence and the enclosures deprived the common people of the land they had traditionally used. It’s not just economic changes but also religious changes as the new Book of Common Prayer has been introduced and people are upset by the changes and religious intolerance. It’s a time of great unrest:
Our misery is a laughing stock to those proud insolent men! We are like slaves, and farm our land only at the pleasure and will of the lords. For as soon as any man offends any of these gentlemen he is put out! The common pastures which have been our predecessors’ time out of mind are taken away; they are ditched and hedged in, the pastures enclosed …
We can no longer bear such great and cruel injury! We will rather take up arms than endure it! (page 394)
There is so much more to this book, skilfully written combining the historical facts and fiction. But it works well as a standalone book as enough information is given to understand the relationships of the characters from the earlier books. I was rather sad to see that Guy Malton (previously a monk and now licensed as a doctor), one of my favourite characters is now old and ill, but I was pleased to learn more about Jack Barak, Shardlake’s former assistant, and his on-off relationship with his wife Tamsin. Shardlake’s former servant, Josephine lives in Norwich and he is pleased to meet up with her, her husband and young baby.
Tombland is a book with an emphasis on the people of the Tudor period – not just about royalty and national events. Protector Somerset is waging war against Scotland but that is only mentioned, Edward VI doesn’t appear, Mary, his sister is referred to, and Elizabeth, his other sister has a cameo role at her household in Hatfield Palace in Hertfordshire. With so much detail it has a slower pace than other books I’ve read recently but I loved the attention to detail and the descriptive writing which placed me precisely at the scenes.
- Hardcover: 880 pages
- Publisher: Mantle; Main Market edition (18 Oct. 2018)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1447284488
- ISBN-13: 978-1447284482
- Source: I bought the book
- My rating: 5*